By Dan Merica
Mali, a country bloodied by a violent March coup, has become a greater focus of U.S. counterterrorism attention, a Department of Defense official said Thursday.
In his opening statements at an Aspen Security Forum panel, Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflicts at the Department of Defense, expressed concern about the ungoverned territory of northern Mali - particularly because of a lack of control within Mali's coup-led government.
"Mali is a difficult situation because it starts with the government in Bamako," Sheehan said. "We have to find a way to move forward with the government first and I think we need to start to accelerate that effort."
Mali's junta leader, Capt. Amadou Sanogo, usurped control of the African nation in March. Since then, his soldiers have been accused of looting offices and shops in the capital. The coup wrested control of the nation from former President Amadou Toumani Toure and gained the scorn of the international community - including the United States.
Sheehan went on to say that the area north of Mali's Niger River has become almost ungoverned and an area of focus for the Department of Defense.
"We cannot allow al Qaeda to sit in ungoverned places," Sheehan said of northern Mali.
Sheehan indicated the U.S. military is considering how to handle the problem.
"All those options will be considered," Sheehan said. "There have been no decisions and things would be considered and they are being concerned to what is a looming threat."
Additionally, Sheehan named other places that have become concerns for al Qaeda activity: Syria, Somalia and Yemen.
Even as the collapse of governments in the Middle East have many military and national security officials growing concerned about how al Qaeda may benefit from the turmoil, Sheehan says the United States has generally been successful in defeating the radical Islamist group.
But as Sheehan discussed al Qaeda's future in key areas, the general success he described began to look slightly less rosy.
"We see al Qaeda in Syria," Sheehan said. "They are very good at blowing things up but it remains to be seen if al Qaeda will find its way to participate (more fully) in the Arab revolutions."
Sheehan called Somalia a success story that nonetheless is in great need of work, and in Yemen, the defense official said a growing partnership with the Yemeni government signals movement in the right direction.
"That partnership is showing results on the ground, (even while) al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula ... is still the preeminent threat of attacks against the U.S."
Handicapping the overall success of al Qaeda in the future, Sheehan says "it still remains to be seen how effective the terrorist outfit will be in the future."