Six years ago when I worked at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, no one really wanted much to do with researching terrorism and counterterrorism in Africa. The signs were already emerging that al Qaeda was migrating to the continent and weak and failed African states seemed ripe for future safe havens. However, most everyone in the terrorism and counterterrorism research community were busy chasing the latest conflict, Iraq, and focusing on unappreciated backwater conflicts like the Sahel or the Horn of Africa seemed foolish to most. I fortunately didn’t have to fight off many other takers to do the research for al Qaeda’s (Mis) Adventures in the Horn of Africa. Well, much has changed.
This past Monday I attended the Homeland Security Policy Institute’s session with General Carter Ham, Commander of U.S. Africa Command. It turned out to be an excellent session and if one is interested in watching the discussion see this link here and watch the video. I expected to see and hear a lot of discussion and question and answer on Benghazi but the topic was only lightly touched…as if the election has finally passed and conversation can now focus beyond a single incident. The topic most discussed was Mali. Everyone wanted to know what AFRICOM was planning on doing and when they would do it. General Ham offered that the solution to the AQIM presence in Mali would require an African solution and pointed to how the U.S. has been supporting others countering al Shabaab as a model for what AFRICOM might put together in Mali.
The New York Times also did a good write up on the event noting that General Ham discussed connections between terrorist groups in Africa.
In addition to the risks inside Mali, General Ham also said that members of Boko Haram, an extremist group in northern Nigeria, had traveled to training camps in northern Mali and have most likely received financing and explosives from the Qaeda franchise. “We have seen clear indications of collaboration among the organizations,” he said.
I’ve heard this reported often in the news, but have on this blog always stressed the inverse question: “when do extremist groups in Africa not get along?” I was lucky enough to get to ask that question to General Ham at the end of the session and he responded. General Ham said that there has been conflict between foreign fighters coming into extremist groups and exerting themselves as the leadership, which is not always appreciated by the locals. Ahh, well maybe the “Somalia Model” will work after all, as it was there where local Somali clans had no real interest in being bossed around by foreigner fighters, particularly in the 1990’s as well as more recently at the height of al Shabaab.