By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Three African Islamist groups threatening to target Westerners have begun to cooperate among themselves, a "very worrying" trend that raises concern of a network stretching from Algeria to Nigeria, the top U.S. general for Africa said.
Other U.S. defense officials, speaking separately on condition of anonymity, agreed the African Islamist groups cooperate in sometimes alarming ways but played down the likelihood of an overarching grand alliance.
General Carter Ham, the head of U.S. military's Africa Command, said three African Islamist groups posed a threat to U.S. and Western interests: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, with roots in Algeria; al Shabaab, centered in Somalia; and Boko Haram, in Nigeria.
"Each of those three independently, I think, presents a significant threat not only in the nations in which they primarily operate but regionally and ... to the United States," Ham told defense reporters on Wednesday. "Those three organizations have very explicitly and publicly voiced an intent to target Westerners and the U.S. specifically."
He said he questioned whether the groups had the capacity to make good on their threats, but had "no questions about their intent to do so, and for me that is very worrying."
More troubling still, he added, was their interest in more closely collaborating and synchronizing their efforts.
"We're seeing this intent voiced most clearly between AQIM and Boko Haram," Ham said. "They've expressed an interest in sharing training and operations and those kinds of activities. And that to me is very, very worrying."
He said closer connections with al Shabaab were "probably more idealistic than realistic at this point, but just the fact that they want to connect is worrying."
"If left unaddressed, then you could have a network that ranges from East Africa through the center and into the Sahel (semiarid region) and Maghreb, and I think that would be very, very worrying," he said.
COOPERATION, BUT NOT ALLIANCE
Defense officials who monitor the African Islamist groups said they were seeing cooperation among them but played down the likelihood of any alliance that would unify them.
"We've definitely seen a cross-pollination, certainly of ... techniques, tactics and procedures across the organizations," said one of the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity. "One of the best demonstrations is Boko Haram and some of the things that they've picked up from AQIM."
But he said there were no signs of a deeper alliance.
"As far as ... everybody working together in sort of one super group ... that's not something I think we're seeing right now," the official said.
A senior defense official said the groups were primarily focused internally or regionally and cooperation among them amounted to temporary alliances of convenience.
"These groups have more differences in their foundations and their ideologies than they have commonalities," he said. "But we do know ... they do make these temporary alliances of convenience. They have common enemies."
He said when a group like Boko Haram, which is focused primarily internally, uses "a really well crafted car bomb ... where they're getting that from their al Qaeda neighbors, then obviously you have to take notice as a cause for alarm."
Ham said the best way to deal with the concern was to help regional partners build the capacity to confront the problem themselves.
"The Africans are better at addressing this than we are. In some cases they need some assistance and where we can provide that, we seek to do so," he said, citing the example of Mali, where the United States has provided training and equipment to help them counter AQIM.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)