DIFFA, Niger This West African desert town hardly seems like the front line of an emerging struggle against terrorism. The market is bustling. Young men listen to French rap music blaring from boomboxes. Boys play soccer on unpaved roads.
Yet the nearby border checkpoint with Nigeria, where hundreds of people once crossed back and forth daily, is now closed. Soldiers patrol the streets day and night. And a U.S. Special Forces captain and his comrades, who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, are here, training Niger’s ragged army.
“We are in the center of some big problems,” said Kolo Ligari Katiella, a U.N. regional security official and former police officer here.
In recent years, Islamist radicals have staged suicide attacks and kidnapped Westerners in North and West Africa. But in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolts, the fight against militant Islam in this moderate swath of Africa has gained fresh urgency. The swift takeover of northern Mali by al-Qaeda-linked militants, aided by weapons and fighters from Libya, has raised alarm that an explosive cocktail of rebellion, terrorism and religious extremism could spill across borders.
Such concerns are increasingly visible in Diffa and other towns nestled along Niger’s long border with Mali and northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram, another Islamist militia with suspected links to al-Qaeda, has intensified attacks this year. In such places, local officials and U.N. workers say, fundamentalist Islam is slowly replacing Sufism, a more open, mystical brand of the faith that has been practiced here for centuries.
Boko Haram is trying to spread its hard-line ideology and violent aspirations in these border towns, and its fighters are using Niger as a gateway to join up with the Islamists in northern Mali, U.N. security experts and local officials say. Diffa, in particular, is about 100 miles from Boko Haram’s main base in Nigeria and is known as a hideout for the militia’s leaders and other members escaping authorities in Nigeria.
“We have al-Qaeda north of us and Boko Haram to the south,” Katiella said. “The population lives day by day in fear because they face plenty of threats.”
In a post-Osama bin Laden world, the United States and its allies are increasingly concerned that ungoverned patches of Africa could become new havens for global jihadists. While terrorist attacks declined globally last year compared to 2010, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, they increased 11.5 percent in Africa, according to the State Department’s most recent terrorism report.
The instability is affecting a region whose economic importance to the United States and other Western countries is growing. Nigeria now supplies more oil to the United States than most Middle East countries. Niger is one of the world’s biggest producers of uranium, used in weapons and to fuel nuclear plants, and its mines are located in an area where al-Qaeda militants are active. The European Union also plans to send experts to train Niger’s security forces to combat al-Qaeda.
“This region’s stability is very important to all of us,” said Special Forces Capt. Danny, who did not provide his last name as required by protocol.
The fall of Moammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya sent thousands of Tuareg tribesmen who fought for him, along with massive arsenals of weapons, into northern Mali, their ancestral home. There, they joined other Tuareg insurgents and al-Qaeda-linked extremists and ousted the government from the northern part of the country. Within weeks, the Islamists had taken control of a territory the size of Texas.
Today, the Islamists in Mali have imposed strict Islamic laws reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan, banning television and soccer and ordering women to wear full-length robes. Their harsh justice, enforced by whippings, beatings and executions, has forced tens of thousands of Malians to flee to neighboring countries, including Niger, whose population is already suffering from a severe hunger crisis.
Equally worrisome for Niger is that its own Tuareg separatists have revolted in the past and that al-Qaeda militants are active, kidnapping Westerners. Both groups have potentially easy access to Gaddafi’s weapons, making Niger even more vulnerable to terrorism.
Meanwhile, Boko Haram’s attacks against churches, banks and government institutions in northern Nigeria are triggering economic turmoil in southern Niger. The sudden return of tens of thousands of migrant workers after Libya’s collapse is also adding to the strains on Niger’s economy, potentially creating a new crop of impoverished recruits for Africa’s Islamists.
A recent two-week-long journey to the Mali border and along southern Niger’s frontier with Nigeria revealed how much this landlocked nation is struggling with the threat of militant Islam. “We are under pressure from all sides,” said Niger’s justice minister, Marou Amadou.
Free flow of militants