STUTTGART, Germany — When former President George W. Bush announced the formation of U.S. Africa Command in 2007, the idea was that it would be a new, friendlier American military face: a combatant command focused more on partnerships than fighting.
“Africa Command is not going to reflect a U.S. intent to engage kinetically in Africa. This is about prevention. This is not about fighting wars,” Theresa Whelan, then-assistant defense secretary for African affairs, said during the command’s October 2007 start-up.
But 10 years later, AFRICOM has turned into something more like a mini-U.S. Central Command than the low-intensity, soft-power oriented Southern Command — the early model for military efforts in Africa.
The flurry of recent high-profile, hard-power measures in parts of Africa, where five servicemembers have been killed in combat in the past six months, raises questions about AFRICOM’s role as the Pentagon’s soft touch.
“I think there are things that have changed in the command, and more importantly there are things that have changed in Africa,” said Joseph Mason, AFRICOM’s command historian, reflecting on how AFRICOM has evolved over 10 years.
During the past year, AFRICOM has launched 500 airstrikes against militants in Libya and conducted more than a dozen precision attacks on extremists in Somalia, where a Navy SEAL was killed in May.
The deaths last week of four U.S. soldiers, ambushed in a sprawling but obscure swath of territory in Niger, highlights how the AFRICOM mission has intensified since the early days.
At the outset, critics and skeptics of the Pentagon’s plan to set up a headquarters solely focused on Africa warned of the dangers of a militarization of foreign policy there. Much of the early concerns, often voiced by officials on the African continent and development organizations, resulted in widespread speculation that the U.S. would move large numbers of troops to the continent to set up a new headquarters.
Compared to other regions, the military footprint in Africa remains hard to quantify because forces rotate in and out of the continent on missions. At any given time, several thousand troops operate in Africa, according to publicly released estimates.
To counter such concerns, U.S. officials during AFRICOM’s early days talked up its unique structure, which includes a staff that is almost half civilian. It also contains numerous slots for officials from other government agencies in the command structure and touts a civilian deputy to the four-star chief.
AFRICOM’s focus on “African solutions to African problems” meant the U.S. was there to help militaries in their quest to professionalize and become more effective in providing security.
“We are not at war in Africa. Nor do we expect to be at war in Africa. Our embassies and AFRICOM will work in concert to keep it that way,” Jendayi Frazer, former assistant secretary of state for Africa, said in 2007.
The effort to soften and almost demilitarize the command’s image was reflected by AFRICOM not using traditional J-code nomenclature, a system that divides command responsibilities using cryptic military acronyms. “I think it was sold that way, and there was a genuineness to that,” Mason said.
While combat operations have surged over the past 12 months, AFRICOM officials still emphasize that the essence of its missions remains unchanged — training local militaries to handle their own security concerns. Most of the original structure is still intact even as AFRICOM adapts to a new threat environment, Mason said.
AFRICOM now conducts scores of annual training events on the continent, which can range from large-scale multinational exercises to small-unit efforts focused on improving tactics. Each year, AFRICOM conducts about 3,500 exercises and training programs, according to AFRICOM boss Gen. Thomas Waldhauser.
Since 2007, “AFRICOM has made great strides … maturing into an organization viewed by many today as ‘value added’ to the challenges we face,” said Waldhauser during a recent speech to Africa policy analysts.
AFRICOM’s focus, he said, continues to be “by, with and through” African partners.
But conditions on the ground have become more fraught in Africa, and U.S. policy has changed in response, showcasing more willingness to take lethal measures as AFRICOM aligns with fragile governments in Libya and Somalia to conduct airstrikes and occasional raids.
In 2014, then-President Barack Obama set up a $5 billion counterterrorism fund for efforts in Africa, which set the groundwork for more robust operations. President Donald Trump has granted expanded authorities to AFRICOM to make decisions on when to conduct strikes in Somalia.
While open talk of combat operations was an institutional taboo at AFRICOM’s outset, AFRICOM now publicizes many of its operations, releasing tallies of strikes.
“The threats have evolved and U.S. government policy has evolved,” Mason said.
A gradual evolution
Around 2010, traditional military J codes were put in place to line up with other combatant commands, a small but notable step as AFRICOM matured.
In 2011, the Arab Spring brought chaos to Libya. AFRICOM conducted its first major combat mission there, leading the initial wave of airstrikes that helped overthrow Moammar Gadhafi. After-action reviews of the operation, however, exposed that AFRICOM wasn’t structured to lead in a crisis. Numerous reforms were made, including the establishment of a new joint operations center at AFRICOM’s Kelley Barracks headquarters in Stuttgart.
Efforts to assemble a more agile headquarters were on display when AFRICOM helped coordinate the U.S. response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Liberia, which involved the mobilization of about 2,800 U.S. troops, Mason said.
