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Morocco Warns Of Growing Terrorist Threat In Mali

The U.N. Security Council is expected to take action soon to approve an African military intervention force for Mali. Morocco is nervous about the al-Qaida affiliate based in Northern Mali, a group that is now training and supporting extremists across the continent. That's a fear the head of U.S. Africa Command is also raising. But both he and officials in Morocco say there needs to be a two-tracked approach — a military intervention to root out al-Qaida and a big diplomatic push to reunite Mali. A coup led to a power vacuum with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb now controlling the north.

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The African nation of Mali is one of the many pressing topics facing the U.N. Security Council this month. After a coup in Mali back in March, an al-Qaida affiliate seized control of the northern part of the country, and the terrorist threat there is growing. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, U.S. officials aren't the only ones raising alarms.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A top Moroccan official was making the rounds in Washington this week, warning of a growing extremist threat in Africa from the Gulf of Guinea to the Gulf of Yemen. Speaking in between meetings, the minister delegate for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation Youssef Amrani says the international community needs to do something and fast about northern Mali, which has become a safe haven for al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

YOUSSEF AMRANI: It's urgent because if we don't find appropriate solutions, the situation will get worse. This will reinforce the extremist movement who are working today for the instability for the whole region.

KELEMEN: Morocco is the current president of the U.N. Security Council, and Amrani says his country will make sure that the council passes a resolution to authorize an African intervention force for Mali.

AMRANI: We need people who knows the region and the country. And Africans have taken the lead. That's good.

KELEMEN: But the Africans have offered just 3,000 troops to battle extremists in a region the size of Texas. And that's just not enough, says J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council, who points out that even the U.N. secretary general isn't ready to put U.N. funds behind that African plan.

J. PETER PHAM: It's like a child who keeps turning in the same piece of homework over and over and over trying to wear the teacher down into accepting it. I don't think that's a helpful strategy. I think the Security Council really has to take the leadership role here.

KELEMEN: Pham says it will take several more months to get a force trained, funded, and ready to intervene. The top U.S. military commander for Africa, General Carter Ham, was asked at George Washington University this week whether that's too late.

GENERAL CARTER HAM: As each day goes by, al-Qaida and other organizations are strengthening their hold in northern Mali.

KELEMEN: Ham says there's evidence that extremists from other countries, including Nigeria, have gone to northern Mali for training. And the AFRICOM commander says al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is one of the best-funded and well-armed al-Qaida affiliates these days. But he cautions against premature military action, saying the real challenge is countering al-Qaida's ideology.

HAM: The military is a - an essential but non-decisive component of countering that ideology. It will be more successful when there's good governance, when there's economic development, when there's medical care, when there's hope and opportunity for people so that they foresee a better future and are not susceptible to a more extremist ideology which presently seems to be gaining traction.

KELEMEN: On Mali, diplomats are trying to help reunite the country. The Moroccan foreign ministry official, Amrani, says the goal is to reach out to indigenous Tuareg rebels in the north to peel them away from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

AMRANI: If they agree to play the game, if I may say so, that will be a good opportunity to help the Malians to reinforce their national cohesion.

KELEMEN: But for negotiations to succeed there also needs to be a legitimate government in Mali. And that hasn't been the case since a coup earlier this year, says Pham of the Atlantic Council.

PHAM: One of the reasons for the Tuareg uprising in northern Mali was previous peace deals were broken. If the Tuaregs had grievances about broken deals with legitimate governments, why would they ever sign a deal with a government that's not supported?

KELEMEN: That's one more problem for the countries in the region and the international community to help solve to try to prevent al-Qaida from digging themselves in. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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