Washington — Porous borders and weak security institutions have heightened the threat posed by violent groups in East and West Africa, and the United States is working with countries in both regions to counter the threats, not only by empowering their security forces, but also by promoting better governance, human rights practices and economic opportunities, a senior State Department official told U.S. lawmakers.In his prepared remarks for an April 25 House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Don Yamamoto said African countries affected by groups such as al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Lord's Resistance Army must lead the response to terrorism.
"Our regional partners have consistently emphasized that Africa's security is the responsibility of the Africans themselves and it is vital that the United States and other partners maintain supporting roles," he said."We will help them stave off legitimate terrorists but will avoid the trap of 'Americanizing' or 'westernizing' these counterterrorism fights," and thereby prevent extremists from bolstering "their own legitimacy by attempting to draw us into the conflict," Yamamoto said.
In Somalia, he said, al-Shabaab has carried out "conventional and asymmetric attacks" against the country's Transitional Federal Government and used the country as a safe haven to attack other countries in East Africa, such as the 2010 bombings in Uganda. It has also blocked humanitarian organizations from operating in areas it controls, making the country's food emergency worse.
With the help of the African Union Mission in Somalia, "achieving political stability, including a Somali government that demonstrates to the broader Somali population it is a viable alternative to al-Shabaab and is capable of sustaining itself, will be the best long-term counter to al-Shabaab," he said.Yamamoto said the promotion of democratic governance and opportunities for young people are "an essential priority in areas threatened by AQIM.""The region's youthful and better educated populations are demanding more transparency from public officials and expanded economic opportunities. These youth are increasingly aware of governance norms elsewhere in the world and yearn for the same basic rights in their societies. Rising governance standards in West Africa, in turn, are placing ever greater value on legitimacy and heightening intolerance of unconstitutional transitions of power," he said.Economic development requires countries to tackle corruption, he said, and the United States is supporting anti-corruption commissions in countries that are developing reforms, as well as activists who are using technology to increase transparency and hold governments accountable.Human rights abuses by security forces undermine their credibility, Yamamoto warned, and he urged the Nigerian government to promote respect for human rights and to engage communities in the northern part of the country that are vulnerable to Boko Haram."Heavy-handed tactics and extrajudicial killings reinforce northerners' concerns that the Nigerian government does not care about them. The appointment of a credible northerner to lead the government response to northern grievances would be an important step in that direction," he said.Yamamoto stressed that "religion is not the primary driver of extremist violence in Nigeria," and said the country's religious and ethnic diversity "is one of its greatest strengths."In his prepared statement to the committee, State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin said the State Department has several programs in Africa that are designed to address the emerging threats posed by violent extremists and others causing instability."These programs are about building the capacity of our partners to counter terrorist threats themselves, while maintaining respect for human rights and the rule of law," he said."This involves helping countries develop their law enforcement and legal institutions to do a better job tracking, apprehending, arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating terrorists," and includes regional cooperation among African countries to "detect, deter, investigate and counter terrorism within their borders," he said.
For example, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership is strengthening government capacity to "combat the terrorist threat and to stem the flow of new recruits to terrorist organizations" by providing "positive alternatives to those most vulnerable to terrorist messaging."In East Africa, the Partnership for Regional East African Counterterrorism (PREACT) is helping to build counterterrorism capacity and the capability of member countries to "thwart short-term terrorist threats and address longer-term vulnerabilities" through law enforcement, military and development resources, Benjamin said.
"PREACT provides the U.S. government with a flexible and well-coordinated plan to help member countries' efforts to counter both current and emerging terrorist threats and prevent the spread of extremism and future terrorist threats over the medium and long terms. The strategy reflects recognition that the predominant threat to the region and Western interests is Somalia's chronic instability," he said.
West African nations, including Nigeria, are participating in the State Department's Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program, which "enhances border security and investigative capacity for all partner nations in West Africa to better enable them to confront the transnational movement of terrorist groups such as AQIM and Boko Haram," he said.
In her testimony, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Amanda Dory discussed efforts to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa, which she said is directly tied to the instability in Somalia."It has become a lucrative business; money from outside Somalia is invested in increasingly sophisticated equipment with the hope of extorting profit by threatening the lives of innocent merchant seamen," she said.In response, the international community, including NATO and the European Union, is undertaking anti-piracy operations in the area, and the patrols, along with steps taken by the commercial maritime community, have helped to decrease the number of successful hijackings, she said.But many African partners "lack the maritime capability to address this threat effectively," and Dory said the Defense Department wants to help them "build their capacity to increase maritime domain awareness and security."