By CNN National Security Producer Jamie Crawford
While the newest U.S. regional military command may be "small potatoes" in the current budget debates gripping Washington, Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, says it is essential for national security that the United States remain engaged in Africa.
"What keeps me awake at night is the thought of an American passport holder who transits through a training camp in Somalia and then finds their way back to the United States to attack Americans," Ham said Tuesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
That type of "mission failure" figures most prominently in Ham's mind in a role he has only held for little more than six months.
And while Libya is busy forming a new government, Ham said, there are some "worrying indicators" that advanced mobile weaponry left in Libya in the aftermath of Moammer Gadhafi's ouster has found its way into neighboring countries.
In his meetings with leaders of Libya's governing National Transition Council, he said, they say they recognize that concern and "understand their responsibilities" to control the weapons, and the work needed to regain those that have fallen outside their control.
The State Department has established a task force operating with partners in the region to address the concern of weapons from Libya crossing borders.
East Africa, where the most "negative security issues" on the continent are present, is the "highest priority" region, Ham said.
With its close proximity to the Arabian peninsula, the "growing relationship" between Al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda-inspired terrorist group based in Somalia, and the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are of great concern, he said. The ongoing threat of Somali-based piracy, along with a large cycle of famine and death sweeping through the region add, to the instability in the region.
There are other regions in Africa that present large security threats to the United States, Ham said, and these demand cooperation in building the capacity to prevent possible future attacks against U.S. citizens and attacks on the United States itself.
He said al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a "small" but "growing organization," has created a high degree of instability in the Sahel region, which stretches across sub-Sahara Africa, with a determined focus of attacking and kidnapping Westerners for ransom.
On Tuesday, the State Department issued a travel warning advising U.S. citizens against travel to Mali due to the kidnapping threat posed by the terrorist group. The State Department also reiterated threats against U.S. citizens in neighboring Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger.
Boko Haram, a terrorist organization that seeks the imposition of Islamic law in Nigeria, is "transforming" its focus from more internal grievances directed at the Nigerian state to one intent on targeting Western interests. The group's car bombing of a United Nations building in Abuja last month killed 23 people and injured more than 80.
That event "largely put to rest" any question of Boko Haram's future direction, Ham said.
While each terrorist group based in Africa presents its own individual concern and threat to U.S. interests, Ham said their stated intent to synchronize efforts creates new challenges for the United States, and reinforces the need for U.S. military and civilian assistance, to help build stronger defense and government response capabilities across the continent.
With fiscal austerity taking precedence on every budget decision on Capitol Hill these days, Ham acknowledged the "tough sell" for spending money in Africa as opposed to the United States. But he believes the "relatively small effort paid in prevention and deterrence" to build capacity for African governments to prevent hostilities from emerging would reduce future instances that would call for direct U.S. involvement.
"There is a very real threat to America from these violent organizations that exist in Africa," who want to attack America, Ham said. "We've got to do all that we can to prevent that from occurring."