- - Friday, November 16, 2012

As news reports confirm linkages between al Qaeda affiliates and the extremist attack of Sept. 11, 2012, on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, the Obama administration continues to dodge the truth. The tragic deaths of four brave Americans should not derail the work of diplomacy, and we must resist the instinct to retreat. The administration, however, owes a duty of care to our brave men and women who serve overseas. Sadly, the administration has been derelict in this respect. What happened in Benghazi should not have come as a surprise. Numerous militias and other armed groups have remained active since the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi, and for years, radical Islamist and extremist organizations, some linked to al Qaeda, have aggressively expanded their operations in Africa.

In fact, since 2001, the Maghreb and Sahel regions have witnessed a precipitous increase in attacks by al Qaeda and its affiliates. To confront the growing regional and global threat posed by these groups in Africa, we need a comprehensive strategy that disrupts the operations of extremist networks, denies safe haven to extremist groups and prevents an escalation of emerging threats by also targeting precursor conditions fomenting instability.

Somalia-based al-Shabab, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, is considered to be one of the deadliest extremist groups in the world. Recruitment and fundraising activities by al-Shabab here in the United States are of extreme concern, as are reported links between al-Shabab and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The al-Shabab attacks on civilian targets in Uganda in July 2010 left more than 70 dead, including one American.

The 2009 arrest of three West African al Qaeda associates on drug-smuggling charges demonstrated links between South American narco-groups and Islamist extremists in western Africa. Groups like the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and Hezbollah are finding new ways to sell drugs to Europeans via al Qaeda groups in Africa, and al Qaeda is more than willing to use the drug business to help fund its extremist agenda. The coup in Mali earlier this year has further exacerbated these concerns, and the resulting disorder may have allowed organized drug networks to expand their operations in West Africa.

Under the George W. Bush administration, two key counterterrorism initiatives were launched to eliminate extremist safe havens in Africa: the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) and its counterpart, the East Africa Counterterrorism Initiative (now known as PREACT). Given that the State Department has noted the successes of these types of programs, it comes as a surprise that combined funding for TSCTP administered through accounts at the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development has decreased every year since 2009 and would continue to decrease under the current budget request.

Cutting funding for critical counterterrorism and counterextremism programs is simply irresponsible, and it raises a fundamental question for U.S. policy on the continent: What are we doing to combat the growing threat to our nation’s allies and interests from violent Islamist extremism in Africa?

Recently, peacekeepers from the African Union Mission in Somalia, together with allied Somali forces, expelled al-Shabab from one of its last Somali strongholds, the city of Kismayo. I applaud our partners on the African continent for their vigilance and efforts to militarily counter armed extremism in the region. We are seeing some positive signs, but the Sept. 11 anniversary attack on our consulate in Benghazi reminds us that our work is far from done. Former CIA Director Porter Goss agrees that al Qaeda is stronger in North Africa today and stated that the White House is “avoiding reality” and that when we show signs of weakness, al Qaeda will attack.

As we anxiously await the results of the State Department Accountability Review Board’s (ARB) investigation into Benghazi, we must remember that this probe is just the beginning. We must incorporate the findings of other investigations to ensure that this type of tragic event does not occur again. We must reassess and realign our priorities and engagement in Africa toward a comprehensive strategy that disrupts the operations of terrorist networks, denies safe haven to extremist groups and prevents an escalation of emerging threats by also targeting precursor conditions fomenting instability. The United States should work with our African partners to counter growing terrorism threats through greater mutual cooperation and constant vigilance. We must support bilateral and multilateral efforts to enact antiterrorism legislation targeting terrorist networks, build joint counterterrorism intelligence-sharing and operational capacities among allied countries, and foster greater cooperation in tracking terrorist financing. Further, the U.S. Africa Command should play a constructive role in coordinating U.S. security objectives in the region in close cooperation with our African partners.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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