By Larry Shaughnessy
CNN Pentagon Producer
The man in charge of U.S. Africa Command calls growing cooperation between "the three most violent" Islamic extremists groups in Africa a concern for Africa and America.
Gen. Carter Ham, USAFRICOM commander, spoke Monday to a meeting of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
He spelled out three major threats from al Qaeda-linked groups facing Africa and the troops in his command.
"In Somalia especially, Al Shabaab's presence has denied delivery of United Nations" humanitarian assistance to the strife-torn nation, according to Ham.
"We're increasingly concerned about al Qaeda in the land of Islamic Maghreb, AQIM," Ham said. "AQIM now has essentially a safe haven in a large portion of Mali and is operating essentially unconstrained. And we have seen through media reporting, just as you have, in many cases very harsh imposition of Sharia law through much of northern Mali."
Regarding Nigeria, he said, "Of concern is the growing strength and growing violent behavior of what I would call the more extremist view of Boko Haram."
Ham said alone, each of these groups represents a risk to the region. But, he said, "What really concerns me are the indications that the three organizations are seeking to coordinate and synchronize their efforts, in other words to establish a cooperative effort amongst the three most violent organizations. And I think that's a problem for America and for African security in general."
He said AQIM and Boko Haram are getting particularly close, "in the terms of the indications we have that they are most likely sharing funds, training and explosive material, which can be quite, quite dangerous."
A week ago, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a series of bombings at Christian churches that killed at least 50 worshippers. According to Boko Haram's statement, "from now on, they either follow the right religion or there will be no peace for them."
Boko Haram wants to form a strict Islamic state in Nigeria, a nation that is almost evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. Most of its attacks have been against local targets, but last year it set off a car bomb at a United Nations facility in Abuja that killed more than 20 people.
Ham said that intelligence is one way USAFRICOM is trying to counteract extremism. "Do we collect information across Africa? Yes."
One result of that intelligence-gathering in Africa is a renewed concern about Libya. "The breakdown of security in Libya has generated a significant flow of militants and weapons and has decreased legitimate cross-border traffic at a time of great economic fragility and turbulence," Amanda Dory, the deputy assistant secretary of defense on African affairs, told the same group last week.
For all the threats on the African continent, Ham's command is based not in Africa, but in Stuttgart, Germany. And he expects it to stay there. One reason is that no African nation has made a big effort to host a headquarters for America's newest combatant command, which was started in 2008.
"A large permanent military presence on the continent of Africa is not what any of us desire. And the reality is that in this period of fiscal constraint, simply the cost of establishing a new headquarters would be extremely high and not a cost that I could recommend," Ham said.