LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Islamic extremists continue to move freely between Nigeria and northern Mali, despite the ongoing French military operation there against them, the United States ambassador to Nigeria said Thursday.
As extremist shootings, bombings and kidnappings of foreigners continue unstopped across northern Nigeria, U.S. Ambassador Terence McCulley said halting the violence remained a top priority of the Washington government. However, McCulley declined to answer questions about U.S. plans to operate a drone base in neighboring Niger — which would allow the aircraft to monitor Nigeria as well.
Officials "have seen reports for years" about fighters from the radical Islamic extremist network Boko Haram traveling to Mali to receive training there, said McCulley, speaking to journalists on a telephone conference call. Boko Haram, the main force behind the continuing guerrilla attacks against Nigeria's weak central government, is believed by analysts and officials to have ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which operates in Mali, and likely received training and weapons from them.
"The Nigerians feel that there is a link between extremist activity in the Sahel and their internal extremist insurgency," McCulley said. The ambassador said Nigeria needed to attack the group on multiple fronts, both militarily and by alleviating northern Nigeria's crushing poverty and lack of opportunities for its growing, young population.
McCulley also said Nigeria needed to "respect human rights" in fighting extremists. Human rights officials long have accused Nigeria's security forces of illegally detaining people for months without charges, using torture and even summarily killing suspects.
French troops, with the help of Malian soldiers, have been fighting Islamic extremists who took over the main towns in northern Mali in the weeks after a coup toppled the nation's government last year. Despite their efforts, it appears extremists continue to be able to simply disappear into local populations and move freely across the region, where desert borders remain loosely patrolled.
In part to stop that flow, U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans in February to establish a military base in neighboring Niger to stage drone flights across the Sahel region. While U.S. plans initially call for the drones to be used to gather information about Islamic extremists in Mali, the drones could be used elsewhere in the region. In Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north, there has been growing concern and suspicion about the U.S. intentions in the region, despite the ongoing violence.
When asked about the drones, McCulley largely declined to comment, though he said Nigeria's government has not posed any questions to the U.S. regarding the drone program.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .