PARIS: Boko Haram has ample funds, highly sophisticated weaponry and advanced training with some of the world’s most experienced terrorists, the French president said Saturday as he and African leaders grappled with how to combat the Islamic extremist group whose reach extends to five countries.
At the summit in Paris intended to hammer out a plan to find and free 276 schoolgirls being held hostage by Boko Haram, intelligence officials from the United States, Europe and Africa shared information while heads of state and top diplomats tackled policy.
Hours after yet another attack in a Boko Haram stronghold — this time in Cameroon near the border with Nigeria — the leaders agreed to improve policing of frontiers, share intelligence, and trace the weapons and cash that are the group’s lifeblood.
“This group is armed, with heavy weapons of an unimaginable sophistication and the ability to use them,” said French President Francois Hollande.
He said the weapons came from chaotic Libya, and the training took place in Mali before the ouster of its al-Qaida linked Islamist leaders. As for the money, Hollande said its origins were murky.
“Boko Haram is acting clearly as an al-Qaida operation,” said Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who had only reluctantly accepted outside help after years of insisting the group was a local problem.
Cameroon, which French officials said until recently also treated Boko Haram as an issue involving only Nigeria, has become increasingly involved. The attack late Friday against a Chinese engineering firm’s camp left at least 10 people missing and one person dead.
The camp was in the same nearly trackless parkland where the girls were first spirited away after an attack on their school in northern Nigeria, highlighting Boko Haram’s ability to cross borders unimpeded.
Hollande said the effort to find them and ultimately combat Boko Haram will involve sharing intelligence, protecting borders, and quick action in a crisis. An intelligence cell involving French, British and American agents is already operating out of Nigeria.
Hollande also emphasized that Boko Haram had clearly established ties with other terror groups in Africa, making it a concern throughout the continent and beyond.
That could provide an opening for U.N. sanctions against the group to freeze its assets and impose travel bans against members. Wendy Sherman, a U.S. diplomat who was at Saturday’s talks, said the sanctions could come as soon as next week.
“I can’t imagine any country who would not support this designation,” she said.
Surveillance jets have joined the search and Hollande left open the possibility that French fighter jets could be deployed.