June 22, 2012 Donna Miles / American Forces Press Service – defpro.com
STUTTGART, Germany | Eliminating terrorist safe havens and support for terrorist groups in Africa is a top U.S. Africa Command priority, Africom’s top military officer said.
Army Gen. Carter F. Ham told American Forces Press Service he’s committed to working with African partners to confront violent extremists “that have very clearly articulated an intent to attack the United States, its allies, its citizens and its interests both within Africa and also more broadly, in Europe.”
All, he said, want to take advantage of ungoverned or under-governed regions where they can operate without restraint.
Countering this threat is the common denominator that drives Ham’s theater engagement strategy and its broad array of operations, exercises and security cooperation programs. This includes teaching partner nations how to improve their border security, intelligence and tactical capabilities and equipping African nations so they can operate more effectively.
“Ultimately, what we want to do through our activities – not just through Africom, but as a larger whole-of-government and international effort – is to ‘turn the lights on,’” said James Robertson, an Africom strategist. “And when the lights are on, we will find increased security and stability.”
Africa has struggled for decades with civil wars and conflicts, underdevelopment and poverty that make it inviting to terrorists from the Middle East, Robertson said.
“They want what Africa has to offer,” he added. “They want this ungoverned space so they can operate freely, and so our aim is to deter and disrupt them and, ideally, ensure that they don’t gain access.”
Recognizing the extent of the threat, Ham has set East Africa as the No. 1 focus of his commandwide counterterrorism strategy.
“Why East Africa?” said Army Maj. Gen. Charles Hooper, the command’s director of strategy, plans and programs. “It’s because East Africa faces the challenges that we face in Arabia, particularly Yemen, and the al-Qaida elements emanating from Yemen and other areas in the Middle East.” It’s also home to the al-Shabab terror organization in Somalia that formally announced its affiliation with al-Qaida in February.
Hooper also cited other terrorist threats in Africa. In the North African desert, the al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb organization is committed to destabilizing the trans-Sahara region and Northwest Africa. But its pursuits, he said, also threaten European allies across the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the United States.
He also noted concerns in the Gulf of Guinea, a major transit point for illicit trafficking in drugs, weapons and humans bound predominantly for Europe. In addition, a violent group known as Boko Haram has extended its influence to challenge the central government in Nigeria – a major economic power in Africa and a contributor to United Nations peacekeeping missions.
Africa’s vast natural resources compound the region’s strategic importance, Hooper said, particularly oil that’s exported to the United States.
“Access to the global commons, and stability in Western Africa and in those important sea lines of communication that run through the Gulf of Guinea and through Western Africa, remain important,” he said.