An Army trainer instructs people in weapons use.
A U.S. Army instructor trains soldiers in Burkina Faso. (ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP via Getty Images)

U.S.-Funded Counterterrorism Efforts in West Africa Aren't Helping

Government investigations describe American security assistance efforts as a waste of time and money.
December 3, 2020, 5:11pm

“We’re targets,” Abdoulaye Pafadnam told VICE World News at a dimly-lit outdoor café in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, earlier this year. “It’s too dangerous to stay in Barsalohgo now.”  

Pafadnam has been mayor of the town of Barsalohgo, located three hours from the capital, since 2016. But when we spoke, he hadn’t lived there for months. Militant violence and the very real danger of assassination had driven him and his family an hour away to Kaya, a bustling town whose population of 130,000 has now nearly doubled due to a steady influx of displaced people.  

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There, VICE World News spoke with scores of Burkinabe driven from their homes by Islamist militants who thundered into their villages and killed without compunction. “They shot our men at the gates of our homes,” said Dialla Seybata, a displaced woman who arrived in Kaya four days before we spoke. “Fifteen people were killed in Rafoenoega, including my husband, my son, and two other relatives. We ran. We couldn’t even bury the bodies. We, 20 women and children together, walked for eight kilometers to get here.”

Late last month, Burkina Faso’s president, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, won re-election despite the fact that his security forces have been unable to stop relentless attacks that have emptied villages north of the capital, including Rafoenoega, Dablo, Gonoega, Nawoukiiba, Pensa, Rafé, Sirga, and Taba, among others. Victims from these towns offered similar accounts of raids by armed jihadis on motorbikes and in all instances, neither the police, gendarmes, nor army troops were on hand to defend them, even in cases where there was advance warning of a potential attack. “The first time the terrorists came, they killed two people. They said, ‘If you stay in this village, you’re going to die,’” Pafadnam Kadi, 26, told VICE World News. With nowhere to go, the population of Gonoega remained in their homes. When the jihadis returned, Kadi said they killed 12 people, leading Kadi and her neighbors to finally flee.

“We ran. We couldn’t even bury the bodies.”

For the better part of two decades, the United States has poured billions of dollars into efforts to train, equip, and assist security forces in Burkina Faso and elsewhere in West Africa as part of an ongoing fight against Islamist militants. During that same time span, the number of terrorist groups, attacks, and fatalities in the Sahel region has skyrocketed, sparking overlapping humanitarian crises. The failures of these U.S. efforts have recently been highlighted by the unlikeliest of critics, the very agencies funding and carrying out those activities—the State Department and the Department of Defense. Evaluations from watchdogs at both departments paint a startling picture of problem programs and dismal outcomes that call into question the efficacy of American security assistance.           

In 2005, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) was established to “eliminate terrorist safe havens in northwest Africa by strengthening countries' counterterrorism capabilities and inhibiting the spread of extremist ideology,” according to a report by the Government Accountability Office. To that end, under the TSCTP, the U.S. has provided more than $1 billion for “security assistance activities” in 11 countries: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia. 

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In September, the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General released an audit of eight TSCTP efforts managed by the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs and conducted between the fiscal years of 2015 and 2020. The investigation found the program was debilitated by waste and deficiencies, which left the effectiveness of the TSCTP in serious doubt: A review of six TSCTP contracts found five “were missing government quality assurance surveillance plans” which the office deemed “essential oversight tools.” The Inspector General also discovered record-keeping deficiencies that made it impossible to ascertain if goods and services purchased under TSCTP contracts were actually delivered. Additionally, they found that the Bureau of African Affairs could also not ensure that equipment provided to partner forces, including the Burkinabe military, was being used for its intended purpose.

The investigation found the program was debilitated by waste and deficiencies.

In total, the Office of the Inspector General judged the $201.6 million spent on the six contracts to be “potential wasteful spending due to mismanagement and inadequate oversight” and highlighted “longstanding challenges with the execution of foreign assistance” that guaranteed the State Department would “have limited assurance that TSCTP is achieving its goals of building counterterrorism capacity and addressing the underlying drivers of radicalization in West and North Africa.”

The report followed another review of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, released earlier this year, that found “poorly developed contract requirements for three foreign-assistance projects supporting counterterrorism programming in West Africa resulted in an estimated $14.6 million in questioned costs.”

Soldiers kneel on the grounding holding guns.

