A U.S. Army Special Forces weapons sergeant speaks to a group of Nigerian soldiers during Exercise Flintrock 2017 in March in Diffa, Niger. Photo by Spec. Zayid Ballesteros/U.S. Army
BEIRUT, Lebanon, Oct. 23 (UPI) -- The Oct. 12 bombing of central Mogadishu in Somalia, which killed more than 270, along with the death of four U.S. special forces troops in a jihadist ambush on the other side of the vast continent in southwestern Niger, marked a sharp escalation in Africa's war on terror.
That is likely to trigger a significant increase in U.S. military counterterrorism operations on the vast continent. This would be in line with U.S. President Donald Trump's emerging strategy, a carry-over from a campaign of "forward engagement" devised by his predecessor, Barack Obama, unleashing the U.S. military's greatly expanded special forces command to hunt down and eliminate the terror cells.
Until recently, the focal point of African terrorism by groups largely affiliated with al-Qaida and the breakaway Islamic State was North Africa along the Mediterranean littoral, the springboard for attacks on Europe.
In recent months, however, those forces extended their reach into West Africa and the sub-Sahara region, while stepping up attacks in Somalia in the Horn of Africa on the Indian Ocean and into neighboring Kenya.
"It is clear that an arc of instability is emerging across Africa's Sahel, which has opened a path for al-Qaida to shift its center of gravity from Afghanistan and Pakistan to a new sanctuary and has created a potential launching pad much closer to U.S. and European shores," analyst Yonah Alexander observed in a report for the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.
There are an estimated 1,500 U.S. troops in Africa. That's three times the number the Pentagon admits are in Syria, the eye of the Middle East storm. This is a woefully inadequate number to make any significant headway against the major terrorist groups across the continent.
With IS crippled by a U.S.-led coalition that has all but destroyed the group's self-proclaimed caliphate across Syria and Iraq, it is looking for a new base. It tried to muscle in on Libya, which has been gripped by internal chaos since the NATO-backed ouster of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 but has suffered heavily at the hands of Western-backed government troops, including U.S. and British special forces.
Libya remains a battleground and IS, despite its setbacks, appears determined to maintain bases in the country and elsewhere. IS fighters are holding out in Libya despite losing their stronghold in the coastal city of Sirte in 2016.
The deep political fissures in Libya, one of the world's major oil producers in better times, "has given the extremists time and space to regroup... in desert areas southeast of Tripoli," Alexander Sehmer observed in Terrorism Monitor, published by the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation.
IS fighters "are also reportedly sharing resources with al-Qaida, in contrast to other parts of the world where the two organizations are at loggerheads," Sehmer wrote.
A senior intelligence commander in the Maghreb, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Arab Weekly that regional leaders expected the jihadists to reinforce their activities in Libya and the Sahel from war-torn Somalia. Speaking Oct. 10 - four days before the Mogadishu bombings - the officer said: "ISIS is using Somalia as a gateway to push jihadists into the Maghreb and Sahel areas.
"The infiltration began as a trickle early this year before growing in recent weeks with hundreds of fighters being scattered throughout the region, mostly through Libya."
There are about a dozen drone bases for surveillance and airstrikes across Africa. The main one is in the tiny Horn of Africa state of Djibouti. Built on the site of a former French Foreign Legion facility and still known as Camp Lemonnier, the large base and airfield can mount airstrikes and special forces raids in Yemen and Somalia and cover the strategic Bab el Mandeb Strait that links the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.
The U.S. Africa Command, known as Africom, was established in 2007 to provide military support to African states, most of them plagued by poor governance, rampant corruption and ineffectual military forces. Africom has become the organizational hub of U.S. efforts to counter the steady expansion of Islamic extremists, who increasingly pose a direct threat to a continent that has been wracked by war and famine since Europe's colonizing powers - Britain, France, Belgium, Spain and Portugal - granted independence in the 1960s.
The instability that has largely crippled those African countries is a major contributing factor in the spread of Islamist extremism.
In Libya, as in some other countries in the Maghreb and Sahel, the failure to address the common problem of disillusioned and unemployed youth and the reliance largely on military and intelligence operations have seriously undercut efforts to stifle terrorism.
"Islamist terrorist networks are... making inroads due to economic opportunism," warned Vish Sakthivel of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In Algeria, which has battled Islamist terrorism more or less since 1992, "the problem seems to be worsening," Sakthivel said.
"Unemployment, disenchantment and the lack of opportunity have all helped AQIM [al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb] and its numerous splinters survive, while bad governance and corruption have made local communities and even police complicit in their smuggling networks," he added.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of Washington's Foundation for Defense of Democracies observed: "State actors will have to improve governance, rule of law and economic opportunities, especially in the economic and geographic periphery of the region, in order to deny [Islamic State] the ability to recruit and establish safe havens."
The Sahel, an arid, semi-desert that stretches the width of Africa from Senegal in the west to Eritrea in the east, is the center of terrorists' operations in Africa. The inhospitable region with its porous borders is favored by the extremists as a base area and for smuggling weapons, narcotics and people.
The Americans have special forces detachments operating in most African states. Washington said their primary mission is to train local forces in counterterrorism and counter-insurgency operations so they can hold the lines themselves. For now, at least, that is changing to a more pro-active approach and the U.S. Army's Green Berets and U.S. Navy SEALs largely constitute the U.S. military presence.
Amid the barely noticed U.S. escalation in Africa, the Americans have also stepped up attacks by missile-armed drones across Libya, where jihadist terror is expected to increase.
Few details of actual U.S. operations are accessible as the Pentagon seeks to convince Americans that they are not being dragged into yet another messy war against terrorism. The initial Pentagon report on a May 6 operation involving SEALs in Somalia said Senior Chief Petty Officer Kyle Milliken was killed while on an "advise, assist and accompany mission" in which the American troopers hung back while Somali troops carried attacked a complex held by al-Shabab, the main jihadist group.
That was soon exposed as a fiction. U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. David J. Furness, commander of the U.S. task force in the Horn of Africa, said the American and Somali military personnel were in a single group when they were ambushed.
Milliken was the first U.S. military fatality in Somalia since the Americans lost 18 men and two Black Hawk helicopters in a daylong battle with Somali fighters on Oct. 3, 1993 - the notorious Black Hawk Down episode.
This article originally appeared at The Arab Weekly.