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The U.S. is waging a massive shadow war in Africa, exclusive documents reveal

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Six years ago, a deputy commanding general for U.S. Army Special Operations Command gave a conservative estimate of 116 missions being carried out at any one time by Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, and other special operations forces across the globe.

Today, according to U.S. military documents obtained by VICE News, special operators are carrying out nearly 100 missions at any given time — in Africa alone. It’s the latest sign of the military’s quiet but ever-expanding presence on the continent, one that represents the most dramatic growth in the deployment of America’s elite troops to any region of the globe.

In 2006, just 1 percent of all U.S. commandos deployed overseas were in Africa. In 2010, it was 3 percent. By 2016, that number had jumped to more than 17 percent. In fact, according to data supplied by U.S. Special Operations Command, there are now more special operations personnel devoted to Africa than anywhere except the Middle East — 1,700 people spread out across 20 countries dedicated to assisting the U.S. military’s African partners in their fight against terrorism and extremism.

“At any given time, you will find SOCAFRICA conducting approximately 96 activities in 20 countries,” Donald Bolduc, the U.S. Army general who runs the special operations command in Africa (SOCAFRICA), wrote in an October 2016 strategic planning guidance report. (The report was obtained by VICE News in response to a Freedom of Information Act request and is published in its entirety below.) VICE News reached out to SOCAFRICA and U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) for clarification on these numbers; email return receipts show an AFRICOM spokesperson “read” three such requests, but the command did not offer a reply.

“Africa’s challenges could create a threat that surpasses the threat that the U.S. currently faces from conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.”

The October 2016 report offers insight into what the U.S. military’s most elite forces are currently doing in Africa and what they hope to achieve. In so doing, it paints a picture of reality on the ground in Africa today and what it could be 30 years from now.

That picture is bleak.

“Africa’s challenges could create a threat that surpasses the threat that the United States currently faces from conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria,”

Bolduc warned. He went on to cite a laundry list of challenges with which he and his personnel must contend: ever-expanding illicit networks, terrorist safe havens, attempts to subvert government authority, a steady stream of new recruits and resources.

Bolduc indicated his solution was the “acceleration of SOF [special operations forces] missions [filling] a strategic gap as the military adjusts force structure now and in the future.” Translation: U.S. commandos “in more places, doing more” in Africa going forward.

At the same time, Bolduc says the U.S. is not at war in Africa. But this assertion is challenged by the ongoing operations aimed at the militant group al-Shabaab in Somalia, which operates often in all-but-ungoverned and extraordinarily complex areas Bolduc calls “gray zones.”

In January, for example, U.S. advisers conducting a counterterrorism operation alongside local Somali forces and troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia “observed al-Shabaab fighters threatening their safety and security” and “conducted a self-defense strike to neutralize the threat,” according to a press release from AFRICOM.

Earlier this month, in what AFRICOM described as “an advise-and-assist operation alongside Somali National Army forces,” Navy SEAL Kyle Milliken was killed and two other U.S. personnel were injured during a firefight with al-Shabaab militants about 40 miles west of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. The battle occurred shortly after President Donald Trump loosened Obama-era restrictions on offensive operations in Somalia, thereby allowing U.S. forces more discretion and leeway in conducting missions and opening up the possibility of more frequent airstrikes and commando raids.

“It allows us to prosecute targets in a more rapid fashion,” Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the AFRICOM commander, said of the change. In April, the U.S. military reportedly requested the locations of aid groups working in the country, an indication that yet a greater escalation in the war against al-Shabaab may be imminent.

A green beret with 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) practices patrolling techniques with Nigerien soldiers during Exercise Flintlock 2017 in Diffa, Niger, Feb. 28, 2017. 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) is regionally aligned to North and West Africa. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Kulani Lakanaria)

“Looking at counterterrorism operations in Somalia, it’s clear the U.S. has been relying heavily on the remote-control form of warfare so favored by President Obama,” said Jack Serle, who covers the subject for the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Recently, the U.S. has augmented this strategy, working alongside local Somali forces and African Union troops under the banner of “train, advise, and assist” missions and other types of “support” operations, according to Serle. “Now they partner with local security forces but don’t engage in actual combat, the Pentagon says. The truth of that is hard to divine.”

U.S. operations in Somalia are part of a larger continent-spanning counterterrorism campaign that saw special operations forces deploy to at least 32 African nations in 2016, according to open source data and information supplied by U.S. Special Operations Command. The cornerstone of this strategy involves training local proxies and allies — “building partner capacity” in the military lexicon.

