The Obama administration no longer sees the greatest terrorist threats in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Instead, U.S. counterterrorism officials are increasingly focused on a broad swath of northern Africa from Somalia through Chad, Niger and Mali to Mauritania and south into Nigeria, said three administration officials who work on the issue.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta today spotlighted the growing threat of terrorism outside the Middle East, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton begins a two-week trip to Africa that includes stops in Senegal, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi and South Africa.
“We continue to be concerned about al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa,” Panetta said in Tunisia, his first stop on a week-long trip expected to focus on the Middle East. “For that reason, we strongly urge countries like Tunisia to develop counter-terrorism operations that can yield results.”
The region includes both populated areas and wild spaces such as northern Mali, which one of the administration officials compared to Afghanistan in the 1990’s before the overthrow of the Taliban.
The intelligence reporting from the area, which comes from the French foreign intelligence service, as well as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and others, cites increasing cooperation among radical Islamist groups, sizable supplies of weapons looted from Libya and recruiting of locals by terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Nigeria’s Boko Haram.
“This issue has raised a very high level of concern,” said Republican Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, chairman of the House intelligence committee, in a telephone interview. “We’ve seen these groups improve their organization and capabilities, then be able to operationalize those capabilities. This is a new trend.”
Recent White House meetings on counterterrorism have been devoted almost entirely to northern Africa, protecting Nigerian oil production and developing programs in local languages, with Nigeria’s Ibo at the top of the list, according to the three officials, who are participants.
“Africa is probably the most important continent in the 21st century for a lot of reasons, one of which is helping us prevent terrorism from taking root in the continent,” said Johnny Isakson of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on African affairs.
“Terrorists take advantage of hunger and poverty,” he said in a telephone interview. “There is a lot of that on the African continent.”
The State Department’s annual report on global terrorism, released today, said al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, historically the weakest of the central al-Qaeda group’s affiliates, “saw its coffers filled in 2011 with kidnapping ransoms.”
That financial muscle, along with the organization’s efforts to exploit the instability in Libya and Mali, “have raised concern about this group’s trajectory,” the report said.
“While not a formal al-Qaeda affiliate, elements of the group known as Boko Haram launched widespread attacks across Nigeria, including one in August against the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, which signaled their ambition and capability to attack non-Nigerian targets,” the report said.
To counter the threat, the Obama administration, both independently and in concert with France and other European allies, has stepped up military and intelligence support and training for African regimes threatened by Islamic extremism, the U.S. officials said.
The U.S. has provided training and non-lethal equipment to more than 215,000 peacekeepers from African militaries in 25 partner countries since 1997, according to U.S. Africa Command.
Still, the U.S. wants to help root out terrorist groups quietly, without a large military footprint that could cause a public backlash as the Pentagon faces budget cuts and withdraws American troops from Afghanistan.
Throughout the entire African continent, the U.S. has no more than 5,000 military personnel, including Defense Department civilians, at any given time, said Eric Elliott, a spokesman for the Africa Command, one of six regionally focused U.S. military commands.
In one sign of U.S. and African reticence toward a visible American presence, the headquarters of Africa Command isn’t even in Africa. It’s in Stuttgart, Germany.
“U.S. forces in Africa aren’t going to solve the problems of these countries,” said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a senior fellow for homeland security and counter-terrorism at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It needs to be done covertly and clandestinely and quietly. The U.S. presence or any hint of it could go against the purpose of being there and create a new generation of terrorists.”
Instead, the U.S. is funneling equipment and training to help African forces combat groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
“We can help in terms of logistics, of some information and intelligence sharing, of communications and a little bit of mobility,” said Army General Carter Ham, the leader of Africa Command, in a June 26 address to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Defense Department group, in Arlington, Virginia.
Last year, for example, the U.S. deployed about 100 special operations troops to help advise four African nations in their effort to hunt down Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan guerrilla group who’s been indicted for war crimes.
“It is the African Union now increasingly taking a leadership role, with a little bit of support from the United States military,” Ham said in the speech.
Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa, said the low-key approach to fighting African terrorism is largely working.
“I do think these areas of emerging threats are getting the attention they need,” Coons said. “The U.S. is appropriately looking for regional and African national allies to take the lead. That’s as it should be.”
Even administration critics, such as Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, said more U.S. boots on the ground are not the answer to fighting terrorism on the continent.
“If we can train the Africans, then when problems come up we don’t have to send our kids over there,” said Inhofe, who has traveled the continent extensively and pushed for creating more indigenous military forces.
In small numbers, U.S. troops nonetheless play a role, even without official recognition at times.
In war-torn Mali, three U.S. soldiers assigned to the American Embassy in Bamako, the capital, were found dead after a car crash on April 20, about a month after military aid was suspended because of a coup by junior officers. The State Department had halted foreign aid to the Malian government on April 10.
For all the military and economic efforts, both public and clandestine, officials such as Ham have warned of growing threats from terrorist groups that are learning to “coordinate and synchronize” their operations. Ham said al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria are increasingly trying to work together.
Rogers, the House intelligence committee chairman, said such groups, which began with a focus on internal targets, are becoming more sophisticated and looking to strike at Western sites, while local security forces remain too weak to combat them.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which finances itself largely through hostage taking and ransom payments, is now the largest financial contributor to the remainder of the core al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan and its Yemen affiliate, Rogers said. In return, the group has received training, advice and expertise from Islamic militants in Pakistan and elsewhere, he said.
In Nigeria, Boko Haram has been growing in size, reach and lethality, said Amanda Dory, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies leadership seminar last month.
Boko Haram “has proven to be an increasing threat to the security and stability of Africa’s most populous nation,” said the Soufan Group, headed by former FBI counterterrorism expert Ali Soufan, in a June 27 brief to clients. The State Department added three of the group’s leaders to its list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists on June 21.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, meanwhile, “has been an unintended beneficiary of the fall of Muammar Qaddafi” in Libya, the Soufan brief said.
“We see some worrying indicators that al-Qaeda and others are seeking to establish a presence in Libya,” Ham said in his speech.
“Africa is a perfect location for al-Qaeda to set up what they once did in Afghanistan,” Isakson said. Assessing the U.S. effort against terrorist groups on the continent, he said, “You’re never satisfied, but I think we are making progress.”