The United States, primarily through its Africa Command (Africom) continues to combat terrorism and extremism on the continent in spite of the coronavirus pandemic, especially as it sees terrorism expanding along Africa’s east coast.
The US Department of State recently held a special digital briefing with commander of US Special Operations Command Africa, Major General Dagvin Anderson, to discuss US partnerships with African nations to reduce extremism, combat terrorist organisations, and bring about peace and prosperity throughout the African continent.
Anderson said African countries are dealing with many threats at the moment such as food insecurity, droughts and locust swarms in East Africa on top of COVID-19. Humanitarian crises are fuel for terrorists which is something US Africa Command is watching closely and looking at addressing holistically not only via the military but through a whole of government approach.
Over the past five years, violent extremist organisations have been taking advantage of peoples’ grievances, as seen with Al-Qaida’s deliberate campaign to expand its reach, especially into the West. “We’ve seen that they’ve taken advantage of this also by closing schools, so they – they take away the future. They eliminate that future by shutting down these schools: over 9 000 schools across Africa shut down; 3 000 in Mali and Burkina Faso,” said Anderson. This raises the question of future development and opportunities for the people living in these regions. What is even more alarming is the question of what happens when these violent extremist organisations replace those schools with their ideology and teachings.
In West Africa, with the fastest growing humanitarian crises in the Sahel, al-Qaida seeks to methodically entrench itself into society and into the Azawad area of northern Mali. Anderson said this is a deliberate strategy. “They are not looking to advertise what they are doing and then what we’ve seen them do is they’ve expanded now in Mali, but now into northern Burkina Faso, where they attacked infrastructure, then they took out local governance and security forces, and now they are using that, their presence, to control the local economy and exert their control over the population.” Anderson added that al-Qaida is continuing to move further south in Burkina Faso, towards nations in the Gulf of Guinea as well as further west towards Senegal and West Africa.
Smaller, local terrorist groups with grievances against their government are being galvanized into a larger ideology and a larger movement which Anderson said is a concern to Africom. This is seen as the Islamic State (IS) moves down the east coast of Africa, establishing affiliates, leveraging local grievances and consolidating into their larger movement in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Mozambique and Somalia. Anderson believes that as the IS and al-Qaida lose ground and momentum in Syria and Iraq, they are now looking towards Africa to re-establish themselves. “And we can’t forget that al-Qaida has African roots and has a lot of African connection as well that we need to be conscious of and need to understand how do we counter that,” added Anderson.
Africom has great concern for Somalia with al-Shabaab driving instability in the region. There is progress, however, in the Lower Shabelle, where Africom has worked with the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), the Somali Armed Forces, the United Kingdom and Turkey to restore stability and provide training and support to allied armed forces.
Anderson said limited progress is being made in the Sahel with a partnership between US forces in Niger and French forces in Mali, stating, “They had some momentum at the end of the year moving towards the tri-border region there with Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The French have done a fabulous job of pushing them back, and, honestly, the US, French, and the partnership there allowed the elimination of Droukdel, the number four leader of al-Qaida, one of their senior leaders.” Droukdel was treated as an equal within the community and it took a significant cooperative international effort to eliminate him.
African partners have come together with the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) and with the G5 in the Sahel, which Anderson said is making slow, fragile progress. More recently, the Takuba Task Force, an international effort to advise the Malian Armed Forces so they can be more effective to take on the terrorist threat, has been launched. This year, Exercise Flintlock was hosted by Mauritania and Senegal. It is designed to bring multiple countries together in order to help build their capacity and their ability to fight terrorism, which also builds connectivity between European and African countries. Anderson said there was very strong engagement from the Senegalese military, adding, “I got to go meet with several of their leaders, all very acutely attuned to the threat that’s moving through Mali and that is approaching their eastern border.”
Anderson said due to terrorists engaging in a civilian-centric model, civil-military relations is a vital component of the multi-faceted training that Africom conducts with its partners. Anderson praised Senegal for its strong effort in civil-military relations, saying, “They have a very strong history of a moderate Islamic culture, and they are working with those religious leaders in order to buffer and in order to help create an environment that’s not conducive to the VEOs [Violent Extremist Organisations]. And that’s really – that is just as critical as anything the military can do.”
