More than three years after killing Osama bin Laden and claiming that the core of al-Qaeda had been decimated, the Obama administration is waging a protracted war with his disciples across north and sub-Saharan Africa.
The enemy isn’t a nation or an alliance, but a diverse, mobile and adaptive collection of groups loosely united by the goal of overthrowing the region’s governments and replacing them with strict Islamic rule.
Militants returning to the continent after fighting in the Middle East are linking up with local groups and attacking governments in the continent already struggling to control their territories, says retired U.S. Army General Carter Ham, the former head of the U.S. Africa Command.
“Those borders might as well not exist,” Ham said of the porous region abutting Libya, Tunisia, Niger and Algeria. Militants are thriving in northern Africa’s “weak, ungoverned spaces,” and more of them are returning from Syria and Iraq “with battlefield experience and credibility.”
African governments don’t want American combat troops any more than the U.S. wants to deploy them after losing more than 6,800 lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, the U.S. military is training governments across the continent to confront militant groups.
U.S. efforts to provide such training are complicated by the reality that some of America’s allies are authoritarian regimes that use their militaries as private armies and some have blotted human-rights records.
“The problem is that African states often exist for the elites, and the military exists also for the purpose of these elites,” said Hussein Solomon, a political studies professor at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. “I’m asking for a more nuanced American engagement in Africa and a more nuanced perspective, an understanding that the state itself is problematic.”
With no realistic alternative, though, the U.S. war against Somali pirates, Nigerian kidnappers, Libyan militias and nomadic Islamic extremists remains focused on training and advising African militaries.
Across north Africa, terrorist groups are exploiting ancient transit corridors and the limited capability of states to provide border security, said Amanda Dory, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs.
“The trade routes through the Sahel into the Maghreb that have existed for thousands of years for commerce of all types are increasingly being used for a variety of trafficking,” including weapons, people and “most recently the increased flow of extremists” into and out of the region, Dory said in an interview.
The American military effort is spearheaded by the U.S. Africa Command, set up in 2007 and based in Stuttgart, Germany, its distant location a reflection of sensitivity in Africa toward a large U.S. military profile. The command has ratcheted up the American military presence on the continent with about 4,000 U.S. troops, civilians and contractors at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa.
An additional 1,000 or so U.S. troops and military advisers conduct short-term missions at the invitation of African nations, often working alongside local forces, Army Lieutenant Colonel Vanessa Hillman, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. She declined to provide a breakdown of U.S. forces by country.
The U.S. provided advisers and reconnaissance drones to aid in efforts to rescue more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in April as the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls used by first lady Michelle Obama went viral online. The schoolgirls still haven’t been found.
One of the primary lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq is that wars against Islamic extremism can’t be won by military means alone, and U.S. officials say their strategy reflects that. Still, economic aid fell from 2009 to 2012 as military financing rose, according to the most recent State Department data available.
In 2009, U.S. economic and other non-military aid for all of Africa was $10.4 billion, compared with $8.26 billion in military assistance through the Foreign Military Financing program. In 2012, economic aid dropped to $8.1 billion while military financing rose to $16.8 billion.
The U.S. military’s budget for Africa Command peaked at $273.7 million in 2010. Since then, it’s declined to $261.6 million in 2014. For the coming year, the Pentagon is seeking $244.5 million.
Economic development in Africa will be on the agenda at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit that Obama is hosting in Washington next week. The three-day conference includes a daylong U.S.- Africa Business Forum on Aug. 5 hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the U.S. Commerce Department. Bloomberg Philanthropies is led by Mike Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News.
Solomon said that the U.S. should use its leverage to push for democratic reform and anti-corruption efforts and that counterterrorism strategy must be tailored to the political context of each country.
“The U.S. military is an essential but not a decisive component,” Ham said. “What the U.S. military is good at is tactical training. We’re less good at institution-building or ethical values training. That was one of our weaknesses in Mali, where we focused exclusively on small-unit tactical training and not on institutions to exercise civilian control.”
Mali’s military led a coup in 2012 seeking better resources to fight separatists. The rebels, who want a separate nation in the north, initially aligned themselves with al-Qaeda-linked militants. France sent troops to Mali last year to repel the advance of the Islamist militants.
