ALGIERS, Algeria, June 28 (UPI) -- The U.S. military's Africa Command, whose mission is widely seen as protecting U.S. energy interests, is reported to be seeking to move in private defense contractors to set up a sophisticated intelligence-gathering operation to monitor terrorist infiltration.
This project, if it gets going, could provide a vital link between U.S. forces and those of North African states that in April launched an unprecedented joint military campaign against jihadist groups operating in the region.
One of their biggest problems is a lack of intelligence-gathering aircraft, combat helicopters and transport planes capable of rapidly moving Special Forces troops against the highly mobile terrorist units operating in the deserts and ungoverned spaces of northwestern Africa.
Africom's moves would go part way at least to alleviating some of these problems and help coordinate multinational operations against insurgents in the rugged region by Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger.
The Africa Intelligence Web site, noting that no African government has agreed to host Africom's headquarters -- which remain in Stuttgart, Germany -- reported the new command "is building up its operations on the continent by coming in through the side door: via private contractors."
Africom, it said, has issued "rather intriguing calls for bids" to support one of its primary missions, training counter-terrorism forces in the Sahara and Sahel regions.
This is being done under the Trans Sahara Counter-Terror Initiative, which involves U.S. training teams operating in Mali, Chad, Niger, Senegal and others.
The Algeria-based Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb -- the Arabic name for North Africa -- has been seeking to extend its influence through the region and into sub-Saharan Africa.
One target is oil-rich Nigeria, where religious bloodshed frequently occurs in the central belt between the Muslim north and the Christian-dominated south. Nigeria is a key oil supplier to the United States.
In one of the projects, unveiled June 11 in Washington, Africom wants to contract private military companies to establish "a turnkey air surveillance program on behalf of local armed forces" by August, Africa Intelligence reported.
This would initially involve leasing two unmarked reconnaissance aircraft, "preferably Pilatus PC-12 NG" propeller-driven aircraft used by Latin American armies for counterinsurgency operations and an unmanned aerial vehicle with high-resolution and infrared cameras.
These would be operated by three teams of pilots, analysts and technicians who would be "seconded to the armed forces of the host country."
Africom would have access to all intelligence amassed by the partner states, which would be passed on to command headquarters in Stuttgart.
This would dovetail neatly with a new effort by Algeria and other Maghreb states combating AQIM and other jihadist groups which have been seeking in vain to acquire U.S. UAVs.
Africa Intelligence said another project is to acquire 83 four-wheel drive vehicles, without military markings that "must be able to drive unnoticed on African roads, according to the specifications listed in the tender published June 11."
There is no evidence of any direct U.S. military involvement in the counterinsurgency campaign under way in North Africa, a campaign centered on the Algerian military air base at Tamanrasset deep in the Sahara.
But AQIM and its allies are clearly a priority for Washington as well.
U.S. mercenaries such as Blackwater -- now known as Xe Services -- DynCorp and Triple Canopy have been eyeing Africa as the industry's new frontier -- as it was in the heyday of the "dogs of war" from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Indeed, McClatchy Newspapers reported Sunday that Blackwater Worldwide, notorious for its deadly operations in Iraq, tried for two years to secure lucrative contracts in rebel-held southern Sudan even though the country was under U.S. sanctions.
In a way, it was al-Qaida that reawakened U.S. interest in Africa with the twin bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on Aug. 7, 1998, in which 224 people, including 12 Americans, were killed.
After al-Qaida's devastating airborne suicide attacks on the United States Sept. 11, 2001, the George W. Bush administration established the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa based at Camp Lemonier, a former French Foreign Legion base, in Djibouti to counter jihadists in East Africa and Somalia.
It remains the only established U.S. base on the continent -- so far.