<!-- IMAGE -->
Senior U.S. government officials say terrorism is an increasing concern in Africa's Sahel region. Government leaders told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the United States needs to play a supporting role, and not a leadership role, in efforts to help countries in the Sahel region fight terrorism.
Several high-level Obama administration officials told a Senate panel the United States and its allies are supporting counter-terrorism efforts in the Sahel countries, which include Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Eritrea and Senegal.
The region is one of the poorest in the world, and governments there often lack the necessary resources to fight terrorist activity, which surged when al-Qaida branches began to emerge in Africa. In January 2007, the group "al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb" announced its existence.
The State Department's Coordinator for Counter-terrorism, Daniel Benjamin, described the problem.
"Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb continues to menace parts of the Maghreb and the Sahel. In the north it is frustrated by Algeria's effective counter-terrorism operations, but in parts of the Sahel it continues to operate with considerable impunity," he said.
Benjamin said the extremist group finances itself mainly by kidnapping foreign tourists and diplomats and demanding ransom, and commits murders and other crimes to garner media attention.
<!-- IMAGE -->
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said the United States is committed to helping the Sahel countries fight terrorism, but realizes this needs to be done in a supporting, and not a leadership role.
"Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and others in the region can manage and contain this issue if they work together, and receive appropriate encouragement and support from countries like the United States," he explained. "We should not seek to take this issue over. It is not ours, and doing so might have negative consequences for U.S. interests over the long term," he said.
The United States has stepped up support for Mali for example, providing pick-up trucks, communications equipment and training courses for the Malian Army.
U.S. Agency for International Development Acting Assistant Administrator for Africa Earl Gast explained the focus of his agency's efforts in the region to combat extremism.
"Youth empowerment, education, media and good governance are the four areas where we see the greatest opportunity for local partnerships and progress," he said.
Gast said the Agency for International Development specifically reaches out to young men in the Sahel region, the group most likely to be targeted by extremist groups.