“Providing training and equipment to our partners helps us improve their ability to organize, sustain, and employ a counter violent extremist force against mutual threats,” the SOCAFRICA report says.

As part of its increasing involvement in the war against Boko Haram militants in the Lake Chad Basin — it spans parts of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad — for example, the U.S. provided $156 million to support regional proxies last year.

In addition to training, U.S. special operators, including members of SEAL Team 6, reportedly assist African allies in carrying out a half dozen or more raids every month. In April, a U.S. special operator reportedly killed a fighter from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army during an operation in the Central African Republic. U.S. forces also remain intimately involved in conflict in Libya after the U.S. ended an air campaign there against the Islamic State group in December. “We’re going to keep a presence on the ground… and we’re going to develop intelligence and take out targets when they arise,” Waldhauser said in March.

“We believe the situation in Africa will get worse without our assistance.”

Though Bolduc said special operators are carrying out about 96 missions on any given day, he didn’t specify how many total missions are being carried out per year. SOCAFRICA officials did not respond to several requests for that number.

The marked increase in U.S. activity tracks with the rising number of major terror groups in Africa. A 2012 version of SOCAFRICA’s strategic planning documents also obtained by VICE News lists five major terror groups. The October 2016 files list seven by name — al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Magreb, ISIS, Ansar al-Sharia, al-Murabitun, Boko Haram, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and al-Shabaab — in addition to “other violent extremist organizations,” also known as VEOs. In 2015, Bolduc said that there are nearly 50 terrorist organizations and “illicit groups” operating on the African continent.

Terror attacks in sub-Saharan Africa have skyrocketed in the past decade. Between 2006 and 2015, the last year covered by data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, attacks jumped from about 100 per year to close to 2,000. “From 2010 to the present,” Bolduc says in the report, “VEOs in Africa have been some of the most lethal on the planet.”

“Many of Africa’s indicators are trending downward,” he writes. “We believe the situation in Africa will get worse without our assistance.”

Colby Goodman, the director of the Washington, D.C.–based Security Assistance Monitor, pointed to some recent tactical gains against terror groups, but warned that progress might be short-lived and unsustainable. “My continuing concerns about U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Africa,” he said, “is an over-focus on tactical military support to partner countries at the expense of a more whole-government approach and a lack of quality assessments and evaluations of U.S. security aid to these countries.”

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Nick Turse is an award-winning investigative journalist who has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Nation, and is a contributing writer for the Intercept. His latest book is “Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan.”

Cover: An U.S. Special Forces trainer supervises a military assault drill for a unit within the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) conducted in Nzara on the outskirts of Yambio November 29, 2013. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu

Crime

Kansas bomb plot trial drawing to a close as testimony ends

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WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The trial of three men accused of plotting to bomb an apartment complex housing Somali refugees in western Kansas is drawing to a close after weeks of testimony.

All sides have rested in the federal case against Patrick Stein, Gavin Wright and Curtis Allen on charges of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy against civil rights. Wright also faces a charge of lying to the FBI. The judge dismissed two weapons-related charges against Stein.

U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren plans a hearing on Monday to hash out the final jury instructions. Closing arguments are scheduled for Tuesday. The jury trial began March 20.

The three men were indicted in October 2016 on charges they planned set off bombs the day after the Presidential election.

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Terrorism Watch

In Somalia, Al Shabab Is Stronger Now Than in Years

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During the morning of April 1, 2018, a car drove up to an Ugandan army base in Bulamarer, Somalia, and blew up — the beginning of an Al Shabaab attack that, in combination with another suicide attack on a convoy of reinforcements, left at least 46 Ugandan soldiers dead.

The radical Islamist group has carried out many such attacks in recent months, which has put increased pressure on the Somali government and the African Union peacekeeping mission, AMISOM, which numbers some 22,000 troops from Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Burundi. In February, at least 18 people died in Mogadishu, the capital, in twin car bombings.

A recent analysis by Christopher Anzalone, a Ph.D. candidate of Islamic Studies at McGill University, concludes that the militant and terror group is possibly — now — in one of its strongest positions in years given its increasing willingness to launch bolder attacks while penetrating into Mogadishu with bombings and assassinations. Anzalone’s article is available at CTC Sentinel, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s monthly journal.

Al Shabab also has a cohesive and adaptable organization with dedicated military, governing and intelligence structures capable of rooting out spies, launching company-sized infantry operations and governing its limited territory.

