U.S. Must Confront Terrorism in Africa, General Says
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 16, 2004 While most Americans focus on the Middle East as the bull's-eye of terrorist activity in the world, Africa continues to fester as a breeding ground for al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, the deputy commander of U.S. European Command told civilians attending the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference last week.
Air Force Gen. Charles F. Wald said terrorists being driven from Afghanistan and elsewhere in Southwest Asia are finding safe haven to the south. There, operating in vast, open spaces with long, porous borders, these groups are able to recruit and train members and bankroll their operations, he said.
Africa witnessed terrorism against U.S. targets long before Sept. 11, 2001, most notably when al Qaeda operatives launched simultaneous attacks against the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998. Additional attacks in Mombassa in November 2002 demonstrated that terrorist cells were still active.
Last year, members of the Algerian terrorist group Salafist Group for Call and Combat kidnapped European tourists, reportedly using the ransom money they collected to purchase weapons, ammunition and equipment.
Wald said that although most Americans know very little about the African continent and understand even less about its politics, it's critical that the nation focus on this area now to stem the growth of terrorism.
Northern Africa serves as a transit route for terrorists headed to Europe, Wald explained. East Africa, particularly Somalia, has become a hotbed of al Qaeda elements. Western Africa has witnessed dramatic rises in anti-American and extremist Islamic rhetoric, particularly in northern Nigeria. And in parts of South Africa, Wald said, "we have no clue what's going on."
In addition to al Qaeda and other less-known insurgent groups, Africa is home to Lebanese Hezbollah, which Wald called "the worst terrorist organization in the world." Wald said Hezbollah finances much of its activities through Sierra Leone's diamond trade and through arms and narcotics smuggling and human trafficking.
Wald said these terrorist organizations operate much like the Mafia, living and operating in a criminal environment. "They live in the underworld," said he explained.
"We have to have the ability to get our intelligence into that area and infiltrate there so we can get into their environment," he continued. "And that is when we will stop it."
Wald warned civilian leaders attending the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference that confronting terrorism in Africa is a long-term proposition, and not one the United States can ignore. "The terrorist activity in this area is not going to go away," he said. "This could affect your kids and your grandchildren in a huge way. If we don't do something about it, we're going to have a real problem on our hands."
Wald said several initiatives are under way to address security issues in Africa and promote self-reliance and communication among African states.
The Pan-Sahel Initiative, for example, provides training and equipment for quick reaction forces to secure the vast borders within the Sahel region, where traditional caravan routes provide hideouts and staging areas for international and regional terrorists and criminals.
Casey Casebeer, deputy chief of mission and acting ambassador in Chad, told U.S. Marines training the Chadian military under the guidance of the Pan Sahel Initiative how critical their presence is to the region.
"As we squeeze the terrorists from Afghanistan and Iraq, they leave their borders looking for good terrorist platforms like Chad with weak airport security, corruption and a good source of money," she told the Marines. "The training the Marines provide will give them the ability to respond with improved tactics."
In addition, the East Africa Counterterrorism Initiative, announced in June 2003, is designed to strength the capabilities of U.S. partners in the region to combat terrorism and promote cooperation among their governments. The initiative includes military training for border and coastal security, programs to control the movement of people and goods across borders, police training, and assistance for regional efforts against terrorist financing.
Meanwhile, Africans themselves are taking cooperative action against terrorism. Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Mali and Sudan signed all 12 international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism, according to the U.S. State Department's "Patterns of Global Terrorism." The African Union designated Algiers for its counterterrorism center. Several African nations have formed national counterterrorism centers.
Wald said it's critical that the United States and its allies support these and other initiatives that promote communication, security and self-reliance in the region.
The investment required is relatively small, he said. "If you look at Africa, they don't need a lot of sophisticated equipment. They need trained peacekeepers who have good communications and good self-protection and a good night-vision capability, and who have transportability and mobility," he said.
Wald said the United States can't afford to withhold these investments or to turn a blind eye to events unfolding in Africa. "We have a huge interest in Africa from a security standpoint, from a strategic standpoint, and from the standpoint of protecting our security interests and investment interests," he said.