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Sahel Region Sees Rise in Violence, But Links to Terrorist Threat Debatable, Experts Say

A rise in rebel activity throughout West Africa's Sahel semi-desert land has led to concerns that the terrorist threat is growing there as well. But as Nico Colombant reports from Dakar, analysts diverge on their interpretations of the sparse region's insecurity.

The latest instance of violence in the region was an attack by a nomadic rebel group in northern Niger last week, killing at least three soldiers.

The director of the U.S-based Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and an expert on African security issues, J. Peter Pham, says there is reason for concern that such remote areas where insurgencies often take place could also foster terrorist activity.

"We have in recent months evidence of groups from one or other countries in the region using third party countries to enter into and set up bases," Pham said. "The class example being the Algerian group, the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, which has been operating several bases in Mauritania for example."

He says a recent court case in Nigeria gives more concrete proof of the threat, also involving Mauritania.

"A Nigerian received money from Sudan, and that part of the record is fairly well established, to send young Nigerians from radical groups in northern Nigeria to Mauritania, specifically for terrorist training," Pham says.

But another analyst and expert of the Sahel, Adrien Feniou, with London-based Global Insight, says some African leaders are overplaying the terror threat to get outside support. He points in particular to Chad's President Idriss Deby who has accused Sudanese-backed rebels in his country of using fighters from the al-Qaida terror movement.

"I think African governments will necessarily try to instrumentalize the western fear of al-Qaida to their own advantage," Feniou said. "I think (Mr.) Deby has shown a willingness to do that. But there needs to be something for the west to gain out of this to buy into the rhetoric regardless. Right now, Chad has some oil, it is not a significant oil producer but in that sense it can leverage a little of diplomatic backing using this kind of rhetoric."

Many rebel movements in West Africa, including in Chad, the Central African Republic, Mali, and Ivory Coast say they are fighting to improve the conditions of local populations, rather than advocating a global cause.

Feniou also says some rebel groups like the Tuareg militants in Mali actually ally themselves with their government against Islamic extremists.

"Tuaregs in Mali they have actually sided with the Malian government to fight the Algerian-based GSPC which is overtly linked to al-Qaida, so I think it is not that simple," Feniou said.

He says these groups are fighting local battles, and that often they would have no benefit in being associated with Islamic extremists.

"I mean there is an element of territorial sovereignty that Tuaregs were fighting for and the GSPC were encroaching on that," Feniou said. "There is no real reason to ally themselves with a group that is clearly against U.S power for example. I mean there is no need for them to marginalize themselves further."

Pham with the Nelson Institute says despite the complexities involved he believes the overall terror threat is still there, especially with numerous insurgencies starting up.

"Groups that have what I would call purely local grievances some of which I might add are also legitimate but in their desperation, in an asymmetric combat, will take help from anywhere they can receive it and these groups have received input from outside groups that do not necessarily share their immediate concerns but have an interest in creating havoc and chaos in whatever region," Pham said.

Pham says he believes it would be easier to contain the extremist Islamic threat in sub-Saharan Africa than in the Middle East or south Asia.

"I think there is more fertile ground on which to build a comprehensive strategy but the key is to get the resources in there and to do it now because the other side, the terrorist side, has already recognized this particular area as a strategic asset and I would say in the last several years moved considerable resources into the region," he added.

The United States government recently said it would set up an African command structure for its military and that one of its main aims would be to help governments fight extremist Islamic terrorists on the continent.