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 weeklong 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.”
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.
Read More: Bloomberg