Terrorist organizations are "on the march" in West Africa and the Sahel with international efforts failing to curb the increase in violence, a four-star American general in charge of U.S. troops in Africa warned on Tuesday.
The stark message came as the State Department is ramping up its diplomatic efforts in the region by appointing the first-ever U.S. special envoy.
But that high-level engagement may be undermined by a potential cut to the U.S. troop levels on the continent, with the Pentagon still reassessing its force presence there. Lawmakers of both parties and allies including France have warned the Trump administration that a reduction in troops could exacerbate problems and increase the threat of terrorism to the American homeland.
In a hearing on Tuesday, Gen. Stephen Townsend, the head of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), said that in the last year alone there's been a five-fold increase in terrorist activity in the Sahel region -- the stretch of semi-arid land south of the Sahara Desert from Mauritania and Senegal in the west to Sudan and Eritrea in the east.
The region has at least five major terrorist organizations, whose members often flow between them and with weapons flowing south from Libya, according to U.S. officials. At least 2,000 civilians were killed in violent conflict in just 2019 in the largely ungoverned spaces where Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet, U.S. Agency for International Development chief Mark Green said Tuesday. There are at least 600,000 people displaced by fighting and humanitarian needs in Burkina Faso alone, according to the United Nations.
The groups, including two ISIS branches that were sanctioned by the United Nations last month, do not have the "capacity" to attack the U.S. homeland, according to Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, "but they certainly are ambitious in the long run."
The U.S. military, along with allies, have partnered with local security forces in places like Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso to contain the growing threat from ISIS and al-Qaida affiliates that have destabilized the region. There are some 1,000 U.S. troops in the Sahel region, largely assisting French forces with intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance or logistics support. American forces also conduct large- and small-scale training exercises with African partner nations.
"In West Africa and the Sahel region, I think that the Western, international, and African efforts there are not getting the job done," Townsend said. "ISIS and al-Qaida are on the march in West Africa. They're having success, and international efforts are not."
But instead of increasing the U.S. presence, Townsend called on America's European allies to provide more assistance, saying "problems will manifest" in Europe before they reach the United States.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper initiated a review of AFRICOM's posture in order to see if some of its approximately 5,000 troops on the continent can be realigned toward focusing on future fights against Russia and China.
While no decision on a possible reduction in forces has been made and the AFRICOM review is part of a broader look at adjusting U.S. troops globally, the review has been criticized by some lawmakers, including top Republicans, such as Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who are concerned that the U.S. military's presence on the continent is vital to containing the spread of terrorism.
"This is one of the parts of the world you pay now or you pay later, and I'd rather pay smartly now," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Tuesday. "I would like us to show up, and our assistance programs are, I think, national security in another form."
To that end, the State Department appointed Dr. J. Peter Pham as the first-ever U.S. Special Envoy for the Sahel Region on Sunday. Pham, who had been serving as a special envoy for Africa's Great Lakes region, will "maximize U.S. diplomatic efforts in support of security and stability in the Sahel," State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a tweet.
In particular, Pham will focus on combating the growing threat of violent extremism by boosting fragile governments in the region, their security forces and their legitimacy and control over their territory.
Outside of the Sahel, Townsend specifically called out al-Qaida's affiliate in Somalia, al-Shabaab, as a "significant threat to American interests in the region" that could "manifest into an international threat," if left unchecked.
Al-Shabaab was behind the January attack on Manda Bay, Kenya, that killed three Americans.
Townsend said the group is also a threat to embassies in the region. And less than two weeks ago, the U.S. embassy in Kenya said terrorist groups were plotting an attack against a major hotel popular with westerners in Nairobi.
"Al-Shabaab is the largest and most kinetically violent arm of al-Qaida," Townsend said. "And they are a serious threat to not only the Somali people but to the entire region."
The U.S. military has ramped up airstrikes against al-Shabaab over the last several years, with more than two dozen strikes against the group in 2020 alone. According to Voice of America, the pace of strikes is nearly on par with those against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.