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Al-Qaida, IS Members Meet in W. Africa 02/27 06:06

   THIES, Senegal (AP) -- The only place in the world where fighters linked to 
al-Qaida and the Islamic State group are cooperating is in West Africa's 
sprawling Sahel region, giving the extremists greater depth as they push into 
new areas, according to the commander of the U.S. military's special forces in 
Africa. 

   "I believe that if it's left unchecked it could very easily develop into a 
great threat to the West and the United States," U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. 
Dagvin Anderson told The Associated Press in an interview this week. 

   The leader of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa described the threat 
even as the Pentagon considers reducing the U.S. military presence in Africa.

   Experts have long worried about collaboration between al-Qaida and the 
Islamic State group. While the cooperation in the Sahel is not currently a 
direct threat to the U.S. or the West, "it's very destabilizing to the region," 
Anderson said. 

   He spoke on the sidelines of the U.S. military's annual counterterrorism 
exercise in West Africa, currently the most active region for extremists on the 
continent.

   The alarming new collaboration in the Sahel between affiliates of al-Qaida 
and IS is a result of ethnic ties in the region that includes Mali, Niger and 
Burkina Faso.

   "Whereas in other parts of the world they have different objectives and a 
different point of view that tends to bring Islamic State and al-Qaida into 
conflict, here they're able to overcome that and work for a common purpose," 
Anderson said, emphasizing that it's a local phenomenon.

   The cooperation allows the extremist groups to appeal to a wider audience in 
a largely rural region where government presence is sparse and frustration with 
unemployment is high. 

   The past year has seen a surge in deadly violence in the Sahel, with more 
than 2,600 people killed and more than half a million displaced in Burkina Faso 
alone. 

   Al-Qaida is the deeper threat both in the region and globally, Anderson said.

   "Islamic State is much more aggressive and blunt, and so in some ways they 
appear to be the greater threat," he said. But al-Qaida, which continues to 
quietly expand, is "for us the longer strategic concern."

   Al-Qaida has been successful at consolidating efforts in northern Mali and 
moving south into more populated areas "and taking various groups and 
galvanizing them together into a coherent movement," Anderson said.

   The most prominent of those affiliates is a coalition of al-Qaida-linked 
groups known as JNIM with about 2,000 fighters in the region, according to the 
Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

   West Africa's Sahel, the vast strip of land just south of the Sahara Desert, 
for years has struggled to contain the extremist threat. In 2012, 
al-Qaida-linked fighters seized large swaths of northern Mali. French forces 
pushed them from strongholds in 2013 but the fighters have regrouped and spread 
south.

   The largest IS affiliate in the region, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, 
emerged more recently and claimed responsibility for killing four U.S. soldiers 
in Niger in 2017. The attack led to an outcry in Washington and questions about 
the U.S. military presence in Africa.

   Between the advances of al-Qaida and IS-linked fighters, once-peaceful 
Burkina Faso has become the latest front for what experts call an alarming rate 
of deadly attacks.

   The al-Qaida affiliates visit areas in advance to "engage with key leaders 
in key locations to recruit early," Anderson said. Others move in later.

   The fighters are funding themselves with kidnapping for ransom as they 
attempt to control access to markets via taxation methods, he said. They also 
are likely eyeing what has been a source of income for centuries: gold.

   "I believe they'd be happy to be able to control some of the artisanal mines 
and the other mines in the area, especially the gold and other precious metals 
that are easily transportable," Anderson said. 

   While al-Qaida affiliates work toward establishing safe havens, the Islamic 
State in the Greater Sahara is working to destabilize local governance, control 
territory and rally people to their cause, he said. 

   The strategy for countering the growing threat from the patchwork of Islamic 
extremist groups is a whole-of-governance one that goes beyond military 
efforts, Anderson said: "There's no easy answer."

   Many young men in the largely impoverished region feel isolated from the 
government and are drawn in by extremists' promises of employment and purpose. 

   "Al-Qaida, whether we agree with it or not, brings some level of justice to 
many of these areas, and some level of services that aren't provided by central 
governments," Anderson said. "And they provide some representation to minority 
groups that don't feel part of the larger community, such as the Fulani or the 
Tuareg."

   African partners need to invest in governance, he emphasized, though 
international involvement is necessary.

   The French lead the military effort in the Sahel with more than 5,000 forces 
and they hope to bring in more European partners.

   But the French have urged the U.S. to reconsider any cuts to its already 
small military footprint of about 1,400 personnel in West Africa. The U.S. has 
about 6,000 personnel on the continent. 

   Anderson countered that the U.S. is already doing a lot in the Sahel through 
the State Department, a large USAID presence and investment. "Instead of 
looking at the size of the presence, I think we should look at what is the 
appropriate engagement across the government, from all levels," he said.

   With very small engagement, the U.S. can still help countries develop the 
capabilities to build coalitions and share intelligence, Anderson said. 

   "It's going to take all these nations working together, but also it's going 
to have to be African solutions to an African problem," he said.


(KR)

 
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