RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
Al-Qaida is making its presence felt in the Sahara Desert. Back in September, seven foreigners were kidnapped in Niger and are still being held. An al-Qaida affiliate has claimed responsibility for the kidnappings.
And it's just one sign of the militants increasing activity in the lawless parts of northwest Africa, an area that includes Mali, Algeria and Mauritania. The governments in these countries, along with the U.S. and France, are trying to counter Islamist militancy and banditry in this vast region. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has our report.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: This is Agadez, the regional capital of northern Niger and the gateway to the desert. Motorbikes buzz up and down the streets of the ancient sandy town. Agadez is largely empty of tourists, who used to flock in their thousands to the historic town en route to and from the desert.
A three-year Tuareg rebellion is partly to blame for their absence, says the mayor, Yahaya Namassa Kane. But he's really irked by Western travel advisories issued after seven foreigners were abducted in mid-September.
Mayor YAHAYA NAMASSA KANE (Agadez): (Through translator) Those who kidnapped these people do not come from this region. They came from neighboring countries and took their hostages across the border. But I think branding our region, Agadez and northern Niger, as insecure - a red alert zone - is a bit much. That's not the case at all.
QUIST-ARCTON: The militant group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb claims it snatched the five nationals from France - the former colonial power in Niger -as well as a one from Togo and another from Madagascar. They were all working at the French Areva uranium mine in Arlit, north of Agadez. Ambassador Daniel Benjamin is the coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department.
Ambassador DANIEL BENJAMIN (U.S. State Department): This al-Qaida affiliate and kidnapping activity is very worrisome, because this has turned into a significant revenue stream, and millions and millions of dollars have been paid in ransoms.
And this results in the group being able to keep operating, continue the kidnapping, and possibly even move money to either other parts of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or to other parts of the al-Qaida network. And that's something that we're very concerned about.
QUIST-ARCTON: France responded to the abductions by sending troops to the region. Al-Qaida's northwest Africa branch killed a Frenchman in July. Regional governments, including Niger's military junta and the authorities in Mali, Mauritania and Algeria, have been holding emergency meetings to try to step up anti-terrorism coordination.
The Sahel stretches from West Africa all the way to Somalia in the Horn, and al-Qaida-linked fighters have raised their profile in this zone over the past year, mounting attacks on local armies and seizing hostages. Regional specialist Bright Simons, from the IMANI think tank, says despite the American military training armies in the Sahara region, the U.S. response is confused.
Mr. BRIGHT SIMONS (IMANI): Defense, security, rule of law, and the rest of it. How does America integrate all these things into the agenda that it has? It cannot assume that this is something that it can win simply by providing targeted support to certain military forces and the rest of it.
QUIST-ARCTON: Experts warn that although the Islamists number only a few hundred, they've joined forces with local rebels and bandits to take advantage of the vast and lawless Sahara Desert area. Again, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, Ambassador Benjamin.
Amb. BENJAMIN: We know that it is very hard to put groups totally out of business, particularly in sparsely inhabited, under-governed regions. But having said that, I don't think there's any question but that we can reduce that kind of breakout threat significantly and make it a nuisance as opposed to a formidable threat that threatens to really spill over boundaries. That's what we're worried about - spilling over boundaries and destabilizing countries in the region.
(Soundbite of music)
QUIST-ARCTON: At a recent peace concert in Agadez, the youth called for their northern desert region to be given a chance to demonstrate its potential. That's the view of Bess Palmisciano, a New Hampshire resident. Her NGO, Rain for the Sahel and Sahara, runs community outreach programs in Niger.
Foreign aid workers were mostly withdrawn from the Agadez area after the kidnappings. Yet they help to provide everything from clean water to medical treatment, education and farming support for desert nomads and many others. Palmisciano says when such relief organizations leave, it's the local people who suffer most.
Ms. BESS PALMISCIANO (Rain for the Sahel and Sahara): And it seems to me this is the very time when we should be making an effort to enter the region, to help people get back on their feet, to strengthen them, so that they dont feel they need to take money from someone who says help us hijack this car or kidnap this person.
QUIST-ARCTON: Palmisciano says it's important to show those who have little, and need much, that they have friends in the world who will stand by them against such threats.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.