Al Qaeda has increased its influence dramatically across northern and eastern Africa over the past three years, according to Gen. William Ward, the head of U.S. Africa Command.
In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Ward cited extremist groups on the rise, including East Africa Al Qaeda, al Shabaab, and Al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). He said that Somalia and Sudan, in particular, provide sanctuary for violent insurgents, while extremism, piracy, and illicit trafficking are enabled by or directly contribute to instability.
Ward said that "other trends pose serious challenges to U.S. interests" on the continent. Among these, he testified, are foreign fighter recruitment and support networks that are present across northern and eastern Africa, "assisting extremists fighting coalition and government forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan."
The general said piracy is another "flash point." Pirates have attacked ships off the coast of Somalia and held them for ransom. Ward testified that in the first nine months of 2008, ransoms paid to pirates "may have exceeded $30 million."
On another issue, he said that large-scale oil theft by disparate groups of armed militants in the Niger Delta is a "significant problem." He pointed to studies that estimate that Nigeria's oil exports have been reduced by 20 percent "due to banditry fostered by lingering societal and political grievances." Ward said, "Theft of oil within the country costs the state untold revenues that could be used to improve services for the population."
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