The security situation in the African Sahel — where U.S. commandos have trained, fought, and died in a “shadow war” for the past 20 years — is a nightmare, according to a Pentagon report quietly released late last month. It’s just the latest evidence of systemic American military failures across the continent, including two decades of deployments, drone strikes, and commando raids in Somalia that have resulted in a wheel-spinning stalemate and an ongoing spate of coups by U.S.-trained officers across West Africa that the chief of U.S. commandos on the continent said was due to U.S. alliances with repressive regimes.
“The western Sahel has seen a quadrupling in the number of militant Islamist group events since 2019,” reads the new analysis by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, the Pentagon’s foremost research institution devoted to the continent. “The 2,800 violent events projected for 2022 represent a doubling in the past year. This violence has expanded in intensity and geographic reach.”
The worsening security situation reflects most poorly on Special Operations Command Africa or SOCAFRICA — which oversees elite U.S. troops on the continent and has played an outsized role in U.S. military efforts to counter terrorist groups or, in military parlance, violent extremist organizations (VEOs), from Jama’at Nurat al Islam wal Muslimin in Burkina Faso to Ahlu Sunnah wa Jama’a in Mozambique.
“SOCAFRICA, by, with, and through African partners must degrade and disrupt VEOs in order to advance U.S. security interests,” according to formerly secret plans, covering the years from 2019 to 2023, obtained via the Freedom of Information Act by Rolling Stone. “To achieve the greatest gains, SOCAFRICA focuses its efforts on four major areas: East Africa, the Lake Chad Basin, the Sahel, and the Maghreb.”
As a result, the U.S. has consistently sent its most elite troops — Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and Marines — to such African hotspots. According to a list provided by U.S. Special Operations Command to Rolling Stone, America’s commandos deployed to 17 African nations — Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Chad, Côte D’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Tunisia — in 2021.
But that isn’t the whole story.
An investigation by Rolling Stone found U.S. special operators were sent to at least five additional African countries — the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, and Somalia — last year. And this is in addition to myriad engagements by conventional U.S. troops across the continent — from Naval maneuvers alongside forces from Madagascar, Mauritius, and the Seychelles to National Guard deployments to Morocco, Kenya, and Somalia.
“The U.S. government consistently lacks transparency in disclosing the scope and locations of its military operations across Africa. The Department of Defense does not acknowledge the full extent of its ‘training’ and ‘cooperation’ activities — oftentimes euphemisms for operations that look very much like combat,” Stephanie Savell, co-director of Brown University’s Costs of War Project, tells Rolling Stone.
The deployments to these 22 African nations account for a significant proportion of U.S. Special Operations forces’ global activity. Approximately 14 percent of U.S. commandos dispatched overseas in 2021 were sent to Africa, the largest percentage of any region in the world except for the Greater Middle East.
Since the early 2000s, U.S. special operators have deployed on missions that run the gamut from training efforts like SOCAFRICA’s annual Flintlock exercise — which is “designed to strengthen the ability of key partner nations in the region to counter violent extremist organizations” — to “advise, assist, and accompany” missions alongside local troops that can involve U.S. Special Operations forces in combat. The latter are conducted in secret, far from the prying eyes of the press. The former, Flintlock, has become an annual PR camo-wash that affords the U.S. a patina of transparency and a plethora of publicity as cherry-picked reporters provide mostly favorable, sometimes breathless cookie-cutter coverage of tough-talking American commandos barking orders at “raw,” African troops or “muscle-bound twentysomethings nervously watching their African protégés” or “regional forces learning from grizzled Western commandos”; all of it “under the pewter sun” in the “suffocating heat” of a “dusty training ground” of “fine Saharan sand” in the “harsh desert terrain” and “vast choking dustlands” of the Sahel.
Despite substantial engagement by American commandos, terrorism trends across the continent are dismal, according to the Pentagon’s Africa Center. “Militant Islamist group violence in Africa has risen inexorably over the past decade, expanding by 300 percent during this time,” reads an August assessment of the entire continent. “Violent events linked to militant Islamist groups have doubled since 2019.”
Earlier this year, Rolling Stone’s Kevin Maurer accompanied Green Berets on a training mission in the Sahelian nation of Niger, where four U.S. troops were killed in an Islamic-state ambush in 2017. “It is hard to see how a dozen Special Forces soldiers and roughly 120 Nigérien commandos covering 200,000 square miles make a difference against an estimated 2,500 fighters aligned with either ISIS or Al Qaeda,” he wrote. The numbers bear out his skepticism.
Militant Islamist violence in the Sahel has quadrupled since 2019. The 2,612 attacks by terrorist groups in the region over the past year outpaced even Somalia. And the 7,052 resulting fatalities account for almost half of all such deaths reported on the continent, according to the Africa Center. A quarter of those fatalities resulted from attacks on civilians — a 67 percent jump from 2021.
At the same time, West African officers trained and advised by U.S. special operators keep overthrowing the governments the United States is trying to prop up — including four coups by Flintlock attendees since 2020. SOCAFRICA’s chief, Rear Adm. Milton “Jamie” Sands, tells Rolling Stone that the United States was not responsible for the rebellions, was powerless to prevent them, and suggested a major reason for the coups was popular dissatisfaction with U.S. partners on the continent who suppress the will of their own peoples.
