Opinion Pieces

OP-ED: Confront the threat in Africa

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Washington, May 6, 2015 | comments


By Representative Kathleen Rice

As a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, as a former federal and state prosecutor, and as a New Yorker, my top priority is to protect our country and do all that I can to make sure we never see another day like September 11. Keeping Americans safe demands diligence here at home, but it also demands that we protect our people and interests abroad and work alongside leaders far beyond our borders who are fighting every day against enemies that threaten the security of the United States.

I recently returned home after spending several days in Africa. Our delegation, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), met with leaders in Tunisia, Chad, Djibouti, Kenya and Senegal. Those we met with are on the front lines of the fight to protect their nations and their people from the threat of violent extremist groups. It was clear to me that the security of our nation depends on their success.

Each of the countries we visited faces unique security challenges. In Tunisia, where terrorists recently killed 21 civilians and one Tunisian police officer in an attack at Bardo Museum, leaders are trying to maintain a fragile democratic experiment amid widespread instability in neighboring Libya and concerns about foreign fighters returning home after receiving training from extremist groups abroad. In Kenya, where members of the Somalia-based group Al Shabab massacred nearly 150 college students in April, economic marginalization and long-standing ethnic and political grievances continue to complicate counter-radicalization efforts in parts of the country. In Chad, a land-locked country that relies on trade routes through Nigeria and Cameroon, military forces have crossed into Nigeria to reclaim key territory that had been seized and controlled by Boko Haram.

As we talked with leaders in government, military and civil society and learned about each country’s security needs and priorities, what was common was not only their desire for continued robust American support, but their unmitigated eagerness to engage and dialogue with American leaders. What struck me most was that they were so grateful that we had come, grateful that we wanted to spend time listening and learning and exchanging ideas. They’re fighting battles for the futures of their countries, and we were there to make sure that they know we will always stand alongside them to stare down evil.

If we want to protect the American homeland and prevent acts of terrorism on our soil, then it should not be rare for American lawmakers to stand on African soil and engage with the people who are fighting our enemies and working to stop the spread of radical ideologies that inspire attacks on Americans and peaceful populations across the globe. There’s no doubt that radical Islamic extremism is a major threat in many places around the world, but it’s especially crucial that we confront that threat on the African continent. Africa is where we find the roots of radicalization, and Africa is where we have an opportunity to sever those roots.

The resources, time and energy we invest to support counterterrorism and counter-radicalization efforts in Africa are direct investments in our domestic security. We must be fully and perpetually committed to providing the training, equipment and logistical support our allies in Africa need. But it can’t end there.

Military action alone will not stop terrorists from exploiting marginalized communities as fertile ground for radicalization. We must be equally committed to investing in economic development and education, supporting the development of free and open civil societies, and using American influence and geopolitical leverage to push for democratic reforms. We must exert pressure on our partners to take a more effective approach to security and counterterrorism, and to see those on our side in Africa as crucial assets in the effort to prevent radicalization and acts of terrorism.

This effort is not just a job for the executive branch or our military leaders. Members of Congress must embrace this compact and we must prioritize these global political and financial investments in our security. Whether our African partners succeed or fail in countering violent extremists has major implications for the security of the United States and the safety of our people. Now is not the time for shortsighted isolationism.

Sen. Gillibrand recognizes this truth more than anyone in Congress, and I hope for the sake of our nation’s security that more of our colleagues will follow her lead.

Rice has represented New York’s 4th Congressional District since 2015. She sits on the Homeland Security and the Veterans’ Affairs committees.

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