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North Africa becomes central focus in war on terrorism, officials say

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration no longer sees the greatest terrorist threats in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Instead, US counterterrorism officials are increasingly focused on a broad swath of northern Africa from Somalia through Chad, Niger, and Mali to Mauritania and south into Nigeria, said three administration officials who work on the issue.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Tuesday spotlighted the growing threat of terrorism outside the Middle East, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton begins a two-week trip to Africa that includes stops in Senegal, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, and South Africa.

‘‘We continue to be concerned about Al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa,’’ Panetta said in Tunisia, his first stop on a weeklong trip expected to focus on the Middle East. ‘‘For that reason, we strongly urge countries like Tunisia to develop counterterrorism operations that can yield results.’’

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The region includes both populated areas and wild spaces such as northern Mali, which one of the administration officials compared to Afghanistan in the 1990s, before the overthrow of the Taliban.

The intelligence reporting from the area, which comes from the French foreign intelligence service, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency and others, cites increasing cooperation among radical Islamist groups, sizable supplies of weapons looted from Libya, and recruiting of locals by terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Nigeria’s Boko Haram.

‘‘This issue has raised a very high level of concern,’’ said Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the Republican who chairs the House intelligence committee, in a telephone interview.

‘‘We’ve seen these groups improve their organization and capabilities, then be able to operationalize those capabilities. This is a new trend,’’ Rogers said.

Recent White House meetings on counterterrorism have been devoted almost entirely to northern Africa, protecting Nigerian oil production, and developing programs in local languages, with Nigeria’s Ibo at the top of the list, according to the three officials, who are participants.

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‘‘Africa is probably the most important continent in the 21st century for a lot of reasons, one of which is helping us prevent terrorism from taking root in the continent,’’ said Johnny Isakson of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on African affairs.

To counter the threat, the Obama administration, both independently and in concert with France and other European allies, has stepped up military and intelligence support and training for African regimes threatened by Islamic extremism, the US officials said.

The United States has provided training and nonlethal equipment to more than 215,000 peacekeepers from African militaries in 25 partner countries since 1997, according to US Africa Command.