“The lack of security and the numbers of internally displaced personnel, combined with, in some regions, a perception of disadvantagement that takes place between the government and the population, really form to create an environment where the population loses faith in the government and either decides deliberately to overthrow the government through a coup or, as we saw in … Burkina Faso … a mutiny that turned into a coup,” says Sands, referring to Damiba’s January putsch.
After 9/11, the Pentagon ramped up military engagement in Africa, building a sprawling network of outposts across the northern tier of the African continent — from Senegal to Kenya, Tunisia to Gabon — conducting hundreds of drones strikes from Libya to Somalia, as well as commando raids and training missions from one side of Africa to the other.
In Somalia, for example, there were 37 declared airstrikes over eight years under the Obama administration, while the number of U.S. attacks jumped to 205 during Trump’s single term, according to data compiled by Airwars, a U.K.-based airstrike monitoring group. Under the Biden administration, the U.S. has carried out at least 11 attacks there. Most of the strikes have been aimed at al Shabaab militants who now control about 70 percent of south and central Somalia, a country almost as large as Texas.
“Over the next several weeks and months, United States Armed Forces will reposition from locations within Africa to return to Somalia,” President Joe Biden informed Congress in June, eventually sending about 450 troops there and reversing a withdrawal from the country ordered by Trump in the last days of his presidency. “United States military personnel conduct periodic engagements in Somalia to train, advise, and assist regional forces, including Somali and African Union Mission in Somalia forces, during counterterrorism operations.”
Such “engagements” can, however, be indistinguishable from combat. In May 2017, for example, Navy SEAL Kyle Milliken was killed by al Shabaab militants while conducting an “advise, assist, and accompany mission” with Somali forces. The next year, special operations soldier Alex Conrad was killed in a firefight in Somalia. And earlier this year, a soldier assigned to the 20th Special Forces Group was injured in a mortar attack in Mali.
During the past decade, U.S. Special Operations forces have seen combat in at least 13 African nations, according to retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who served at U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) from 2013 to 2015 and then headed Special Operations Command Africa until 2017. America’s most elite troops continued to be active in nine of those countries — Burkina Faso, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia, and Tunisia — in 2021.
This year, the United States cut support to the first of those countries, Burkina Faso, after Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba overthrew his nation’s democratically elected president in January. Damiba, it turns out, was well known to AFRICOM, having participated in at least a half dozen U.S. training events. In 2010 and 2020, for example, he took part in SOCAFRICA’s Flintlock exercise.
Late last month, Damiba was overthrown by another military officer, Capt. Ibrahim Traoré. Was he also mentored by the United States? AFRICOM doesn’t know.
“This is something we will have to research and get back to you,” Africa Command spokesperson Kelly Cahalan tells Rolling Stone. “Military seizures of power are inconsistent with U.S. military training and education,” said Cahalan. But that would be news to trainees, like Damiba.
In 2014, Lt. Col. Isaac Zida, who attended a counterterrorism training course at Florida’s MacDill Air Force Base that was sponsored by Joint Special Operations University, seized power in Burkina Faso. The next year, Gen. Gilbert Diendéré — who headed the Burkina Faso Flintlock 2010 Committee — led the junta that overthrew that country’s government. In 2020, Col. Assimi Goïta, who also worked with U.S. Special Operations forces, participating in Flintlock training exercises and attending a Joint Special Operations University seminar at MacDill, overthrew Mali’s government. Goïta then stepped down and took the job of vice president in a transitional government charged with returning Mali to civilian rule, but soon seized power again, conducting his second coup in 2021. That same year, members of a Guinean special forces unit led by Col. Mamady Doumbouya took a break from training with U.S. Green Berets to storm the presidential palace and depose the country’s 83-year-old president, Alpha Condé. Doumbouya was soon installed as Guinea’s new leader.
SOCAFRICA’s Flintlock exercise may not be an incubator of insurrection, but recent putschists have been some of its highest profile participants. Officers who attended just two Flintlock exercises, alone, have conducted five coups since 2015. Burkina Faso’s Diendéré and Damiba were both involved in Flintlock 2010, while AFRICOM told Rolling Stone that Guinea’s Doumbouya and Mali’s Goita both attended Flintlock 2019. “Providing this kind of tactical training in fragile democracies comes with costs, and so far we haven’t been able to have honest public conversations about those costs,” said Savell, “nor do we have enough public information about every kind of training we’re engaging in and how to avoid abetting human-rights violations.”
AFRICOM says it does not keep tabs of which or how many American mentees overthrow their own governments, but U.S.-trained officers have attempted at least nine coups (and succeeded in at least eight) across five West African countries — Burkina Faso (three times), Guinea, Mali (three times), Mauritania, and the Gambia — since 2008.
Rear Adm. Sands, the Special Operations Command Africa chief, maintained that U.S. training was not linked to coups and instead suggested that a key reason for them was that the U.S. was partnered with repressive regimes or, as he put it, “governance that is not necessarily aligned with the rights and will of their people.” Despite the rebellions by U.S. trainees and the partnerships with oppressive governments, Sands insisted, there “is no other option” but to continue U.S. support but no way to halt the coups.
“I would tell you that there’s no one more surprised or disappointed when partners that we’re working with or have been working with for a while in some cases decide to overthrow their government,” Sands tells Rolling Stone during a conference call with members of the press. “We have not found ourselves able to prevent it.”