Nigeria militants strike fear across Africa
New York - Boko Haram militants from Nigeria are bolstering links with al-Qaeda and other hardline groups in West Africa, according to a UN report released on Wednesday which highlighted the growing concerns of the region's governments.
Attacks, detentions of accused militants, seizures of explosives and arms - many smuggled out of Libya - have all added to the worries of Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and their neighbours, according to a UN mission which went to the Sahel region to report on security fallout after the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi.
Fears of terrorism and poor security dominated concerns raised. The UN report said Niger had increased its defence budget by 65% and reduced health and education spending because of the threat.
Governments reaffirmed suspicions that weapons accumulated by Gaddafi had been smuggled into other countries by former Libyan soldiers and mercenaries.
The report said Niger authorities recently intercepted a convoy carrying 645kg of Semtex plastic explosive and 445 detonators. Niger authorities "alleged that the explosives were meant for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb camps in northern Mali”.
"This seizure may indicate that terrorist groups have been acquiring arms, weapons and explosives from Libyan military stockpiles."
"Some of the weapons may be hidden in the desert and could be sold to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram or other criminal organisations," said the group, which was led by the UN representative for West Africa, Said Djinnit.
The mission said Boko Haram, blamed for 185 deaths in the Nigerian city of Kano last weekend, a suicide bomb strike against the UN headquarters in Abuja last August and countless other attacks, was considered a growing threat outside Nigeria.
"Its presence was mentioned as a source of concern by most countries in the region." In Niger, "the radicalisation of youth was a particular concern in the south, where interlocutors said that Boko Haram was already active in spreading its ideology and propaganda and, in some cases, had succeeded in closing down public schools", said the report.
"The mission representatives were also informed that Boko Haram had established links with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and that some of its members from Nigeria and Chad had received training in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb camps in Mali during the summer of 2011."
Seven Boko Haram members were detained going through Niger to Mali carrying material on making explosives and contact details of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb members they were to meet, said the UN mission.
Ministers from Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Algeria met in the Mauritania capital, Nouakchott, this week in a bid to strengthen cooperation.
The deteriorating security has already hit humanitarian efforts in Sahel countries. Aid agencies have suspended immunisation and food programs for many "vulnerable communities", the UN report said.
In some areas "the humanitarian vacuum is being filled by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and/or criminal elements who are reportedly providing services and humanitarian assistance in remote areas where state presence is reduced or non-existent," said the report.
This helps al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to recruit followers and form networks to gather information and arms, said the UN.