In its mission to strengthen the defense capabilities of African states, U.S. Africa Command considers countering extremist organizations its top job, Army General Carter F. Ham, AFRICOM commander, said February 29, 2012.
"In line with the new defense strategic guidance, we've prioritized our efforts, focusing on the greatest threats to America, Americans and American interests," Ham told the House Armed Services Committee. "Countering threats posed by al-Qaida affiliates in east and northwest Africa remains my No. 1 priority."
Helping AFRICOM partners responsibly address their own security challenges is an integral part of the command's activities, as are strengthening regional and peacekeeping capabilities and maritime security, the general said.
"Our engagements are designed to be innovative, low-cost and have a small footprint," Ham told the panel. "In Africa, a small investment truly can go a long way."
Over the past year, significant changes have swept the African continent, he said.
"The broad wave of democratic movements that began in Tunisia has spread faster and more broadly than many forecasted," Ham said. "And the Republic of South Sudan is the world's newest nation," gaining its independence last July.
In Nigeria, an Islamist extremist organization called Boko Haram conducts violent attacks and demonstrates a growing threat to western interests, the general said. And in the Horn of Africa on February 9, he noted, al-Qaida and its Somalia-based terrorist cell al-Shabaab publicly formalized their long-standing merger.
Strong relationships have long been suspected among al-Qaida, al-Shabaab and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula across the Gulf of Aden, operating in the country of Yemen, Ham said.
"Some have postulated that the timing of the public announcement may [indicate] that al-Shebab is under duress," Ham said. "I believe they are very much under duress by the African Union mission in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, which have joined in the effort to defeat al-Shebab and clear areas of Somalia from al-Shebab control."
The announcement is not quite a last gasp, the general added, "but I would say [it is] an effort by al-Shebab to gain some international support."
While each group by itself is certainly dangerous, he added, "what concerns me more is at least the … intent expressed by the leaders of those organizations to more closely collaborate and synchronize their efforts." If they are able to coordinate efforts, share funding and training and exchange weapons, the AFRICOM commander said, "I think that presents a real challenge for us."
In October, President Barack Obama authorized the deployment to central Africa of 100 combat-equipped U.S. forces whose mission was to help regional forces fight the notorious Lord's Resistance Army and its leader, Joseph Kony.
Today, with the approval of the Ugandan government, about 100 service members and civilians that include two combat-equipped teams and headquarters, communications and logistics personnel, provide information, advice and assistance to select partner nation forces and act as advisers to partner forces that seek to remove Kony and other senior LRA leadership from the battlefield.
"The Lord's Resistance Army is an organization that creates through violence a tremendous amount of instability in a four-country region of east and central Africa," Ham told the House members. "Initially beginning in Uganda but now extending their efforts into South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, they've displaced many thousands of African citizens and brought terror and fear to families across the region."
Ham said the four African nations, with U.S. forces in a facilitating role, are coming together in an increasingly collaborative approach to counter the LRA.
"To date, what we have found is that presence of the U.S. mostly special forces advisors that are working with the armed forces of those four nations are having a very positive effect," the general said.
Though he is optimistic, he added, the effort is "not yet to the point where we see the end in sight."
Security in Africa, he said, continues to be influenced by external actors, by rapid economic developments, population growth and the overall size and diversity of the continent itself.
Ham said that as he travels across Africa, he's been encouraged by the optimism of African leaders in confronting the challenges and embracing the opportunities ahead.
Because he believes Africans are best able to address African security challenges, and because a safe, secure and stable Africa is in the U.S. national interest, the general added, "we at U.S. Africa Command will continue to strive to be the security partner of choice in Africa."