VICE World News has obtained formerly secret plans that, combined with a recent Pentagon report, detail the failures of U.S. Commandos in Africa over the last two years.
For the better part of two decades, U.S. commandos—Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, and Marine Corps Raiders, among them—have been fighting quasi-wars across the African continent. From Tunisia to Somalia, special operators have been involved in combat while working with local allies against a plethora of terrorist groups known in military parlance as violent extremist organizations or VEOs.
Special Operations Command Africa “is responsible for countering the VEO threats in Africa,” reads a formerly secret set of plans obtained by VICE World News. This “foundational document” laying out SOCAFRICA’s “campaign activities” over the years 2019 to 2023, not slated to be declassified until May 2043, details how the command intends to “achieve its mission of degrading, disrupting, and monitoring violent extremist organizations over the next five years.”
Halfway through their campaign, America’s commandos are already failing.
But halfway through their campaign, America’s commandos are already failing, according to a recent Pentagon report. That analysis, authored by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Defense Department research institution, paints a troubling portrait of the security situation on the continent, showing a 43 percent spike in militant Islamist activity and sharp increases in violence in 2020 as part of a steady and uninterrupted rise over the last decade.
While a SOCAFRICA spokesperson failed to respond to repeated requests for comment from VICE World News about U.S. progress regarding the plans, General Christopher Cavoli, the commanding general of U.S. Army Europe and Africa, spoke to VICE World News about “a continuing level of violence and activity by extremist organizations.” This assessment was seconded by his deputy, Major General Andrew Rohling, while a third U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, painted a grim picture of the security situation on the continent that bolstered the findings of the Pentagon report.
Experts have also questioned the very premise of U.S. counterterrorism efforts on the continent, some telling VICE World News that money allocated to American commandos in Africa would be more effectively spent on humanitarian aid and economic development in countries where extremist violence is on the rise. “The reported 43 percent spike in violent terrorist extremism on the continent points toward a lack of progress by the Special Operations Command Africa in degrading and disrupting terrorist groups,” Temi Ibirogba, a program and research associate with the Africa Program at the Center for International Policy, told VICE World News. The fact that militant Islamist group violence increased during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when economic hardship and border closures should have constrained terrorist groups, she said, “shows that SOCAFRICA did not effectively adapt their counterterrorism capability plan to reflect the changing dynamics of the world in 2020.”
The SOCAFRICA plans, originally marked secret and obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, reference "a dizzying array” of terror groups across the African continent. These include Islamic State branches in Libya, Algeria, Nigeria and ISIS adherents based in Tunisia, Morocco, Somalia, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, and states in the Sahel as well as al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Magreb and al Shabaab in East Africa. The documents emphasize that SOCAFRICA “disrupts and degrades [al Qaeda]- and ISIS-affiliated VEOs in East Africa, Lake Chad Basin, the Sahel, and Magreb by, with, and through African and Western partners,” with a goal of crippling terror groups, preventing them from expanding their reach, and allowing local partners to defeat them.
In contrast, the report by the Africa Center, released in January, found that terrorist groups have been neither disrupted nor degraded over the past two years. The metrics are, in fact, trending in the opposite direction. “There was a 43-percent spike in militant Islamist group violence in Africa in 2020,” according to the Pentagon analysis. Likewise, the report found that fatalities linked to such militant groups also spiked by a third over the previous year and areas of major concern to SOCAFRICA like Somalia, the Sahel, and the Lake Chad Basin saw some of the sharpest increases in violence on the continent last year.
Terrorist groups have been neither disrupted nor degraded over the past two years.
These concerns were echoed by top military officers as well. “Violent extremist organizations such as al Shabaab and Boko Haram and others remain a threat. They are a brutal, capable enemy,” Rohling told VICE World News. Cavoli similarly called the extremist groups “an ongoing concern” that threatens the stability of some U.S. partners. The conclusions of the Africa Center were even more damning. “The surge in militant Islamist violence demonstrates the steady growth in capacity among groups in each of the respective theaters over the last several years,” reads the report’s conclusion. “Levels of militant Islamist violence in Africa continue on a steep upward slope.”
The situation is especially grim in Somalia, where U.S. commandos have been fighting terrorists in Africa the longest. U.S. Special Operations forces were dispatched to the Horn of Africa nation in 2002 and U.S. drone strikes, now spearheaded by the Navy SEAL-led Task Force 111, have been conducted there since 2011. Despite ground operations by American special operators and Somali partners, as well as more than 200 airstrikes since 2017, the anonymous defense official characterized al Shabaab as “the largest and most kinetically active al-Qaida network in the world.” In fact, the Africa Center documented a “33 percent increase in violent activity involving al Shabaab over the past year” and a “47 percent increase in battles between al Shabaab and security forces in 2020.”