In 2012, the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, highlighted other holes in the command, which didn’t have forces in close enough proximity to conduct rescue operations on a diplomatic facility targeted by militants. In response, AFRICOM has set up small outposts scattered around the continent, where troops can be mobilized and rotated during a crisis. Today, there are about a dozen such facilities, including two in Niger, where the U.S. has about 800 troops, according to AFRICOM.
Meanwhile, during the past year, the resurgence of al-Shabab in Somalia and signs of the Islamic State in Libya have been AFRICOM’s primary focus. In Libya, a U.S. air campaign conducted over several months late last year helped local forces push militants out of a key stronghold in Sirte. AFRICOM officials continue to monitor the region and have promised more strikes will be carried out as needed.
“Our mission statement describes our three main tasks: to build defense capabilities, respond to crisis, and deter and defeat transnational threats,” Waldhauser said. “As you might expect, the last of these, to deter and defeat transnational threats, is something we focus a good deal of our attention on.”
Funding al-Shabaab: How aid money ends up in terror group’s hands
Baidoa, Somalia (CNN)The murderous al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab is making millions of dollars each year by exploiting foreign aid money sent to Somalia by the very western nations who are trying to eliminate the terror group.
A CNN investigation has revealed how money given directly by the United Nations to people displaced by conflict and famine is ending up in the hands of Africa’s oldest terrorist organization.
Former members of al-Shabaab and Somali intelligence agents said the terror group is extorting thousands of dollars per day through road blocks and taxes on merchants attempting to transport food and supplies to sell to internally displaced people in towns where they are concentrated.
People who have fled their homes and are living in a sprawling camp in the central Somali city of Baidoa are screened by the UN and issued cash cards that the UN tops up with around $80 to $90 each month, enabling them to buy essentials from local merchants.
UN officials say this direct payment system will avoid distorting local markets by flooding them with free food, and relieve the UN of the burden of running food convoys that are vulnerable to attacks and theft.
Businessmen now truck food bought on the open market to places like Baidoa, where internally displaced people (IDPs) arrive every day. But they must pay al-Shabaab, which controls the main road into the town, to move their goods.
Former members of the terror group and Somali intelligence agents said that tolls taken from trucks and other vehicles at just two al-Shabaab roadblocks on Somalia’s busiest road raked in thousands every day. The UN has estimated that a single roadblock generated about $5,000 per day on the road to Baidoa.
Speaking at a secret location on the outskirts of Baidoa, a former zaqat (tax) collector for al-Shabaab, who was captured in a recent raid by agents from Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency, confirmed that the extraction of tolls at roadblocks was one of the biggest sources of money for al-Shabaab.
The two biggest sources were the road to Baidoa and the main artery which connects the capital Mogadishu with the agriculturally-rich Lower Shabelle region.
The gouging is more subtle today than it was in the early 1990s, when local warlords deliberately starved hundreds of thousands of Somalis in order to profit from international aid money. Scenes of mass death on the streets of Baidoa in 1992 provoked the United States to lead a multinational UN-backed military intervention in the same year.
In Baidoa back then, a truck known as the Death Bus collected around 100 bodies a day, all of them skeletal from starvation, from the dusty streets of the town every morning.
Aid organizations were so desperate to help that they paid warlords to permit access to starving victims. Until Western nations intervened, the warlords worked to sustain the famine in order to keep the aid money flowing into their coffers — effectively exploiting desperate people to turn a profit.
Back then, organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross had to pay for armed guards — the ICRC spent $100,000 a week on protection in Mogadishu.
The money went into the hands of mere gangsters — not international terrorist organizations, who are less forgiving when their debts go unpaid.
In 2018, if local merchants don’t pay up, “they’re captured and killed,” said a former al-Shabaab fighter who collected tax for eight years and now works with Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency.
Speaking in a secret location in Baidoa, he explained how for every sack of rice delivered to the city by private merchants, al-Shabaab would cream off about $3 in tolls, taking nearly half the difference in the price of a sack that sells for $18 in Mogadishu and $26 in Baidoa.
On top of that the merchants are then forced to pay an annual tax to al-Shabaab — even in towns and cities that are not under the group’s control, like Baidoa and Mogadishu.
These allegations have been confirmed by the regional government and the president of the South West State of Somalia, Hssan Sheikh Ada.
Michael Keating, the UN’s head of country, acknowledged the scam but said that most of the foreign aid still reached its intended destination.
“Unfortunately those in need, and those who are going to be targeted by humanitarian organizations to receive assistance, do become attractive for those trying to make money, and there will be all sorts of scams going on,” said Keating, a veteran UN official with years of experience in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
“To deny it is happening would be wrong, but I think to take examples of it happening, and to say the whole response is like this, would be a gross misrepresentation of what is going on.”
