The jihadist group that claims to have carried out the attack on the U. S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, is setting up an operational headquarters in northern Mali, according to reports.

The sub-Saharan Maghrebia publication says Ansar al-Shariah is establishing an office in Gao, northern Mali’s largest city.

Ansar al-Shariah’s Gao operating base adds to the total of jihadist groups in the region, the report said.

“According to Mauritania’s al-Akhbar, the announcement raises the number of armed groups in the region known as Azawad to five: Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s Sahara emirate, the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), al-Qaida’s El Moulethemine Brigade, Ansar al-Din and now Ansar al-Sharia,” the report said.

Former FBI counterterrorism officer, terrorism and security analyst John Guandolo says Ansar al-Shariah’s move confirms a dangerous trend for the region.

“Northern Mali is a major transit area for all kinds of criminals, terrorists, and other operatives of all kinds,” Guandolo said.

Heritage Foundation Africa analyst Morgan Roach has confirmed that northern Mali is becoming a haven for terrorist groups, adding that Ansar al-Shariah is working to extend its influence.

“Ansar al-Sharia is not limited to eastern Libya, but is present throughout North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula,” Roach said.

The Mali location also gives Ansar al-Shariah a hub from which terrorists can carry out other operations, including targeting Egyptian public figures.

“Ansar al-Sharia has reportedly put out a hit list in Egypt. The Coptic pope was reportedly on it. Ansar al-Shariah claimed responsibility for the attack on the U.S. facility in Benghazi and is certainly a threat to U.S. security and interests in the region,” Roach said.

Guandolo adds that northern Mali is nearly lost to Western interests.

“Strategically, it is gone and it is important,” Guandolo said.

Roach says the move by Ansar al-Shariah is further evidence of the region’s lack of authority or organization.

“Since the Arab Spring emerged we’ve seen a widespread power vacuum throughout the region. This has allowed extremist entities to come to the fore, especially in poorly governed territory,” Roach said.

“Ansar al-Sharia’s rising influence is a symptom of this power vacuum. The collaboration between terrorist entities such as Boko Haram and AQIM in Mali demonstrates this expanding network,” Roach said.

Guandolo agrees and says that North Africa will likely end up completely under the control of affiliates of al-Qaida, if not under AQIM’s complete control.

“Al-Qaida has been in North Africa for over a decade with some power, and they are now taking region by region in Africa in definable ways,” Guandolo said.

The Maghrebia report adds that for strategic reasons, al-Qaida may actually welcome the Ansar al-Shariah to the area.

“According to Djazair News, new intelligence reports have confirmed that al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leaders in northern Mali are exerting concerted efforts to establish links with Ansar al-Shariah in Libya so they can set up a base to hit Western interests in the region in response to calls for waging a war on terrorist groups in Mali,” Maghrebia said.

WND reported in October that the U. S. military was setting up special operational units to hunt jihadist groups in Mali and North Africa.

Geo Strategy Direct says the military has been approved to build the additional counter-terrorism teams.

“The U.S. military has been authorized to form a counter-insurgency squad to attack [the] al-Qaida organization in the Islamic Maghreb,” it said. “Officials said AQIM, blamed for the killing of four U.S. diplomats in Libya in September, has been determined to be a major threat to the interests of the United States and its allies throughout North Africa and Europe.”

A former CIA station chief who has asked not to be identified says the report appears to be accurate.

“It certainly has all the markings of a genuine Pentagon project,” he said.

WND reported in September that northern Mali has indeed become a major operational area for the region’s major terrorist groups.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb may be the big fish in northern Mali, but the African nation is seeing a rising tide of terrorist organizations looking to claim the title of top shark in the waters.

The Heritage Foundation’s Africa analyst Morgan Roach says several factors are making Mali a hub for terrorist activity.

“Following the collapse of the Gadhafi regime in Libya, these well-trained rebels are coming back into the territory, the Sahel,” Roach said. “There’s been a massive influx of weapons in the area. A massive cache of weapons from Libya were completely looted, and we don’t know where these arms are. … We’re talking surface-to-air missiles.”

Another factor Roach cites: Northern Mali has slightly more than a million people spread across a land area the size of France. The vast empty space provides any group with hundreds of square miles of open territory.

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