After 9/11, the US built a network of military outposts across the northern tier of Africa to fight a shadow war against Islamist groups. Niger became central to the effort. From Base Airienne 201, known to locals as “Base Americaine,” US drones were sent across the region to track down Islamist terrorists. The coup against President Bazoum marks another disruption in this long-running, mostly secret, war on terror. American troops in Niger are currently confined to their bases. The future of America’s two-decade counterterrorism campaign there is in doubt.
In 2008, about 2,600 US military personnel were deployed in Africa, but today, there are around 6,500 troops and civilian contractors. The US government couldn’t identify even one transnational terror group in sub-Saharan Africa after the Twin Towers attacks but embarked nonetheless on wide-ranging counterterrorism efforts there. Over the years, America has conducted drone strikes in countries like Libya and Somalia, and its commandos have fought in countries including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Somalia and Tunisia. Just over half of the US forces are stationed at Camp Lemonnier, a sprawling base in the tiny nation of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. More than 1,000 are still deployed in Niger. Personnel rotate in and out of that country like they would in any other war zone.
After two decades of failing to crush terrorism in Africa, the US has quietly admitted that things are going wrong. An assessment last year by one of the Pentagon’s own research institutions couldn’t be grimmer. The number of Islamist terror attacks in the western Sahel (the strip of Africa between the Sahara Desert in the north and the tropical savannas to the south) has quadrupled since 2019, it said, and the violence had “expanded in intensity and geographic reach.” The researchers found fatalities linked to militant Islamist groups in the Sahel jumped from 218 in 2016 to 7,889 in 2022: an increase of more than 3,000 percent in six years.
Exactly what American special forces are doing in Africa is a secret
America’s war in Africa uses a significant proportion of America’s most elite troops — Army Green Berets, Navy Seals and Marine Raiders. Around 14 percent of US commandos dispatched overseas in 2021 were sent to Africa, more than anywhere in the world except for the Middle East. Special Operations forces were sent to Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, Tanzania and Tunisia in 2021. But exactly what they were doing there is a secret. The US government only provides details about innocuous missions, like short-term deployments for training or to assess a nation’s counterterrorism capabilities, but retired Army Brigadier General Don Bolduc, who headed Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) until 2017, says that US special forces have seen combat in at least thirteen African nations in the last decade.
The US government did its best to hide its African war against terrorism, but secrecy became untenable as more and more Americans were injured and killed. Between 2015 and 2017, there were at least ten unreported attacks on American troops in West Africa. In February 2017, US Marines fought al-Qaeda militants in a battle that AFRICOM (America’s African military command) still won’t admit took place in Tunisia, near the border of Algeria. Just three months later, during an “advise, assist and accompany” mission, thirty-eight-year-old Navy SEAL Kyle Milliken was killed and two other Americans were wounded in a raid on a militant camp in Somalia. That same year again, in October, AFRICOM was finally forced to abandon the fiction that US troops weren’t at war on the continent after ISIS militants ambushed American troops near Tongo Tongo, a village in Niger, killing four US soldiers. In 2020, one US soldier and two Pentagon contractors were killed when the Somali terror group al-Shabaab attacked an American base in Manda Bay, Kenya.
“Combatting VEOs” — military slang for violent extremist organizations or terrorist groups — is “critical to stability,” Kelly Cahalan, an AFRICOM spokesperson, told me. “It is a top priority… of many of our partners in Africa and they ask us for help solving this challenge.” The solution has not been forthcoming. Despite all the US military assistance, training exercises, advisory missions, base-building, drone surveillance, air strikes and ground combat, even the Pentagon’s own assessments have been uniformly dismal. While AFRICOM claims that it “counters transnational threats and malign actors” to promote “security, stability and prosperity” on the continent, it’s been Africans, not just people in the Sahel, who have suffered. The Africa Center found that, across the continent, fatalities from militant Islamist violence have increased from about 3,000 in 2010 to 19,109 in 2022.
Niger was the West’s only major ally left in the West African Sahel. Its neighbors — Burkina Faso and Mali — are beset by terror attacks and run by military officers who overthrew their governments. Niger was one of the only places where America could safely base its troops, and diplomats saw it as a fragile but critical partner in the campaign against Islamist terrorism in Africa. Now, the US has “paused” security assistance to Niger, and when Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, was asked whether the US would be withdrawing its troops, he said they were planning for “various contingencies.” The coup, and America’s loss of one of its only Sahelian partners, is another setback in a long-running string of failures.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.