By Thom Shanker And
Washington, September 17, 2011 — 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
Shabaab 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
“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
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
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 Shabaab, 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 Shabaab 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 Shabaab 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
Shabaab 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
“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.
Source: NY Times