Al Qaeda in Africa targeting Tunisia, says top US general

"It is very clear to me that al-Qaida intends to establish a presence in Tunisia." Gen. Carter Ham, the outgoing chief of Africa Command, said in an interview with local media outlets after meeting with top military and government officials in Tunis. 

Dubbed al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Western African cell slowly emerged as the group's strongest and best funded faction. Only al Qaeda's Yemen cell rivals the group in terms of potential threats to the United States and its allies. 

Ham, who is set to hand control of the command to incoming chief Army Gen. David Rodriguez, told Tunisian leaders that Washington and its allies are "committed to doing everything it can to prevent al-Qaida from establishing a presence."

The country is strategically important to current and future  U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Africa. 

Bordered by Algeria and Libya, two countries that have seen a recent uptick in terrorist activity over the past few months, Tunisia is also in close proximity to Mali, where French and African forces are battling AQIM and local insurgents for control of the northern half of the country.  

In January, the al Qaeda affiliated group "Signers in Blood" overran a BP-owned oil refinery in Algeria, killing a number of American and foreign nationals before Algerian special forces retook the facility. 

Last September, members of the Islamic militant group Ansar al Sharia raided the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing four Americans including Ambassador Chris Stevens. 

The results of counterterrorism cooperation between the United States and Tunisia have been mixed, with American military and intelligence officials pressing for increased partnership with the moderately Islamic Northern African nation. 

In July, former Pentagon chief Leon Panetta traveled to Tunisia in an attempt to lay the groundwork for closer military ties to Tunisia's newly democratic government, focusing on the growing al Qaeda threat in Africa. 

Tunisian officials allowed U.S. intelligence to question a terror suspect accused of participating in the Benghazi attack in October, but only after lawmakers threatened to pull American foreign aid to Tunis if the suspect was not made available to American interrogators. 

Bolstering military and intelligence ties to Tunisia is only the latest step taken by the Defense Department and the intelligence community to expand its operations in Africa. 

The Pentagon's newest counterterrorism outpost in Niger went operational earlier this month, providing a new launching pad for U.S. officials to carry out surveillance and armed drone strikes against AQIM and their affiliates in Western Africa. 

Along with the drone base in Niamey, Niger, U.S. officials also carry out unmanned intelligence and airstrike operations from Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, as well as a clandestine base in Ethiopia and the Seychelles, according to recent reports in The Washington Post.