The US is pouring more soldiers and millions more dollars into its anti-terrorism campaign in Africa, including in Algeria and chaotic Nigeria, both oil-rich nations where radical Islam has a following.
A new north and west African effort outlined Wednesday in a statement from the US Embassy in Senegal proposes spending US$100 million a year over five years to boost security in some of world's least policed areas, starting with a joint military exercise in the region next month.
An earlier anti-terror exercise with a budget of just US$6 million focused on troop training in four west African nations. The new campaign will target nine north and west African nations and seek to bolster regional cooperation.
Analysts were waiting to see if the program would be fully funded -- but said the intended budgetary increase shows the US is taking West Africa more seriously.
"If they're turning the corner to US$100 million, that's graduation into something much larger," said J. Stephen Morrison, Africa director at the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's still modest, but it's a dramatic step up."
Major Holly Silkman, a US military spokeswoman, said underpopulated border areas in the region could be sanctuaries for "terrorists or would-be terrorists."
"We want to increase security in those areas by training with each country's military and creating a regional focus, rather than just a country focus," Silkman said by telephone from European Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.
US officials have long viewed northwestern Africa's vast desert stretches as prime real estate for aspiring terrorists seeking to set up training camps or other bases. Some US commanders liken the area's ungoverned expanses to Afghanistan during Taliban rule, under which Bin Laden's al-Qaeda terror group thrived. The region is shot through with sandy tracks still traveled by camel caravans bringing salt slabs in from the desert -- ancient thoroughfares officials say militants can use to traverse poorly guarded borders. Much of the troop training will focus on units responsible for guarding frontiers, said Silkman.
Muslims in west and north Africa, like Muslims elsewhere, generally are moderate. But extremists do exist. Militants have roamed south from oil-rich Algeria into West Africa recent years, and in northern Nigeria, years of poverty and brutal military rule has radicalized some in the population.
"We're concerned with the radical movement," said Silkman. "Islam isn't the problem, it's only the radicals."
Troop exercises aside, the new program will also bring together for medical training and command-post exercises military staff from the nine participating countries -- Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Chad and Nigeria. The earlier program encompassed just Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Niger.
Morrison, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the US now appears to have created a "counterterrorism bookend" to its strategy in east Africa, which has seen a spate of terror attacks, including the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania blamed on al-Qaeda. Notable among the new entries is Nigeria -- Africa's most-populous nation of 130 million, the continent's biggest petroleum producer and source of one-fifth of all American oil imports.
About half of Nigeria's people are Muslim. Osama Bin Laden purportedly marked the country for liberation in release posted on the Internet earlier last year.
The country is led by a Christian president and has seen deadly spates of Christian-Muslim violence, although most Nigerians live peacefully in mixed-religion areas.