The next caliphate may be poised to emerge in a region long suffering from a lack of capacity or capability to combat terrorist groups, warned the leader of U.S. Africa Command.
Gen. Stephen Townsend, who used to lead Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, told the House Armed Services Committee last week that Western, international and African efforts in West Africa and the Sahel region “are not getting the job done” as ISIS and al-Qaeda have even recently teamed up.
“ISIS and Al Qaeda are on the march in West Africa. They’re having success and the international efforts are not. So, why is that?” Townsend said. “I think that the African partners there don’t have a lot of capacity or capability. There’s a lot of western assistance going in there, European-led, French-led and European-led with U.S. in support. I think it’s insufficient and it’s uncoordinated. I think the French and the Europeans have recognized this and they are taking steps to make it better coordinated. And those efforts might actually be sufficient if they were better coordinated.”
“If we don’t turn this around in West Africa, I think it becomes a growing threat in the region,” he warned, adding that “Europe can and should do more before America should do more in this part of the world.”
“I think the problems that manifest from West Africa will manifest into Europe before they manifest in America. But I do believe that if ISIS can carve out a new caliphate or al-Qaeda can, they will do it and they will attempt to do it in West Africa.”
Townsend noted “the interesting dynamic that we see in West Africa that we don’t see in other parts of the world there – al-Qaeda and ISIS cooperate with one another. I can’t really explain that.”
If the threat continues to grow at its current pace – a fivefold increase in terror activity since last year in the Sahel alone – “we’re going to see that threat emerge and manifest in the littoral states of West Africa.”
“I think, unchecked, this threat becomes a threat beyond the region,” the general added.
Meanwhile, in northern Africa the ISIS threat in Libya “has been significantly reduced” with both sides in that country’s civil war supporting counterterrorism efforts, and in East Africa ISIS is present yet “not a great operational concern” in Somalia while Al-Shabaab – “the largest and most connectedly violent arm of al-Qaeda” – is a great concern.
“They are a serious threat to not only the Somali people, but the entire region. and one example is a recent attack in Kenya. Another example is there are threats to embassies in the region outside of Somalia,” Townsend said. The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi warned in a security alert on Feb. 27 that “terrorist groups may be plotting an attack against a major hotel in Nairobi” that is “popular with tourists and business travelers.”
Townsend wanted to discuss more about the Al-Shabaab threat with lawmakers behind closed doors, but said in open session that he’s “of the belief that Al-Shabaab today poses a significant threat to American interests in the region and that threat will continue whether we were in Somalia or we were not in Somalia.”
“And I also believe that, if left unchecked – and we’ve putting a fair amount of pressure on Al-Shabaab – if left unchecked I believe that would manifest into an international threat,” he added.
Townsend said the secretary of Defense has handed down “clear guidance” on AFRICOM’s priorities: “First is to maintain our U.S. ability to implement our war plans in the world. And second is to compete with China and Russia,” Townsend said. “Third is to focus on countering violent extremists, the violent extremist groups that threaten U.S. interests and the U.S. homeland. And fourth is to be prepared to respond to crisis on the African continent.”
The general said southern Somalia is currently viewed as the most critical region security-wise, followed by West Africa in the Sahel region, the tri-border region formed by Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso descending down to the coastal countries.
“We cannot take pressure off major terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda,” Townsend warned.