U.S. Army Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of United States Africa Command, seen here at the 134th National Guard Association of the U.S. General Conference in Reno, Nev., Sept. 10, warned against military action in Mali. (Jim Greenhil / Army)
Just weeks after the deadly assault on the U.S. consulate and CIA station in Benghazi, Libya, the head of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) was for the first time given operational control over a dedicated special operations company that could be tasked with handling similar incidents in the future.
The commander’s in-extremis force (CIF) was stood up on Oct. 1, AFRICOM chief Gen. Carter Ham revealed during a talk at George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute on Dec. 3.
Until now, AFRICOM had been alone among the six U.S. geographic combatant commands without its own CIF. Before this, AFRICOM relied on the CIF assigned to the commander of the European Command.
One of the reasons given for the lack of military response during the attack on the American consulate and CIA station in Benghazi on Sept. 11 was that the special operations quick reaction unit staged in Europe was unable to get there in time.
The European-based CIF was on a training mission in Croatia when the call from the Pentagon came in, but within hours they had positioned to Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily, Italy, where they gathered up pre-positioned stocks and prepared to fly the 500 miles to Libya.
“Those forces worked as advertised, and they were in position,” Special Operations Command (SOCOM) deputy commander Lt. Gen. John Mulholland told a special operations conference in Washington Nov. 28. “I’ll leave it at that because other decisions came into play that perhaps aren’t privy to SOCOM.”
Coming back to the subject later in his talk, Mulholland would only say that once the CIF landed at Sigonella, “other decisions took place subsequent to that that other commanders can speak to.”
The unit designation and location of the AFRICOM CIF is unclear, but the 10th Special Forces Group is assigned to Africa and operates out of Stuttgart, Germany, and Fort Carson, Colo.
Ham’s speech otherwise avoided Benghazi, which was unsurprising given the political powder keg the subject remains.
Ham downplayed any active combat role for U.S. forces on the continent, however, saying “it’s best to think of us in a supporting and an enabling role.”
He did offer stark warnings about the radical Islamist threat in Mali, where a military coup dissolved the government, allowing radical elements to take over the northern portion of the country.
“As each day goes by, al-Qaida and other organizations are strengthening their hold in northern Mali,” the general said. “So there is a compelling need for the international community, led by Africans, to address that.”
His comments on the security situation in North Africa’s Sahara and Sahel region were no less stark, however.
There is a “growing linkage, a growing network and collaboration and synchronization among the various violent extremist organizations” in the region, he warned, “which I think poses the greatest threat to regional stability, more broadly across Africa, certainly into Europe, and to the United States,” he said.
And those threats are growing. Carter added that Boko Haram, an Islamic group in northern Nigeria, “is receiving financial support, some training, probably some explosives from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, in a relationship that goes both ways.”
The al-Qaida franchise is among the most well-funded among the international terror group’s branches, Ham said, raising money from kidnappings, extortion and illicit trafficking in fuel and other commodities, including running illegal drugs north to Europe.
On Nov. 13, the African Union agreed to send approximately 3,000 troops to northern Mali to battle the rebels.
Ham is preparing to leave Africa Command as soon as Army Gen. David Rodriguez, who has been tapped to replace him, is approved by the Senate. Rodriguez was nominated by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Oct. 18 to replace Ham, who has served at AFRICOM commander since March, 2011.