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US Sharpens Focus on Northern Africa

by Michael Bowman February 03, 2013

Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says Islamist militants in North Africa are regional threat that must not grow to become a global threat.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says, for years the United States has focused on combating al-Qaida in nations like Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. As a result of developments in Mali, Panetta says another militant off-shoot, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, is also on America's national security radar.

"Now AQIM is out there, they have tried to establish a base of operations. That is serious. I am glad that France took the steps they did. We are now working with France to make sure that al-Qaida has no place to hide."

Panetta spoke on NBC's Meet the Press television program in one of his final interviews as defense secretary. Appearing alongside him was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, who characterized militants in North Africa this way:

"I would not describe them as the number-one national security threat [to the United States]. But they are a threat that is localized, becoming regionalized, and, left unaddressed, will become a global threat."

Panetta said some upheaval is to be expected in North Africa after sweeping changes brought on by the Arab Spring.

"That is what we are seeing in that part of the world, is a tremendous amount of change. Our hope is that change can move in the direction of providing greater democracy and greater stability. That is what you hope for these countries. But there is instability associated with change, and that is what we are seeing."

On other global matters, Panetta said Iran has yet to specifically embark on building an atomic weapon, but its enrichment efforts are a clear cause for concern. He also said the United States remains committed to forging a partnership with Afghanistan that will endure after U.S. combat forces leave the country next year.

President Obama has nominated former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to succeed Panetta as defense secretary.



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