While current U.S. military attention is focused on removing possible al-Qaida cells in Somalia, some analysts say terrorist threats from other parts of Africa should also be closely monitored. They say Nigeria's violence-wracked, oil-rich Niger Delta could become a new theater for terrorism. For VOA, Kari Barber reports from our regional bureau in Dakar.

Analysts say religious and ethnic divisions coupled with state corruption and severe poverty in parts of West Africa provide fertile grounds for terrorist groups.

Rampant violence and kidnappings in the Niger Delta have analysts examining the roots of the region's discontent. They say poor access to basic social services, gross inequality of wealth and government neglect have created a vacuum for militants to exploit .

International policy analyst J. Peter Pham has written columns for a defense publication warning that West Africa could provide a welcoming terrain for international terrorism.

Pham says he believes violence in the Niger Delta is taking on a radical Islamic dimension.

"One cannot ignore the fact that the current, if you will, resistance movement, there in the delta, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, has outside sources and there is reason to believe that the outside support does come from militant Islamic groups who are exploiting the legitimate grievances in the delta for their own ends," he said.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, has stepped up its kidnappings and attacks at Western oil facilities. It has also started claiming a string of car bombings, a tactic that has been used very little by violent groups in West Africa. The group says it wants a more equitable distribution of wealth for the underdeveloped region. It also demands the release of movement leader Moujahid Dokubo-Asari who is in prison for sedition.

Asari has drawn parallels between his struggle against the Nigerian government and Osama Bin Laden's terrorist activities.

Pham cites Asari's reference to Bin Laden and the similarities MEND'S attacks bear to those of Middle Eastern terrorist groups as proof that the group is becoming intertwined with Islamic militancy.

But many Nigerian commentators disagree with this view.

Nassir Abbas of the northern-based Civil Rights Congress says citing religion as a cause for the increasing unrest distracts from solving the root problems. He says alleviating unemployment and poverty would remove religion from the equation.

Abbas says the conflict in the Niger Delta is domestic and does not reflect a larger threat to U.S. security.

"It is just an internal problem," he said. "Once that is addressed, you will not have any spillover. The government of the United States of America has been supportive of Nigeria ever since. So I would not think it would transgress to meet the interests of the United States, no not at all."

Analysts, both inside and outside Nigeria, do agree the violence is extremely worrisome.

Paul Wee, who is program officer for religion and peacemaking at the U.S. institute for Peace, says the stability of Nigeria is paramount to the stability of the region because of its size, energy production and balance of Christian and Islamic populations.

Wee says that although the pressure is there, he does not expect Nigeria to fall to extremists.

"They are quite aware of the fact that some of the influence comes from other parts of Africa and the Middle East that would like to see more disruption and more anarchy, more chaos, but I think to the credit of Nigerians they have rejected this," he said.

Nigeria is scheduled to hold presidential elections in April. Analysts say a smooth democratic process is crucial to regional security as well as energy interests in the United States. Nigeria is the fifth largest supplier of oil to the United States.