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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 January, 2004, 17:15 GMT
US targets Sahara militant threat
By Elizabeth Blunt
BBC News

Sahara desert outside the town of Illizi, Algeria
The Sahara desert could prove attractive to militant groups
A US military team is in the West African state of Mauritania to give training and support to countries in the Sahel which may attract terrorists.

The anti-terror team is accompanied by Deputy Undersecretary of State for Africa, Pamela Bridgewater.

She said Mauritania's efforts in the war against terror were praiseworthy.

The "Pan-Sahel Initiative" will offer training, vehicles, radios and other equipment to help the countries improve security and border surveillance.

Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad - strung out along the southern fringe of the Sahara desert - are about as far as it is possible to get from the centre of world events.

But it is their very remoteness which could appeal to terrorist organisations.

They are thinly inhabited, and lightly policed.

Active groups

Local people, smugglers and bandits all slip easily from one country to another, across their largely unmarked borders.

All are predominantly Muslim, and their ties to the rest of the Islamic world have got stronger in recent years.

Islamic charities, many Saudi-based or funded, are active in the region.

Like the rest of West Africa, the countries struggle to satisfy a generation of restless young men. With some education, but little or no employment, it is radical Islam which offers them a purpose.

One of Osama Bin Laden's close associates came from Mauritania, and more recently Islamists have been active in the opposition to President Ould Taya.

A group of western tourists kidnapped last year in the Sahara turned out to have been taken by an Algerian group with radical Islamist connections. They were eventually freed in Mali.

And a group of young men modelling themselves on the Taleban have recently battled with Nigerian police along the Niger border.

It is not surprising the Americans are worried.

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