OVER THE ATLANTIC OCEAN - Defense Secretary James Mattis launched a four-nation Mideast tour Saturday amid growing concerns that ISIS is creeping more and more into Africa as it is chased out of Syria and the Mideast.
"Across Africa, we see increased concern about this," Mattis said aboard his plane on the way to his first stop in Cairo to meet with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. "In Syria, the enemy is collapsing. You simply can't move them out of one area and into the other areas around it."
Among the stops on Mattis' Mideast trip is a conference in Jordan on violent extremism in Africa, and ISIS concerns are expected to be a major point of discussion. He also plans stops in Kuwait and Pakistan to re-cement ties with majority Muslim partner nations in the fight against terrorism.
Mattis said one purpose of his visit to Cairo was "to express condolences after what happened in the Sinai, the murder of innocent people." A recent attack on a mosque in the Sinai Peninsula by 25-30 gunmen left 305 people dead. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but there is evidence it was carried out by an affiliate of ISIS.
"I don't know if I want to speak in numbers" of ISIS fighters in Africa, Mattis said, but "there is certainly an uptick in activity in the Sinai. We are working closely with Egypt on how they can best meet this common threat."
Samuel Werberg, press attaché of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, said the Egyptian government "wants to make sure people are aware these are very bad terrorists. At the same time, they don't want to go overboard and scare all the tourists away."
"We appreciate Egypt's counterterrorism cooperation," Mattis added. "We're all aware it's grown over the last year. Since I've been in, I've seen it grow, and I think if there is any kind of security buildup in Egypt, where a third of the Arab world lives, is good for the region as a whole."
Mattis also spoke about the threat in Africa on Thursday with Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of Libya's Government of National Accord, which controls Tripoli and most of the western portion of the African nation. He and al-Sarraj discussed "how we put together friends of Libya effort to support them" against future extremist threats such as ISIS.
"The European Union's been a big help. The Arab League, NATO, all contribute to the network that will deny them an opportunity in Africa."
"We don't want to wait for the local conditions to go south," he added.
Mattis' tour comes just days after Saudi Arabia gathered 40 Muslim countries in the first meeting of an Islamic counter-terrorism coalition. "In past years, terrorism has been functioning in all our countries . with no coordination among them," Crown Price Mohammed bin Salman said in a keynote speech.
The Gazette was invited to join Mattis' tour as part of a White House effort to include more journalists from outside the Beltway in the hopes of widening the perspectives of the press pool and reaching out more directly to Americans across the country, Mattis spokesman Jeff Davis said.
Mattis met the news that there was a correspondent from Colorado Springs on board with a wide smile.
"How you getting back? Need someone to take your bags for you?" Mattis asked.
"Anywhere west of the 100th meridian, that's where I'd rather be. That's home."
Mattis was born and raised in Washington state.