How the US is expanding its fight against extremism in Africa

The opening ceremony of an exercise organized by the US military in Ndjamena, Chad earlier this year to take on Boko Haram. Reuters/Emmanuel Braun

From the perspective of a US national security specialist, we live in a dark and gloomy world. Numerous worldwide threats exist across almost every part of the planet including China, Iran, North Korea and Russia. This typically puts Africa at the bottom of the pecking order.

But America is taking more notice of the African continent due to the expansion of extremist organisations operating in Africa like al-Qaeda, al-Shabbab, Ansar al-Sharia, al-Murabitun, Boko Haram, Islamic State (IS) and others.

The four main threats

Islamic extremist organisations operating inside Libya, Nigeria, northwest Africa and Somalia pose the largest substantial threats to the African people and their international partners like the US.

The situation in Libya, also referred to as “Somalia on the Med”, has spiralled out of control since Muammar Gaddafi was ousted in 2011. Fighters from Ansar al-Sharia, IS and others control territory and operate and train with impunity. The US strategy here is to contain the situation by supporting its allies like Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia.

The second main threat comes from Somalia and al-Shabaab. Despite a robust African Union mission supported by a host of African and international countries, the group continues to execute lethal attacks within Somalia’s borders, as well in countries like Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.

The US strategy is to support partner operations by helping to plan and co-ordinate operations and to support maritime security efforts in the region. For instance, the US donated US$92.4 million to the Kenyan Defence Forces in August for soldier training and new equipment acquisitions.

Centre for Intelligence and National Security, University of Oklahoma. Research supported by Defense Intelligence Agency, Grant # HHM402-14-1-0007 (PI: Regens)./Dr. James L. Regens, Regents Professor and Director

The third main threat comes from Northwest Africa and al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). The strategy is to support France. AQIM is France’s number one overseas problem, and they understand this is not a short term fight. In May, the US gave France US$35 million to support their operations in Chad, Niger and Mali, but also to help combat the threat posed by Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Boko Haram recently pledged its allegiance to IS, meaning its aim is now to establish a caliphate in West Africa rather than just Northern Nigeria.

The US strategy is to help Nigeria and neighbouring countries get back into the fight. Under a new joint US Department of State and US Department of Defense initiative, the Global Security Contingency Fund, the US will contribute US$40 million to the governments of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. This money is to train and equip their military and civilian forces and to lay the groundwork for increased cross-border co-operation against Boko Haram.

A last threat, but not at the same level as the other four, is the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Led by Joseph Kony, the LRA is believed to still be carrying out small-scale attacks around the border region of the Central African Republic, DRC, South Sudan and Uganda.

The US first deployed 100 special forces in 2011 to support the search for LRA commanders. The US strategy is to continue supporting its African partners, particularly Uganda, through a Special Operations Command Africa-led operation.

Barriers to success

Africa’s gigantic size makes the operations difficult.

In war, the military needs overhead imagery to provide crucial intelligence. If satellites are not available, drones are the other option. But due to the location of the airports the US military uses and the sheer distance between areas, flying a drone from one location to another at 80-90 knots can hypothetically mean only 30 minutes to one hour of actual intelligence out of 16 hours flying time.

Troops are too far from each other in Somalia, making communication and movement difficult. In March, the US helped combat the air support problem by donating two Cessna 208B aircraft as a token of appreciation for Uganda’s counterterrorism and security efforts.

From an ideological viewpoint, it is hard to fight extremist threats because of their effective narrative. They are fighting under an ideology they claim is powered by God. This is difficult to counter. Negative socioeconomic factors only exacerbate the situation.

All of these operations equate to money. Until 2014 when transitions were made in Afghanistan and Iraq to an “advise and assist” role, most of this money was not going to the US military’s African Command but to Central Command responsible for America’s security interests in 20 nations, stretching through the Arabian Gulf region into Central Asia.

Even when money is available and military training of partner nations is going well, what is the US to do if the newly trained and equipped African defence force is used elsewhere, say to squash internal uprisings?

The good news?

The good news is that the new US defence budget of US$534 billion is the largest ever. AFRICOM is to get 2% more after a 6.5% cut the year before. The US is expanding African operations. This includes new US military facilities in countries like Niger.

It was announced in August that jet fuel is now available at Zinger Airport in Niger enabling American planes to make pit stops. This is in addition to the new US drone base in Niamey and another refurbished airstrip in the fringe of the Sahara Desert, all closely located to Boko Haram’s operating territory.

CentreCentre for Intelligence and National Security, University of Oklahoma. Research supported by Defense Intelligence Agency, Grant # HHM402-14-1-0007 (PI: Regens)./Dr. James L. Regens, Regents Professor and Director

Expect more US-Nigerian military cooperation with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, a US Army War College alumnus, in command. Washington refused to sell US-made Cobra fighter-helicopters to Nigeria during President Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency due to concerns over the protection of civilians when conducting military operations.

Strides are already being made on certain fronts. In 2008, the LRA had approximately 800 troops. Today it has about 190 to 200. US Special Forces are even using Ugandan music and a famous song, Come Home, to encourage defections.

The FBI recently sent officers to Uganda to assist with investigations in relation to the International Criminal Court trial of ex-LRA Commander Dominic Ongwen. Of the five indicted LRA commanders only two Ongwen and Joseph Kony are still alive. The latter is still on the run.

This new multifront and multidimensional battle is different from the 1990s when Osama bin Laden was based in Sudan. America is doing what it can to assist and will be doing more. There is increased overall multilateral support, but there can always be more. Africa itself can always do more. Without security there is no “Africa Rising”.

There are three “Ds” of America’s security strategy: diplomacy, development and defence. We cannot downplay the importance of the military and defence, but diplomacy is terribly underfunded. America’s military has more members in its 158 military bands than diplomats in the State Department in the US and abroad. In the long term, you can’t shoot your way out of this one.