(CNN) -- It is a conflict fought in blistering heat, in some of the most inhospitable territory on earth. The frontline troops often wear scruffy T-shirts; most can't drive. But it is a struggle that the United States is taking ever more seriously, according to U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks.
The area in question is a lawless region in the Sahara where Mali, Mauritania and Algeria meet, where nomads move with the seasons, tribal loyalties trump other allegiances -- and al Qaeda is gaining a foothold.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has claimed responsibility for the abduction of more than a dozen foreign nationals in the past year as well as attacks on Algerian troops.
U.S. officials suspect it is also involved in lucrative drug trafficking, and a 2009 cable from the State Department called on embassies to investigate its intentions and capabilities, including "links to weapons of mass destruction or related materials. -- Presence and activities of fighters returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. -- Information on organizations, leadership, personnel."
The United States has stepped up its military cooperation with governments in the region, and one cable recounts a training course for Malian soldiers led by an Army Special Forces team from Fort Carson, Colorado.
At the graduation ceremony, the cable describes an encounter with one of the soldiers, "an older, rail-thin man with a scraggly beard and bloodshot eyes who had been lounging against a motorbike in a dirty T-shirt." Several months earlier he had survived an ambush by al Qaeda. "When asked how the training had gone, the soldier said if he had known at the time of the ambush what he had learned over the course of the JCET (training course), it never would have happened."
The soldier said that if engaged, the al Qaeda fighters would flee -- but without a proper security cordon "they will creep back and murder you in the most cruel, unimaginable ways." He also said that soldiers had been unable to escape the ambush because the only one of them who could drive had been killed.
In the cables, officials from Algeria and Mali talk of a growing threat from al Qaeda in the region. One cable from the U.S. ambassador in Mali discusses the visit by the commander of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. William E. Ward, last November. President Amadou Toumani Toure told him that while al Qaeda "had difficulty getting their message across to a generally reluctant population, they have had some success in enlisting disaffected youth to their ranks."
According to the cable, Toure complained: "Military cooperation with Algeria is the problem. ... It is not just a matter of destroying a couple of (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) bases, we have to be able to hold the territory. The longer the situation drags on, the stronger the Salafists [al Qaeda] will get."
The Algerians tended to blame Mali. "The nexus of arms, drug and contraband smuggling in northern Mali created an enabling environment," according to senior Algerian defense official Abdelmalik Guenaizia, who added that "terrorists will use any means available to finance their activities, including corruption and hostage-taking."
But Guenaizia agreed that al Qaeda in the Maghreb was increasingly capable. They "use the best explosives, have honed their bomb-making expertise and use sophisticated means to deploy explosives against their targets," he said. He appealed to a visiting Pentagon official for sophisticated equipment to jam improvised explosive devices, because of casualties caused by remote cell phone detonation of IEDs.
One emerging theme in the cables is lucrative drug trafficking through the region, with a senior Pentagon official telling her Algerian counterparts last year that "Colombian drugs transiting west Africa and the Sahel en route to Europe" were a particular concern. The Sahel is the region bordering the southern Sahara.
President Toure of Mali raised the case of a mysterious Boeing 727 that had landed in the desert in northern Mali in October 2009, only to get stuck in the sand. It had been set on fire and the president surmised it "may have been carrying drugs."
U.S. efforts to improve coordination in the Sahel region against terrorism do appear to be bearing fruit. Another diplomatic cable from 2009 welcomes the establishment of a regional command for counterterrorism operations.
But Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has kidnapped a number of European nationals this year, killing one and continuing to hold five French citizens. And in July it launched a well-planned attack against Algerian paramilitary police close to the border with Mali, killing 11 of them.