By Carlo Muñoz - 02/05/13 08:44 PM EST
Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, said Monday the department's decision to begin providing military intelligence support to Nigeria was the result of a direct request from the country's military for assistance, according to regional media reports.
The four-star general declined to comment on what specific U.S. intelligence assets would be sent to Nigeria, but noted the U.S. support in the country was tied to a "specific intelligence request" from the country's government to "curtail the violence of the militant sect."
Aside from counterterrorism operations, American forces are also working closely with Nigerian officials to curb other illicit activities, such as piracy, illegal bunkering and oil theft among others, according to ham.
Terror groups on the continent, such as Boko Haram, al Shabab in Somalia and al Qaeda's west African cell known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) have increasingly turned to crimes like piracy and drug trafficking to finance their operations.
News of American assistance in Nigeria comes nearly a month after U.S. officials sought to strike an intelligence sharing deal with Algeria.
Under the terms of that proposal, Washington would provide the satellites to military and intelligence officials in Algeria to track AQIM militants in the country.
Algiers has repeatedly denied U.S. requests to allow American drones based in Morocco and the West African nation of Burkina Faso to fly through Algerian airspace and into Mali to track AQIM forces there.
But Algeria's consideration of allowing U.S. spy satellites to operate within its borders could open the door to American drones into northern Mali, where French forces are moving to flush out al Qaeda strongholds in the country.
But despite those efforts, Ham pointed out that U.S. military or intelligence support to local governments in Africa should not be seen as the proverbial silver bullet in dealing with al Qaeda on the continent.
U.S. military and civilian intelligence capabilities were "usually taken out of proportions and overrated" by partner nations seeing American support for local counterterrorism or other intelligence-related operations in Africa and elsewhere, according to Ham.
"Despite our capabilities and technology, it took us more than 10 years to get [Osama] bin Laden," Ham said. "U.S. intelligence is not automatic but we are working with the Nigerian authorities to curtail terrorist activities.”
A U.S. intelligence official told The Associated Press on Monday that the relatively small network of intelligence assets Washington currently has in place in Africa pales in comparison to the number of similar American assets in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
"We do not have the resources, footprint or capabilities [in Africa] that we have in other theaters," intelligence official told the AP on the of anonymity.
That lack of resources has forced officials from CIA and the U.S. intelligence community to depend on cooperation and support from local governments in Africa.
However, wariness among African leaders to publicly support American counterterrorism operations in the region has stymied U.S. efforts to keep tabs on al Qaeda's push into the continent.
"It's not clear we have a natural partner with whom we can work," the official added.