WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe-haven for Islamist rebels who could eventually pose a more direct threat to U.S. interests, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday.
Testifying to a Senate committee about the deadly September attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, Clinton said the growing international campaign against Islamist fighters in northern Mali was a response to “a very serious, ongoing threat.”
“We are in for a struggle, but it is a necessary struggle. We cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe haven,” she said.
Clinton’s testimony centered on the events surrounding the September 11 attack in Benghazi last year, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
However, she painted a picture of growing Islamist threats across the region, including in Algeria where jihadist fighters seized a gas plant and took dozens of foreigners hostage this month before being overwhelmed by Algerian security forces.
“If you’re focusing just on North Africa, al Qaeda is a brand name as much as an organization. People wake up. They form these jihadist groups,” Clinton said.
“We have to take a hard look at all of them, and constantly be upping our military intelligence and diplomatic assets to deal with them.”
U.S. military planes have helped to ferry French soldiers and equipment to Mali after France launched air strikes and deployed some 2,150 ground forces this month to halt a surprise Islamist offensive toward the Mali capital Bamako.
The United States is also helping to train and equip African forces from the ECOWAS regional group of West African countries who are mobilizing to join the battle. U.S. officials stressed there are no plans to dispatch American combat troops.
Clinton said the security situation in northern Mali is complicated by an inflow of weapons from neighboring Libya following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. She said such weapons were used in the Algeria attack.
“There is no doubt that the Algerian terrorists had weapons from Libya. There is no doubt that the Malian remnants of AQIM have weapons from Libya,” she said, referring to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the regional affiliate of the al Qaeda network.
The United States must prepare for the possibility that groups like AQIM could threaten direct attacks on U.S. interests as they gain power, Clinton said.
“You can’t say because they haven’t done something they’re not going to do it. This is not only a terrorist syndicate, it is a criminal enterprise. So make no mistake about it, we’ve got to have a better strategy.”
Clinton said she had no information to substantiate a report in the New York Times quoting an Algerian official as saying that some of the militants involved in the Algeria attack had also taken part in the Benghazi attack.
The United States was pressing officials in Libya and elsewhere in the region to keep up the hunt for the Benghazi attackers and improve overall security, she said.
“I have found the Libyan officials to be willing but without capacity. And part of our challenge is to help them build greater capacity because now it’s about them,” Clinton said.
“They are having leaders attacked and assassinated on a regular basis, so we have to do more to help them build up their security capacity.”
Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Will Dunham and Christopher Wilson