The Africa subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives has heard testimony from a State Department official and other witnesses about efforts to prevent al-Qaida and other terrorist groups from establishing sanctuaries in African countries. Some lawmakers and experts say the United States needs to intensify its intelligence-gathering in African countries to reduce their vulnerability to terrorist infiltration.
Spurred by the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States has been stepping up military and intelligence anti-terror efforts in Africa.
Republican Congressman Ed Royce, chairman of the Africa subcommittee, says there have been some successes in preventing vulnerable African countries from becoming sanctuaries for al-Qaida or other groups.
One of these he says was recent cooperation between the United States and Chad in March to hunt down Algeria-based Islamic militants with ties to al-Qaida. The combined Joint Task Force based in Djibouti also plays a key role in anti-terrorist operations.
However, Congressman Royce says the fragility of many African governments, combined with geography and economic issues, leaves them open to terrorist influence or actual operations.
"Africa, indeed, with resource-strapped governments is unable often to effectively control their territories and this has been frankly described as the 'soft underbelly' of the war on terror," he said.
As an example of these vulnerabilities, Democratic Congressman Donald Payne cites what he calls reports of new flows of arms to factions in Somalia.
"Reports such as these send the message that there is more that needs to be done in fighting terrorism, and that more attention needs to be paid to Somalia," he said.
Karl Wycoff, with the State Department's Counterterrorism office, says the United States is working to "dilute the appeal" of Islamic extremism in African countries. He had this response when asked if the United States is devoting sufficient resources to the anti-terror effort in Africa.
"Is it commensurate with the role of terrorism with the threat of terrorism on that continent, I believe it is," he said.
Mr. Wycoff says this includes assistance to the "Pan-Sahel Initiative" providing training and equipment to help countries, such as Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Niger, secure their borders.
However, some lawmakers believe more needs to be done. And differences emerged between his testimony and other witnesses on the question of reports that al-Qaida has been expanding its influence in West Africa, particularly Nigeria.
Douglas Farah, a former Washington Post correspondent says his reporting, and recent new information emerging from the war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone, confirmed al-Qaida ties in West Africa to the "blood diamond" trade.
He says al-Qaida does not appear to have an extensive infrastructure in West Africa, it and another group, Hezbollah, have been active there.
"In short, al-Qaida and Hezbollah have maintained an active presence in West Africa for a significant period of time," he said. "There is extensive European intelligence reporting on the presence of Hezbollah there [but] I have found very little awareness among U.S. intelligence agencies of their [the groups] operations."
State Department official Wycoff said he was not aware of any information that would confirm an al-Qaida presence in West Africa.
Douglas Farah describes intensified U.S. human intelligence "on the ground" in African countries as crucial to the counter-terror fight.
"[In] societies in which telephones are rare, Internet communications limited to a small percentage of the population in the capital, and business deals depend largely on family relationships, our high-technology monitoring systems are simply of little use," he said. "People must be on the ground, not just in the capital but in the hinterland to be able to map the connections and trace financial patterns that can be used by terrorists."
But Princeton Lyman, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa, says economic conditions in Africa constitute perhaps the most serious challenge.
"Perhaps the most challenging of all are the threats that arise from deepening economic and political crises, in countries like Nigeria," he said. "The brew of religious tension, economic deprivation, declining law and order and political instability, could open that country of 130 million people, to some of the most serious forms of criminal and terrorist activity."
Mr. Lyman concluded it will not be possible to have an effective worldwide campaign against terrorism unless the threat is addressed in Africa.