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Al-Qaida, ISIS pose 'growing threat' in West Africa, AFRICOM head says

Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command, testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Also testifying at left are Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of U.S. Central Command, and Kathryn Wheelbarger, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 10, 2020

STUTTGART, Germany— The Islamic state and al-Qaida are “on the march” in western Africa, where international efforts to counter extremists groups are insufficient, the head of U.S. Africa Command said Tuesday.

Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, Gen. Stephen Townsend warned that militant groups operating in Africa’s Sahel region, which includes Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, could extend their reach to coastal states.

“If we don’t turn this around in West Africa, I think it becomes a growing threat in the region,” Townsend said.

Al-Qaida and ISIS affiliates in West Africa are now coordinating efforts in some cases, which is unusual for terrorist groups that are generally rivals, Townsend said. “I can’t really explain that (cooperation),” he said. “I think it is a local phenomenon.”

Concern about the growing power of militants in Africa comes as the Pentagon reviews the AFRICOM mission and whether troop cutbacks are needed to focus assets in other areas such as the Pacific.

Townsend described the current U.S. force level in Africa as “a bargain for the American taxpayer.”

“A few troops and a few bucks go a long way in Africa,” he said.

But Townsend stopped short of calling for more American forces to counter ISIS and al-Qaida-linked groups in West Africa, where European militaries — the French in particular — are in the lead.

“Europe can and should do more before America does more,” said Townsend, adding that problems with instability in West Africa will be felt in Europe before the U.S.

The main problem now, he said, is “uncoordinated” efforts between various militaries involved in the fight in the Sahel.

Since 2018, violence caused by militant groups has surged by 250% in Burkina Faso, Mali and western Niger, the Pentagon’s Inspector General said in a report last month.

The U.S. during the past two years has scaled back some missions in the region because of previous cutbacks. As a result, AFRICOM’s strategy of “degrading” extremist groups in the west of the continent has shifted to “containing,” the IG said.

There are about 6,000 American military personnel in Africa at any given time. Most of the troops are concentrated in the East African country of Djibouti, where the U.S. has its main operational base on the continent, and neighboring Somalia where troops are helping local forces battle the Al-Shabab extremist group.

Townsend said he is satisfied with the number of troops and assets he has in Africa.

“Today, I think AFRICOM is adequately resourced to do what we are told to do,” he said.

vandiver.john@stripes.com
Twitter: @john_vandiver
 

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