- Here’s an indicator of how the U.S. military considers northern and eastern Africa the next major battlefield of the ongoing war on terrorism. “Countering violent extremist groups” will be the “first priority” of the U.S. Africa Command, according to its next leader.
U.S. Army Gen. David Rodriguez, most recently the day-to-day commander in Afghanistan, all but laid out a hit list to a Senate panel during his confirmation hearing to run the military’s newest regional command organization. “A major challenge is effectively countering violent extremist organizations, especially the growth of Mali as an al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb safe haven, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al-Shabaab in Somalia,” Rodriguez told the Senate Armed Services Committee in advanced questions on Thursday morning, as “each present a threat to western interests in Africa.”
The Senate panel opted not to ask questions about al-Qaida at all — a surprising move, given that Rodriguez testified alongside Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, nominated to command all U.S. military forces in the Middle East and South Asia. Sen. Carl Levin, the chairman of the committee, called the swaths of territory they will oversee “the centers of gravity for our military’s operations to counter the threat of terrorism.” Yet senators preferred to grill Austin over his recommendations for a residual force in Iraq that never came to pass.
Still, Rodriguez said that the Boko Haram, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Shabab are “the major threats to stability, militarily.” He also included Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army — which the U.S. is helping confront — in his list of threats, but as a subordinate issue.
As befitting a new U.S. and western approach of confronting terrorist groups without major land incursions, Rodriguez indicated that “training” foreign militaries would be the primary tool by which Africa Command operates directly. He regretted that previous training for partner armies in Africa, “we did not emphasize the value of the army and the role of the military in democracy” — an issue on display in the recent Mali conflict, when the U.S.-trained military launched a coup last year — and pledged to reverse that course.
Rodriguez did not elaborate at the hearing about additional steps to confront the terrorist threats he outlined. But in his advance statement to the committee, he said that he saw “a greater risk of regional instability if we do not engage aggressively” against al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the terrorist group’s regional affiliate. The Special Operations Command’s Africa component is currently focused on “neutraliz[ing]” the group, including ‘a counter-ideology component to deny al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb recruitment and retention efforts and interfere with their fundraising.” There is a robust and seemingly long-term U.S. military presence in Djibouti that helps provide resource for the ongoing counterterrorism fight. Drone strikes were not discussed at the hearing.
There are questions about the extent of the threat that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Shabab and Boko Haram actually pose to the United States. Rodriguez conceded in his advance questions that the three groups “have not specifically targeted the United States.” Instead, they’ve “carried out attacks on western interests and engaged in kidnapping,” he said, warning that they’d be an “even larger threat” if they “deepen their collaboration.” Asked by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Rodriguez said Boko Haram in Nigeria “has committed some acts that can be associated with terrorism.” Rudy Atallah, the Pentagon’s former top Africa counterterrorism officer, told Danger Room last month that “The short answer is they are regionally focused for now,” rather than threatening the United States at home.