Washington (CNN)ISIS and al Qaeda represent major threats and are growing in strength in West Africa according to the commander of US special operations in Africa, Maj. Gen. Marcus Hicks.
US warns of growing African terror threat
"The al Qaeda and ISIS inspired threats in Lake Chad Basin and here in the Sahel are very real and continue to grow in strength," Hicks told CNN, referring to two regions in western Africa.
Hicks was speaking via phone from Niger where he was attending Flintlock 18, a major military exercise involving 1,900 elite special operations and counterterrorism troops from 21 African and western countries.
"Both ISIS and al Qaeda franchises here should be taken seriously, they both have either carried out or attempted attacks on western interests in Africa, and they both have aspirations to continue attacks on western interests here, and then to attack the west beyond here," Hicks said.
But while he labeled both groups threats, Hicks said that al Qaeda represented the bigger concern due to its ability to plan for the long term.
"What concerns me most specifically is al Qaeda, because I believe that al Qaeda-associated threats here, so al Shabaab and JNIM and the other offshoots of formerly known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, are taking direction from al Qaeda core and are sort of walking through the al Qaeda playbook to develop clandestine infrastructure, and I think they have a disciplined, patient approach to building a base that will allow them to form a caliphate when the time is right," Hicks said referring to the terror group's Somalia, Mali and North Africa based affiliates.
The biggest al Qaeda affiliate is al Shabaab in Somalia where the terror group commands some 4,000-6,000 active fighters, according to the US military, making it one of al Qaeda's largest affiliates. US Navy Seals advise local Somali security forces battling al Shabaab while the Trump administration has also conducted dozens of targeted airstrikes against the group.
JNIM, the Mali-based al Qaeda affiliate, has approximately 800 fighters. France has thousands of troops in Mali, helping local forces combat JNIM and other extremist groups.
Officials are also concerned about ISIS affiliates in Libya, the Sahel, the Lake Chad Basin, and Somalia, particularly the prospect of foreign fighters leaving Iraq and Syria and joining these newer affiliates.
The two groups in the Lake Chad Basin, which includes Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad include Boko Haram and ISIS West Africa. The US military believes Boko Haram fields approximately 1,500 and ISIS West Africa approximately 3,500.
"As the physical caliphate collapses, where those fighters go is a question. There are already sub-pockets again both in the Sahel, in Libya, in Lake Chad Basin and a small one in Somalia where those ISIS fighters could find themselves." US Air Force Col. Craig Miller, an officer in Special Operations Command Africa, told CNN.
"The threat is increasing at different rates and different volumes depending on where you are at in the theater in Africa," a US military official familiar with US operations in Africa told CNN.
Hicks said that exercises like Flintlock highlight the strategy of working "by, with and through" local African partners as they seek to combat both terror organizations.
However, even this supporting role carries risk something underscored in October when four US soldiers were killed in an ambush by some 50 ISIS-affiliated fighters while advising Nigerien troops near the Niger-Mali border. On Thursday the Pentagon confirmed that the investigation into the incident by US Africa Command has been completed and the results are expected to be made public in the near future.