Why Terrorism Is the New Big African Issue for Obama

The rising threat of extremism is the continent's most alarming trend.
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Civilians attempt to evacuate an injured man after a suicide bomb attack inside the United Nations compound in Mogadishu on June 19, 2013. (Reuters)

When President Obama lands in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, next week, he will see a city that reflects the rapid changes that are reshaping Africa. The traffic-snarled streets are a riot of bright color, with buildings painted in splashes of pink and orange sherbet, and pedestrians dressed in blaring red dresses and screaming yellow soccer shirts. On the shoreline, large container ships will be stacked to the horizon of the Indian Ocean, bespeaking the economic miracle that has brought Africa's average economic growth rate on par with Asia's at nearly 6 percent.

But amid the chaotic traffic of Dar es Salaam--or "Haven of Peace"--Obama will see signs of a more fragile continent, threatened by terrorist groups drawn to its persistent poverty and ungoverned spaces. And he will be reminded of those dangerous forces on Tuesday, when he lays a wreath at the memorial for the victims of al-Qaida's 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 224 people.

Because of African sensitivities about the presence of foreign military forces on the continent, the White House has gone to great lengths to stress that the president's trip will focus on trade and investment, democratic institution-building, and reaching out to young Africans. But in many private discussions, counterterrorism partnership will also feature prominently.

"The growing threat that al-Qaida affiliates are posing to nations in north, east, and southwest Africa has really changed the dynamic by making counterterrorism a growth business on the continent, and there are some great capabilities we can offer those nations who want to partner with us," Maj. Gen. Carlton Everhart II, AFRICOM's senior Air Force commander, said in a recent interview.

Indeed, even as the U.S. military winds down operations in Afghanistan, Pentagon leaders see the threat from terrorists and extremists groups growing in much of Africa. They include al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which emerged from Algeria's civil war of the 1990s and has amassed an estimated $90 million over the past decade from drug smuggling and kidnapping for ransom. The group was linked to the Benghazi consulate attack in Libya that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans last September; the assault on a natural-gas complex in Algeria in January that killed dozens of foreign oil workers, including three Americans; and the seizure of Northern Mali earlier this year by a loose confederation of Islamic extremists, criminal groups, and Tuareg mercenaries.

U.S. forces stationed in Djibouti, Africa, have used drones to target al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, and they are supporting African Union forces fighting the Qaida-affiliated terrorist group Al Shabaab in Somalia. According to U.S. military sources, Tanzania has also requested that the Pentagon help train Tanzanian forces for deployment in the nearby Democratic Republic of Congo as part of an African Union force.

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James Kitfield is a senior correspondent for National Journal.

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