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Middle East, Africa Commanders Discuss Terror Threats

March 10, 2020 | BY Jim Garamone , DOD News

Although there is no country or group in Africa and the Middle East that poses an existential threat to the United States, that doesn't mean America can withdraw from the regions.

Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the commander of U.S. Central Command, and Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, told the House Armed Services Committee that terror groups in Africa and the Middle East pose threats regionally, and some have the desire to expand globally.

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Marines and Moroccan soldiers rehearse a quick response force mission in Morocco, Feb. 26, 2020.
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Both regions have large "ungoverned" or "little governed" areas that attract these terror groups. Terror groups use them as bases to train and plan attacks in the region and sometimes beyond.

In Africa and the Middle East, Iran is the only nation that promotes terror, and U.S. Central Command has the mission to counter that terror network.

McKenzie began the "tour of terror" in his testimony. "In Afghanistan, the principal threat that could threaten our homeland … is either ISIS-K or elements of al-Qaida," he said.

Both organizations are under considerable pressure now. "They're pushed up into the east of Afghanistan," the general said. "If unrelenting (counterterrorism) pressure is maintained, it is likely they will find it very hard to achieve a degree of coordination necessary to attack. We believe that if their pressures are relieved at some point in those ungoverned spaces, they would regain that capability to attack us."

The general said the Taliban does not entertain the idea of terror attacks on the U.S. homeland, but it does harbor terror groups.

In the far western part of the theater in Syria, the Idlib pocket contains remnants of both al-Qaida and ISIS, and both would attack the U.S. if they could, McKenzie said. "They are being compressed right now, and it's hard for them to generate those attacks at the moment," he said.

The problem in Idlib is the horrific humanitarian disaster that is occurring, the Centcom commander said.

To the south, al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula has visions of attacking the United States, he said. "They are under pressure and find it hard to realize that, but if left unconstrained, undoubtedly they would regenerate and present a threat to us, as well," the general said.

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Iraqi students, assigned to the Anbar Operations Center Security Battalion, await instructions from their training officer on Al Taqaddum Air Base, Iraq, Sept. 13, 2019. The Iraqi students go through an air assault class taught by Iraqi Security Forces instructors who are advised by members of Task Force Spartan to provide students with proficient air assault training and tactical expertise.
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McKenzie expounded on the danger Iran poses to the United States and the region. The Iranian threat network is at the bottom of much of the violence in the theater. Whether it is Shia militia groups in Iraq, Lebanese Hezbollah, the Quds Force or others "all of those entities entertain … a desire to attack Americans generally in the theater," McKenzie said. "But Iran's reach is not only regional it is global."

In Africa Command, ungoverned areas abound, and the terror threat — while regional now — could grow, Townsend said. In the Sahel region, the threat is both ISIS and al-Qaida. There are local groups that have affiliated with both. One al-Qaida group is a growing threat. "What's the interesting dynamic that we see in West Africa that we don't see in other parts of the world is al-Qaida and ISIS cooperate with one another," Townsend said. "I can't really explain that."

The general believes this cooperation is a local phenomenon. "These folks have grown up with each other, known each other all their lives," he said. "One joined one gang, one joined the other, and so they cooperate with one another."

The threat has grown five-fold just in the Sahel alone, he said. "We're going to see that threat emerge and manifest in the littoral states of West Africa," he said. "I think, unchecked, this threat becomes a threat beyond the region."

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A Dutch special operator gives instruction to Burkinabe forces during Flintlock 20 in Thies, Senegal, Feb. 16, 2020.
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Townsend believes the ISIS threat in Libya is being contained. He noted that the U.S. Africa Command and partner nations are able to work with both sides of the Libyan civil war to contain ISIS in that country.

In the eastern part of the continent, there is a small presence of ISIS in Somalia, but it is not a great operational concern, the general said. "But al-Shabaab is," he said. "Al-Shabaab is the largest and most kinetically violent arm of al-Qaida. They are a serious threat to not only the Somali people, but the entire region, and one example [is] in a recent attack in Kenya. Another example is their threats to embassies in the region outside of Somalia. … I would just say that I'm of the belief that al-Shabaab today poses a significant threat to American interests in the region."

That threat to U.S. interests would still manifest itself whether U.S. forces were in Somalia or not, he said. "I also believe that, if left unchecked — and we've been putting a fair amount of pressure on al-Shabaab — I believe that that would manifest into an international threat."