Some militant groups across the continent have expanded their ambitions from local grievances to global goals, said U.S. Representative Frank LoBiondo, a New Jersey Republican and a member of the House Intelligence committee who specializes in Africa.
“You’ve got these al-Qaeda affiliates who are trying to outdo each other to show that they’re worthy of funding and operational help,” LoBiondo said in an interview. “Their recruitment is soaring. They’re getting the funds necessary to do the bad things which at some point are going to come back to the U.S.”
A variety of extremist organizations operate in Africa, from al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Movement for Openness and Jihad in West Africa to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and organizations such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, which began as a domestic terrorist group “but is now engaged in regional activity against Cameroon and Niger,” said Johnnie Carson, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs who served as ambassador to several sub-Saharan nations.
“The emergence of these extremist organizations, some of which have a religious or fundamentalist base, has brought into stark relief the need for greater training and assistance” by the international community, said Carson, who’s now a senior adviser to the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.
The U.S. has encouraged African governments operating under the umbrella of the African Union to take on such groups, Carson said.
“In a place like Somalia, which has done well over the last few years, the effort there has been largely led and driven by Africans,” including Ugandans, Ethiopians, Burundians, Kenyans, and Djiboutians, Carson said. “The U.S. has been a partner and supporter, but it hasn’t taken ownership of the problem” and has helped Africans “bring Somalia back from the brink of the failed state.”
The U.S. military base in Djibouti -- the only one the Pentagon will acknowledge, although the military also flies reconnaissance drones out of Niger and Ethiopia -- is used as a staging area for tracking and launching assaults on al-Qaeda militants in Yemen and Somalia.
“We have had very good cooperation in terms of securing the region as a whole by having close cooperation” with U.S. military forces, Djiboutian Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf said in a July 15 phone interview from the country in the Horn of Africa.
U.S. forces also provide training and equipment to Djibouti’s armed forces, he said.
“When we sent our battalion to Somalia, the U.S. helped in terms of training and equipment to a certain extent,” he said. “It’s a good base for military and security cooperation.”
Djibouti has about 1,000 troops in Somalia fighting al-Shabaab militants under the command of an African Union peacekeeping mission.
While Somalia has made some gains against militants, the U.S. has failed to stop Libya from sliding into chaos after assisting in the overthrow of dictator Muammar Qaddafi, said Michael O’Hanlon, a national security analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“We missed an opportunity that was fairly straightforward to build up an indigenous security force and maybe backstop it with a peacekeeping force for a short time,” O’Hanlon said. “We didn’t do that, and now you’ve got a Libya that continues to be a source of fighters for other countries and also to drag itself down.”
Violence is spiking in Libya after religious-leaning groups that lost in parliamentary elections in June are battling independents who gained seats, said Arezki Daoud, managing director for MEA Risk, a Boston-based firm that tracks violence in Africa and the Middle East.
The response of the losing groups has been to use their military branches to “launch attacks against military installations or root out independent, liberal-leaning institutions in Tripoli, forcing European governments to leave,” Daoud said.
The U.S. evacuated its Libyan embassy July 25, sending staff elsewhere and advising all American citizens to leave the country after clashes between militias. A U.K. embassy convoy was attacked the next day. China, Norway and France asked their citizens in Libya to leave.
There’s evidence that militant groups across north Africa are joining together, Daoud said.
“Ansar al Sharia in Libya may have direct operational links with its sister organization in Tunisia and elsewhere,” Daoud said.
If Libya continues to unravel, it could provide an opening for the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group whose leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, last month declared a caliphate in territories captured by his group in Syria and Iraq, according to Julia McQuaid, an analyst at the Arlington, Virginia-based CNA Corp., a U.S.-funded research group.
“One could imagine a situation where a group in Libya sees success in the Islamic State and pursues a similar path –- essentially declaring a physical territory part of the Islamic State, pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi,” McQuaid said in an e-mail. She’s the author of a report titled “Reviving the Caliphate: Fad, or the Future?”
The U.S. military’s role in helping African countries battle militancy and civil wars in the continent is essential because “we have to get away from the romanticism that these are local squabbles with their government, and if we accommodate them they might harmlessly leave us alone,” O’Hanlon said. “That may be true for some groups, but not for al-Qaeda affiliates.”