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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Pentagon looks at stepped-up Africa role to counter ISIL

After ISIL lost its de facto capital Raqqa in Syria, and its Iraqi stronghold of Mosul, the group 'has aspirations to establish a larger presence' in Africa, the US military's top officer said

Gen Joseph Dunford is seen in a frame grab from a US Department of Defence video as he speaks to the media about the deaths of four US army special operations forces soldiers in Niger during a news conference about the attack at the Pentagon in Washington, US on October 23, 2017. Reuters
Gen Joseph Dunford is seen in a frame grab from a US Department of Defence video as he speaks to the media about the deaths of four US army special operations forces soldiers in Niger during a news conference about the attack at the Pentagon in Washington, US on October 23, 2017. Reuters

The United States is considering a stepped-up military presence in Africa to pursue ISIL jihadists looking for new havens after the fall of their "caliphate," American officials say.

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

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

He was discussing the October 4 clash in Niger, West Africa, that cost the lives of four American soldiers.

Along with five Nigerien troops, the US soldiers died on the Niger-Mali border in an attack carried out by locals associated with ISIL, according to Gen Dunford.

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

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Read more: Deadly attack on US special forces highlight terror resurgence in Africa's Sahel

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

On Tuesday he meets military chiefs from 75 countries "to talk about the next phase of the campaign" against ISIL.

Speaking to reporters following a meeting with Mr Mattis last Friday, 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 already has the greatest presence of American special forces. Official figures show more than 1,300 of the troops are deployed there.

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

These rules of engagement "are going to change when it comes to counterterrorism operations," Mr Graham said.

He hinted that American troops would be authorised to shoot first on "terrorist" targets, which is not the case now.

A growing threat

The European Union's presidency also warned this month that countries in that bloc must monitor "very carefully" a growing ISIL 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 Southeast 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, using another acronym for ISIL.

"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."

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Read more:

Soldier deaths in Niger turning into Trump's own Benghazi

US must step up support for operation against West Africa militants, France says

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The US supports with aerial refuelling and intelligence France's Operation Barkhane against extremists in five Sahel nations: Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso.

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

According to a report to Congress by Gen Thomas Waldhauser, who heads the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), the American presence is notable in Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya.

The numbers of US special forces varies but the Niger contingent of about 800 is currently the largest in any one country on the continent.

Gen Dunford vowed the US will remain, despite the four fatalities in Niger.

"Our intent is to continue operations there," he said.