Terrorists are expanding across Africa in both geographical reach and influence, and US counter-terrorism efforts are not satisfactory, with more work to be done, the head of the US military’s Africa Command (Africom) has said.
General Stephen J Townsend, Commander of Africom, made the remarks during a digital press briefing last month. He said the issue of terrorism in Africa is something he has been pondering a lot over the last year. “I’m personally not satisfied with our progress against violent extremists in Africa, and particularly East Africa and West Africa. I assess that violent extremism in those two regions continues to expand in both geography and reach and influence,” he said.
“I think that in the north of Africa, violent extremism is in a better place and we have seen progress from both our US efforts as well as our partners’ efforts. And then in the southern part of Africa, we’ve seen the emergence of ISIS-Central Africa and ISIS-Mozambique, which is of concern and we’re seeing a very aggressive response by African partners there and a deployment led by forces from Central and South Africa to go after ISIS-Mozambique. However, I’m still concerned about the forces, the violent extremist organizations in East Africa and West Africa.”
In East Africa, particularly in Somalia, Townsend sees al-Shabaab taking advantage of the political leadership there being distracted by a prolonged political crisis in which the Somali Government and people are trying to find their way to electing a new parliament and electing a new president. “While that’s going on, the pressure is off al-Shabaab.”
In the Sahel, Townsend believes Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) continues to expand, creeping towards the coastal states. “We’ve seen recent attacks in Benin, Togo, and Côte d’Ivoire. To me, these attacks show this expansion that I’m concerned about and why military intervention is only part of the solution to this problem. We can continue to help forces, local forces have tactical success on the ground, but we have to have the support of good governance and development as well. So as long as we don’t have a coherent 3D [Diplomacy, Development, and Defence] approach from not just African partners but all of the international partners, to include the US, I think the terrorists will continue to take advantage of that and continue their expansion,” Townsend told the media briefing.
In the Sahel, Africom sees the security situation continue to deteriorate, but is doing what it can to assist. “The US military works and assists, provides support to both the G5 Sahel Joint Force and, bilaterally, to the nations that comprise it,” Townsend explained. “The types of support that we provide include equipment, training, intelligence-sharing, and in some cases airlift and in some cases logistics support and advisory support. The purpose is to allow members to operate, protect, and maintain their forces in the fight against violent extremist groups. We like to provide that support directly to our African partners; we also provide some of that support to international partners working in the Sahel.”
US Africa Command also contributes a liaison officer that’s stationed at the G5 Sahel Joint Force headquarters to further support these collaborative efforts. The US provided more than $8 million in military equipment to Niger in a ceremony last August to help Niger and Sahel Joint Force partners in the fight against terrorism, as one example.
On the battlefield, Africom notes a number of recent tactical victories. “One really good example would be US support to a successful French operation that killed al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb leader Droukdel in June of 2020, and there have been a number of successes in the fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia. But my assessment is these efforts, these – even these tactical victories have not been enough; they’re insufficient,” Townsend said.
“I think the key to this is that military forces alone cannot defeat violent extremism,” he said, as one of the roots of extremism is poor governance. “And so because of that, we have to have a whole-of-government approach, and at Africom we say that we like to use a 3D approach where we lead with diplomacy and development and follow with defence efforts. So that 3D approach is what we need to address the problem of violent extremism,” Townsend concluded.