By Emma Farge
DAKAR (Reuters) - Two high-profile strikes in West Africa since November by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) could further strengthen the Islamist militant group, a U.S. commander for North and West Africa said.
AQIM, a militant group that emerged from the Algerian civil war in the 1990s and is now mostly north Mali-based, is emerging from a period of near dormancy marked by factional infighting.
The group, linked to veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, claimed two hotel sieges in the Mali and Burkina Faso capitals in November and January that killed dozens, including many Westerners, proving its ability to strike further south.
Some experts say the urban attacks, and a slew of recent propaganda, may be a bid to compete with ultra-hardline group Islamic State, which now has a base in Libya.
"(The hotel attacks) raised the profile of the group and will help the group do a (few) things," said Colonel Bob Wilson, Third Special Forces Group Commander, in an interview with Reuters and The New York Times in Dakar this week.
"One, show that it's still relevant. Two, help it to recruit personnel and commit resources. And three, create the impetus to do more attacks like that," he said on a visit to Senegal during the annual U.S.-led 'Flintlock' counter-terror training program in the Sahel region.
The United States has its own Africa Command with between 1,000-1,200 forces on the continent at any given time, mostly in training and support roles. Wilson's North and West Africa command is the largest of three regional groups, with around 500 deployed across a dozen countries.
U.S. officials say this year's event is marked by a growing threat of Islamic State (ISIS) in Libya, Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin and AQIM in the Sahel which, while deeply concerning, is also boosting African security cooperation.
Wilson said he expects ISIS to spread beyond Libya to other African countries in the next year, echoing fears expressed by Niger and Chad to the south.
The Islamic State has thousands of fighters in the former Italian colony and controls parts of Libya's northern coastal strip, including the city of Sirte.
"I think it (ISIS) is going to expand beyond Libya where it can find subordinate elements to cooperate with," he said, adding that he was worried about "increased collusion and cooperation" between militant groups.
He declined to comment on plans for special operations in Libya amid speculation of possible Western air strikes.
Wilson welcomed the creation of a regional task force last year to fight Nigeria's Boko Haram, which has pledged allegiance to ISIS and is blamed for 15,000 deaths.
But he said the countries involved -- Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Benin -- have yet to prove that they can work effectively together in joint operations and that a regional headquarters is still "nascent".
(Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Tom Heneghan)