Pentagon Extends Its Reach Throughout Northern Africa

Africa has increasingly become a focus of anti-terror efforts. The U.S. is providing training and intelligence assistance to a number of countries, and is particularly concerned about the arc of countries in northern Africa, stretching from Mali to Somalia.

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That attack in Kenya is just the latest terrorist action in Africa. Earlier this year, gunmen hit an oil refinery in Algeria, and groups linked to al-Qaida seized territory in Mali. Those events are among the reasons the continent has become a major focus for the U.S. military. The U.S. provides hundreds of millions of dollars in training, arms and equipment to African nations for what the Pentagon calls its highest priority: combating violent extremists. NPR's Tom Bowman has our report.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The Pentagon continues to expand its reach throughout Northern Africa. Predator drones are now based in Niger to search for al-Qaida fighters. American Green Berets have trained troops in Mali, and the U.S. helped put together an African Union peacekeeping force for Somalia to confront al-Shabab fighters.

Nearly a year ago, the Pentagon thought the strategy to contain al-Shabab in Somalia was paying off.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GENERAL CARTER HAM: It's pretty clear to me that al-Shabab, right now, is largely in a survival mode.

BOWMAN: That's General Carter Ham, then the top officer in Africa command, speaking in December to a Washington forum.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

HAM: I'm not Pollyannaish about this. They are not going to completely eliminate al-Shabab. But I think this concerted effort, African-led, international community-supported, has afforded the Somali people something that they haven't have for 20 years, and that's hope.

BOWMAN: Hope, until al-Shabab mounted the spectacular attack at a Nairobi mall last weekend. Vanda Felbab-Brown is a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. She says al-Shabab may be cornered in Somalia, but it's not defeated.

VANDA FELBAB-BROWN: I was in Somalia in April, and there was very much the same notion of triumphalism: Shabab is defeated, it can no longer have traction. And I said then, and have been saying since, that that's a notion that's very premature.

BOWMAN: Just two weeks ago, a car bomb attack by al-Shabab just missed hitting a convoy carrying Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. President Mohamud is visiting the United States. He said in a speech that the militant group is evolving.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT HASSAN SHEIKH MOHAMUD: The Shabab phenomena in Somalia is not a local phenomena. It's a regional problem, and it's a continental problem, and a problem worldwide.

BOWMAN: One recently retired official says the mall attack suggests that al-Shabab may, at a minimum, threaten the region. That may mean, the official said, the U.S. has to provide non-military help to Kenya, like border security, police training and intelligence assistance. Washington is trying to confront a terrorist threat it sees all across North Africa.

The U.S. provided C-130 cargo aircraft for a military operation earlier this year against Islamist rebels in Northern Mali. It's working out security agreements with Algeria, following a terrorist attack against an oil refinery. And the Army assigned several thousand soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas to serve as trainers across the continent.

But Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution says that kind of U.S. involvement misses the point. Militant groups can attract fighters in countries where there's a lack of education, jobs and medical care. She says the U.S. and other countries must focus on these problems with African allies.

FELBAB-BROWN: That's where we need to engage with them, on the political inclusion accountability, institution-strengthening, and put that on par with the counterterrorism agenda.

BOWMAN: That challenge now falls to Africa command's current top officer, General David Rodriguez, who spent years in Afghanistan, another place where senior officers say there's no military solution. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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