Burkinabe special forces participate in a military training exercise run by the United States in Thies, Senegal. (Photo by Danielle Paquette/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

This is, however, nothing new. Almost since its inception, government watchdogs have been calling attention to systemic problems within the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. A 2008 Government Accountability Office report warned, for example, of a “lack a comprehensive, integrated strategy for their TSCTP activities,” and noted that “documents used in planning the activities do not prioritize proposed activities or identify milestones needed to measure progress or make improvements.” That 2008 report went on to draw attention to another glaring deficiency, the fact that there was no mechanism to measure the TSCTP’s “outcomes in combating terrorism—for instance, any decrease in extremism in the targeted countries.” At the time, the 2008 report framed the dangers of spreading extremist ideology in the region as a threat to the United States, warning that “terrorist safe havens” could “be used as a base for launching attacks against U.S. interests.”  In the years since, however, it’s been civilians in the Sahel who have suffered most.

Militant violence in West Africa has displaced, injured, or killed millions of people. “Violent events linked to militant Islamist groups in the Sahel—Burkina Faso, Mali, and western Niger—have surged nearly sevenfold since 2017,” according to a report published this month by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Defense Department research institution. “With more than 1,000 violent episodes reported in the past year,” the report said, “the Sahel experienced the largest increase in violent extremist activity of any region in Africa during this period.”  

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An earlier report, issued by the Africa Center this summer, found that attacks by just two Islamist militant groups in the region, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and the coalition that now makes up Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), grew from 147 violent incidents to 999 between June 30, 2019 and June 30, 2020. The large majority of the attacks in the Sahel took place in Burkina Faso (516), with significant numbers also occurring in neighboring Mali (361) and Niger (118). Fatalities in the region from these attacks also spiked, jumping from 1,538 to 4,404.

The obsessive focus on counterterrorism in the midst of this complex cascade of crises is yet another reason, according to some experts, why U.S. and European efforts in the Sahel have yielded dismal results.

A separate September report from the lead inspector general for East Africa and North and West Africa Counterterrorism Operations, provided a scathing adjunct to the Africa Center’s statistical analysis: “In West Africa, where al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates operate in the Sahel and Lake Chad regions, violence continued at high levels and expanded to new territories,” wrote Sean W. O’Donnell, the acting inspector general at the Department of Defense. The investigation found that attacks by terrorist groups in West Africa were increasing, and they referenced “a long-term trend of expanding violence in the region.” Violent extremist organizations, the report said, had “expanded their operations to the western Sahel and some northern parts of the West African coastal states.” The report also painted an especially bleak picture of Burkina Faso, and noted that it faces “multiple, interrelated crises that make the country vulnerable to destabilization, including growing food insecurity, increasing levels of internal displacement, worsening physical security, and the spread of COVID-19.” The pandemic has added to the complexity of the humanitarian crisis and, according to the September report, “exacerbated many of the underlying conditions that foster [violent extremist organization] growth, including economic and food insecurity.”

The obsessive focus on counterterrorism in the midst of this complex cascade of crises is yet another reason, according to some experts, why U.S. and European efforts in the Sahel have yielded dismal results. “Another aspect central to the general failure of Western-led initiatives in the region is the relative neglect of the political dimensions of conflict,” said Héni Nsaibia, a senior researcher with the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a nonprofit that collects and analyzes data about armed violence around the globe. Focusing on Western concepts of counterterrorism and embracing a strictly military model has been a major mistake, he explained.  Ignoring drivers of militancy, such as poverty and lack of social mobility, and failing to alleviate the conditions that foster insurgencies, like widespread human rights abuses by security forces, have caused irreparable harm.

President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré of Burkina Faso speaks at a podium.

President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré of Burkina Faso won re-election last month despite the fact that his security forces have been unable to stop relentless attacks. (Photo by OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT/AFP via Getty Images)

The September Inspector General’s report drew attention to this same issue of “increasing allegations of human rights abuses” by security forces in West Africa, but noted that the United States continued to provide those same troops with assistance. Earlier this year, the State Department issued a human rights assessment chronicling unlawful and arbitrary killings, forced disappearances, torture and other abuses by Burkina Faso’s security forces. It also highlighted allegations of “hundreds of extrajudicial killings of civilians as part of [Burkina Faso’s] counterterrorism strategy,” including “violence targeting members of national, racial, and ethnic minorities;” a clear reference to targeted killings of members of the Fulani ethnic group by government forces.

“Eighty percent of those who join terrorist groups told us that it isn’t because they support jihadism, it is because their father or mother or brother was killed by the armed forces.  So many people have been killed—assassinated—but there has been no justice.”

The Fulani, composed mainly of Muslim cattle herders from the northern part of the country where terrorists operate, have long been stigmatized and discriminated against, allowing Islamist militants to recruit within their communities while still attacking Fulani villages. Souaibou Diallo, the president of the Tabital Andal Association of Koranic Masters of the Sahel, a group conducting workshops that bring together Muslim religious scholars, members of violence-affected communities, and representatives of the security forces in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, told VICE World News that abuses by government troops drove Fulani into the arms of militants. “Eighty percent of those who join terrorist groups told us that it isn’t because they support jihadism, it is because their father or mother or brother was killed by the armed forces.  So many people have been killed—assassinated—but there has been no justice,” he explained.  

