WASHINGTON (AP) — Growing concerns about persistent terrorist threats from splintered al-Qaida groups across Africa have triggered an increase in U.S. military funding and more focus on a handful of African nations.
Already this year, the Pentagon has poured more than $82 million into counterterrorism assistance for six African countries, with more than half of that going to Uganda, and much of the rest going to Kenya, Burundi and Djibouti — all key allies in the fight against the al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab in Somalia.
The assistance, according to the State Department's latest report on terrorism, may be starting to show some results in Somalia. But across Africa, the number of terrorist incidents increased by about 11.5 percent last year, including in Nigeria.
The new report comes as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton begins a series of visits across the continent, including stops in Uganda and Kenya.
The two countries are part of AMISOM, the African Union peacekeeping force that has been battling al-Shabab militants and has succeeded in largely pushing the militants out of Mogadishu, Somalia, after years of raging war.
That military effort has helped to make significant gains in degrading al-Shabab's capability and liberating areas from al-Shabab administration, the State Department report said, adding that "foreign fighters and al-Shabab members remained in many parts of south and central Somalia and continued to mount operations within Somalia and against neighboring countries."
According to the report, al-Shabab continues to maintain training camps in southern Somalia for young recruits — and those have included Americans who have traveled there from Somali communities in the United States.
"To the extent that we focus on helping the Africans themselves deal with problems of instability, prepare them to conduct their own peace operations and to support transitions from conflict — all of that contributes significantly to countering terrorism in a broader sense," said Tom Dempsey, a retired Army colonel who teaches national security at the Defense Department's Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
The Pentagon has increased surveillance and intelligence-sharing in Africa, sent teams of special operations forces and broadened training for African militaries. Al-Qaida-linked militant groups train and operate out of safe havens in often remote and underdeveloped regions of the continent.
The Pentagon has told Congress that military aid for Uganda includes more than $19 million for trucks, trailers, inflatable boats, weapons, communications equipment and combat training. While that aid is targeted for the Somalia fight, the U.S. is also sending more than $22 million worth of logistic support and supplies to Uganda to aid in the fight against warlord Joseph Kony's infamous Lord's Resistance Army.
In addition, the Pentagon is sending $13.1 million in aid to Burundi, including trucks, communications equipment and training; nearly $8 million in aid to Kenya, including eight small surveillance drones; and $750,000 in training to Djibouti.
Dempsey said broader assistance programs, including training assistance programs and military education funds that bring officers to U.S. war colleges, help African nations counter violent extremism, which fuels terrorism. But he also noted that it is often difficult to tie any rise or fall in terrorist incidents to any one factor.
"If you're talking about drone strikes with Hellfire missiles that take out a terrorist here or there, I have serious reservations about how much that contributes to combatting terrorism in Africa," Dempsey said. "But broader engagement efforts that encourage professionalism of African militaries — those efforts contribute significantly."