Commander: Countering Extremists Tops Africom’s Priorities

WASHINGTON, Feb. 29, 2012 — In its mis­sion to strength­en the defense capa­bil­i­ties of African states, the U.S. Africa Com­mand con­sid­ers coun­ter­ing extrem­ist orga­ni­za­tions its top job, Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, Africom com­man­der, said today.

“In line with the new defense strate­gic guid­ance, we’ve pri­or­i­tized our efforts, focus­ing on the great­est threats to Amer­i­ca, Amer­i­cans and Amer­i­can inter­ests,” Ham told the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee. “Coun­ter­ing threats posed by al-Qai­da affil­i­ates in east and north­west Africa remains my No. 1 pri­or­i­ty.”

Help­ing Africom part­ners respon­si­bly address their own secu­ri­ty chal­lenges is an inte­gral part of the command’s activ­i­ties, as are strength­en­ing region­al and peace­keep­ing capa­bil­i­ties and mar­itime secu­ri­ty, the gen­er­al said.

“Our engage­ments are designed to be inno­v­a­tive, low-cost and have a small foot­print,” Ham told the pan­el. “In Africa, a small invest­ment tru­ly can go a long way.”

Over the past year, sig­nif­i­cant changes have swept the African con­ti­nent, he said.

“The broad wave of demo­c­ra­t­ic move­ments that began in Tunisia has spread faster and more broad­ly than many fore­cast­ed,” Ham said. “And the Repub­lic of South Sudan is the world’s newest nation,” gain­ing its inde­pen­dence last July.

In Nige­ria, an Islamist extrem­ist orga­ni­za­tion called Boko Haram con­ducts vio­lent attacks and demon­strates a grow­ing threat to west­ern inter­ests, the gen­er­al said. And in the Horn of Africa on Feb. 9, he not­ed, al-Qai­da and its Soma­lia-based ter­ror­ist cell al-Shabaab pub­licly for­mal­ized their long-stand­ing merg­er.

Strong rela­tion­ships have long been sus­pect­ed among al-Qai­da, al-She­bab and al-Qai­da in the Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la across the Gulf of Aden, oper­at­ing in the coun­try of Yemen, Ham said.

“Some have pos­tu­lat­ed that the tim­ing of the pub­lic announce­ment may [indi­cate] that al-She­bab is under duress,” Ham said. “I believe they are very much under duress by the African Union mis­sion in Soma­lia, Ethiopia and Kenya, which have joined in the effort to defeat al-She­bab and clear areas of Soma­lia from al-She­bab con­trol.”

The announce­ment is not quite a last gasp, the gen­er­al added, “but I would say [it is] an effort by al-She­bab to gain some inter­na­tion­al sup­port.”

While each group by itself is cer­tain­ly dan­ger­ous, he added, “what con­cerns me more is at least the … intent expressed by the lead­ers of those orga­ni­za­tions to more close­ly col­lab­o­rate and syn­chro­nize their efforts.” If they are able to coor­di­nate efforts, share fund­ing and train­ing and exchange weapons, the Africom com­man­der said, “I think that presents a real chal­lenge for us.”

In Octo­ber, Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma autho­rized the deploy­ment to cen­tral Africa of 100 com­bat-equipped U.S. forces whose mis­sion was to help region­al forces fight the noto­ri­ous Lord’s Resis­tance Army and its leader, Joseph Kony.

Today, with the approval of the Ugan­dan gov­ern­ment, about 100 ser­vice mem­bers and civil­ians that include two com­bat-equipped teams and head­quar­ters, com­mu­ni­ca­tions and logis­tics per­son­nel, pro­vide infor­ma­tion, advice and assis­tance to select part­ner nation forces and act as advis­ers to part­ner forces that seek to remove Kony and oth­er senior LRA lead­er­ship from the bat­tle­field.

“The Lord’s Resis­tance Army is an orga­ni­za­tion that cre­ates through vio­lence a tremen­dous amount of insta­bil­i­ty in a four-coun­try region of east and cen­tral Africa,” Ham told the House mem­bers. “Ini­tial­ly begin­ning in Ugan­da but now extend­ing their efforts into South Sudan, the Cen­tral African Repub­lic and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of Con­go, they’ve dis­placed many thou­sands of African cit­i­zens and brought ter­ror and fear to fam­i­lies across the region.”

Ham said the four African nations, with U.S. forces in a facil­i­tat­ing role, are com­ing togeth­er in an increas­ing­ly col­lab­o­ra­tive approach to counter the LRA.

“To date, what we have found is that pres­ence of the U.S. most­ly spe­cial forces advi­sors that are work­ing with the armed forces of those four nations are hav­ing a very pos­i­tive effect,” the gen­er­al said.

Though he is opti­mistic, he added, the effort is “not yet to the point where we see the end in sight.”

Secu­ri­ty in Africa, he said, con­tin­ues to be influ­enced by exter­nal actors, by rapid eco­nom­ic devel­op­ments, pop­u­la­tion growth and the over­all size and diver­si­ty of the con­ti­nent itself.

Ham said that as he trav­els across Africa, he’s been encour­aged by the opti­mism of African lead­ers in con­fronting the chal­lenges and embrac­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ties ahead.

Because he believes Africans are best able to address African secu­ri­ty chal­lenges, and because a safe, secure and sta­ble Africa is in the U.S. nation­al inter­est, the gen­er­al added, “we at U.S. Africa Com­mand will con­tin­ue to strive to be the secu­ri­ty part­ner of choice in Africa.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)