“You can’t just solve with one tool, and that tool means you use nongovernment organizations, you use aid, development, economic development – all come together to get after this problem, and it means that you harness the wisdom of crowds, the wisdom of what multiple people and multiple organizations bring, because no one group, no one nation is going to have the solution to this very difficult problem,” Anderson said of terrorism and insecurity in Africa.
In October 2017, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, a Sahrawi Islamic militant and leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, led the Tongo Tongo ambush against Nigerien and US soldiers outside the village of Tongo Tongo, Niger, killing five Nigerian and four US soldiers. Anderson said he is one of many VEO leaders Africom is pursuing. Anderson stated that, similarly to how they were able to eliminate Droukdel, a cooperative effort from multiple countries is key. “And that’s where I see this going after whether it’s Sahrawi, whether it’s Droukdel, or other leaders that are in the region, terrorist leaders. We partner to go after them, and we can – no one nation can do that alone. So, I think it’s important to emphasize the criticality of that partnership, and sometimes that partnership is behind the scenes and quiet, but nonetheless, it is vital.” Africom is also pursuing the leadership of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin and al-Qaida affiliates in the Western Sahel.
In southern Africa, Anderson said the insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado may be local but could be drawing inspiration from outside actors, notably Islamic State. “The reason we believe that is we have seen them over the last 12 to 18 months develop in their capabilities, become more aggressive, and use techniques and procedures that are common in other parts of the world – in the Middle East – that are associated with Islamic State.” He added that the media releases and media engagements have the “fingerprints and hallmarks” of Islamic State.
Anderson also explained that it is important that firstly, Mozambique takes the lead in engaging the insurgency with the support of other countries in the region and secondly, that there is not only a military engagement but also law, developmental and economic engagements which the US government is providing support for. Africom is working with the government and US embassy in Mozambique to further asses and understand how that threat is developing.
“Other countries in the region will need to engage: Tanzania, Malawi, and others will need to help because…the terrorists know no borders. They will cross borders. They will engage. They will seek safe havens and refuges where they can in order to continue to disrupt the region,” Anderson said.
In terms of training and assistance, Africom will continue to engage with its partners across Africa to combat VEOs. Eastern countries under threat from al-Shabaab (Somalia, Kenya Ethiopia and Uganda) will continue with the training they receive. In West Africa, Anderson stated Niger has built a very capable special operations force along with a promising leadership development programme. “The partner has to have the will to engage. They have to have the will to take this training and develop it. Niger is, I think, a shining example of a partner who may not have a lot of resources but has the will to take what is provided to them by the international community and use it to great effect.”
Private military contractors
A concern for Anderson is private military contractors (PMCs) who may not be abiding by the laws of armed conflict and human rights. While he understands why countries look to PMCs, Andersons stated different actors may have their own motives and may bring corrosive effects with them. “I don’t believe what we’ve seen with the Wagner Group has been responsible at all. Russia is directly engaged with them. I see them as being very corrosive. I see them as being detrimental to what should be a common international threat. Unfortunately, what we see is they’re fueling the conflict in Libya.” Anderson added that they are bringing in state-provided weapon systems. The lack of transparency and oversight of Wagner Group and other PMCs is also a concern for Anderson.
The coronavirus pandemic has been hugely disruptive to the African continent, especially with regard to peacekeeping operations and other deployments as movement has been curtailed. Anderson said Africom and its partners are taking extra precautions such as social distancing and using personal protective equipment but COVID-19 has not affected their operations.
Al-Shabaab made statements that the disease is only a threat to non-believers, Anderson said, “but yet we have seen that some of their leaders not only have contracted COVID but have died from COVID.” In Senegal, a field hospital that Africom provided is being used to treat COVID-19 patients.
Anderson said COVID-19 has been a huge disruption, but US Special Operations Forces stayed engaged and did not leave the continent. “We did not walk away from our partners. We stayed engaged. We continued to put pressure on these violent extremists throughout COVID.”
Anderson concluded his remarks by saying that to adequately address and prevent terrorism, a country must use the wisdom of the international community and engage in the underlying problems that violent extremist organisations prey upon. “If we’re only going to try to kill terrorist leaders, if we’re only going to try to dismantle their organizations, then we’re not fully addressing the problem. We have to look at those third and fourth order social effects, economic development, health issues – all of these things that the extremists prey upon that give them a foothold in order to separate them from a legitimate government.”