WASHINGTON — The head of U.S. African Command told Congress on Wednesday that “you’ll never really defeat” the terrorist groups on the continent that pose a threat to the region and potentially the United States.
Marine Corps Gen. Thomas Waldhauser assured the House Armed Services Committee at a hearing on national security challenges tied to Africa that he has finished reviewing the 2017 Niger attack in which four U.S. soldiers were killed. That report is now being reviewed by Defense Secretary James Mattis, and the families of the slain soldiers will be briefed before the results are released.
ISIS released a video showing the attack from the point of view of a soldier’s helmet camera, before he is shot dead and the jihadists take the footage.
Waldhauser told lawmakers that Al-Shabaab “remains a threat to Somalia and the region, as demonstrated by their October 2017 bombing in Mogadishu that killed over 500 people,” but said Somalia continues “to slowly make progress.”
Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) noted that in recent years there has been “great concern about a terrorist threat to the United States connected to, in some ways, Somalia.”
“Are you saying that has basically gone away?” he asked.
“I’m not saying it’s gone away. What I’m saying is that some of the organizations in Western Africa — the Sahel, for example — that have a flag of convenience, perhaps, with a group like al-Qaeda or with a group like ISIS, they are small in number, and a lot of their activities are focused right there, direct, that have to do with regional problems, with grievances to the local governments, and the like,” Waldhauser replied. “But they aspire to the teachings and to the — of groups like — of ISIS. And so when they are supported by ISIS, whether it’s financial backing and the like, then you have to assume that their desire to attack American citizens in the region, American citizens in Europe, American citizens at the home country, that still exists.”
The AFRICOM commander emphasized that the U.S. has kept “continuous pressure” on the Al-Shabaab and has seen “big changes” there with the term of President Mohamed Farmaajo, a former Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority and New York State Department of Transportation official.
“So all of our efforts kinetically with Al-Shabaab are tied to his strategy. And so I would not say that that threat has gone away, but I would say right now that based on some of the kinetic activity we have done, in conjunction with international partners, has got Al-Shabaab on this — has got Al-Shabaab in a situation where they’re trying to control some territory.,” the general said. “Now, there obviously was the big bombing in October, in Mogadishu, then there was four months where there wasn’t any, and then here in the last week in February they had another bomb go off in Mogadishu.”
“So these groups never really — they don’t never go away. I mean, you’ll never really defeat them, but our overall intention is to get them to a situation where the Somali national security forces can handle that, and then we can then leave.”
Walhauser pinpointed “basically two significant areas where the threat emanates — first of all, it’s northeastern Nigeria, where Boko Haram and ISIS West Africa are.”
“The second area, in the Sahel, is primarily in the Northern Mali-Niger border area, where the AQIM groups have consolidated in the past year into one group called JNIM, Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin, ‘the group in support of Islam and Muslims.’ They’re a handful of al-Qaeda groups who have joined together and, this weekend by the way, conducted this attack in Burkina Faso, and they’ve taken responsibility for that,” he said. “So inside Northern Mali is a significant problem in the north, where the peace process that was agreed upon in Algeria several years ago with the federal government and various groups has not taken hold. And meanwhile, the AQIM groups, now under the banner of JNIM, really, really have a lot of freedom of movement in that particular region. So there is a particular threat there.”
“Then inside of Nigeria — we talked about Boko Haram and ISIS West Africa. And I know over the last week or so with the kidnapping of schoolgirls inside Northern Nigeria again, ISIS West Africa has demonstrated their ability to do these type of things.”
Waldhauser noted that “our guidance has been to contain those — contain Boko Haram and ISIS West Africa inside Northeastern Nigeria while we build up the partner forces’ ability to handle that.”
“Then inside in the Niger area, I mean, specifically Niger is a country that’s surrounded by problems on all of its borders. And in that northeastern — northwestern part there, on the border with Mali, this is where these groups come back and forth across that border and have freedom of movement in these large, ungoverned spaces,” he continued. “These countries — I think one other thing to underscore is the size of these countries. I mean, Africa, I think as we all know is — you could fit three and a half of the United States inside that continent. So when we’re talking about a country like Niger, it’s almost two times the size of Texas. If you’re talking about a coastline of Somalia, it’s over 1,100 miles from the Kenyan border up to the northern part of Puntland. That’s like from Jacksonville, Fla., up to northern New York.”
“So it’s important to understand the scale and the size of all these — of all these situations. And then the bottom line — so those are the two big areas there in the west.”
On Libya, Waldhauser said a goal is to “prevent civil war” and “try to combat the migration issue, which ultimately makes its way in many occasions to the coast of Somalia, where these migrants move into Europe.”
Shortly after January 2017, the general said, AFRICOM has “continued to watch ISIS as they evolved in the southern part of the country, and we had a significant strike that put them in a situation where they were in a survival mode.”
“So if you look at the number of strikes — Somalia’s, like, 40 today, Libya is, like, eight — we continue to monitor that, though,” he said. “They still are there, they’re still active. They have, to a certain degree, moved to other locations, but ISIS remains one of our major efforts because CT [counterterrorism] is still one of our major efforts inside Libya.”