Recent U.S. cables leaked by the WikiLeaks website show al-Qaida gaining a foothold in the Sahel, a lawless region in the Sahara desert, straddling the African nations of Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Algeria. How to counter and curb growing Islamist militancy and banditry in this vast, poorly policed zone is a priority for governments in West Africa, Washington and beyond.
Motorbikes buzz up and down the streets of the ancient, sandy town of Agadez, the regional capital of northern Niger and the gateway to the desert. The town is largely empty of tourists who used to flock in their thousands to the historic town, en route to and from the desert.
Mayor Yahaya Namassa Kane partly blames a three-year Tuareg rebellion for their absence. But he's also irked by Western travel advisories issued after seven foreigners were abducted in mid-September in northern Niger.
"Those who kidnapped these people do not come from this region," he said. "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."
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 one from Togo and another from Madagascar. They were all working at the French Areva uranium mine in Arlit, north of Agadez. The captives are believed to be held in neighboring Mali.
Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, the coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department, says the U.S. is concerned by the activity.
"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," he said. "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."
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; 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, director of policy research at the IMANI think tank, says that despite the U.S. military training armies in the Sahara region, the U.S. response is confused.
"Defense, security, rule of law and the rest of it: How does America integrate all these things into the agenda that it has?" he said. "It cannot assume that this is something that they can win, simply by providing targeted support to certain military forces and the rest of it."
Experts warn that though the Islamists number only a few hundred, they have joined forces with local rebels and bandits to take advantage of the vast and lawless Sahara desert area.
"We know that it is very hard to put groups totally out of business, particularly in sparsely inhabited, undergoverned regions," the State Department's Benjamin said. "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 really to spill over boundaries."
At a recent peace concert in Agadez, the youth called for their northern desert region to be given a chance to demonstrate its potential, a view shared by Bess Palmisciano of New Hampshire whose 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, but they help provide everything from clean water to medical treatment, education and farming support for desert nomads and many others.
Palmisciano says that when such relief organizations leave, it's the local people who suffer most.
"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 don't feel they need to take money from someone who says, help us hijack this car or kidnap this person," she said.
Palmisciano said it's important to show those who have little, and need much, that they have friends in the world who will stand with them against such threats. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.