WASHINGTON — The chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa said if the White House doesn’t address the growing scourge of al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists flourishing in North Africa, America will soon see its interests coming under attack from the likes of Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), also past chairwoman of the full committee, said the shortsighted policy stems from President Obama’s “false narrative that al-Qaeda is decimated and on the run.”
“The administration’s foreign policy has ignored this serious and growing threat,” she told PJM. “It’s come from North Africa and it’s become a breeding ground for extremist activities.”
The State Department has conceded AQIM “played a role” in the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Last summer, U.S. Africa Command noted that AQIM was inviting Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab to come train and join forces in a chunk of terrorist-controlled territory the size of Texas. The French pushed al-Qaeda out of some of its Mali territory, but the strength of the allied groups remains. At a December hearing about this unholy alliance, Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs Chairman Chris Coons (D-Del.) noted that U.S. policy in the region might not be “forward-leaning enough.”
In late May, members of Congress received the State Department’s country-by-country annual report on international terrorism with warnings about AQIM’s plunge into Mali, Boko Haram’s continued attacks in Nigeria, and Al-Shabaab’s “asymmetric tactics.” That came on the heels of a strategy speech by President Obama that largely advocated a return to pre-9/11 threat thinking, describing the new peril as “more diffuse.”
“While we are vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat, most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based,” the president added.
In September, at least 67 were killed when Al-Shabaab launched a brazen, gruesome attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, a location popular with foreigners as well as Kenyans. The mass murder and hostage crisis, captured in chilling detail by Reuters and New York Times combat photographers who lived near the mall, hit home as those in the West realized the horrific scene was possible on any number of similar targets — a world away or in their backyard.
Ros-Lehtinen referenced the recently revealed Al-Shabaab plot against the United Nations compound in Mogadishu and further threats against Kenya — and beyond, as the ambitious terror organization broadens its recruitment and financing sources.
“To fight these attacks the Obama administration has to take its head out of the sand and address the real and growing threat and attack it head on,” she said. “If we don’t admit that there’s a problem and ignore it, we’ll see U.S. interests under attack.”
The congresswoman said the al-Qaeda affiliates’ ability to roam freely through such a large part of Northern Africa — “mostly a lawless region” — allows the groups to set up safe havens and raise funds through kidnapping and arms trafficking.
“This is a largely underemphasized threat to U.S. national security interests,” Ros-Lehtinen said, adding that Washington only seems to pay attention “when a horrific terrorist attack breaks loose.”
And the “very weak governments” in the region “don’t have the will and capacity to confront these extremist groups.”
“The administration needs to come to the realization that we’re a long, long way from defeating al-Qaeda.”
A month ago, SEAL Team 6 conducted a “targeted operation” against Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir, aka “Ikrima,” a Kenyan of Somali origin and a top commander in Al-Shabaab. The early morning raid on the coastal headquarters in Barawe ended in withdrawal after the fewer than two dozen SEALs came under heavy fire from scores of well-armed Shabaab fighters.
Ros-Lehtinen said she expected the administration to hold a classified briefing for members when the House returns next week that may cover the Westgate attack as well as lingering questions about the failed raid.
“It was a good mission and we had to abort it before it was successful,” she said. “I don’t think it’s our last try.”