African threats could dominate second term

The Obama administration needs to rethink foreign policy to protect American interests against Islamic extremism in Africa.

Algerian army guards road to gas plant 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Algerian army guards road to gas plant 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in for his second term as president, events in Africa dominated headlines and news reports around the world. As the first US president of African descent, Obama presides over his country at a time when one the most difficult challenges facing America comes from the continent that his own father called home.
But only in the coming weeks and months will it remain to be seen if Obama’s strong personal connection to Africa will help or hinder his decisions.
Already, the world was privy to the worst hostage crisis as seen in so many years. Last week at the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria, forty extremist militants took control of the facility in supposed retribution for French intervention in Mali, West Africa. Unfortunately, armed intervention by the Algerian military resulted in huge causalities for both kidnappers and hostages alike.
The gas plant, located fifty miles from the border with Libya, was quite a vulnerable target, despite the numerous security measures in place to protect foreign workers. Importantly, Libya has transformed during Obama’s first term from a tightly controlled police state to a lawless free-for-all supplying men and arms to extremist groups elsewhere in Africa.
Reports are circulating that the kidnappers arrived to In Amenas by a handful of Toyota trucks. The ease with which they gained entrance to the plant has led some to speculate that they had help from insiders. Workers who managed to escape from the facility described the militants as confident and knowledgeable of the plant and its layout.
By claiming to have launched the attack in response to events in Mali, the kidnappers were able to demonstrate to the world that events across both North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa are increasingly linked, especially where religious extremism and violence are concerned. Africa in the 21st century can no longer be thought of primarily as a humanitarian problem that must somehow rely on the generosity of rich outsiders to resolve. Today, Africa can be seen for the international security issue that it has become.
The same poverty and human rights abuses and governmental mismanagement and public health catastrophes that have motivated so much fundraising, giving and volunteering over the past several decades is now fueling the ability of Islamist jihadists to establish safe havens on this impoverished, yet resource-rich, continent.
Given the Algerian government’s historic avoidance of transparency and accountability, it may be a very, very long time before anything approaching a complete account of the raid, and the military response, are ever made public.  In the meantime, we are left to put the pieces together the best we can.
With three confirmed American casualties, the attack on In Amenas, jointly operated by BP, Norway’s Statoil and the Algerian national oil company, was clearly meant to be a direct strike against American and Western interests. The highly international assortment of contractors, experts, specialists and consultants made for a highly appealing target.
Al-Qaida member Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed responsibility for the attacks, although he was not personally present at the gas facility. Since the Algerian government made clear their position that they would not negotiate with terrorists, a bloody confrontation was inevitable. Reports indicate that Taher Ben Cheneb, a follower of Belmokhtar, was one of the leaders killed by Algerian forces during the raid.
More interesting, the international aspects of the kidnapping were not just seen in the composition of the hostages; two of the militants are believed to be Canadian nationals.
As the front against Islamist terror organizations shifts to Africa, it is now necessary for Western democracies, including the US, to recognize and respond to these developments. French leadership in Mali is encouraging, as is the clear message of support being made and re-affirmed by Britain. The Obama administration must demonstrate its willingness to protect American interests, both short term and long term, as events in Africa unfold.
Future historians will cast their judgment on whether Obama’s preferred foreign policy stance of “leading from behind” has actually lead to success in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iran and Yemen. But in the meantime, both the US’s allies and enemies are waiting to see if a second-term Obama administration has more to offer diplomatically than its go-to solution of “more drone attacks.”
The complex web of cause and effects that have laid the foundation for the rapid expansion of radicalized Islam and jihad across Africa requires more than just weekly kill lists couriered between the Oval Office and CIA operatives. The real challenge of Obama’s second term will be to maintain the resolve and sense of purpose necessary to influence events in hot spots such as Africa, while wrestling with a domestic economy that is still in shambles and has shown little momentum building towards a real and sustained recovery.
With the buntings and balloons and confetti all swept up and the enthusiasm of the inauguration only a memory, Obama must now demonstrate that the reality of American influence and power, as projected around the world, is as inspiring and convincing as the displays of pageantry and showmanship that were rolled out this week in Washington DC.
The writer and commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist.