Drugs, gems and militants draw FBI to West Africa

By Nick Tattersall
29 July 2005
13:37 GMT
Reuters News

DAKAR, July 29 (Reuters) -- The FBI plans to open two offices in West Africa
early next year, a region where South American drug cartels, international
diamond smugglers and Islamic extremists are all thought to be operating.

The U.S. law enforcement agency, one of whose main priorities is protecting the
United States from terrorist attacks, will set up offices in Senegal's capital
Dakar and one in Freetown, Sierra Leone, an FBI spokesman in Washington

Security analysts say the main concerns in the vast region are pockets
of Islamic militants in and around the Sahara desert and organised crime
groups dealing in drugs, human trafficking and money laundering along the West
African coast.

"The failure by some states in the region to enforce law and order
coupled with a culture of impunity facilitates criminal transactions," Antonio
Mazzitelli, head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in West and
Central Africa,
told Reuters.

"These conditions can easily be exploited by terrorist groups looking
for safe havens and logistics bases," he said.

One of Washington's main fears in the Sahel region, the arid band of
savannah on the Sahara's southern fringe, is the Salafist Group for
Preaching and
Combat (GSPC), an Algerian militant group which has pledged allegiance to al

The GSPC, created in 1998 to overthrow the ruling authorities in Algeria
and set up a purist Islamic state, is increasingly setting its sights on
foreign targets after being weakened by security forces in its homeland,
analysts say.

"They certainly have an anti-Western focus and they are in western
Europe and sharing ideologies with al Qaeda," said Sara Daly, an analyst at the
RAND Corporation which conducts studies on a range of issues for the

Christophe Chaboud, head of the French Anti-Terrorism Coordination Unit,
told Le Monde this month the GSPC had asked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, head of al
Qaeda's Iraq wing, for support and that the group posed a direct threat to

"They are trying to develop regionally, in sub-Saharan Africa, but also
in France. Any wish to externalise jihad on their part risks materialising
on our territory," he said.


The FBI, which already has offices in Nigeria and Morocco, said the
operations in Dakar and Freetown would be "legal attache offices",
generally based
in U.S. embassies or consulates around the world to help fight international

Some analysts say countries in West Africa exaggerate the terrorist
threat to gain support from Western powers.

While U.S. and other officials say evidence is hard to find, they fear
terrorists could be using diamonds -- readily available in countries
destabilised by conflict such as Sierra Leone -- as a means of storing
and moving funds.

War crimes prosecutors at Sierra Leone's special court have said top al
Qaeda members bought diamonds in the region ahead of the Sept. 11, 2001,
attacks on the United States.

A court document prepared by prosecutors and seen by Reuters last August
said several of those on the FBI's "Most Wanted Terrorist List" had been in
Liberia, including Mohammed Atef, or Abu Hafs al Masri, an aide to al Qaeda
leader Osama bin Laden killed in Afghanistan.

West Africa is also growing as a major transit centre for the narcotics
trade, with South American cocaine cartels moving their logistics bases to the
region, attracted by small local criminal networks which have proved hard to
detect, experts say.

"In the underworld each group, independently of its final objective,
with others unless they are in competition," the U.N's Mazzitelli said.

"There's no competition between criminal groups looking for profit and
terrorist groups looking for destabilisation," he said, pointing out
that bomb attacks which killed 191 people in packed rush hour trains
in Spain in
March 2004 had been at least partly funded by drug trafficking. (Additional
reporting by Caroline Drees in Washington)