Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou
Jihadi fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan are training Islamist groups in northern Mali, Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou told France 24 television on Thursday.
"We have information on the presence of Afghans and Pakistanis in northern Mali... They are believed to be working as instructors," he told the French news channel.
"They are the ones who are training those who have been recruited across various West African countries," said Issoufou, whose country shares a long and porous desert border with Mali.
Mali, once considered a beacon of democracy in western Africa, has plunged into chaos since the collapse of Moamer Gaddafi's regime in Libya last year scattered mercenaries and weapons across the Sahel, reports AFP.
Tuareg rebels rekindled their decades-old struggle for independence in January and conquered the entire northern half of Mali virtually unopposed in March, after renegade soldiers who accused then-president Amadou Toumani Toure of failing to do enough to fight the rebellion toppled his regime.
The Tuareg rebels fought alongside a previously unknown Islamist group called Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith), which is believed to be backed by Al Qaeda's north African branch.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been active for years in northern Mali, where it has launched attacks against government army positions, kidnapped foreigners and allegedly benefitted from drug running.
Issoufou said the Islamist groups are part of a global network spanning much of Africa and reaching all the way to Afghanistan.
"I think all these organisations cooperate amongst themselves, whether the Shebab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, AQIM in Algeria and in the Sahel in general, all the way to Afghanistan," he said.
"Our concern is that the Sahel not become a new Afghanistan."
The comments came as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sounded the alarm Thursday over the continuing threat posed by Al Qaeda even in the wake of the killing of its mastermind, Osama bin Laden.