Policymakers tackle ‘significant’ and growing security challenges

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Policymakers at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit are hoping to come up with solutions to the “significant” security challenges that have grown over the last several years.

“This [summit] is about seizing the opportunity of African growth and development in our mutual interests,” said Ben Rhodes, White House national security adviser for strategic communications. “At the same time, there remains a significant amount of security challenges on the continent.”

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Experts say there is no shortage of security concerns. On Friday, al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia declared it has taken control of Benghazi, Libya. And just weeks ago, the U.S. evacuated its embassy in Libya amid the worst fighting between rival militias since the fall of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

As al Qaeda affiliates al-Shabaab and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb continue to terrorize western and northern Africa with bombings, assassinations and kidnappings, new terrorist groups are cropping up in countries like Tunisia.

“The situation in the northern Africa is particularly precarious,” said Katherine Zimmerman, senior analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

“If you look at the map from Nigeria through East Africa, there’s this band of unrest, and for any state, that’s concerning,” she said. “When a country is not in a good position … that space is wide open for al Qaeda.”

A major goal for many of these Islamic extremist groups is to attack local American or Western targets overseas, and they are watching to see if the groups will turn outward to Europe or the U.S.

In May, the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, whose name means, “Western education is forbidden,” kidnapped more than 200 Christian schoolgirls. In 2013, al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab attacked and killed non-Muslims at a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

“The thing to remember is that groups within the al Qaeda network coordinate and cooperate, and those with local goals support the broader effort to fight the U.S. and bring about al Qaeda’s vision,” Zimmerman said.

Given these threats, the U.S. wants to increase its troop presence in the region, in order to train partner militaries to take on the fight against violent extremism that is causing instability across the continent.

It is part of the U.S.’s goal to allow partners as well as regional security organizations, including the African Union Mission in Somalia, to take on regional security threats instead of sending in U.S. troops to fight far-flung wars.

The White House wants to spend $5 billion to expand its existing programs to train militaries, including many in Africa. Some of the program’s largest recipients include Kenya, Mauritania, Niger, Uganda and Burundi.

However, there are questions as to whether the administration’s strategy will work.

“The key question that comes up is, ‘What do we do in the meantime?’ In a lot of these places, there is not an effective partner on the ground fighting the group,” said Zimmerman. “They’ve been able to establish a presence on the ground, and the longer they’re there, the harder it will be to disentangle the group from the population.”

Other experts add that U.S. efforts to train militaries in Africa over the past decades have been met with mixed results.

It worked in Gabon, where U.S. Marines and other troops trained local forces in countering illegal poaching, which funds terrorist groups, but unintentionally led to a coup in Mali in 2012, said J. Peter Pham, Africa Center director at the Atlantic Council.

“We trained what we thought was a counterterrorism unit, but we ended up training a regime protection unit,” Pham said.

U.S. officials say they recognize that much work is needed to bolster governance in order to address root causes of terrorism, and have devoted a large portion of the summit toward that end.

Officials hope that focusing on economic development will address some of the root causes of Islamic extremism.

“Poverty doesn’t make people violent, but it can drive young men who have nothing to do to look for things to do,” Pham said, noting that many terrorist groups have money to attract new members.

“We’re looking at how do we get at the broader issue of countering violent extremism in Africa so that these groups, like Boko Haram, like al-Shabaab, like al Qaeda, are not able to prey on young people with disinformation and intimidation,” said Rhodes.

Pham added that the media focus “almost obsessively on the sensationalist aspect” of African security, but the real story is Africa’s economic growth and China’s growing relationship with Africa.

“Economic progress is inextricably linked with security progress,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Africa Affairs subcommittee.

“The northern part of several countries — Mali, Central African Republican, principally Nigeria — have not been economically successful and have not been integrated with the progress and success of the rest of the country and that has fueled regional insurgencies and security challenges,” Coons said.

“Without basic security you won’t have any development,” said Pham. “But once you establish that baseline, you have to have economic opportunity.”