East Africa is not an anomaly. Across the continent, al-Qaida's Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin and ISIS networks in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin have emerged as the primary threats, the defense official told VICE World News. “The violence in this region has increased over the last several years,” said the official. The Africa Center report also documented a drastically deteriorating security situation. In 2020, attacks in the Sahel jumped 44 percent over the previous year. The resulting 4,122 fatalities were 57 percent higher than the previous year, “underscoring the growing lethality associated with these groups, according to the report.” A separate December 2020 report from the Africa Center found, in fact, that ISIS-GS “expanded and increased its operations” last year, conducting attacks in 42 administrative districts across Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, 11 of them for the first time. All told, violence by ISIS-GS more than doubled in 2020 compared to 2019.
The partially redacted SOCAFRICA plans, which were issued in May 2018, specifically state that SOCAFRICA aims, in conjunction with other U.S. government agencies and regional partners, to enable the Sahelian states to “degrade and contain ISIS-GS,” the acronym for the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. Almost three years later, the terrorist group is far from crippled. “ISIS-GS still provides a significant threat,” said the defense official.
A lack of progress in degrading terror groups like ISIS-GS in longtime hotspots has been mirrored by an apparent failure to detect emerging threats in other regions. The plans note the existence of 13 nations with an ISIS presence, but fail to mention ISIS-Mozambique, a violent extremist group that has killed more than 1,300 civilians since 2017—a glaring blind spot, given that SOCAFRICA purports to “monitor the development of VEOs” across the continent.
Despite the fact that ISIS-Mozambique, officially known as Ahl al-Sunnah wa al Jamma’ah, reportedly began as a local Islamist sect in 2007 and launched its insurgency in October 2017, more than six months before the secret SOCAFRICA plans were issued, there is no reference to the group in any non-redacted section of the document nor even a mention of Mozambique, despite significant press coverage and in-depth reports by NGOs and others on the 2017 violence. Months before the SOCAFRICA plan was approved and issued in 2018, the Pentagon’s Africa Center published “The Emergence of Violent Extremism in Northern Mozambique,” a detailed analysis on the burgeoning insurgency. SOCAFRICA’s apparent intelligence failure was further underscored by the Africa Center’s January 2021 assessment, which noted that the “number of reported violent incidents linked to militant Islamist groups in Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique rose 129 percent in 2020.”
SOCAFRICA spokesperson Major Andrew Caulk did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the command’s apparent oversight of the existence of ISIS-Mozambique, but the defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity acknowledged both its years-long insurgency and the recent spike in violence. “In 2020 and over the past three years, terrorist threats from the Daesh and the Islamic State increased in Mozambique, killing and displacing innocent civilians,” the official told VICE World News. Just last week, the State Department formally designated ISIS-Mozambique as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. “2019 to 2020 saw an important evolution of the threat posed by ISIS, also known as Daesh,” said John T. Godfrey, the acting coordinator for counterterrorism and acting special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, on a conference call about the announcement with VICE World News and other reporters. “And nowhere has this trend been as alarming as in Africa.”
This week, the United States announced that “Special Operations forces will train Mozambican marines for two months to support Mozambique’s efforts to prevent the spread of terrorism and violent extremism.”
At the time that SOCAFRICA filed its 2019-2023 plan, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies counted nine countries with active militant Islamist groups. In the Africa Center’s January 2021 report, that number had almost doubled to 16, including three transregional terrorist groups threatening three countries in the Sahel; three militant groups menacing four Lake Chad Basin nations, and two Islamist terrorist organizations affecting two East African countries. The fact that Somalia’s al Shabaab, which also conducted numerous attacks in Kenya in 2020, was counted as affecting only Somalia demonstrates that even this is an undercount.
“The risks of not degrading VEOs are increased instability, the exporting of security threats to our African and European partners, and the loss of influence in Africa.”
SOCAFRICA is blunt when it comes to the costs of failure. “The risks of not degrading VEOs are increased instability, the exporting of security threats to our African and European partners, and the loss of influence in Africa,” read the formerly secret plans. What does not factor into the plans in any large measure are the costs to local civilians of prioritizing unsuccessful counterterrorism efforts in countries like Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. When the SOCAFRICA report was produced, there were roughly 27,400 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Burkina Faso. Today, there are more than one million Burkinabe IDPs made homeless by jihadist violence or abuses by the security forces of the U.S.-supported government. In the Sahel, more than two million people have been displaced by violence—quadrupling the number of just two years ago.
“SOCAFRICA’s lack of progress in degrading and disrupting terrorist groups in Somalia, the Sahel, the Lake Chad Basin and Mozambique in 2020 can be attributed in some part to the command not addressing the underlying conditions that cause violent extremism despite making it part of their mission to do so,” said Temi Ibirogba of the Center for International Policy. Emphasizing that the U.S. should rethink its approach to counterterrorism, she believes the country needs to reallocate funds from military solutions to assistance that targets the drivers of extremism. “This includes foreign policy that champions economic development and growth, mental health services,” she said, “and more for the disenfranchised youths who are joining these violent extremist organizations.”