U.S. air strikes — numbering more than 40 since 2016 — and commando raids, while successful in killing Al Shabab militants, may have also increased opposition to the Somali government, the U.S. military and the African Union in a country marked by local divisions characterized by tribal loyalties.

Case in point, in August 2017, a firefight between a joint U.S.-Somali force and Al Shabab reportedly resulted in the deaths of 10 civilians including children during a raid in Bariire. The U.S. military denied it killed any civilians in the raid. The Daily Beast later reported that U.S. commandos fired on unarmed civilians, and placed weapons seized during the raid next to the bodies of slain civilians before photographing them.

“Different parts of the government’s security forces … rely on the control of lucrative checkpoints and the fees and bribes they can charge civilians,” Anzalone writes, “and they have engaged in gun battles over these checkpoints and regular protests decrying the government’s failure to pay them.”

Somalia lacks a true national army, which is more akin to a coalition of local tribal forces. The Somali government’s own pronouncements of Al Shabab’s failings cannot be taken at face value, according to Tricia Bacon writing separately for War on the Rocks. “There are questions about the reported surge in defections, with well-connected sources privately telling me that the Somali security services are hyping this trend to stoke dissension within Al Shabab,” Bacon writes.

U.S. air strikes and ground raids have not, at the least, stopped Al Shabaab.

“While airstrikes have taken a significant toll on al-Shabaab, including the targeted killings of senior leaders and administrators,” Anzalone adds, “and despite claims made in late January by a senior African Union official that drone attacks were ‘wiping out Al Shabab in good numbers’ the insurgents continued throughout 2017 to be able to assemble large forces of fighters and launch major attacks on AMISOM and Somali government bases.”

Fortunately, the Islamic State’s affiliate in Somalia, primarily base in Puntland, is small and appears disorganized compared to Al Shabab — which emerged out of the Islamic Courts Union and which controlled Mogadishu for a brief period in 2006.

To defeat both groups, however, the Somali government will need to substantially improve its own armed forces — marred as they are with corruption — along with the political and economic relationship with the country’s states.

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Briefing Room

Shabab says it killed Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia

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NYTIMES — NAIROBI, Kenya — Islamist militants in Somalia carried out multiple coordinated attacks against African Union peacekeeping forces on Sunday, and claimed to have killed at least 59 Ugandan soldiers.

Ceaser Olweny, a spokesman for the Ugandan peacekeepers, said four soldiers had been killed, and six wounded.

The Shabab, a Somali terrorist group affiliated with Al Qaeda, made the attacks on three military bases and two Somali government outposts in the Lower Shabelle region, a Shabab stronghold near Mogadishu, the country’s capital.

Mr. Olweny said the attacks were coordinated.

Somali officials confirmed the attacks to the local news media.

“The number of casualties, and whether or not the dead were combatants, is used by all sides for propaganda and political objectives,” Abukar Arman, an analyst and former Somalia special envoy to the United States, said from Columbus, Ohio.

The attacks began on Sunday morning when two car bombs exploded outside the African Union base in the town of Bulo Mareer, 100 miles southwest of Mogadishu, according to Abdifatah Haji Abdulle, the deputy commissioner of Lower Shabelle.

The car bombs destroyed one African Union vehicle and one Somali government vehicle, according to Maj. Farah Osman of the Somali Army, who is stationed near the base.

“Then a large number of Al Shabab fighters began firing from under the trees,” Mr. Osman told Reuters. “It was a hellish battle.”

The Shabab claimed to have killed dozens of peacekeepers in the hourslong firefight, but the group is known to exaggerate such figures.

Mr. Olweny said soldiers in the African Union peacekeeping mission, known as Amisom, had killed 30 Shabab militants during the attacks. The Shabab said only 14 of its members had died.

Amisom has steadily pushed the Shabab out of major towns, but the group controls large sections of rural territory. It frequently targets Amisom bases and Somali government institutions — attacks that have intensified recently, even as American strikes against the group have increased.

The United States Africa Command, which cooperates with Somalia’s national military and security agencies, carried out nearly three dozen drone strikes against the Shabab last year.

The Amisom peacekeeping force was first deployed in Somalia in 2007. More than 20,000 soldiers and police officers from six countries serve in the mission, including more than 6,000 from Uganda.

The African Union plans to gradually withdraw its troops from the country and to hand over security operations to the Somali Army by 2020.

Hussein Mohamed contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia.

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