This fall, the United States and Niger will bring together in that West African nation police officers, customs inspectors and other authorities from a half-dozen countries in the region to hone their collective skills in securing lightly guarded borders against heavily armed traffickers and terrorists.
Denmark has already forged a partnership with Burkina Faso to combat violent extremism, and backed it up with a war chest of $22 million over five years aimed at stifling the root causes of terrorism before they can bloom.
Swiss experts in a meeting in Nigeria last fall offered techniques for countries in West and North Africa to use in tackling the money-laundering schemes and illicit financing networks that are the lifeblood of Islamist militant groups. And now, international efforts to bolster the region against terrorism are focusing on Algeria and its neighbors, considered increasingly threatened by jihadist groups.
More than 100 counterterrorism specialists from about 30 nations met here in Algeria this week to devise strategies and discuss specific programs to combat a spreading threat from Al Qaeda’s offshoot and other such groups in the Sahel, the surrounding region including Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
It is one of the poorest regions on the planet, and it is still grappling with an exodus of fighters and weapons from Libya after the fall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s government; the rise of Al Qaeda’s regional arm and affiliated groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria; and the attacks on a sprawling desert gas plant here in Algeria in January, as well as two suicide strikes in neighboring Niger last month.
In January and February, the French chased out Islamists allied with Al Qaeda who had taken over the northern half of Mali. But senior counterterrorism officials now fret that the campaign scattered a hodgepodge of remaining fighters to a new sanctuary and staging area in southern Libya, where the government in Tripoli has no control. “We all are really concerned by the growing threat,” said Mohamed Kamel Rezag Bara, a special adviser to Algeria’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
The two-day meeting here in this seaside city was organized by the Global Counterterrorism Forum, an organization of 29 countries and the European Union created two years ago with the State Department’s support to act as a clearinghouse of ideas and actions for civilian counterterrorism specialists.
One of the forum’s five areas of focus is the Sahel, with wealthier Western, Middle Eastern and Asian nations partnering with some of the continent’s poorest countries to address a range of issues. In this week’s closed meetings, officials discussed border surveillance, enhanced intelligence and police cooperation, the rule of law, arms trafficking and undercutting terrorists’ financial networks, according to a conference agenda and interviews with more than a dozen participants.
“What’s encouraging is that the regional countries here recognize what kind of assistance they need and are able to define that,” said Michele Coduri, chief of the Swiss Foreign Ministry’s international security section. “That’s not always been the case.”
Terrorism experts estimate that about half of the $120 million paid in ransoms to terrorist groups worldwide since 2004 have gone to Al Qaeda’s branch here and affiliated groups, providing funds to pay fighters, buy increasingly sophisticated weaponry and underwrite Qaeda operatives elsewhere.
Francisco Caetano José Madeira of Mozambique, the director of the African Union’s African Center for the Study and Research on Terrorism, underscored the forum’s commitment to rejecting the payment of ransoms to terrorist groups and praised the recent decision by the Group of 8 industrialized nations at its meeting in Northern Ireland to adopt the same stance, a shift for some European countries. “We must combat this scourge and we have, at our level in Africa, criminalized the ransom payment, while others were not listening to us and did not even understand us,” Mr. Madeira said. “Now they are condemning these acts.”
The United States and Algeria, which just this week rejected a hostage swap with a militant group in Mali that kidnapped one of its diplomats, pledged to help African nations develop hostage crisis management strategies.
But Hilaire Soulama, a senior official from Burkina Faso, expressed mixed feelings about the efficacy of the forum’s initiatives.
“This is all well and good, and these programs do make some difference on the ground,” Mr. Soulama said. “But they are not nearly enough yet. The terrorists still have an advantage.”
A senior Malian official told the delegates that the Malian authorities had seized many suspected jihadists in the recent fighting. But he said the Malian military and police were not practiced in collecting evidence for criminal court proceedings, according to participants. As a result, only a handful of extremists have been prosecuted, he said.
“These states need to build counterterrorism policies within legal frameworks,” said Justin H. Siberell, a State Department counterterrorism specialist who led the American delegation. “Still, people feel a sense of urgency that these kind of things have to start happening.”