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Homeland security committee chairman says North Africa terror havens are direct threat to U.S.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX)

The unfolding hostage drama at a natural gas plant in Algeria illustrates that North Africa has become the next frontier of the war on terror, said the new leader of the House Homeland Security Committee, adding that the threat from the region shouldn’t be underestimated.

In a Jan. 17 statement, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) condemned the “terrorist attack in Algeria in the strongest terms” and said he was keeping a close eye on the developing situation there.

The raid on an internationally-run natural gas facility in the Algerian desert by an Islamist insurgency group is reportedly led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former leader of the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but is known as a local smuggling kingpin along Algeria’s border region. The group reportedly took dozens of European, Japanese, Norwegian and American hostages at the BP gas facility in Algeria’s southeast. Reports on Jan. 17 said nearly 50 hostages and insurgents had been killed in an air and ground assault on the facility by the Algerian military.

The raid on the gas plant by Belmokhtar’s group came as French forces were trying to roll back AQIM and Islamists groups in neighboring Mali, with air support from the U.S.

The region, said McCaul, has become a safe place for terrorists to operate and plan. “Leading up to 9/11, terrorist groups were left alone in lawless safe havens in Afghanistan to recruit, train, raise funds and build logistical networks to conduct attacks against the United States,” he said. “While our military efforts have scattered and decimated the core of Al Qaeda's operations and leadership, terrorist franchises such as those that attacked the BP facility in Algeria have found new safe havens allowing them to reconstitute.  Today, North Africa is the next frontier in the War on Terror.”

“The terrorist attack in Algeria, stemming from the continued rise of Al Qaeda in North Africa, should present a renewed call for vigilance to our Intelligence Community and the Department of Homeland Security both at home and abroad,” he said.

McCaul contended that the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens vitalized Islamist groups elsewhere in the region. “Al Qaeda's North African franchises have become emboldened by our timid response to Benghazi, have gained significant wealth by ratcheting up kidnappings for ransom, they use this wealth to fund operations against the West and have reach inside the United States,” he said.

"Al Qaeda in North Africa is a security threat we cannot afford to underestimate.  The mission of these Islamist extremists to kill Americans and disrupt our way of life has not changed, and our efforts to defend the homeland must reflect this reality,” said MCaul.