Forced to flee
The paying of “zaqat” isn’t confined to road tolls and taxes on businessmen. Ordinary Somalis have to pay an annual tax to the al Qaeda group which was behind terror attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the massacre at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall four years ago.
Fatima Ali Hassan used to own dozens of goats and cows. Driven out of her home by drought and demands for money by al-Shabaab, the mother of seven now lives in a tent made out of rags in Baidoa. She’s one of tens of thousands who have made their way to this hungry city.
But even here, she’s an asset to the terror group, like the other 270,000 displaced people living in the city — and more are pouring in every day. The UN fears that the ongoing drought will once again threaten Somalia with famine and provide al-Shabaab with even greater opportunities to make money from foreign aid — particularly if the group maintains control of the main routes through the interior of the country.
Somalia’s national army is a patchwork quilt of rival militias sewn together by thin threads of hope that one day it will be able to prevail against the extremists.
For now, the country’s primary fighting force is a 22,000-strong African Union (AU) contingent that has been protecting the country’s fledgling government in Mogadishu, and working to wrest control of south back from al-Shabaab. But it’s withdrawing slowly and is expected to be out of the country in two year’s time.
The African Union military leadership admits that it can’t push al-Shabaab off the major roads that provide it with so much income.
“Instead of reducing [AU forces], it should have been increased,” said Lt. Colonel Chris Ogwal. “We are now overstretched, we are just conducting minor offensive operations.”
Ogwal commands the Ugandan contingent which controls the road between Mogadishu and the small town of Afgoye — but not, critically, the rest of the way to Baidoa.
That remains al-Shabaab’s financial artery.
Ogwal said that any reduction in AU forces would inevitably leave a vacuum that al-Shabaab would fill.
This leaves a growing number of American troops — more than 500, including Special Operation Forces — shouldering the ever-increasing security burden in Somalia.
But this year is the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu, the infamous clash in which 18 Americans and more than 1,000 Somalis were killed when US Special Forces attempted to arrest Somalia’s most powerful warlord at the time, Mohammed Farrah Aidid.
Images of a dead pilot being dragged through the dust of the Somali capital swiftly undermined a mission that had been intended to bring humanitarian relief and resulted in a US withdrawal two years later.
But the systems of corruption and manipulation of aid in Somalia remained, and have now been co-opted to finance a terrorist movement that controls about a third of the country and may become a magnet for ISIS jihadists on the run from their former caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
Somali forces foil al-Shabaab attack near capital
MOGADISHU, Feb. 11 (Xinhua) — Somali forces repelled an attack by the al-Shabaab militant group near the capital city of Mogadishu Saturday night, local authorities said Sunday.
The al-Qaida-linked militants attacked Afgooye town, about 30 km southwest of Mogadishu, Afgooye police chief Abdulkadir Osman said.
“They attacked the town and our forces responded. The fighting lasted a while before our forces defeated them,” Osman told reporters, adding that “we are now in full control of Afgooye.”
The officer said the militants suffered injuries but did not indicate any casualties on his forces. “Three civilians were also injured in the attack,” he added.
Local residents said the fighting caused panic in the town. Bashir Mayow who lived in Afgooye told Xinhua that the clash was deadly.
“Al-Shabaab attacked us last night and the whole town was gripped by fear as Somali forces fought hard to push away the militants,” said Mayow.
The al-Shabaab militant group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Al Shabaab ‘training village elders to fight’
Al-Shabaab militants have been training clan elders in southern Somalia on how to use guns to shoot accurately, in the latest attempt by the jihadists to win the hearts of residents, media outlets affiliated by the group have reported.
A radio station and a website operated by the al-Qaeda-affiliated militants have broadcast and published pictures of elderly men holding guns in what appears to be a shooting range, as a huge crowd looks on.
Radio Andalus said about 40 elders from different clans took part in the shooting competition which involved men between the ages of 60 and 80 in Jilib, Middle Jubba Region, southern Somalia.
“Each elder was given three bullets to fire to a target placed 60 steps away,” a reporter with Radio Andalus said.
“Every elder was carrying an AK47 rifle… the elders had practised shooting before the contest.”
Somalimemo website posted photos showing several elders holding rifles with masked men – supposedly al-Shabaab fighters – coaching them on how to shoot.
In one of the photographs, three men are seen lying on the ground aiming at targets, while some, standing, appear to be coaching.
“I want to be in the frontline for the mujahidin,” a man told Radio Andalus.
“It is the responsibility of each and every individual to defend their country from the invading foreign troops,” another said.
The Islamic militant group often holds events to seek the support of the residents in the areas that the militants control.
In the past, they have organised various sports activities, including arrow shooting, tug of war and breaking of mud pots.
In other parts of the country, however, they have been behind a campaign of terror which has left thousands dead.