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As terrorism threats grow, FBI director makes rare visit to Africa

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FBI Director Christopher A. Wray made a rare visit to sub-Saharan Africa this week to discuss counterterrorism strategy with regional partners as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda grow in power in the region.

Mr. Wray, who met with officials from Kenya and Nigeria, repeated his warning that the United States and its allies around the world were “operating in a highly threatening environment,” heightened by the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

“The main reason I’m visiting these two countries is to raise awareness of threats on the African continent that have serious implications for the United States homeland but are not being taken as seriously as they should be,” Mr. Wray said in a telephone interview from Nigeria on Friday. “For several years, groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda have considered Africa to be a fertile territory.”

In fact, U.S. intelligence officials estimate that Al Shabaab in Somalia has between 7,000 and 12,000 members and annual revenues (including income taxed or extorted from civilians) of about $120 million, making it the largest and wealthiest al-Qaeda affiliate in the world.

“Al-Shabaab is, in many ways, one of the most dangerous foreign terrorist organizations,” Mr. Wray said.

Meanwhile, some groups in West Africa The forces that have pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are growingMilitary coups overthrew civilian governments in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger. The new leaders ordered the withdrawal of American and French troops, sometimes even inviting Russian mercenaries to replace them.

As a result, U.S. officials are working to work with a group of new nations along West Africa’s coast to combat a violent extremist insurgency that is steadily spreading southward.

Mr. Wray said discussions between U.S. and African officials in Kenya and Nigeria this week focused on overlapping interests and ways to address common threats.

“Addressing the threat posed by groups like al-Shabaab and ISIS is absolutely beyond the capacity of any one institution or even any one government to handle alone,” he said.

Officials said Mr. Wray’s visit to Kenya was the first by an FBI director in 15 years. It follows President Biden’s Reception of Kenyan President William RutoThe White House held a state dinner and pledged to designate the country as a “major ally outside of NATO,” a move that reflects the White House’s determination to deepen ties with the East African nation even as other countries, including Russia and China, are competing to do the same.

The FBI has worked closely with Kenyans to hunt down al-Qaeda operatives since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In 2020, the FBI and State Department helped Kenya establish Terrorism Task Force The task force was modeled after those the bureau has relied on in cities across the United States. According to the FBI, this is the bureau’s first joint counterterrorism task force outside the United States

The FBI also has an agent stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi to investigate terrorism and other crimes.

In West Africa’s Sahel region, U.S. officials say they are changing their approach to fighting an insurgency rooted in local concerns. Fights for land, political exclusion and other local issues have swelled the ranks of militants, far less driven by a commitment to extremist ideology.

“When you look across the region, and more broadly across West Africa, we continue to be concerned about the instability and the impact that may have on the ability of terrorist groups to exploit that situation,” said Mr. Wray, the first FBI director to visit Nigeria.

“That’s why we’re very focused on working very closely with our partners in Nigeria and a number of other countries and being as vigilant as possible,” he said.

Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates in Africa focus their attacks on the region, rather than Europe or the United States. However, Mr. Ray noted that an al-Shabaab operative was He was accused of conspiracy a few years ago. Hijack a plane and crash it into a building in the United States in an attack similar to 9/11.

“In addition to the threats they pose to Westerners and our interests in Africa, we are also very alert to the possibility that their plans and intentions could change at any time,” Mr. Wray said. “So, while these are ‘foreign’ threats, Americans should not view them as distant problems.”

Adam Goldman Contributed reporting.

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