Islamist Militant Groups On The Rise In Africa

Robert Siegel talks to Ofeibea Quist-Arcton and Tom Bowman about the U.S. fight against terrorism in Africa, where the number of Islamist militant groups is on the rise — some with close ties to al-Qaida.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

And we turn our attention now to the fight against terrorism in Africa, where the number of Islamist militant groups is on the rise, some with close ties to Al-Qaida. Late last week, the U.N. Security Council unanimously authorized military action to win back control of northern Mali from Al-Qaida linked rebels, but when that might happen and how is not yet clear.

We wanted to know what the U.S., its partners, and governments across Africa consider the continent's biggest threats in 2013 and what can realistically be done about them. So, we asked two of our reporters: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, who covers Africa; and Tom Bowman, who covers the Pentagon, to help us look ahead.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good to be here.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings from Dakar.

SIEGEL: And, Ofeibea, let's start with you. Which groups are authorities most worried about and why?

QUIST-ARCTON: There are a plethora of radical groups across the Sahel Belt. That means all the way from Somalia in the Horn of Africa to Mali. Al-Shabab obviously in Somalia in east Africa, and Al-Qaida linked groups especially in Mali, with a view to Mauritania and Algeria. But the ones that I think are causing most concern at the moment are those who have captured northern Mali, that's two-thirds of the country.

Some claim links to Al-Qaida, others not but there is a real concern in the region and, of course, whether on the field in the U.S. and elsewhere that traffickers and terrorists have now a haven in this poorly policed northern desert zone. And how are they going to be dislodged?

SIEGEL: Tom Bowman, which of the groups that Ofeibea has mentioned would you say the Pentagon is most concerned about?

BOWMAN: Well, Robert, they're most concerned about the Al-Qaida affiliates that Ofeibea mentioned, particularly in Mali, in Nigeria and Libya. The top officer in Africa command, General Carter Ham, he was in Washington recently and he talked about what worries him the most. He said he's starting to see a growing linkage between all these groups. They're beginning to coordinate on everything from planning and training, sharing weapons.

And he sees this not just as a regional security issue but one that could have an impact in Europe and maybe eventually the United States, because these groups have drug and organized crime networks that extend into Europe.

SIEGEL: So, does the Pentagon have plans in the works to address some of those threats?

BOWMAN: Well, there are a couple of things they're planning. First of all, they're looking at sending more troops over for training and assistance in dozens of African countries. Now, Mali however, is a unique problem. There's talk of some type of military operation in the northern part of the country that would be African led. And the U.S. and perhaps France could provide, let's say, intelligence help, supplies, logistics, helping take African troops up there.

But all this is something being looked at by the U.N. Security Council and the African Union. They hope for a negotiated settlement but you will - you possibly see some type of military action as early as this spring. Again, African troops in the lead. No U.S. combat troops.

SIEGEL: Ofeibea, Tom Bowman mentioned the African Union. What are you hearing about their efforts?

QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, yeah. It's not just the African Union. It's especially ECOWAS, which is the Economic Community of West African States. The U.S., France - the former colonial power in Mali - the European Union, have all said no boots on the ground. But all are offering training and logistics.

But what the Africans are saying is, training? Training for the Mali forces, it's true that they have had failed in stopping the rebellion in the north. But training and when will possible military intervention be, that the groups who - the jihadist groups that are now in control of the north are consolidating their authority. They have imposed very strict Islamic law.

Are we talking possible military intervention? When? In September, in October? They will have been there a year and a half by then; that things need to happen now. But even amongst the Africans there are quarrels. The Mali army, for example, does not want to see even its fellow African troops on the ground. African troops from where? Do they know the desert terrain? Many of them come from tropical countries. So, lots of question marks.

And the U.N. itself, Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general with a very grudging green light he gave to possible military intervention. Everybody is saying go the route of dialogue first. But many Malians are saying but these people in the north are changing our country.

SIEGEL: Well, Tom Bowman, let's assume that the Islamists in Mali do establish power and they are deemed to be a real security threat to the U.S. and its allies. The U.S. has used, say, drones in other part of the world - Afghanistan, Pakistan. Are they thinking that way about parts of Africa, as well?

BOWMAN: Oh absolutely, particularly for surveillance. You've already seen drones used in Libya, as well as Somalia. And certainly this type of tool could be used in a Mali operation or in other countries, to gather intelligence on suspected rebel or terrorist groups.

SIEGEL: As the U.S. is withdrawing forces from Afghanistan, do you see that draw-down being matched by a growing U.S. presence in Africa to cope with the terrorists groups you're talking about?

BOWMAN: They're looking at a much larger presence of U.S. troops in Africa. There's a brigade from Fort Riley, Kansas - that's about 4,000 soldiers - will be solely focused on Africa, beginning in the spring of this year for the next year. And they'll break into small training teams. They'll help African forces in everything from marksmanship to logistics to medical care. And they're looking at 90 separate training missions in some three dozen countries in Africa - again, over the next year.

And some of this effort, Robert, is what's known in the military as phase zero. That means you go into a country before there's any sort of fighting, before there's a major conflict. You get to know the military who's who, as well as the country's leadership. And you work with them to prevent insurgencies from breaking out.

SIEGEL: Ofeibea, I'm just curious. Is there still an intact Malian army to speak of? Or has it fallen apart under the strain of the loss of the north of the country?

QUIST-ARCTON: There's a demoralized Malian army that complained that it wasn't given the military hardware and wherewithal to be able to fight the rebels in the north way back in January, 2012.

But a question about this U.S. help. U.S. has been training African armies, including ones here in the Sahel. How is this - the new training going to be different from others? How is it going to enable African armies to take on these sorts of problems, as we are seeing in Mali now? Those are the questions that many African militaries, as well as African civilians - especially the tens of thousands who've been driven out of northern Mali - are asking.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks to both of you for talking with us about Africa today. Tom Bowman, NPR's Pentagon correspondent; and in Dakar, Senegal, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR's Africa correspondent. Thanks to you two.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

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