American lawmakers said they are frustrated with the administration's apparent lack of focus on — or, at least, ability to anticipate and respond to — the burgeoning North African threat.
"Simply playing Whack-a-Mole with allegedly al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists in one region to another around the world is not the answer," said Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that oversees Africa issues. "The answer is a better-crafted, thorough strategy that combines development, diplomacy, democracy and security."
Coons added: "You could say that there is no obvious or immediate threat to the American homeland from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, but they did just succeed in killing three Americans in a hostage-taking in Algeria that had clearly been planned for some time."
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., another Africa expert, put it bluntly: "If we don't engage, we run the risk of having another Afghanistan pop up one day in the form of North Africa."
White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the administration is "very worried" about the various extremist groups in North Africa but cited "varying degrees of ability and willingness" within governments there to fight them.
"There is a not a quick fix — these have to be a series of steps we take over the long term," Vietor said. "There is not a narrow military solution that can eradicate bad guys and then we are OK."
The U.S. is already helping fund, train and arm troops from Ethiopia, Kenya, Sierra Leone and other African nations to lead the fight against North African extremists. That would follow the model of international military aid to African forces that have fought and severely hobbled the militant group al-Shabab in Somalia since 2006. Al-Shabab is also loosely linked to al-Qaida.
Yet many North African nations are too consumed by local unrest and security issues to fight militants outside their borders. Nations that have undergone transfers in power over the last few years — most notably by Arab Spring revolutions — now find themselves with weaker counterterror abilities.
That has given al-Qaida and other extremists areas to exploit, one of the senior U.S. intelligence officials said.
"What we're seeing is that our enemy, al-Qaida, is showing remarkable adaptability," Bruce Riedel, a scholar at the Brookings Institute think-tank in Washington, told an audience this week. "They are adapting to a new environment, which is the Arab Spring, and taking advantage of it."
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