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Terrorist Threats in Africa

By Scott Morgan

On September 27th the US House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism, Law Enforcement and Intelligence chaired by Austin Pflugler held a hearing on Terrorist Threats in Africa.

During his remarks the Chairman stated that “ This is not a Republican issue nor is it a Democratic Issue.” It is becoming clear that there are serious challenges to US strategy and interests but currently there is no direct threat to the homeland at this time. However a concern is that American Citizens are not out of the reach of the jihadists.

One clear fact was the concern regarding the ongoing situation in the Sahel and the omission of both Nigeria and little discussion regarding Somalia. Even though deaths caused by acts of terrorism are decreasing worldwide, the number of deaths caused by terrorist acts is actually increasing with the largest numbers of deaths occuring in the Sahel. Currently the US is assisting the Somali Federal Government in operations against Al-Shabaab. There is a train of thought that these operations are the best success in current US policy towards Africa.

There are several hits and misses regarding US Policy towards Africa and during his testimony for US Special Envoy Peter Pham raised a key point that is often overlooked. The Department of Defense has created an entity AFRICOM (United States Africa Command) that deals with the continent as a whole. Other US Government agencies deal with Africa in a regional context. This division has been rejected by Africans as a whole and is unhelpful.

One piece of evidence that was presented is the strategy released last year by the White House before the African Leadership Summit and titling it as a Sub-Saharan Africa strategy. This reportedly rankled African Leaders.

Some of the issues are bureaucratic as well. One problem that was highlighted was the situation in Niger. From the date that the Biden Administration assumed office until several weeks ago there was no Ambassador from the United States in Niamey. One could ask if that vacancy hindered the response by the Administration after the July coup. The State Department would then double down on this error by withdrawing staff as a reaction.

There is a sense that the US Diplomatic Missions in Africa are understaffed. There is some degree of accuracy in that statement. That would also explain some of the poor and delayed reactions to any crisis situation by the State Department. These activities can be explained by another concern that was presented during the hearing. The US has often been accused of being fickle towards their partners in Africa. In contrast Russia backs its allies in the region 100% of the time with no questions asked and even provides protection for them if the situation in their countries make it to the UN Security Council.

Another criticism that was revealed is the training of the officer corps in African Countries by the Department of Defense. There is a train of thought that instead of creating a professional officer corps the results yield men that have proven adept at planning and orchestrating coups. While the facts of US trained officers launching coups cannot be denied, the focus on this narrative often proves to be counterproductive, dangerous and often overlooks factors that are often the root causes why these events are launched such as corruption, poor response to militant attacks etc.

How will these flaws be fixed? That is a great question. One of the easiest answers to offer is improving the State Department. Making sure that the positions are adequately filled is a simple fix. However Congress also has a role to play to offset the damaged reputation of the State Department.

The easy answer is to have quick confirmation hearings for nominees to be Ambassadors. The more difficult challenge may be acquiescing to budget requests from both the Pentagon and the State Department. Congressional oversight in these matters is crucial and cannot be ignored.

The road forward for the United States in Africa will not be easy. Africa is a key partner both strategically but also is a key economic partner as well. But these are relationships that are sorely needed in a chaotic world.

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