U.S. Special Operations Forces: Taking the Fight to Terror in Africa

photo: U.S. Africa Command/Spc. Zayid Ballesteros

U.S. President Donald Trump’s “war on terror” – much like his predecessor’s – uses partners’ capabilities against terrorists in an effort to protect the country from potential attacks, while minimizing U.S casualties. In Africa, Trump’s continuation of this strategy has resulted in increased reliance on U.S. special operations forces.

The U.S. Special Operations Command Africa now conducts around 100 activities in 20 countries with 1,700 personnel at any given time, according to an October strategic planning guidance report from the command’s head, Brigadier General Donald Bolduc. That is nearly double the number of U.S. special operations forces in Africa since 2014.

Moreover, current plans call for the command’s staff to increase by about 100 from its current level of around 275 “over the next couple of years,” Bolduc told online publisher African Defense in September.

This year’s 10th annual Africa special operations forces-focused Flintlock exercise, sponsored by U.S. Africa Command in February and March, was the biggest it has ever been, with more than 2,000 military personnel from 24 African and Western nations participating.

After the exercise, U.S. President Donald Trump approved removing certain constraints that former President Barack Obama had put in place on special operations forces’ airstrikes and raids in Somalia against the al Shabaab terrorist group, which is linked to al Qaeda. Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, the commander of the Africa Command, told reporters at the Pentagon in March that the loosening would increase his troops’ flexibility and ability to prosecute targets quickly – although he noted no real authorities under the Trump policy change had yet been handed over.

“The threat hasn’t changed. The threat is still there, but I think it’s fair to say that our ability to strike al Shabaab targets in this particular instance will have an impact on their ability to continue what they’re trying to do,” he said.

Critics say this measure removes constraints that minimize civilian casualties.

“The Administration appears to believe that U.S. interests would be better served in these places by taking the gloves off and being more forceful and constraining the U.S. military less,” Stephen Biddle, a professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, told The Cipher Brief.

“They seem to think it was political correctness for the Obama Administration to have worried so much about civilian casualties, and unlike Obama they’re not politically correct; therefore, they’re not going to be as constrained,” he said.

Waldhauser said a high priority will be placed on preventing civilian casualties.

For their part, U.S. special operations forces have had a number of successes against al Shabaab in Somalia. In 2016, a U.S. airstrike killed 150 al Shabaab fighters at a militant graduation ceremony, and in 2014, an American airstrike killed then-al Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane.

But even with these and other successes across Africa – including U.S. and allied countries’ pursuit of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa – terrorism continues to proliferate. A June al Shabaab attack in Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region killed at least 70 people in one of the region’s deadliest attacks in years. The militant group Boko Haram terrorizes Nigeria and surrounding countries, such as Chad and Niger. An attack in the Nigerian city of Maiduguri, along with coordinated attacks near Nigeria’s Lake Chad Basin Research Institute, in June killed at least 17 and left 34 wounded.

ISIS is also attempting to gain ground in Africa through established groups that affiliate with ISIS and then receive ISIS training or funding in return. “If you view ISIS in Iraq and Syria as core ISIS, I think a good way to characterize ISIS on the African continent is global ISIS,” Waldhauser said. It is the job of the Africa Command, he said, “to make sure that those groups stay internal to those countries or internal to those regions” and do not move into Europe or the United States.

“A lot of these groups, al Shabaab included, has the intention to do that,” he said, adding, “it’s a question of whether they have the capacity or capability to do that, and al Shabaab has not really demonstrated that.”

Although the U.S. wants to protect itself and its European allies from terror attacks from Africa, the problem is that the United States has “real, but limited, interests in a lot of places around the world, and especially in a lot of parts of sub-Saharan Africa,” Biddle told The Cipher Brief.

While the United States does not want African countries to become terrorist safe havens, “it’s not a big enough interest that we’re willing to send 100,000 troops to any of these countries to stabilize their real estate,” Biddle said, which is why the Administration is using more special operators who can both aid operations and train and advise African militaries.

The Pentagon has allocated around $250 million over two years to help train the armies and security forces of North, Central, and West African countries. However, “many of those countries keen to engage with the U.S. military have appalling records of poor governance, corruption, and human rights abuses,” the head of business intelligence for Africa at the Risk Advisory Group, John Siko, told The Cipher Brief.

Moreover, said Siko, “the gaps between their [U.S. special operations forces’] professionalism and extensive resources and those of the militaries they are training are often vast. … Unless Washington has the patience, money, and political willpower to keep special operators in [a] sort of hybrid role for decades, this is a situation best avoided.”

Still, Army General Tony Thomas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, said Trump made clear his priority on counterterrorism missions using the military’s elite forces on a February visit to the command’s headquarters in Tampa, FL.

However, without an equal focus on diplomacy – most high-level Africa roles at the State Department have yet to be filled, and Trump has vowed to slash State’s budget by around 30 percent – it is unclear whether a mostly military strategy will be successful.

Kaitlin Lavinder is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.