Orlando Sentinel - Swath of Africa Could Become Haven for Terrorists
By Bill Nelson
Abeche, Chad - A prime minister's office scarred by a recent al-Qaeda bomb attack. Families separated while fleeing from genocidal murderers in their home towns. And employees of an international company kidnapped from a heavily guarded oil-rich area.
No, this isn't Iraq or the Middle East - it's an impoverished region of Africa where chaos is breeding a new brand of Islamic terrorism allied with Osama bin Laden.
Just recently a top U.S. State Department official warned Congress that "the threat from al-Qaeda's presence in the region is significant, very dangerous and potentially growing . . . ."
Only days before that testimony, I went to Ethiopia, Chad, Nigeria and Algeria, where I saw for myself how terrorists can take advantage of poverty, violence and disorder.
Al-Qaeda and extremist sympathizers already are in Somalia, including suspects in the deadly 1998 attacks on our embassies and the bombing of a hotel in Kenya in 2002. American military forces are conducting strategic strikes aimed at these international thugs.
The chaos and violence have created an ideal base for terrorist networks; while other poverty-plagued African nations are struggling to keep out al-Qaeda and similar groups.
In Nigeria, President Yar'adua took office after an election our State Department called "deeply flawed." He's dealing with rampant corruption. The majority of the people there live on less than a dollar a day, and the average life expectancy is less than 50 years. The northern part of the country is home to millions of Islamic fundamentalists seeking to increase their influence.
Yar'adua also must provide security for the Niger Delta and the oil production facilities that serve as his country's economic engine. The U.S. depends on the delivery of Nigerian oil, importing 2.4 million barrels per day.
While I was there, a rebel militia in the oil-rich delta kidnapped 11 foreign workers, including women and children, from a guarded compound. Several more kidnappings followed over the next 48 hours. A homegrown militant movement is responsible for the lawlessness. But it is just that kind of chaos that terrorists could exploit to target pipelines critical to the world's oil market.
Although the attacks in Nigeria haven't been tied to al-Qaeda, the same cannot be said in Algeria. I met with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem in his government office, which still bears the scars of a terrorist attack just two months ago. That bombing marked the unwelcome debut of Al Qaeda's newest African franchise: al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Even worse, we face the challenges of poverty and starvation in Ethiopia, where millions of children are chronically malnourished. Additionally, the ongoing genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan has left hundreds of thousands of refugees homeless, and the violence is spilling across the border into Chad.
Against this backdrop, terrorist groups seek to expand. As we combat al-Qaeda's support and sanctuary in the Middle East, its members must find other places to operate.
We cannot allow terrorism to fester in parts of Africa because of poverty and anarchy. We have to prevent that continent from becoming a fertile ground for terrorists.
Let us lead the effort to bring peace, security and prosperity to Africa. Earlier this year the administration took a step in the right direction when it announced plans for a new military command solely focused on Africa. The plan is to safeguard our strategic and national security interests on a continent of increasing economic significance.
Congress must help determine the size and scope of this pioneering effort.
Based on my trip to West Africa and my discussions with Gen. Bantz Craddock, head of our European forces, I believe we need to create an unconventional command for Africa - one not only to combat terrorism, but also to coordinate successful aid efforts; and, to protect humanitarian workers while promoting diplomacy with local leaders.
At least one-fourth of this command should be civilian - members of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Treasury and Justice departments. Each would play a role in an overall effort to fight poverty and bring about the rule of law.
If Africa Command - AFRICOM - can harness and coordinate these efforts, we can foster real progress.
Meantime, Africa can teach us a great deal about why our approach to counter-terrorism must be multi-faceted and global: terrorists will flock to places where there are ungoverned spaces, instability and human suffering.
Hopefully, we'll heed this lesson.
The author is Florida's senior U.S. senator and a member of the Senate's Intelligence, Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees.