"AQIM poses a threat in the region, and I can't rule out the possibility that AQIM poses a threat to U.S. interests," Little said. "This is a group that has shown its ability to demonstrate brutality and to conduct attacks. And it is very important that we work with our partners in the region and our allies to thwart them."
Army Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, said last week that the worry is not just the intentions of AQIM but the ability of like-minded groups to leverage their capabilities by working together.
"We're starting to see the increasing collaboration, sharing of funding, sharing recruiting efforts, sharing of weapons and explosives and certainly a sharing of ideology that is expanding and connecting these various organizations," Ham said at Howard University. "And I think that's what poses at least the greatest immediate threat in the region."
The administration has ruled out sending U.S. ground forces to Mali. Its view is that military involvement, while necessary, is not a solution to the region's problems.
"We have said all along that there has to be more than a purely security solution to the problems in Mali, that the security track and the political track have to go hand-in-hand, that a key component of returning stability to Mali includes new elections and overturning the results of the coup firmly," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters on Monday. She was referring to the coup last spring that prompted the U.S. to withdraw military trainers and cut off other forms of direct military assistance.
Some of the Malian troops that had received U.S. training wound up siding with the rebels in the north, and others who remained loyal to the government proved incapable of standing their ground against the militants.
Adm. Bill McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, told a Washington conference on Tuesday that the key to future U.S. training operations like that is to ensure that the effort is long-lasting.
"We had an episodic presence in Mali," McRaven said, "and while I don't know if a persistent presence would have changed our relationship with the Malian forces -- whether they would have exponentially gotten better or not. "But in order to work with a host country, you really have to have that persistent presence."
Associated Press writers Writer Kimberly Dozier and Pauline Jelinek in Washington and Kirubel Tadesse in Ethiopia contributed to this report.
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