Al-Qaida, Western Militaries Race for Influence in Africa

After Benghazi attack and Mali skirmishes, Obama and Hollande agree to new pact against extremist hostilities.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., left, shown here in December 2013, recently presented to two of the nation’s top intelligence officers a map depicting activity of at least 10 different al-Qaida-linked organizations operating from Somalia to Mali, from Egypt to Nigeria.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., left, shown here in December 2013, recently presented to two of the nation’s top intelligence officers a map depicting activity of at least 10 different al-Qaida-linked organizations operating from Somalia to Mali, from Egypt to Nigeria. 

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Marine Col. Scott Benedict is reluctant to say his unit could have stopped the Benghazi, Libya, attack. But hypothetical questions are, perhaps, unfair for combat commanders.

Benedict leads the Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response. It is one of two units designed in the wake of Islamic extremists’ 2012 assault on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi to, in part, prevent another such attack from claiming more American lives.  

It’s been a busy few months for the MAGTF (pronounced, “mag-taff”). After first deployed to Moron, Spain, last summer, it has conducted exercises with foreign troops, including commandos from the French Foreign Legion, and was called upon in December to help evacuate the U.S. Embassy in South Sudan after rebels there shot at other U.S. aircraft

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U.S. News spoke with Benedict after he gave remarks at the Atlantic Council on Monday about the unit’s latest activities. He shied away from specific questions about how the specialized and highly mobile unit would act if insurgents attacked another facility like they did in Benghazi. The MAGTF is simply performing the same work Marine shock troops and first responders have been executing for decades, Benedict said. 

But he did say its presence also acts as a deterrent. This represents what the military calls the "New Normal," focusing on training allies and reinforcing assets such as embassies, instead of relying on the military acting alone in the face of crisis. 

And it encapsulates part of the Western response to a growing and troubling threat from Islamic extremists. Al-Qaida was once a selective group of insurgents based along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Now it represents the slow but purposeful spread of violent activists as franchises pop up across the Middle East and North Africa. As a coalition of Western nations withdraws from Afghanistan, it must now determine where else it must take the fight.

The problem received central focus during a hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, presented to two of the nation’s top intelligence officers a map depicting activity of at least 10 different al-Qaida-linked organizations operating from Somalia to Mali, from Egypt to Nigeria.

Organizations such as Ansar al-Sharia, Boko Haram and Jabhat al-Nusra follow the traditional approach of preying on the undereducated, the poor and the marginalized by reshaping what can be localized problems into the need for transnational jihad. 

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“It is morphing and it is franchising itself,” responded James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, of the al-Qaida presence. “They don’t pose a threat to the homeland now but they could in the future.” 

Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, referenced the sheer size of the African continent, which is more than 3.5 times bigger than the continental U.S. Many countries there are divided by arbitrary borders that span massive ungoverned swaths of austere land. 

“The scale of what we’re talking about in Africa is just huge,” he said. 

The American military  upped its ante in Africa in 2007 when it created U.S. Africa Command, based it Stuttgart, Germany. It operates on a shoestring budget compared to the gargantuan sister organizations, such as U.S. Central Command which oversees wars such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Fiscal troubles throughout the federal government has reduced was supposed to be a redistribution of wealth to AFRICOM following the end of those wars into a sinking tide for everyone.

Benedict’s MAGFT operates under the authority of AFRICOM. But American troops are not the only players in this war against al-Qaida. 

France, a former colonial power, has also dedicated considerable resources to fighting Islamic extremism. It deployed thousands of soldiers to Mali in early 2013 to fight back a coalition of disparate extremist groups approaching the capital city from hideouts in the rural north. The U.S. offered intelligence, logistics and transportation in support of the French forces.

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“I applaud the French for going into Mali,” said Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, while speaking on Tuesday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The whole world watched that.” 

Amos cited the importance of a continued Western mission in Africa against the insurgent threat.

“You could turn your back on that part of the world, but you would rue the day you had,” he said. “Those kinds of threats will find their way around the world, and in some major cities of the world.”

Mali continues to be a source of troubling extremism. A spokesman for an al-Qaida linked group confirmed Tuesday that it had kidnapped a team of Red Cross workers there. 

The overarching problems there have been among the central discussions between President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande, who is visiting the U.S. this week. The two announced a new agreement in a joint press conference at the White House Tuesday for continued cooperation in this mission. 

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“This operation [in Mali] was successful, and it was only successful because a decision was made by the international community,” said Hollande from the East Room. “It was successful because Americans took part and because Europeans helped as well as Americans, who also gave their support.”

Military commanders such as Benedict, Amos and their French counterparts must now evaluate whether they’re doing enough to countermand the growing al-Qaida presence. 

“I don’t think we’re there yet. We’re in the initial phases of standing these [forces] up,” says J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Program and regular adviser to the White House, Congress and the U.N.

Deterrence does not come from simply existing, Pham says. Nuclear deterrence during the Cold War only worked because the world had witnessed the awesome power of America’s arsenals at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. 

For the U.S. and French forces in Africa, it’s largely “an abstract,” he says, “given how we’ve gone hot and cold, especially in Africa over recent years, from commitment to lack of commitment and back again.”

They must confront an unseen enemy that preys upon, for example, massive unemployment in Nigeria following the creation of cheap Chinese textile factories there, Pham says. 

These forces also contend with the narrative groups like those al-Qaida offers. Until a recent uptick in drone and commando strikes in Somalia, most citizens there believed that Islamic extremists successfully chased American special operations forces away in the notorious “Black Hawk Down” battle in 1993. 

“We’re on the right track building up capabilities,” says Pham, referencing the work of units such as Benedict’s that train local forces to fight for themselves. 

“These types of forces are useful,” hesays. “Hopefully they won’t be called upon.”