WASHINGTON, Sept. 15 (UPI) -- The top U.S. military leader for Africa said three extremist groups based in Africa are trying to reach an alliance to coordinate attacks on Western targets.
Gen. Carter F. Ham, chief officer at Africa Command, said terrorist groups in East Africa, northern Africa and Nigeria "have very explicitly and publicly voiced an intent to target Westerners, and the U.S. specifically," The New York Times reported Wednesday.
However, Ham stressed none of the three organizations -- al-Shabaab in Somalia, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb throughout the Sahel region of northern Africa and Boko Haram in northern Nigeria -- has shown the ability to mount significant attacks beyond their borders.
"I have questions about their capability to do so," Ham said, adding he is concerned about "the voiced intent of the three organizations to more closely collaborate and synchronize their efforts."
"Each of those three independently presents a significant threat not only in the nations in which they primarily operate, but regionally -- and I think they present a threat to the United States," Ham told reporters.
Defense Department officials said the three groups traditionally strike local government targets and have ideological differences, but may be working toward "an alliance of convenience," the Times said.
Officials said they consider the regional al-Qaida affiliates pose increasing threats to U.S. interests as al-Qaida's traditional leadership in Pakistan becomes less capable of carrying out significant attacks, especially since the death of founder Osama bin Laden in May.
Ham said the pending withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and reductions in American troops in Afghanistan could make more Special Operations forces available to Africa Command for deployment as to nations on the continent.
"What we seek to enable are African solutions to African security challenges," he said.
Since taking over the command six months ago, Ham said African leaders haven't expressed resentment over the American presence, Stars and Stripes reported.
"We keep getting asked to do more and more and more, and go to more places," he said. "More exercises, more military-to-military engagement, more and more requests for interchanges, and I don't recall anybody saying, 'We don't want you to come here anymore.'"
Quick U.S. hikers' release ruling unlikely
TEHRAN, Sept. 15 (UPI) -- The attorney for two U.S. hikers jailed in Iran said he filed the required paperwork for their release on bail, but doesn't expect a decision before Saturday.
Attorney Masoud Shafiee said he hoped a decision about whether to release Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer would be made then, but that he was "not privy to what goes on behind the scenes," CNN reported Thursday.
Earlier this week, Shafiee said he expected Fattal and Bauer to be released after spending more than two years in prison once $500,000 in bail is paid for each of them, but the Iranian judiciary later said it was only considering the bail request.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told several U.S. media outlets he would release the hikers for humanitarian reasons, but was later contradicted by the judiciary, which is run by the country's clerics.
Fattal and Bauer were tried and convicted of spying and entering Iran illegally. In August, they were sentenced to eight years in prison.
Fattal and Bauer and a third hiker, Sarah Shourd, were arrested July 31, 2009, after apparently unknowingly crossing an unmarked border into Iran while hiking in northern Iraq. The three said they were unaware they had crossed into Iran, but Iranian authorities accused them of being spies who entered the country illegally.
Shourd, who is Bauer's fiancee, was released last year for medical reasons on $500,000 bail. Authorities said her case remains open.
Amnesty International called for the hikers' immediate release.
"The Iranian authorities must stop treating Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal as pawns, both in their dealings with the U.S. government and in domestic political rivalries," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Richardson returns from Cuba empty-handed
HAVANA, Sept. 15 (UPI) -- Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson says he left Cuba after a failed attempt to obtain the release of a U.S. man held in a Cuban prison.
Richardson arrived in Cuba last week amid reports that he had been invited by the Cuban government to discuss the release of Alan Gross, a 62-year-old government contractor detained in Cuba since 2009.
The former U.N. ambassador told The Washington Post his diplomatic efforts were rebuffed. "My sense is, there are some elements in their government that don't want to improve relations with the U.S.," Richardson said Sunday in a telephone interview with The Washington Post.
Richardson, who had said he would not leave the country until he was allowed to see Gross, reportedly left Cuba Wednesday, The Miami Herald reported.
CNN said the Cuban government alleges Richardson had not been invited to discuss the Gross case.
Maria forecast to pass west of Bermuda
MIAMI, Sept. 15 (UPI) -- Bermuda could see tropical storm, possibly hurricane, conditions Thursday as Tropical Storm Maria passes by the island, forecasters in Miami said.
The entire island was under a hurricane watch and a tropical storm warning as Maria, with maximum sustained winds of 65 mph, was expected to pass west of Bermuda later in the day, the National Hurricane Center said in its 8 a.m. EDT advisory. The storm was about 325 miles west-southwest of Bermuda, moving north-northeast at 26 mph.
The storm could become a hurricane, but was expected to weaken thereafter, the hurricane center said.
Maria was expected to shift from present track to a more northeasterly path and increase its forward speed Friday, the center said.
Rain bands from Maria began affecting Bermuda Thursday and the storm could produce 1-3 inches of rain across Bermuda throughout the day, the center said. Tropical storm conditions were forecast for later Thursday, with hurricane conditions possible.
Michelle Obama praises '9/11 generation'
WASHINGTON, Sept. 15 (UPI) -- First Lady Michelle Obama praised the "9/11 generation" of military members who have served since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"They're the 9/11 generation -- the more than 5 million service members who have worn the uniform this past decade and their families," Obama wrote in an opinion piece in USA Today.
"They've rightfully earned not only the admiration of a grateful nation, but also a place in history alongside our greatest generations."
The first lady noted more than 2 million members of the armed fores have served in war zones in the past decade, including an unprecedented number of National Guard members and reservists.
"We've never asked so much of our all-volunteer force," she said..
She also lauded the families of military members -- spouses balancing careers and child-rearing, young children who know only a nation at war, teens accustomed to not seeing a parent for long periods, survivors of fallen soldiers.
"No matter what the situation or how many directions they're being pulled in, our military families always stand ready to serve their loved ones, their communities and our country," Obama said. "After 10 years of war, it's our turn to return their service and sacrifice with honor and appreciation of our own -- and not just in word, but in deed."
She called on businesses to employ veterans and help military spouses build careers and urged citizens to help serve military families through organizations in their communities. Obama pointed to Joining Forces, an initiative to serve military families she and Vice President Joe Biden's wife, Jill, started last spring. (The organizations Web site can be found at www.joiningforces.gov.)
"As we reaffirm our commitment to hold dear the heroism, strength and compassion we saw on Sept. 11, let's also pledge to keep our military families in our hearts long after this anniversary has passed," Obama said. "These men, women and children have served valiantly in the decade since that fateful day. Now it's up to us to serve them as well."