Congress seeks more control over North Africa counterterror program

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Article Summary
Lawmakers want a coherent strategy for the desert region from the Donald Trump administration.

The House is set to vote on a bill this week that would formally institutionalize a North African counterterrorism program — and give lawmakers more control over the initiative.

The Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Act, sponsored by House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, directs the Donald Trump administration to coordinate on counterterror programs with several North African and Sahel governments.

The George W. Bush administration formally started the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) in 2005, but McCaul’s bill makes it permanent. It also exerts greater congressional oversight over the program and pushes the Trump administration to clarify its strategy in the region.

“My bill codifies this partnership and allows the TSCTP to confront the ever-growing threat of terrorism in Africa,” McCaul wrote in an op-ed in The National Interest in September. “Furthermore, the bill requires the State Department, US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Defense Department to coordinate counterterrorism strategy with our African partners and deliver that strategy to Congress.”

Under the program, the United States provides military, law enforcement and logistical support to US partners in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Cameroon and Burkina Faso.

McCaul’s bill unanimously cleared the House Foreign Affairs Committee in September, highlighting the bipartisan anxiety over what many lawmakers consider to be the Trump administration’s relative inattention to the region. As hundreds of former Islamic State (IS) fighters return to North Africa following the collapse of their would-be caliphate in Iraq and Syria, McCaul and other legislators fear the region could become the next major hotbed for militant groups to plot terrorist attacks abroad.

“Today, it is estimated that 10,000 [IS] and al-Qaeda jihadists have already set up camp across the continent,” McCaul wrote in the op-ed. “This is in addition to Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and other extremist groups that have been fomenting violence and spreading terror for many years.”

McCaul also noted that the Pentagon is “openly considering troop cuts and scaled back missions in Central and West Africa,” arguing that “such cuts would make these partnerships even more vital.”

In an effort to take more ownership over the trans-Sahara initiative, the bill also requires the State Department to submit a detailed notification to Congress 15 days before obligating funds for any activity under the program. It also requires the State Department, Defense Department and USAID to submit “a comprehensive, interagency strategy” on how the Trump administration will use the program to counter terrorism in North Africa and the Sahel.

Congress had already asked the Trump administration for a more general North Africa strategy in its fiscal year 2018 spending bill, which passed in March, including a section on how US assistance dollars in North Africa would be prioritized to “address economic and security needs.”

The program has been a rare exception to the Trump administration’s efforts to slash foreign assistance.

Both this year and last, the State Department requested at least $14 million more in funding for the program than the Barack Obama administration did in its final budget request. This year the State Department asked Congress for $35 million, well over the $20 million the Obama administration requested in 2016.

But Congress wants to go even further in funding the program. This year’s pending House foreign aid spending bill sets aside $94 million for the program while the pending Senate bill designates $58 million, virtually guaranteeing that Congress will invest far more than the $35 million sought by the State Department.

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Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM, Email: bharris@al-monitor.com.

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