The U.S. ambassador to Nigeria said Thursday his nation is offering support for the West African country's fight against a radical Islamist sect, but ruled out sending troops into a region vital to American oil supplies.
Ambassador Terence P. McCulley said the U.S. encourages Nigeria reach out to residents in its desperately poor Muslim north while using security forces to target and apprehend terrorists.
He said the U.S. is also considering opening a consulate in Kano, the biggest city in Nigeria's north, to burnish America's own image among a people still suspicious about Western influence.
However, he was unequivocal when asked in an interview with The Associated Press whether U.S. troops should be deployed in Nigeria.
"That's not on the table," McCulley said. "No, absolutely not."
Nigeria, a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people, is under increasing attack from members of a sect known as Boko Haram. This year, the sect is blamed for killing at least 304 people, according to an AP count. At least 185 people died in Kano last month in the group's deadliest assault yet.
Nigeria's weak central government appears unable to stop Boko Haram, which analysts and diplomats believe has splintered and made contacts with two other al-Qaida-linked groups in Africa.
"It's of a great concern to us," McCulley said. "We've seen an increase in sophistication, we've seen increased lethality. We saw at least a part of the group has decided it's in their interest to attack the international community."
The U.S. is working with Nigeria's police to help them learn how to carry out forensic investigations, while a bomb expert from the FBI has been working with authorities on how to detect explosives planted by the group before they detonate, McCulley said. The U.S. also would be open to training Nigeria's military in counter-terror techniques, though the country hasn't asked for that assistance, the ambassador said.
"It's not going to be solved exclusively by treating it as a security issue," McCulley said. "It needs a holistic solution. Government needs clearly to have a targeted approach on security that targets the bad guys, that targets perpetuators of these horrible attacks and doesn't injure innocent civilians or damage property."
Intelligence-gathering also remains a concern for the U.S. in Nigeria, especially after a failure by American authorities to take seriously a warning about Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab before he boarded a U.S.-bound flight that he attempted to bring down with a bomb in 2009. While McCulley declined to give details, he said that "adequate systems" were now in place to receive such warnings and that the U.S. maintained "robust relations" with Nigerian intelligence agencies.
The current unrest has not affected oil production in Nigeria, an OPEC nation. Nigeria now produces about 2.4 million barrels of oil a day, with much of it shipped to the U.S. However, China has shown an increased interest in Nigeria in recent years, taking part in large-scale public projects as it expands its economic reach into the nation's crude-rich Niger Delta.
However, McCulley said he had no worries about Chinese influence in the country.
"We believe in ... competition," the ambassador said. "My own personal feeling is there's a level playing field and the U.S. investors or the U.S. business is going to do very well against any competition."
Jon Gambrell can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.