Military operations to stop the growth of al Qaeda's influence in northern and western Africa will only make the violent situation there worse if done prematurely, said the top U.S. military commander overseeing operations in Africa.
The concern shows the challenge of dealing urgently with a growing threat from northern Mali, which has become a safe haven for al Qadea-linked terrorists, who are gaining momentum across northern Africa. The al Qaeda affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has been linked to the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, according to U.S. officials.
U.S. Army Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of the U.S. Africa Command, said Monday the region needs a well-planned, well-funded operation that is African-led to have a good chance of pushing out the AQIM extremist movement growing in northern and western Africa.
"I would caution against premature military action because of the long-term consequences," Ham said.
Ham said discussions among the United Nations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States are working out details on how to fund and supply combat forces and assistance to the region. Ham said decisions from the organizations are expected in January.
The discussions have been going on for months since plans by ECOWAS were presented to the U.N. Security Council, which is reviewing them. If the plans are endorsed, the United Nations could give a mandate for African-led combat operations in which the United States could assist with logistics and intelligence but not ground forces, according to Pentagon officials who were not authorized to speak on the record because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Ham said the situation in northern Mali grew worse after the fall of Libya's former leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, when mercenaries working with him left with money and weapons.
"Northern Mali is a particular challenge; with the complete collapse of the Malian government, there is no control in the northern two thirds of the country, and I don't know how to describe it other than a safe-haven for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb," Ham said.
The number of training camps has grown, as have recruiting efforts in the region, and there is now clear evidence that support is being given to an extremist organization in Nigeria, Boko Haram, according to Ham.
"Boko Haram is receiving financial support, probably training, probably some explosives from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in a relationship that goes both ways," Ham said.
In a video statement last week, Boko Haram's leader, Abu Bakr Shekau, expressed solidarity with al Qaeda affiliates in Afghanistan, Iraq, North Africa, Somalia and Yemen, according to SITE Intel Group, which monitors jihadist posts online.
Ham said that Boko Haram did not pose an imminent threat to the United States and likened it to the threat level of al Qaeda in the mid-1990s. He said its leadership aspires to execute bigger operations across the region and Europe and that anything western is "legitimate in their eyes."
"It is in our national interest to help the Nigerians address this problem internally before it gets worse and the organization has an ability to further expand their efforts," Ham said.
Ham said he would be in Nigeria next week to talk to the government to see how the U.S. can assist with Boko Haram and AQIM. He stressed that the U.S. combat troops would not be an option and that the Nigerian military should be a part of a broader solution. Pentagon officials said the broader solution would involve discussions with ECOWAS and the African Union on how to solve the Boko Haram issue.