STUTTGART, Germany -- Squeezed out of sanctuaries elsewhere in the world, al-Qaida may be looking to the deserts and jungles of Africa as a haven where terrorists could train recruits and plan new attacks, the deputy head of U.S. forces in Europe said Friday.
Key among U.S. military proposals to fight back is deploying American units of about 200 soldiers to train armies throughout the continent, patrol alongside them, or hunt terrorists on short notice if necessary.
"Some people compare it to draining a swamp," Air Force Gen. Charles Wald said, eyeing a map of Africa in his office in Stuttgart. "We need to drain the swamp."
Wald said some terrorists had been sent to Iraq from North Africa, and there were indications that al-Qaida has established a presence and tried to recruit in North Africa over the past two years.
Mauritania and Nigeria are among West African nations alleged by some Western think tanks to have al-Qaida cells, and top al-Qaida figures came from Mauritania. The country's government has cracked down on Muslim extremism and tried to stop recruiting of fighters for Saddam Hussein's cause in Iraq.
"They're there for a purpose, whether it's looking for real-estate, or recruiting or looking for arms, whatever it is, we know there's a presence," Wald said. "It may be small but it's a bad indicator."
Africa is an ideal location, with its remote deserts and jungles and centuries-old Arab-African Saharan trade route. Governments are weak and poorly paid authorities are easily bribed. Communications are slow and in some places don't exist.
African armies, relatively small and poorly equipped, have difficulty monitoring the vast territories they are supposed to control, Wald said.
"It's an area we think is becoming appealing potentially for terrorist organizations or individuals to operate with semi-impunity," Wald said. "It has a lot of expanses of open area that are conducive to terrorist operations or sanctuary."
The European Command covers 93 countries from Russia to Syria, and all of Africa except the northeast. It is awaiting a decision from Washington on its proposals for a major reconfiguration of forces for the war on terror.
Critics say the European Command, traditionally focused on Europe, is not well-equipped to pay closer attention to Africa. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative U.S. think tank, is pushing for the U.S.-based Central Command to take over responsibility for the entire continent.
Central Command already oversees operations in the northeast Horn of Africa, where al-Qaida is believed to be most active. Al-Qaida was blamed for deadly attacks in East Africa -- the bombing of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and a Kenyan hotel in 2002.
The European Command's new plans pay more attention to Africa and its oil supplies. The Gulf of Guinea is seen as a possible alternative to the oil reserves in the volatile Middle East. The region already supplies the United States with 15 percent of its oil, a figure expected to rise to 25 percent by 2015.
The chief homegrown concern is the Algerian-based Salafist Group for Call and Combat, which was accused of kidnapping 32 European tourists in the Sahara last year.
Wald said the group had issued a manifesto claiming allegiance to al-Qaida. He and others have blamed the group for robberies in Niger and Mali, although some dismiss the culprits as simple bandits.
The United States is already working to boost security in Niger and Mali.
About 100 U.S. special operations forces are training armies in Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Chad as part of a U.S. State Department-funded program called the Pan-Sahel Initiative, which aims to help those nations guard porous borders against terrorists, arms and other trafficking.
The Sahel is a vast region straddling the southern edge of the Sahara desert.
The European Command has proposed expanding the Pan-Sahel Initiative to include Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, where terror threats are believed to be growing.
Beyond that, the European Command wants to establish a half-dozen low-maintenance bases at airports or remote camps in Africa. About 200 troops would be deployed to each base at a time.
"They'd be places that we could go into for a small period of time, either train locally with those governments or actually use those to maybe execute an operation from," Wald said.
The European Command now has about 120,000 troops. Wald said that number would likely drop after forces are moved around to account for changes in the world since the Cold War.
Agreements with various African governments to use other airports as fuel stops would help U.S. troops move across the continent as needed.
"The areas (in Africa) are large, you have to be able to respond fast as intelligence becomes actionable," Wald said. "You have to be fast and get ahead of it, and that forces us to think of more mobile, smaller, lighter, nimble forces."