Three Terrorist Groups in Africa Pose Threat to U.S., American Commander Sayshttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/
WASHINGTON — The senior American military commander for Africa warned Wednesday that three violent extremist organizations on the continent were trying to forge an alliance to coordinate attacks on the United States and Western interests.
The commander, Gen. Carter F. Ham, the top officer at Africa Command, said terrorist organizations in East Africa, in the deserts of northern Africa and in Nigeria “have very explicitly and publicly voiced an intent to target Westerners, and the U.S. specifically.”
General Ham made clear that the three militant organizations — the Shabab in Somalia, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb across the Sahel region of northern Africa and Boko Haram in northern Nigeria — had not yet shown the capability to mount significant attacks outside their homelands.
“I have questions about their capability to do so,” General Ham told a group of correspondents, adding that he was worried about “the voiced intent of the three organizations to more closely collaborate and synchronize their efforts.”
“Each of those three independently presents a significant threat not only in the nations in which they primarily operate, but regionally — and I think they present a threat to the United States,” General Ham said.
Defense Department officials confirmed later on Wednesday that a large car bomb detonated in August by Boko Haram militants bore signature elements of the improvised explosives used by the Qaeda offshoot in the Sahel; those forensics are leading analysts to suggest that the group had shared its tactics and techniques with the Nigerian terrorist organization.
Defense Department officials noted that the three African terrorist groups had traditionally hit local government targets, and that they differed in ideology. But one Defense Department official said they were believed to be working toward “an alliance of convenience.”
Government experts consider the ascendancy of regional affiliates of Al Qaeda as especially worrisome. Al Qaeda’s traditional leadership in Pakistan is deemed less capable of planning and carrying out significant attacks, especially since the death of Osama bin Laden in May. But Pentagon and intelligence officials hold that regional affiliates — in particular the Qaeda branch in Yemen — pose increasing threats to American interests today.
Wary of committing a large number of troops, the United States has sought to use more diplomatic and development tools than military force in Africa. For example, small numbers of American Green Berets are training African armies to guard their borders and patrol vast, desolate expanses against infiltration by Al Qaeda’s militants, so the United States does not have to.
In the Sahel part of northern Africa, the Pentagon is playing a supporting role to United States embassies, acting quickly before terrorism becomes as entrenched there as it is in Somalia, an East African nation where there is a heightened militant threat.
Unlike Somalia, countries like Mali and Mauritania are willing and able to have dozens of American and European military trainers conduct exercises there, and the nations’ leaders are clearly worried about militants who have taken refuge in their vast Saharan north.
Citing the current mission to train and equip forces in Mali to counter extremists operating there, General Ham said, “We think we are contributing in a meaningful way to increasing Mali’s capability.”
The fight against the Shabab, a group that United States officials fear could someday carry out strikes against the West, has mostly been outsourced to African soldiers and private companies out of reluctance to send American troops back into Somalia, a country they hastily exited nearly two decades ago. After years of turmoil, there are indicators that the strategy may be gaining some traction.
In early August, the Shabab abruptly pulled out of Mogadishu, the bullet-ridden capital, leaving it in the hands of the government for the first time in years.
In a separate interview later on Wednesday, General Ham said that a 9,000-soldier African Union peacekeeping force had steadily improved its urban fighting operations in recent years. Fazul Abdullah Mohamed, an important Shabab commander and a wanted Qaeda agent, was killed in June in a shootout at a checkpoint in Mogadishu, dealing the group what General Ham said was a serious setback. “It’s far too early to say Shabab is on the run, but they’re certainly unsettled,” he said.
General Ham also told reporters that the pending withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and the reductions in American forces in Afghanistan might make larger numbers of Special Operations forces available to Africa Command. These could be deployed as trainers to nations on the continent.
“What we seek to enable are African solutions to African security challenges,” he said.
General Ham also expressed concerns that the current upheaval in Libya might allow extremist groups to make inroads there, and he warned that missiles, explosives and even poisonous chemicals held by the Qaddafi government might fall into terrorists’ hands.
“The presence of extremist organizations in Libya, and expanding their influence, is a concern not only of the U.S. but certainly of the regional states, as well,” he said.
Three types of Libyan government weapons appeared to be on the loose amid the upheaval: shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles, military ordnance that could be converted into improvised roadside bombs and the precursor components of chemical weapons.
Libya was subject to a program to dismantle its chemical weapons stockpiles, General Ham said, but that program was not completed before fighting broke out this year.
“Some of those materials remain,” he said. “It is not weaponized — it is not easily weaponized.”But the United States, NATO and nations in the region want to assure the complete destruction of those materials, he said.