“We are in the center of some big problems,” said Kolo Ligari Katiella, a U.N. regional security official and former police officer here.
In recent years, Islamist radicals have staged suicide attacks and kidnapped Westerners in North and West Africa. But in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolts, the fight against militant Islam in this moderate swath of Africa has gained fresh urgency. The swift takeover of northern Mali by al-Qaeda-linked militants, aided by weapons and fighters from Libya, has raised alarm that an explosive cocktail of rebellion, terrorism and religious extremism could spill across borders.
Such concerns are increasingly visible in Diffa and other towns nestled along Niger’s long border with Mali and northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram, another Islamist militia with suspected links to al-Qaeda, has intensified attacks this year. In such places, local officials and U.N. workers say, fundamentalist Islam is slowly replacing Sufism, a more open, mystical brand of the faith that has been practiced here for centuries.
Boko Haram is trying to spread its hard-line ideology and violent aspirations in these border towns, and its fighters are using Niger as a gateway to join up with the Islamists in northern Mali, U.N. security experts and local officials say. Diffa, in particular, is about 100 miles from Boko Haram’s main base in Nigeria and is known as a hideout for the militia’s leaders and other members escaping authorities in Nigeria.
“We have al-Qaeda north of us and Boko Haram to the south,” Katiella said. “The population lives day by day in fear because they face plenty of threats.”
In a post-Osama bin Laden world, the United States and its allies are increasingly concerned that ungoverned patches of Africa could become new havens for global jihadists. While terrorist attacks declined globally last year compared to 2010, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, they increased 11.5 percent in Africa, according to the State Department’s most recent terrorism report.
The instability is affecting a region whose economic importance to the United States and other Western countries is growing. Nigeria now supplies more oil to the United States than most Middle East countries. Niger is one of the world’s biggest producers of uranium, used in weapons and to fuel nuclear plants, and its mines are located in an area where al-Qaeda militants are active. The European Union also plans to send experts to train Niger’s security forces to combat al-Qaeda.