US warns military takeovers in Africa's Sahel hamper fight against terrorism in the volatile region

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The United States warned Friday that the string of military takeovers in Africa’s Sahel region will hamper the fight against terrorism and demanded that Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers deny safe haven to terrorist groups including al-Qaida and the Islamic State.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told a U.N. Security Council meeting that the United States is focused on the increasing terrorism threat across Africa and continues providing its African partners with “critical assistance in disrupting and degrading” IS and al-Qaida affiliates.

The long-scheduled council meeting on combating terrorism took place days after the head of Russia’s Wagner Group, Yevgeny Progozhin, and top associates were reportedly killed in a plane crash after leaving Moscow. They had just returned from Africa where Wagner mercenaries are active in now military-ruled Mali and Burkina Faso, which face escalating terrorist threats.

Thomas-Greenfield was asked after the council meeting what the West should do to stabilize the situation in those countries and others in Africa where Wagner is active, including Libya, following Prigozhin’s death and uncertainty about the future of Wagner's African operations.

The U.S. ambassador had no comment on Prigozhin but said: “Our position on Wagner is very well known. Their actions and their activities in Africa are destabilizing, and we’ve encouraged countries in Africa to condemn their presence as well as their actions.”

In his briefing to the council, U.N. counter-terrorism chief Vladimir Voronkov reiterated that the threat from the Islamic State, also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, constitutes “a serious threat in conflict zones and neighboring countries.”

“In parts of Africa, the continued expansion of Daesh and affiliated groups, as well as the increasing level of violence and threat, remain deeply concerning,” he said.

Voronkov said the Daesh affiliate in the Sahel “is becoming increasingly autonomous and increasing attacks” in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, where the presidential guard took the elected president and his family hostage in July.

“The confrontations between this group and an al-Qaida affiliate in the region, coupled with the uncertain situation after the coup d’etat in the Niger, present a complex and multi-faceted challenge,” Voronkov said.

In Congo, he said, attacks by terrorists and armed groups have also increased along with their continuing clashes with government forces. He said that in the country’s volatile east some 500 people have perished due to terrorist violence.

The conflict in Sudan, which began in mid-April, also renewed attention “on the presence and activity of Daesh and other terrorist groups in that country,” Voronkov said.

Beyond Africa, he said, the situation “is growing increasingly complex” in Afghanistan, with weapons and ammunition falling into the hands of terrorists. The operational capabilities of the Daesh affiliate known as ISIL-K has reportedly increased, “with the group becoming more sophisticated in its attacks against the Taliban and international targets,” he said.

Voronkov also warned that the presence of some 20 terrorist groups in Afghanistan combined with the Taliban’s repressive measures, the lack of development “and a dire humanitarian situation pose significant challenges for the region and beyond.”

Russian deputy ambassador Maria Zabolotskaya blamed “the collective West’s intervention in the affairs of sovereign developing countries” and their “destructive role” for fueling the growth of terrorism. She claimed the West plundered the natural resources of these countries and only provided weak economic development and public administration.

She said foreign troops led by the United States were in Afghanistan for over 20 years “under the pretext of fighting terrorists” but they departed without defeating al-Qaida, leaving behind a huge quantity of weapons and military equipment. “And consequently, the Western weapons that were brought into the country to fight terrorism ended up among other places in the hands of the terrorists themselves,” she said.

Zabolotskaya claimed the Islamic State appeared in Africa as a result of the NATO-backed uprising in Libya that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 and plunged the country into chaos.

And she said the size of the Islamic State group’s emergence in the Middle East was “a direct result of the aggression of the United States and their coalition against Iraq” in March 2003. While IS has largely been defeated in Iraq and Syria, she said, “pockets of terrorist activity remain in areas illegally occupied by the U.S military.”

U.N. experts said in a report circulated on Aug. 14 that the Islamic State group still commands between 5,000 and 7,000 members across its former stronghold in Syria and Iraq and its fighters pose the most serious terrorist threat in Afghanistan today. The experts monitoring sanctions against the militant group also said that during the first half of 2023 that the threat posed by IS remained “mostly high in conflict zones and low in non-conflict areas.”