Sahara seen as potential Islamic terrorist breeding ground
The vast Sahara has long sheltered rebels and bandits but security experts fear its remote oases and mountain hideouts may also be an ideal recruitment and training ground for al Qaeda-linked militants.
Rebellious nomads, large Muslim communities and dire poverty in a largely unpoliced territory have made the U.S. intelligence community increasingly nervous that the Sahara's southern fringe in West Africa could become a launch pad for terrorist attacks.
"We're not talking about large numbers of terrorists, like Iraq or Afghanistan, or fixed training bases," one U.S. counterterrorism official in Washington told Reuters.
"We're talking about relatively small numbers of moving targets who are difficult to fix and destroy but who represent an increasing threat ... It's not the biggest threat in the world, but it's a significant emerging one."
One of Washington's greatest concerns is the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), an Algerian rebel movement which has pledged allegiance to al Qaeda and publishes Osama bin Laden's messages on its Web site.
French and Italian police arrested suspected GSPC members earlier this year thought to have been planning attacks, some of them in Algeria and in Iraq. The head of French police has said the group also poses a major threat to France.
Regional diplomats, security sources and U.S. officials believe the GSPC and its allies have been running mobile camps in the Sahara, teaching recruits guerrilla tactics before sending them home as "sleepers" to await further instructions.
"After training they are dormant. They become sworn members who know they are going to die," said Mamour Fall, a reclusive Senegalese imam expelled from Italy in 2003 after being branded a national security threat.
"One day you receive your ticket telling you it is your turn to go, and you go," he told Reuters in Dakar last year.
Fall said he met bin Laden in Sudan in the early 1990s, fought alongside him in Bosnia and was still preaching his message in West Africa.
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