Diallo said the Burkinabe military failed to act on his organization’s suggestions to curb human rights abuses. “They have never applied the recommendations that we made,” said Diallo. “They didn’t listen to us and the situation has worsened.” 

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Some experts also see U.S. policy as fatally flawed and rooted in an outmoded mindset. “It’s clear that the U.S. counterterrorism plan for Africa in the wake of 9/11 is a foreign policy failure,” said Temi Ibirogba, the Program and Research Associate for the Africa Program at the Center for International Policy.  “These trends mean we need to think about racism within U.S. foreign policy. American exceptionalism has caused the U.S. to believe that their involvement in arming and supporting local security forces is what Africa needs.”

Ibirogba sees the waste and mismanagement of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership as a symptom of larger failings in American foreign policy. “The U.S. cannot afford to continue to pour money into mismanaged programs such as the TSCTP when there are so many issues at home that require greater funding,” she told VICE World News, while emphasizing that larger systemic issues trump the specific problems chronicled by the Office of the Inspector General. “I don’t think the mismanagement solely is to blame for the failures but the overall mission itself, an over-militarization in Africa through programs like this is clearly not the answer to how the U.S. should engage with the continent in general.”  

Last month, U.S. Special Envoy for the Sahel Region Ambassador J. Peter Pham asserted that “insurgencies and armed transnational groups are a perennial reality in the Sahel.”  But before the U.S. began pouring money into the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership and other Sahelien counter-terrorism programs, Burkina Faso faced neither entrenched insurgencies nor transnational terrorist threats. 

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“As the United States has learned the hard way in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere,” said Pham, “the best way to ensure progress in the realm of peace and security is to ensure that efforts are driven by local and regional institutions and that everything we are doing is in support of those efforts.” In each of those conflicts, the U.S. propped up allied forces that carried out widespread human rights abuses, faltered on the battlefield and, in more than one case, completely collapsed.  For the better part of a decade, the U.S. has poured money into the Burkinabe security forces; the results have been little better. 

The violence from jihadists and state security forces has left a significant proportion of Burkina Faso’s 20 million people in jeopardy. More than 1 million Burkinabe—60 percent of them children—have been driven from their homes, an estimated 2.1 million people are in need of protection, and 2.9 million people are now dependent on humanitarian assistance, according to United Nations statistics. The suffering extends across the region with an increase in internal displacement in Mali and a doubling of the numbers, since the beginning of the year, in Niger. 

Students study in a tent under a tree in Burkina Faso.

Displaced students study under a tent in Kaya, Burkina Faso. (Photo by OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT/AFP via Getty Images)

“Right now in the central Sahel, the number of people forcibly displaced has risen more than twentyfold in the last two years. More than seven million people have been pushed into acute hunger,” Mark Lowcock, the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said recently. “All told, more than 13 million people need emergency assistance to survive. Five million of them are children.”  

For the better part of a decade, the U.S. has poured money into the Burkinabe security forces; the results have been little better. 

It is essential, Ibirogba told VICE World News, to replace the counterterrorism security model with one rooted in holistic peacebuilding measures. “What is needed is a human security approach that addresses the multidimensional root causes of issues,” she said. “One that focuses on investing in African nations’s infrastructures, health care systems, mental health services, social welfare programs, businesses and more, rather than investing in their militaries and police forces who are guilty of gross human rights violations.”

Over the last two years, Burkinabe security forces have killed far more civilians than militants—819 versus 425—according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. The number of noncombatants killed by Burkinabe troops is also likely understated according to Nsaibia, who believes that many extrajudicial killings have gone unreported. 

At the very same time, Burkina Faso’s government has been powerless to stop regular attacks by jihadists. Survivors report military patrols passing through their villages, but not being on hand to respond to attacks. In some cases, those driven from their homes are told by government authorities that it’s safe to return, only to be attacked again. Sawadogo Amadou said that following an attack on Sargo, villagers fled to Barsalohgo where they stayed for a month. “They told us it was secure and to go back. That was in August [2019], but the army left and we were only there for 45 days before the next attack,” he added.  In October, militants attacked a convoy carrying dozens of displaced civilians returning to their homes in the villages Wintokuilga and Tang-kienga and executed 25 of them.

For the displaced in Kaya, the violence that drove them from their homes wasn’t a “perennial reality” but a complete shock. Scores of displaced Burkinabe explained that they could not understand why they were attacked nor why their government had repeatedly failed them.  “Our country is in trouble.  We’re facing so many problems.  We need food.  We need assistance,” said Alimata Sawadogo, a Burkinabe from Dablo. “Most of all, we need to go home. For that, we need peace.” 

This article was reported in partnership with Brown University’s Costs of War Project and Type Investigations.