The United States is increasingly focusing attention on ways to combat terrorism and other security concerns in Africa. But at a recent symposium in Washington, four experts said more focus on Africa is needed to eliminate the conditions where terrorism thrives. Washington has known for some time that terrorists were active in parts of Africa. Osama bin Laden lived in Sudan in the 1990s, while building up the al-Qaida terrorist network, blamed for the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States and for earlier attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
In the past two years, the United States has established a military base in Djibouti, a tiny Horn of Africa country near several of the continent's most troubled nations: Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan. But analysts at the conference in Washington Tuesday said it will take more than military presence to uncover would-be terrorists and their plots.
Douglas Farah, of the National Strategy Information Center, described how Osama bin Laden's network used weak law enforcement systems in West Africa to build up its defenses and hide its financial assets with illegal trading in weapons and jewels. A former reporter, he said it's not only the scarcity of intelligence that hinders anti-terrorism efforts, but the way available information is handled.
"For me, the most disquieting thing has been the lack of receptivity in the intelligence community to information that they did not generate themselves, and efforts to downplay or dismiss it," said Mr. Farah.
Policy analyst Jonathan Schanzer agreed, and added that increased disclosure of information from African governments would help.
"I think, if we knew what we were dealing with, we'd have a better time coming up with good solutions," he said.
But former U.S. Ambassador David Shinn, who served in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Sudan and a number of other countries, says factors such as poverty and social injustice, porous borders and competition for scarce resources contribute directly to terrorism. He said the United States' approach fails to address these key issues.
"The major focus now is on short-term and, to some extent, medium-term fixes of the problem," explained Ambassador Shinn. "Catch bad guys, do training, but there is relatively little focus on the long term."
U.S. officials say they are working on increasing cooperation and information-sharing in the region.
Risk assessment expert Phillip van Niekerk sided with Mr. Shinn, saying long-term thinking is the key to stemming terrorism in Africa.
"Draining the swamp," he said. "Dealing with the corruption and the underlying factors that are causing this enormous disenchantment and this long-term threat in the region."
Mr. Shinn added that lesser efforts amount to fighting the problem's symptoms, rather than its cause.