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Why US is helping France fight Islamist forces in Mali, Somalia

The US decision to help France with its military campaign comes in light of the growing threat posed by two extremist Islamist groups in northern Mali, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday. Here's what the US is contributing.

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French air force technicians work on a Mirage F-1 fighter jet at the Malian army air base in Bamako January 14. France plans to increase its troops in Mali to 2,500 in the days ahead and is working to speed up the deployment of West African troops for a campaign against Islamist rebels, the government said on Monday.

Joe Penney/Reuters

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The United States acknowledged this week that it is providing military assistance to French forces attacking Islamist strongholds in two African nations.

That assistance, Pentagon officials stress, is limited – and a clear signal of an evolving, post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan strategy for the US armed forces.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday, while en route to meetings in Europe, that the decision “to try to help” France in its military campaign came in light of the growing extremist threat posed by two groups in northern Mali, Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

While these groups “might not have any immediate plans for attacks in the United States and Europe,” Mr. Panetta said, “that ultimately still remains their objective.” 

Some defense analysts question how effective limited US aid can be – and has been – in combatting intricate networks of terrorist groups on the African continent.

On Sunday, US fighter jets briefly entered Somalia's air space to try to help French forces rescue a hostage held by the  Al Shabab terrorist network. The mission did not end well: The hostage appears to have been killed in the crossfire, and one of the French commandos who took part in the mission is reported missing.

Officials say the US will provide help in the form of intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance drones to French warplanes currently conducting strikes in Mali on purported terrorist forces and training camps.

US Special Operations Forces had been training Malian military troops in the hopes of providing a bulwark against terrorists in the region – that is, until one US-trained soldier launched a military coup against the government. 

“The coup in Mali progressed very rapidly and with very little warning,” a spokesman with US Africa Command told The New York Times this week. “The spark that ignited it occurred within their junior military ranks, who ultimately overthrew the government, not at the senior leadership level where warning signs might have been more easily noticed.” 

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