Three African terrorist groups are seeking to “coordinate and synchronize” their operations, the head of the U.S. military’s Africa Command said.
Army General Carter Ham said al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Shabaab in Somalia, and Boko Haram in Nigeria are increasingly trying to work together on the African continent.
“Each of these organizations is, by itself, a dangerous and worrisome threat,” Ham yesterday told a leadership seminar of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Defense Department center. “But what really concerns me is that the three organizations are seeking to coordinate and synchronize their efforts.”
The militant Sunni Muslim groups are starting to share funds, training and explosive material to assist each other’s efforts to establish Islamic regimes, he said.
While the coordination among terrorist groups in Africa is a concern, there’s little evidence so far that such groups are targeting the U.S. homeland, said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a counter-terrorism specialist and former Navy helicopter pilot who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Right now, these groups are not threatening the U.S. homeland in any way comparable to what al-Qaeda was doing three or four or five years ago,” before drone strikes weakened the militant group’s core, Nelson said.
Al-Shabaab is focused on creating an Islamic state in Somalia. Boko Haram wants an Islamic state in Nigeria, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb seeks Islamic governments throughout the region, he said.
The focus of the groups “is quite local and regional at this point,” as opposed to any collaborative effort to strike the U.S., said Chester Crocker, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington who was assistant secretary of state for African affairs in President Ronald Reagan’s administration.
As drone strikes decimate the core al-Qaeda group in Pakistan and a U.S.-backed government offensive in Yemen targets al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, U.S. counter-terrorism officials increasingly are turning their attention to a swath of northern Africa from Somalia to Mauritania and south into Nigeria, according to administration officials.
It includes both populated areas and wild, ungoverned spaces such as northern Mali, which one official compared to Afghanistan in the 1990’s.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is now “operating essentially unconstrained” in a large portion of Mali, Ham said. With an effective safe haven in Mali, the al-Qaeda affiliate “is an organization of growing concern,” he said.
Recent White House meetings on counter-terrorism have been devoted largely to northern Africa, according to one administration official who participates in them. The meetings have included discussions on protecting Nigerian oil production and exports, developing local counter-terrorism programs, and finding personnel with the necessary language skills, with Nigeria’s Ibo at the top of the list, said the official, who requested not to be identified because classified matters are discussed at the meetings.
“From a pure counter-terrorism perspective, Africa is a growing concern for sure,” said Nelson of CSIS. “Terrorists need ungoverned spaces. They need resources.”
They have both in parts of northern Africa, where the collapse of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya has sent aging shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons into terrorists’ hands in places where the absence of effective governments has created safe havens for terrorist groups.
The ability of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to funnel weapons and training to local militant groups such as Boko Haram has “created a witch’s brew of opportunities for local terrorist groups,” said Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University.
“Its ability to distribute largess and train other groups has put it in a position of being a power broker,” Hoffman said of the al-Qaeda affiliate in northern Africa. “It gives al-Qaeda the opportunity, even while the center is being pulverized, to expand the movement on the periphery and extend its longevity.”
Even so, the U.S. isn’t planning to field a larger military presence on the continent, Ham said. The U.S. has about 2,000 troops in Djibouti, and otherwise has no large presence.
The headquarters for Africa Command, one of six regionally focused combatant commands, isn’t even in Africa. It’s in Stuttgart, Germany.
“A large permanent presence in the continent of Africa is not, I think, what any of us desire,” Ham, Africa Command’s second commander since its creation in 2007, said at the seminar, which was held in Arlington, Virginia, for an audience primarily representing African nations.
The U.S. military can be more helpful by collecting and passing on information to local leaders, with the consent of host nations, Ham said.
“We’re better off when it is Africans leading, with a little bit of training and support equipping from us,” Ham told the House Armed Services Committee at a Feb. 29 hearing.