ALGIERS, Algeria, April 27 (UPI) -- Algeria has launched a major military campaign against al-Qaida and its fellow travelers and Morocco says it rounded up a terrorist cell amid a campaign by North African states aimed at crushing the jihadists.
The campaign, dubbed Operation Ennasr -- Victory -- followed an April 20 summit attended by the military chiefs of four regional states -- Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger -- at the oasis town of Tamanrasset deep in the Sahara Desert south of Algiers.
They agreed to set up a joint military base there, with the quartet joined by Libya, Chad and Burkina Faso.
They will form a joint operational military committee with headquarters in the desert town to go after al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb -- the Arabic name for North Africa -- and Saharan drug smuggling and kidnap gangs associated with them.
AQIM was established in 2008 to create a region-wide jihadist alliance. This is largely made up of Algeria's jihadist group formerly known as the Salafist Group for Combat and Preaching.
AQIM has operated in all four countries but its main area of operations is in the mountains east of Algiers, which is the main focus of the Algerian operation.
The Americans, who have established training programs for regional security forces to combat the jihadists, have shown some interest in using Tamanrasset as a tactical air base.
So far there is no evidence of any direct U.S. involvement in developing the new base but the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor noted: "AQIM is a clear priority for the United States as well … and any coherent regional effort (and it is not yet clear that this coherent) will be something the Americans will be interested in supporting and facilitating."
This could be done through the recently established U.S. Africa Command, set up to coordinate all U.S. military operations in Africa and to work with the continent's military forces.
Algeria, with a 47,000-person army and some 190 combat aircraft, has the largest and best-armed military in the region and is considered the driving force behind the current campaign.
It gained extensive combat and intelligence-gathering experience in fighting Islamist terrorists throughout the 1990s during a civil war between Islamist militants and the military-backed government in Algiers.
Morocco and Tunisia, the other Maghreb states, have also varying degrees of expertise in combating jihadist organizations, although they don't appear to be directly involved in the current planning.
Tunisia and Libya were represented at a March 16 meeting of seven regional foreign ministers in Algiers, the first high-level regional counterinsurgency meeting in years, to discuss joint action against the jihadists.
But traditional rivalries between the Maghreb states were clearly in evidence and are likely to impede cooperation. Indeed, Morocco seems to have been deliberately shut out of the new formation.
Still, its Interior Ministry announced it had dismantled a 24-member terror network linked to al-Qaida in mid-April. It said the group, based in Casablanca and Rabat, had been planning attacks and assassinations.
Morocco's security services claim to have rounded up more than 60 terrorist cells since May 16, 2003, when 45 people perished in five suicide bombings in Casablanca, the country's economic center.
At the March conference, the Algerians, AQIM's primary target, called for a program of interdicting the terrorists by restricting their access to water and fuel in the desert and porous borders where they operate.
Algeria advocated airstrikes and to facilitate these operations, the French army's engineering corps was reported to be looking at up to four airstrips in north and central Mali from which to conduct the air campaign.
The lack of surveillance and heavy transport aircraft, and especially helicopters, among the regional states has severely limited their counter-insurgency programs.
And, unless they get outside help, this could impede the current plans that will cover the vast Sahara-Sahel region, a vast, inhospitable desert territory that extends into Mauritania, Mali and Chad.
The Jamestown Foundation, which monitors global terrorism from Washington, said Algeria "has been urging Nigeria to add its air force to the campaign against AQIM."
The French-language magazine Jeune Afrique reported April 7 that Algeria has informed Nigeria "that AQIM emirs have begun recruiting in northern Nigeria."
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