RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Boko Haram, the Nigerian group recently labeled by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, trained with al-Qaida's North African branch in northern Mali, France's foreign minister said Thursday, citing documentary evidence.
Speaking at a conference in Morocco on security challenges in North Africa and the Sahel region to the south, Laurent Fabius said Boko Haram's presence there demonstrated the how jihadi groups in Africa are interconnected and have to be fought on a regional level.
"Documents were found that terrorists from Boko Haram were being trained in the Ifoghas mountains," he said referring to a part of vast northern Mali that had been an al-Qaida stronghold until a French-led military operation earlier this year. "This is a source of concern for all of us."
At a later news conference, Fabius said Boko Haram's presence in Mali had been known already — well before the kidnapping of a French priest in a part of Cameroon where the group is known to operate was announced by the French Foreign Ministry on Thursday.
There are longstanding concerns that extremist groups throughout the poorly controlled desert regions are coordinating their activities. Since the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, security has broken down in Libya, and weapons and drug smugglers cross the borders in the southern desert with impunity.
Al-Qaida's North Africa branch teamed up with extremists from the desert-dwelling Tuaregs, many from southern Libya, to take over northern Mali, until they were driven out by the French-backed African force.
It is widely believed that some elements of al-Qaida have now taken refuge in southern Libya, working with existing networks of drug and weapons smugglers. "The fact remains that as organized crime transcends international borders there is no doubt in my mind that this type of networking exists with elements of al-Qaida," Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammed Ahmed Abdelaziz told The Associated Press on the margins of the conference. "This type of networking has serious implications on the security of the borders."
Formed in 2009, Boko Haram seeks to impose Islamic law in northern Nigeria, and is blamed for thousands of deaths, including the bombing of the U.N. building in Abuja, the capital, in 2011. Thursday's conference, which included foreign ministers from France, Morocco, Libya and Mali, is seeking to improve regional security cooperation and address porous borders, especially in Libya. Fabius announced that France alone signed an accord to train 1,000 Libyan police and is seeking to finalize a second agreement training 2,000 others in counter-terror techniques.
A coordination group among the region's countries will be set up to share intelligence on terror groups and border security, according to the conference's final statement, and an academy will be set up to train border security officers.
"The problems in Libya led to our problems in Mali, so stability in Libya is of vital importance to all of us," said Malian Foreign Minister Zahabi Ould Sidi Mohamed.