The American Military Role in Africa

The recent loss of four American soldiers in Niger, (Staff Sergeants La David Johnson, Dustin Wright, Bryan Black, and Jeremiah Johnson) killed during an attack by approximately fifty Islamic extremists has focused attention to the presence of the U.S. military in Africa.  However, the Pentagon has been in the region for about 20 years, working with both local governments and, in some cases, French forces. The website Task and Purpose quotes  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford’s description of American involvement as “A patchwork of ‘advise and assist’ missions…not just to fight terror groups like ISIS and al Qaeda, but to prevent them from ever emerging in the first place.”

The BBC  notes that “Islamist militant groups are active across the northern half of Africa – from Mauritania in the west to Somalia in the east – with Western countries, especially France and the US working with local security forces to counter them.”

The U.S. role has been largely that of training African troops to respond to the several different extremist groups active in the region. These include:

Al-Shabab, a Somali Jihadist organization that has  allied  with  al-Qaeda;

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an organization that had pledged loyalty to Osama Bin Laden in 2005, has been active throughout North Africa;

El-Mourabitoun, which has conducted attacks in Niger, Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and possibly Libya;.

Boko Haram (the BBC notes that the name can be translated as “Western education is forbidden.”) which gained notoriety from its kidnapping activities. It is active largely in northern Nigeria; and

Ansar al-Sharia, an extremist group largely concentrated in Tunisia.

The DW website found that extremists are “increasingly shaping the image of Islam in Africa.”

The “achievements” of each of these groups have provided uneven result. Africa Center  summarizes their recent progress:

  • Fatalities linked to Boko Haram dropped by 70 percent between 2015 and 2016 (from 11,519 to 3,499). This has led to a decline in the total number of fatalities related to militant Islamist groups in Africa, reversing 4 years of accelerating violence.
  • Al Shabaab grew more lethal in 2016, with fatalities increasing by a third—from 3,046 in 2015 to 4,281 in 2016. Al Shabaab has now surpassed Boko Haram as Africa’s most deadly militant Islamist group (in terms of fatalities on all sides associated with each group).
  • Sahelian militant groups formerly associated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have demonstrated increased organizational capacity by establishing locally based affiliates in Mali and Burkina Faso. They have also created a unified front under one al Qaeda banner, Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM).
  • The Islamic State’s self-declared African provinces in Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya have made only limited progress in rooting themselves in local communities.

A relatively undiscussed result of the rise of Islamic extremism in Africa has been increased persecution of Christians. A World Watch Monitor study found that “Islamic oppression remains the most common cause of pressure against Christians and it is rising most sharply in Africa, where more people are killed for their Christian faith than anywhere else in the world.  As extremist Islam spreads across Africa westwards from Somalia, almost every country from Kenya upwards is affected. An increasingly common form of religious persecution is the deliberate sabotage of homes, churches and villages by extremists aiming to eradicate Christianity from a particular area. This is widely seen in northern Nigeria, Syria and Iraq where, after people have been driven out, homes have been ransacked, churches destroyed and village water sources poisoned. In Nigeria, cattle are deliberately stolen and crops burned, which makes returning home all but impossible unless significant aid and investment is pumped into the area of need. In addition, frequent so called ‘lone-wolf’ attacks by extremists make those equipped to effect change, and to rebuild, fearful for their safety and the safety of their families.”

Frank Vernuccio serves as editor-in-chief of the New York Analysis of Policy and Government.

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