State Dept. Warns of Rising Extremist Threat in Africa

'It's creeping into places and countries where it has not existed before'

A Malian firefighters stand beside a destroyed building in Gao, after a suicide car bomb attack
A Malian firefighters stand beside a destroyed building in Gao, after a suicide car bomb attack / Getty Images

Terrorist groups pose an increasing threat in Africa, according to the top U.S. diplomat there, who testified before a House panel one day before the Trump administration is expected to unveil a new Africa strategy that pivots away from counterterrorism operations.

Tibor Nagy, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday the terror threat is particularly pressing in West Africa and the Sahel region, where extremist groups aligned with the Islamic State and al Qaeda have taken root.

"The terrorist threat is growing, it's becoming much more serious," Nagy told lawmakers. "It's creeping into places and countries where it has not existed before."

Nagy's comments come as the United States moves to deprioritize counterterrorism missions to focus on the mounting threats posed by near-peer adversaries such as China and Russia.

National Security Adviser John Bolton on Thursday is set to outline a new approach to Africa that emphasizes American competition with China and Russia as the top priority in the region rather than combatting terrorist threats, according to NBC. The two U.S. rivals have sought footholds in the region, with China investing billions for projects in Africa and Russia engaging in arms sales with fragile states seeking to combat violent extremism.

The Pentagon has already moved to address this shift, releasing a plan earlier this year that would significantly reduce U.S. Special Operations missions in Africa. The plan, which has yet to be approved, would cut up to 50 percent of the American troops in West Africa over the next three years. Most of the troop drawdowns would impact U.S. missions focused on training African militaries to combat the growing threat from militant groups.

Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), outgoing chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pressed Nagy to detail how the pivot from terrorism to great power competition would effect the ability to address terrorism in Africa. Nagy assured him the issue remains at the "top of our list" in discussions with African counterparts, though he noted the underlying problems that fuel the growth of extremist groups endure.

"The fundamental issue remains: We can get rid of the terrorists thanks to the efficiency of forces and allies, but once you get rid of terrorists you have to fill that space with government because if you don't then another group of terrorists will come along, which is, in many cases, worse than the last group," he said.