Panetta pledges counterterrorism support to Tunisia

"The United States and Tunisia have started to forge a new chapter in our defense relationship, and we're prepared to partner more closely with them on a range of common regional security challenges," Panetta told reporters Sunday, while en route to the North African nation.  

At the top of that list is the growing strength of al Qaeda's West African cell, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), according to the DOD chief. 

The group, along with its East African counterpart, al Shabab, have quietly emerged as the group's strongest and best-funded faction, Africa Command chief Gen. Carter Ham told reporters last Thursday. 

Specifically, American military officials are looking to assist their allies in Tunis on border security measures designed to block AQIM expansion within Tunisia, Panetta said. 

"We also stand ready to support the Tunisian government's efforts to strengthen the capacity of their defense institutions," he added. 

Panetta's visit to Tunisia will be the first time he has visited the country, where a popular uprising last year ended with the overthrow of Tunisia's leadership and touched off a wave of protests in Egypt, Libya and now Syria that came to be known as the Arab Spring movement. 

The Pentagon chief will also meet with diplomats in Egypt, Israel and Jordan to discuss cooperative measures to address regional security issues. 

Panetta's visit to North Africa comes as AQIM and other fundamentalists terror groups have begun to exert its new-found strength by capturing and holding wide swaths of territory in the northern section of the West African nation of Mali. 

Exploiting recent political turmoil in the country, including a successful coup in March, AQIM and other radical Islamic factions were able to turn the northern region of Mali into a "terrorist haven," Ham said at the time. 

Al Shabab has been carrying out terrorist attacks against African Union forces in and around Somalia since the 1990s. AQIM has been operating mainly in Western Africa since the early 2000's. 

Those al Qaeda affiliates recently combined forces with the African-based Islamic fundamentalists group Boko Haram to expand its attacks against government targets along Africa's eastern shores.