The region is one of the poorest in the world, and governments there often lack the necessary resources to fight terrorist activity, which surged when al-Qaida branches began to emerge in Africa. In January 2007, the group “al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb” announced its existence.
The State Department’s Coordinator for Counter-terrorism, Daniel Benjamin, described the problem.
“Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb continues to menace parts of the Maghreb and the Sahel. In the north it is frustrated by Algeria’s effective counter-terrorism operations, but in parts of the Sahel it continues to operate with considerable impunity,” he said.
Benjamin said the extremist group finances itself mainly by kidnapping foreign tourists and diplomats and demanding ransom, and commits murders and other crimes to garner media attention.
“Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and others in the region can manage and contain this issue if they work together, and receive appropriate encouragement and support from countries like the United States,” he explained. “We should not seek to take this issue over. It is not ours, and doing so might have negative consequences for US interests over the long term,” he said.
The United States has stepped up support for Mali for example, providing pick-up trucks, communications equipment and training courses for the Malian Army.
US Agency for International Development Acting Assistant Administrator for Africa Earl Gast explained the focus of his agency’s efforts in the region to combat extremism.
“Youth empowerment, education, media and good governance are the four areas where we see the greatest opportunity for local partnerships and progress,” he said.
Gast said the Agency for International Development specifically reaches out to young men in the Sahel region, the group most likely to be targeted by extremist groups.