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Commentary: Al-Qaida in Africa

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large

WASHINGTON, March 12 (UPI) -- There are now 40,000 U.N. blue-helmeted peacekeepers in six sub-Saharan African countries. Most of them are "volunteered" by other African countries. The best troops are from South Asian countries -- Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Soon Sudan, emerging from the nightmare of a 30-year civil war, will need 8,000 to 10,000 more. But before the first peacekeepers could get there, a new insurgency erupted in the west -- the Chad-based Darfar rebellion.

Khartoum hit back ruthlessly with scorched-earth tactics and ethnic cleansing. About 100,000 refugees made it across the border into Chad. Another 600,000 were without shelter and the United Nations and Doctors Without Borders said they were now faced with "the worst humanitarian crisis in the world." No TV footage, no story.

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The only sub-Saharan country with a professional army up to Western standards is South Africa, which keeps 75,000 under arms. Forty percent of the force is HIV positive. And only 3,000 men are deployable for peacekeeping duties. Nigeria, Africa's most populous country with 130 million, maintains a 17,000-strong air force, but only one troop transport can fly.

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West Africa is a graveyard of failed nation-states. Government writs seldom extend much beyond capital-city shantytowns. In the countryside, bush and savanna, radicalized Islamist clerics and Christian missionaries battle it out in a war of words for desperate African souls.

The Christian missions offer rudimentary medical services, T-shirts and occasional staples. The Muslim clerics get stipends from the Saudi Arabian Wahhabi clergy and train youngsters to become "jihadis," meaning "holy warriors." Hunger stalks most west and equatorial African states. And the Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. James Jones is alarmed. He is responsible for 93 countries, including all of Africa, except the Horn -- Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti. And in a recent trip in SACEUR's G-5, from Algeria to South Africa, Jones -- who speaks flawless, unaccented French -- saw first-hand the emerging failed and failing states that contain huge ungoverned areas that now serve as breeding grounds or sanctuary for terrorists.

The 27 "least developed countries" are all African, says the United Nations Development Program. Half of the 25 "worst countries in the world" are West African. The average Sierra Leonean doesn't live beyond 39. Nigeria, supposedly comparatively well off, pumping 2.1 million barrels of oil per day, is now on the verge of becoming a failed state. It is breaking apart along ethnic and religious fault lines. The Muslim north is terra incognita for federal authorities.

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Rwandan and Ugandan forces have reinfiltrated the Democratic Republic of Congo. The DRC, formerly Zaire, is the size of the United States east of the Mississippi. Some 11,000 ineffectual U.N. peacekeeping troops are lost in the vastness of Africa's answer to "Darkness at Noon" that is costing the world body $90,000 per blue helmet per year. It is the United Nations' most expensive operation.

DRC is only a country on a map. Nineteenth-century tribalism has displaced the Western notion of a nation state. Gone are a modern highway system, a network of airports with daily air service between major cities, guest houses in national parks, plantations, water and sewage treatment plants -- in short, all the components of the former Belgian colony's infrastructure.

There are 11,000 U.N. troops in Sierra Leone, 15,000 in Liberia, 6,200 in the Ivory Coast, all stovepipe operations with separate commands for each of these mini-states, and 4,200 in Ethiopia and Eritrea. The nations that contribute troops to the United Nations for blue-helmet assignments are now tapped out. So are contributions to peacekeeping from dues-paying U.N. member nations. U.N. stabilization has become unsustainable. No sooner are these troops withdrawn from the civil war they went in to stop than the fighting starts again.

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Sierra Leone, Liberia and (former French) Guinea are states in name only. Two generations of young Africans in these countries, from the ages of 10 to their early 20s, have known no other life than shooting and being shot at.

Flat-earth Muslim clerics are quick to exploit opportunities by inculcating their jihadi creed. Northern Nigeria, where the Sharia law of Islam has been imposed in large swaths of the province, armed Islamist thugs descend on a village with the marabou, a sort of religious enforcer and his noisy tintinnabula. Some of the larger towns have been occupied by jihadi militants who demand more volunteers -- and government authorities kindly oblige by staying out of their way.

There has been sufficient al-Qaida input in the thousands of square miles of unpoliced territory in both West and Equatorial Africa for French and U.S. intelligence to draw the conclusion terrorist networks are alive throughout the region. But there is also ample evidence that little of this is controlled by al-Qaida Central.

Osama Bin Laden and his associates haven't been using satellite and cell phones for the past two years. They know the National Security Agency can intercept mobile phone signals in a nano-second and flash global positioning system information back to Special Forces looking for them in the mountain ranges that straddle Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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Al-Qaida cells operate autonomously with sleeper agents among Muslim communities in most western, eastern and African countries. Bin Laden's capture -- dead or alive -- won't change the correlation of forces between terrorists and counter-terrorists. The growing wretchedness of West Africa's populations -- over a million a year die of malaria in Nigeria alone -- greatly facilitates the marabou's mission of recruiting Islamist desperadoes.

The toughest among them survive the desert trek to Morocco and Algeria and from there take small craft to Spain. Their bodies wash up on Spanish beaches every day. Those who make it alive into Spain have also made it into the European Union.

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