Africa: The Quiet Pivot

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, right, speaks during a bilateral meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, not shown, at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, Saturday, March 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, Pool)

Next week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will make the White House’s first official state visit to the African Continent. Tillerson will make stops in Djibouti, Chad, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia where the African Union resides. The focus will be on countering Islamic extremism, advancing good governance, and fostering trade.

The timing of this couldn’t be more critical. As The Islamic State (IS) dwindles in Syria and Iraq it seeks to open new fronts to engage The West and recruit people in the name of its perverse interpretation of Islam and Africa is its primary target.

Africa: it’s poor, its media is underdeveloped, and it’s huge. Fertile soil and ample space for the corrupt ideology of Islamic extremism from both Al Qaeda (AQ) and IS to spread and take root. To be effective, the White House has to be honest with the American people while being consistent with its message to Africa.

Redstate had a chance to ask Caleb Weiss of FDD’s Long War Journal about recent developments on the continent. When the question of a U.S. timetable was put to Weiss, he simply responded with “I don’t think they have one.”

At Home

Africa isn’t exactly the sexiest of topics to generate the clicks but it matters in geopolitics. The United States has quietly been expanding its presence in Western and Central Africa while at the same time doubling-down on efforts and operations in Eastern Africa as tensions build along the Nile.

The public was almost completely unaware that Americans were even in central and Western Africa until the story of American service members being ambushed and killed in Niger spiked for a few days on social media fueled by partisan outrage. It faded quickly but returned amid the controversy when President Trump apparently insulted one of the deceased Green Beret’s wives. But through all the chatter and bickering why the US is in Africa was not discussed in any significant degree.

This cannot be the case moving forward. Americans may not be interested in such activities but they have the right to be informed of what is taking place there and why. That’s not actually the fault of the American government but more a symptom of why people distrust the media. Beyond being a bad product for the American public to consume it’s adding insult to injury for Africans who get used and lost in the partisan games played out on the screens of our devices by those in Washington.

That doesn’t help Africa. It just gets clicks.

In Africa

What is actually occurring in Africa isn’t a mystery it just isn’t covered beyond defense-centric publications like Long War Journal. It gets a tweet from Reuters or the Associated Press and if the body count is high enough there will be an explainer from the New York Times or Vox a few days later. If there is an American involved in the story it gets politicized and no one gets informed of the real issues that are driving events on the ground.

There are two operations being conducted out of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), aside from the aid given to African allies; one is primarily focused on Somalia and the other is in multiple nations in West Africa. Both are in response to the rise in radical Islamists and the brutality they’re unleashing on impoverished Africans. The United States is confronting elements of AQ and IS who are competing to project their brand of violent Islamic supremacy.

West African countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad have been infested with jihadis from two sides over the last few years. From the south the influence of Boko Haram, a less disciplined brand of jihadism that stokes a conflict that has roots in tribal and ethnic tensions, based out of northeastern Nigeria. Boko Haram is considered a laughably tragic episode in the foreign policy of Barack Obama who attempted a hashtag campaign to convince the ragtag insurgency loyal to the Islamic State to return the girls kidnapped from a school in Nigeria in 2013. They are, to this day, still inflicting harm on innocent civilians and their preferred method of terrorism is using female “suicide bombers,” some as young as 10.

A much older and wealthy jihadist group in West Africa is the al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Their coffers are full of cash and they grew out of the French-Algerian wars in 1960’s which was the first large-scale Islamist insurgency to have a sustained conflict with a Western power. The lessons of that conflict still have value for Western powers today.

On West Africa, Weiss told Redstate, “AQIM made a lot of its money from European countries paying ransoms for its hostages. AQIM is also heavily involved in weapons and drug smuggling.” When asked about the makeup of the local jihadi forces in West Africa Weiss said: “They are locals but receive training and funding from [AQ] in Mali, some of them Arabs or Tuaregs.” Stopping their funding may end up being a bigger challenge than training local government forces.

In East Africa, inconveniently placed near the headwaters of the Nile and firmly on the Horn of Africa, sits Al-Shabaab a group funded and directed by al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But since the Syrian civil war, it has fought IS elements for control of parts of Somalia. According to Weiss, “AQs branch in Somalia, also has its own means of making money. Extortion, taxes, selling charcoal, smuggling, etc. … AQAP sends money too”. Weiss explained the efforts to combat al-Shabaab and the new elements of IS: “In East Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia are the two main countries. The [African Union] is probably more helpful but they are mandated to start leaving Somalia this year.”

Al-Shabaab had the first version of a slick western-focused jihad propaganda campaign spearheaded by, the now infamous, Omar Hammami. IS in Syria and Iraq perfected that model started by Shabaab with staggering success and look to duplicate that success in Somalia once again. While it is vital to contain Shabaab, and now IS, it is also vital to contain the propaganda and recruitment campaigns as both Islamist elements will be focusing their digital efforts on western Muslims.

A stronger security structure exists in East Africa where The African Union Mission In Somalia (AMISOM) is coordinating and making gains but it’s somewhat hamstrung by African Union mandates that call for security forces to leave Somalia by 2020. A move that many of the countries Secretary Tillerson will be visiting Monday are urging the African Union to reconsider as Somalia doesn’t have the adequate funds or trained personnel. Dismantling the work local African countries have done to contain al-Shabaab seems like an ill-advised move at this point.

The message to our new African partners needs to be firm and sincere. They need the help of the United States: its resources, its experience, and its strength. Domestically politicizing these efforts would be a poorly calculated slap in the face to every African who looks to the West as an example of competent governance.