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US Helps Senegal Defend Against Sahel Extremists

FILE - Brian Hook (R), U.S. Special Representative for Iran, and Ambassador Nathan Sales (L), State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism, speak during a press conference at the State Department in Washington, DC, April 8, 2019.

The West African country of Senegal is known for its stable democracy and peaceful culture. But as terrorist activity expands across the Sahel, the threat of extremism has grown in the country – so much so that the United States government is ramping up efforts to help Senegal secure its borders.

While Islamic State and al-Qaida factions have wreaked havoc across West Africa, Senegal has managed to maintain peace and security within its borders.

But as conflicts surround the country — where 95 percent of the population practices Islam — experts warn the unrest could spill over and end the country’s tradition of religious and ethnic pluralism.

The United States and other countries are taking steps to help Senegal implement security measures.

Ambassador Nathan Sales is the United States coordinator for counterterrorism.

“We think that the situation has become increasingly fraught. And that's exactly why the counterterrorism bureau in particular in the State Department and generally have been surging resources into the region. We're trying to stand up the capabilities of these governments to confront these terrorist threats on their own… we want to make sure that the terrorist threats in the region don't destabilize and disrupt a government and an economy that had been really on the leading edge in the region,” he said.

Sales said the U.S. has invested up to $10 million a year for various security initiatives over the last several years.

During a recent meeting with Senegalese officials in Dakar, Sales stressed the importance of sharing intelligence to prevent terrorists from entering the country by using information like biometric and airline reservation data. He also spoke about the importance of maintaining a terrorist watch list.

“We see Senegal as this island of stability and prosperity and security. And we envision a role in the region for Senegal to play as an exporter of security,” he said.

The number of violent attacks perpetrated by Islamist extremist groups in the Sahel has doubled each year since 2016, according to U.S. Department of Defense research group the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Deaths linked to these attacks have also doubled each year.

Kouider Zerrouk is chief communications officer for the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel.

“In Mali, for instance, terrorist groups are regularly attacking local and international security forces, including the Blue Helmets serving in the U.N. mission MINUSCA. And the violence has spilled over into neighboring countries with an alarming number of recent attacks in Burkina Faso, for instance. So we can say that the terrorist attacks are for this period and comparing to for instance, the last four years or five years have been amplified,” he said.

Zerrouk said terrorism has destabilized almost the entire region in the last five years. It's unclear how much longer Senegal will be able to hold on to its security as the threat grows around it.