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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Al Qaeda's North African wing is less likely now to carry out attacks in Europe, mainly because of pressure on the group from Algerian security forces, a U.S. counter-terrorism official said on Tuesday.
But the militants have stepped up operations in the vast African region known as the Sahel, on the southern edge and directly south of the Sahara desert, said Daniel Benjamin, the coordinator for counter-terrorism at the State Department.
Some of Washington's closest counter-terrorism partners in Europe have worried that militants operating under the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) banner could establish themselves in Europe and carry out attacks there, Benjamin said.
"We currently view the near-term possibility of such an expansion of operations as less likely than it was just a few years ago," Benjamin told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee.
"This, in large measure, is because of the pressure on the group in Algeria."
Security forces in Algeria, an oil and gas producer, have been relatively successful in containing and marginalizing AQIM in the northeastern part of the country by breaking up extremist cells and disrupting operations, Benjamin said.
Farther south, in areas of Mauritania, Mali and Niger, the Islamist militant group has increased attacks in recent years, including against Westerners, Benjamin told senators.
This year the group killed a British hostage who had been kidnapped on the border between Mali and Niger, a violent shift from their previous tactics of taking hostages and demanding ransoms.
While the militants were a persistent threat to Westerners, they could not seriously threaten governments or regional stability, and were not poised to gain significant support among the region's population, Benjamin said.
Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson told the senators the United States should keep playing a supportive rather than a leading role in counterterrorism in the region.
"We should not seek to take this issue over. It is not ours and doing so might have negative consequences for U.S. interests in the long term," Carson said.
He said U.S. help was funnelled largely through a program called the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. It allocates up to $150 million a year to counterterrorism efforts in 10 countries, in areas such as communications, intelligence sharing, and provision of trucks and logistical supplies.
(Editing by Paul Simao)