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.”
That was followed by a drone strike at the end of the month that reportedly killed Ibrahim Ali Abdi, the commander of Shabaab’s bomb-making division. But to confront the overall threat, Ros-Lehtinen said, “we need a comprehensive strategy” to deny safe haven to these terror groups and “prevent escalation of emerging threats.”
That doesn’t mean boots on the ground, but coordinating with countries whose instability sends a ripple effect across the region and not reacting just when there’s a crisis.
“The people of these countries do not want to be taken over by these jihadists,” she added. Indeed, Nigeria, where Boko Haram has terrorized the populace, is Christian in the south and Muslim in the north, and residents of Mali cheered their French liberators after jihadists imposed harsh and unfamiliar Sharia on towns such as Timbuktu.
And when the West experiences a setback such as a failed attempt to grab an Al-Shabaab leader, “you just keep at it and keep at it.”
“I fear we don’t have the staying power to see this through,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “…We have made a dent if we stay in this fight long enough. I’m very worried that this administration does not have the staying power.”
Members of the Foreign Affairs Committee heard at an Oct. 3 hearing from Seth Jones of RAND Corp. that the Westgate attack demonstrated that “Al-Shabaab does have a competent external operations capability.”
“The Westgate Mall attack was well-planned, well executed, involved impressive intelligence collection, surveillance, reconnaissance of the target. It had operatives prepared to ask a range of questions the individuals before killing them or letting them go inside the mall. These skills, obviously, could be used to attack the United States and its interest in that region,” Jones testified. “…Americans from cities like Phoenix and Minneapolis for the past several years have traveled to Somalia to fight with Al-Shabaab. We’ve had a number of suicide bombers from other American cities, Boston, Seattle, Washington, San Diego, Columbus, Lewiston, Maine, have seen individuals either recruited or left for Somalia.”
“Why is it that we spend millions of dollars on counterterrorism and still American citizens are disappearing and fighting alongside with Al-Shabaab?” asked witness Mohamed Farah of Ka Joog, a Somali-American youth organization in the U.S. “…Ka Joog and the rest of our community lack the vital resources to safeguard our children and most importantly, to safeguard our freedom here in the United States of America.”
“I urge you — this committee and our federal government, my government, to stand with us, to fight Al-Shabaab and take this — and eliminate this cancerous ideology and take this fight to Somalia,” Farah added.
Ros-Lehtinen told PJM that “we have to have more undercover investigations, more stings to get these folks” as the incidence of terrorists coming from within the U.S. is “alarming.”
“This is not acceptable and everyone’s got a role to play,” she added.
The congresswoman understands that the U.S. is war-weary and not keen on the idea of dipping into a fresh War on Terror battleground, but “we cannot be isolationist in our approach.”
“Because we have so many economic woes at home, debating the budget, Obamacare, people are very much attuned to domestic ills,” and understandably so, she said.
But with “only so much political oxygen in the air,” the chairwoman added, it’s “hard to concentrate on very real threats that our country is facing overseas.”
“We’ve got to tie in why foreign affairs matter to our constituents,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Make it real.”