Navigating the Complexities of U.S. Counterterrorism in Africa: Challenges and Controversies

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Over the past two decades, U.S. counterterrorism measures across Africa might best be defined as “lacklustre at best … harmful at worst.” Undoubtedly, while successive presidential administrations have funded counterterrorism on the mainland, the U.S. modus operandi has consisted chiefly of a light physical impression, a concoction of special operators to “brief, assist, and accompany” African allies, training programs designed to create the ability of African militaries and suitable security forces, and direct targeting of terrorist operatives.

The U.S. military has strived to engage Africa-based terrorist dangers through the 2001 AUMF, an authorisation used against al-Qa`ida companions, and different congressional authorisations, including the 10 U.S.C. § 333, which provides DoD-wide purview to “train and equip” foreign troops and 10 U.S.C. § 127e, which allows “DoD provide ‘support’ to foreign allies, state or otherwise, who in turn are ‘supporting’ authorised U.S. counterterrorism operations.” The United States also steadily supported France’s efforts in the Sahel, delivering logistical support and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aid to French counterterrorism interventions since the beginning of Operation Serval in 2013.

U.S. non-kinetic strategies for counterterrorism in Africa have concentrated on security assistance and capacity building since 2002. These contain the Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI) in four Sahelian nations and the $100 million East Africa Counterterrorism Initiative (EACTI) for six East African nations. These programs sought to bolster the counterterrorism capacity of host nations, and both developed into broader programs, eventually containing 17 more nations through the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership and Partnership for Regional East Africa Counterterrorism (PREACT).  

Most reports assess these interagency programs as extremely militaristic, carried out and executed by AFRICOM after its establishment in 2007. Several also mention that the United States has been highly concentrated on these capacity-building missions, guessing that it is African militaries’ absence of capacity to fight terrorist threats and not more systemic governance problems such as corruption that have been critical sources of legitimacy/strength for extremist organisations.

The U.S. counterterrorism strategy also has a kinetic angle. For example, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones have grown dramatically since 2007. Possibly the most well-known U.S. counterterrorism tactics on the mainland have been those directed at al-Shabaab in Somalia, where the usefulness of drones and piloted aircraft to guide targeted killings is a staple of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Yet, despite 16 years of airstrikes and an irregular SOF presence, the effectiveness of such tactics has been questionable.

Effectual counterterrorism operations are notoriously tricky, and over-the-horizon operations can enhance the complexity of operations, as happened against al-Shabaab and similar groups. Moreover, operations from a distance, while boosting the security of operators, can contaminate other aspects, such as confidence in intelligence. 

Such processes can also lead to errors, including civilian harm. In response to rising concerns over DoD mishaps, the FY 2019 NDAA required the Secretary of Defense to appoint a senior civilian official to supervise compliance with DoD’s policy on civilian deaths. AFRICOM has launched a civilian casualty reporting tool, though questions about its efficacy abound.  As several have cited, when militaries utilise tactics that distance themselves from the battlefield, this distance makes a disconnect with those undergoing the effects of such attacks—a phenomenon that could itself be related to terrorist recruitment.

In the Sahel mainly, the U.S. story is much the same. A decade ago, former President Barack Obama told Congress that he was sending some 100 military personnel to Niger to aid French forces in their functions in Mali. From there, United States deployments to the Sahel only increased along with their mission.  

Terrorist threats also increased. The Tongo Tongo surprise in 2017, in which four U.S. service members were dead alongside five Nigerien soldiers and interpreters, guided many to examine the utility of U.S. boots on the ground in the Sahel—witnessing the terrorist threats emanating from there as only tertiary to more insisting security matters arising from the big four of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.  Such a misalignment of approach can be seen in Burkina Faso, where a team of Green Berets reportedly refrigerates its heels in Ouagadougou, incompetent to train local forces due to the recent coup.

Divestment in counsel, assisting, and accompanying missions has also suggested increasing reliance on allied supporters, such as France—whose recent deteriorating relationships with Mali and Burkina Faso have complicated U.S. CT efforts. To strengthen its foothold in the region, the US spent the last several years building a drone command in Agadez, Niger, at a cost north of $100 million. Understood as Air Base 201, it has garnered considerable attention, particularly in the aftermath of France’s Sahel drawdown. 

While the US carries an “archipelago of bases in North and West Africa” as parts of its broader security measures, the Biden administration’s intention to conduct counterterrorism operations over the horizon could significantly affect the Sahel. In some situations, armed drones in the Sahel will become the best CT tool of choice, imitating tactics employed in Somalia. However, the Biden administration’s May 2022 approval to deploy 500 military personnel to Somalia may present a U.S. security pivot.

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