WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The African Union war against al Shabaab in Somalia this past year has left the Islamist group "largely in a survival mode" and is instructive for confronting the region's extremist groups in the future, the head of U.S. Africa Command said on Monday.
General Carter Ham, who is responsible for U.S. military ties with Africa, told a forum at George Washington University he was concerned about growing cooperation among Islamist extremist factions across the region. But he also said Washington favored "African solutions for African problems."
"We think our best efforts are when we are supporting and enabling African nations and African regional organizations to achieve their ends," Ham said.
He said northern Mali had essentially become a "safe haven" for al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM, following the complete collapse of the country's government.
"You have a very well-financed and now a very well-armed organization operating in a safe haven," Ham said. "I suspect it's not unexpected to see the emergence of the training camps and specific recruiting efforts that we have seen."
He said Africa Command's top priority was countering the growth of extremist organizations across the continent, from al Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliate based mainly in Somalia, to Boko Haram in Nigeria.
"What I worry about more than anything though is ... a growing linkage, a growing network, a collaboration and synchronization among the various violent extremist organizations," Ham said, adding that it could undermine African stability and pose a threat to Europe or the United States.
Ham said there were "clear indications" of increasing collaboration among the groups, which have similar ideological foundations. He cited reports that Boko Haram was receiving funds, training and explosives from AQIM.
"We believe that it's likely that some members of Boko Haram have gone to training camps in the North of Mali," he said.
Ham said he thought cooperation among the United Nations, the African Union, the European Union, the United States and other countries could effectively deal with the Islamist groups in Africa.
He pointed to the African Union assault on al Shabaab in Somalia over the past year as "instructive for the future" in dealing with extremist groups. African Union forces, supported by the international community including the United States, have driven al Shabaab out of most of the capital Mogadishu and the main port city of Kismayo, he said.
"I think that model may be somewhat instructive. It's pretty clear to me that al Shabaab is largely in a survival model," Ham said, noting that the group was under pressure from troops from Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti, increasingly joined by elements of the Somali military.
Ham said the challenge is now mainly about improving governance and economic development to stabilize Somalia. That kind of shift would have been impossible to predict last year, he said.
People would have said "you're crazy, that's not going to happen," he said. "But that's exactly what did happen because Africans decided that's what they wanted to have happen."