WASHINGTON – The chief of the U.S. Africa Command warned on Friday that threats from Islamic extremists in Africa are increasing and if unchecked could pose a greater danger to American interests and allies.
Army Gen. Carter Ham faced some wary members of the House Armed Services Committee, who questioned a robust U.S. military involvement in Africa after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ham said the threats in Africa do not match al-Qaida or the Taliban in Afghanistan, "but the trend is not good."
"I think we have an opportunity now to work preventive effort in concert with African forces and with allies and friends globally to suppress the threat, to reverse the trend, which is increasingly worrisome to me," Ham told the committee. "And that does not necessitate a large commitment of U.S. forces. And I do not believe that a large commitment of U.S. forces is either necessary nor appropriate under the current circumstance."
Ham cited the growing collaboration between the Nigerian-based radical sect Boko Haram and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which bases its operations in Mali. The general said AQIM is the wealthiest affiliate of al-Qaida, due in part to ransom from kidnappings and the drug trade, and the group has been financing Boko Haram.
The two groups also have shared training and fighters.
Boko Haram has targeted Nigeria's weak central government with guerrilla attacks. Pressed on whether it had any intent on striking in the United States, Ham said some elements of the group are looking to attack beyond Africa to Europe and the United States.
"I think that's why it's important for us in partnership with Nigeria and others ... to help them counter this before their capability matches their intent," Ham said.
The challenge facing the U.S. military is determining which groups have legitimate ties to a terrorist organization such as al-Qaida and which are organizations dissatisfied with their government.
Ham also complained about "significant shortfalls in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance" as he tries to carry out his mission.
Ham's testimony came as the United States has increased training efforts in several African nations amid widespread insurgent violence across North Africa.
AQIM-linked terrorists are believed to have played a key role in the attack last September on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Ham, who took over Africa Command in March 2011, is stepping down and will be replaced by Army Gen. David Rodriguez.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.