US looks at stepped-up role in Africa to counter ISIS

Libyan forces on the outskirts of Sirte city. The US military's top officer, General Joseph Dunford, said ISIS militants have already begun posing a threat in areas such as Libya and Sinai in Egypt.
Libyan forces on the outskirts of Sirte city. The US military's top officer, General Joseph Dunford, said ISIS militants have already begun posing a threat in areas such as Libya and Sinai in Egypt.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • The United States is considering a stepped-up military presence in Africa to pursue Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants looking for new havens after the fall of their self-proclaimed caliphate, American officials say.

After ISIS lost its de facto capital Raqqa in Syria this month, and its Iraqi stronghold of Mosul in July, the group "has aspirations to establish a larger presence" in Africa, the US military's top officer, General Joseph Dunford, said.

From Libya to Egypt's Sinai, to East Africa and West Africa, the militants have already posed a threat, Gen Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a press conference on Monday.

He was discussing the Oct 4 clash in Niger, West Africa, that cost the lives of four American soldiers. The US soldiers died, along with five other soldiers from Niger, on the Niger-Mali border in an attack carried out by locals associated with ISIS, according to Gen Dunford.

The incident shocked many Americans, who were unaware of the hundreds-strong US military presence in that country.

Gen Dunford said the military would make recommendations to President Donald Trump and Defence Secretary James Mattis "for the allocation of forces that meet what we see as the threat, what we anticipate the threat to be".

He was due to meet military chiefs from 75 countries yesterday "to talk about the next phase of the campaign" against ISIS.

Speaking to reporters following a meeting with Mr Mattis last Friday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate's Armed Services Committee, said bluntly: "The war is morphing. We're going to see more actions in Africa, not less."

After the Middle East, Africa has the largest presence of American special forces. Official figures show that more than 1,300 troops are deployed there.

These elite units train local forces in counterterrorism and "will only accompany those forces when the prospect of enemy contact is unlikely", Gen Dunford said.

These rules of engagement "are going to change when it comes to counterterrorism operations", Senator Graham said. He hinted that American troops would be authorised to shoot first on "terrorist" targets, which is not the case now.

The European Union's presidency also warned this month that EU countries must monitor "very carefully" a growing ISIS threat in North Africa, where fighters have relocated.

Gen Dunford said the war is moving to multiple arenas.

"I'm not sure I'm ready to say it's shifting just to Africa. We're dealing with a challenge that exists from West Africa to South-east Asia," he said.

"I believe ISIS will attempt to establish a physical presence outside of Iraq and Syria", after losing Mosul and Raqqa, the general added.

"That's exactly why we're conducting the kinds of operations we're conducting in Niger, to ensure that local forces have the capability to prevent that from happening."

In all, the US military has about 6,000 personnel in 53 African countries, Gen Dunford said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2017, with the headline 'US looks at stepped-up role in Africa to counter ISIS'. Print Edition | Subscribe