First-ever West Africa Joint Operations exercise a good step towards prosecuting terrorists


The US Bureau of Diplomatic Security held the first-ever West Africa Joint Operations regional exercise on 29 March 2021.

The exercise was aimed at connecting counterterrorism investigations with their judicial counterparts in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. Organised by the US Department of State’s Antiterrorism Assistance Program, also known as ATA, this exercise saw 80 law enforcement and judiciary officers take part.

This West Africa Joint Operations exercise focussed on gathering timely and accurate evidence while working with judicial authorities to ensure adherence to local laws. Julie Cabus, US Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s Deputy Assistant Secretary, said goals of the exercise included, “enhancing the investigative capacity and capability of units focused on terrorism cases in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger; ensuring investigations adhere to the rule of law and the principles of human rights; and facilitating regional cross-border cooperation by sharing best practices.”

Cabus added that initial feedback from the exercise was very encouraging as these West African countries try to handle the increasing number of terrorism cases and suspects in their custody.

ATA is the US Government’s premier provider of counterterrorism training and equipment grants to foreign law enforcement.  Since its creation in 1983, ATA has delivered counterterrorism training to more than 150 000 law enforcement officials and first responders from more than 150 countries. The US Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism provides ATA with funding and policy guidance, and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s Diplomatic Security Service conducts training and equipment deliveries in each country. Cabus said, “The Department of Justice’s Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance, and Training was also a key contributor to the success of this training and exercise.”

Responding to a question posed during a telephonic press briefing on the exercise, Michael Gonzales, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs, spoke about links between what is happening in West Africa and the problems in Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique. “In terms of the dynamics we see on the ground, yes, I think there is many, many similarities.  There are extremists who are identifying regions that have long faced lack of governance or have been very isolated or remote from the centre, from the capitals, from responsive governance in their countries, where social grievances exist, and they’ve manipulated that in order to advance their cause and their efforts.

“In terms of tangible links or coordination between ISIS-Mozambique and the ISIS or al-Qaida groups that we see in West Africa, no, we don’t see that very manifestly.  We certainly do see ISIS-Mozambique coordinating with ISIS-Central Africa Province as well as with ISIS-al Shabaab based out of Somalia.  But in terms of the more tangible links between West Africa and ISIS-Mozambique, we don’t see those.  But again, the drivers that are enabling factors that lead to violent extremists to take advantage of these kinds of situations certainly do share the many similarities between the two regions.”