By Lauren French
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Three of Africa's largest extremist groups are sharing funds and swapping explosives in what could signal a dangerous escalation of security threats on the continent, the commander of the U.S. military's Africa Command said on Monday.
General Carter Ham said there are indications that Boko Haram, al Shabaab and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb - groups that he labeled as the continent's most violent - are sharing money and explosive materials while training fighters together.
"Each of those three organizations is by itself a dangerous and worrisome threat," Ham said at an African Center for Strategic Studies seminar for senior military and civilian officials from Africa, the United States and Europe.
"What really concerns me is the indications that the three organizations are seeking to coordinate and synchronize their efforts," Ham said. "That is a real problem for us and for African security in general."
The United States classified three of the alleged leaders of the Islamist sect Boko Haram, based in remote northeast Nigeria, as "foreign terrorist," on June 20. But it declined to blacklist the entire organization to avoid elevating the group's profile internationally. Police in Nigeria said members of the group seized a prison there Sunday and freed 40 inmates.
Islamist militant group al Shabaab is active in war-ravaged Somalia and has been blamed for attacks in Kenya. Last year it claimed responsibility for the death of Somali Interior Minister Abdi Shakur Sheikh Hassan.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an affiliate of al Qaeda based in North Africa, is mainly a criminal organization operating in the Sahel region. It kidnaps Westerners for ransom and aids Africa's drug trade, according to intelligence officials.
U.S. and regional officials fear that a power vacuum in northern Mali following a military coup in March may open an expanded area of operations for Islamist militants. Some western diplomats talk of the country becoming a "West African Afghanistan."
Ham said AQIM was now operating "essentially unconstrained" throughout a large portion of northern Mali, where Islamists have imposed a harsh version of Shariah law.
The group was a threat not only to the countries in the region, but also has "a desire and an intent to attack Americans as well. So that becomes a real problem," Ham said.
Emphasizing that the U.S. military plays mainly a supporting role in Africa, Ham said the United States is providing intelligence and logistical help in the hunt for Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, whose Lord's Resistance Army is accused of abducting children to use as fighters and hacking off limbs of civilians.
The International Criminal Court in The Hague indicted Kony for crimes against humanity in 2005, and his case hit the headlines in March when a video entitled "Kony 2012" put out by a U.S. activist group and calling for his arrest went viral across the Internet.
Ham said he was confident that Kony would ultimately be apprehended by African troops.
"This is an African-led effort," Ham said. "It is the African Union increasingly taking a leadership role with a little bit of support from the United States military. We think that is the right approach."
(Reporting by Lauren French)