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As a sign of the serious deterioration in security across Africa during 2017, US AFRICOM confirmed that the US military now has specialist troops (as military trainers, technical advisers, and combatants) deployed to at least 33 countries throughout the continent (highlighted in orange in map 1 and in blue for Sub-Sahara deployments in Map 2), battling a diversity of terror groups spreading from West Africa, across the Sahel, to Somalia in the east.

In the West African nation of Niger, following the combat deaths of four members of US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), US Senator Lindsey Graham, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee admitted that we don’t know exactly where we’re at in the world, militarily, and what we’re doing”. Senator Graham and other Senate Committee members expressed shock about the deployment, but the global sweep of America’s elite military forces is in truth an open secret.

Earlier this year, in front of the very same Senate committee, General Raymond Thomas, the chief of US Special Operations Command, offered some other clues about the extensive reach of American troops. “We operate and fight in every corner of the world. Rather than a mere ‘break-glass-in-case-of-war’ force, we are now proactively engaged across the battle space of the Geographic Combatant Commands (this includes AFRICOM) … providing key integrating and enabling capabilities to support campaigns and operations.”

There is little transparency as to what the US military is doing in these countries and whether their efforts are promoting security, or provoking further tension and conflict, though admittedly the original US strategic policy of deploying tens of thousands of troops to a few key theaters of war has been replaced by a lighter tactical footprint, using drones, arms sales and training, and Special Forces (SF).

US Special Forces specialise in core skills ranging from unconventional warfare (assisting insurgencies and regime change), to supporting the internal defence operations of their allies against terrorism, insurgencies, and coups. The primary area of training and operations in Africa for US SF soldiers now is counterterrorism, currently defined as the fight against Islamist jihadis and other violent extremist organisations (VEOs).


In Africa in 2017, there is little tangible evidence that US Special Forces and AFRICOM have had much success in fulfilling their mission statement, which includes stabilising countries and regions vulnerable to terrorist infiltration.

As the “one remaining superpower”, the United States maintains a vast empire of military installations around the world, and it is estimated that in Africa, there are about 50 US military outposts scattered across 33 African countries. These include low-profile locations (from Kenya, to South Sudan) that have never previously been mentioned in published reports, as well as the well-known Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. The newly disclosed numbers garnered from redacted AFRICOM documents contradict more than a decade’s worth of denial and dissembling by AFRICOM, and they shed new light on a constellation of bases integral to the expansion of US military operations on the African continent.

In Niger, the deaths of the 4 US Special Forces soldiers, and the wounding of 2 others, and the deaths of at least 4 Nigerien soldiers, along the lawless Niger-Mali border region, where they were allegedly on a routine training mission, served to announce that the United States now has 900 troops, along with two drone bases, deployed permanently to that remote isolated West African country. The soldiers were killed in an ambush that had been set by a then-obscure Islamic State (IS) regional affiliate. Reports that up to 200 IS aligned insurgents had set an elaborate ambush into which the unwitting US Green Berets and their Nigerien trainees had stumbled, created some concern about the combat readiness of the advisers, the shortcomings in specific and accurate intelligence, and also highlighted the lack of immediate air support.

Suddenly in Washington, AFRICOM was highlighting the need for more money from Congress, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis was assuring senators privately that the military would “expand the (US) counterterrorism focus” in Africa.

This was soon followed by Senator Graham saying that “the war is morphing. You’re going to see more actions in Africa, not less. You’re going to see more aggression by the United States toward our enemies, not less. You’re going to have decisions being made not in the White House but out in the field.” Rumors were soon floating around Washington that the US administration might “loosen restrictions on the U.S. military’s ability to use lethal force in Niger”. And so they did, with the military subsequently arming its Niger-based Reaper drones with Hellfire missiles for future counterterrorism operations.

Continuing insecurity in the Sahel region brought about a security and funding assembly in Paris in early December which sought to breathe life into a new African military force, the G5 Sahel Force, which aims to counter the growing jihadi threat in the Sahel and sub-Sahara region. Five years after France intervened in Mali to rout Islamist extremists, the threat has now spread to neighboring countries in the volatile region, and has spawned new jihadi groups, including some that claim affiliation with the Islamic State group.

French President Emmanuel Macron convened leaders of the five-nation G5 force and delegations representing Europe, the African Union and international organisations, at a chateau west of Paris. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was among those attending, as well as envoys from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Macron opened the conference with a closed-door meeting with the leaders of the Sahel nations, ahead of a larger gathering. The G5 Sahel force had been officially launched in Bamako, Mali on 2nd July, with Macron in attendance. The declared aim of the G5 force is to tackle the jihadi threat, organised crime, and human trafficking. President Macron has taken the lead on convincing partners to help make the force viable, because he believes that the fate of the Sahel region impacts Europe (through unending illegal immigration and the risks that brings in allowing insurgents to infiltrate Europe under the guise of refugees).

Comprised of soldiers from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Chad, the fledgling force is projected to grow to a 5,000-strong force by March 2018, but is still short of troops and lacks training in force integration. Two years in the planning, the concept is for the five nations to develop their capacity to defend themselves through the new force, but in practical terms, four of the five 5 Armies (the exception being Chad) are poorly equipped and will require substantial training to be able to effectively contribute to the integrated role. The G5 Sahel Force is also seen regionally as an effort by France to reduce the cost of their West Africa/Sahel operations by delegating those operations, at least to a degree, to the 5 African countries most at threat from the Islamists roaming their territories, to re-establish law and order, especially in the border zone between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced a hefty contribution of USD130 million ($100 million from Saudi Arabia and $30 million from the Emirates), towards the G5 force, and a further funding conference is to be held in February 2018. This followed the earlier promise by US President Trump of $60 million to the force. The budget to launch the force is $300 million, with a predicted $500 million ultimately required to sustain the force’s effectiveness into the future. The G5 Sahel force will at first concentrate on the border regions shared by Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. An apparently successful training operation took place in November, comprised of 350 soldiers from Burkina Faso, 200 from Niger and 200 from Mali.

French officials estimate the Islamist extremists in the region to number no more than 1,000 combatants, compared to the several thousand in northern Mali in 2013 when France first intervened militarily. But these numbers are deceptive, and fail to reflect the dangers and difficulty of hunting down an enemy in a vast region the size of Europe, comprised as it is of harsh desert terrain. France’s 4,000-strong “Barkhane” force will provide critical air, intelligence and other support to the G5 Sahel force, and the 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA, remains deployed to Mali as a regional stabilisation force.

In Mali, four UN peacekeepers and a Malian soldier were killed in two attacks in November, while in Niger, 13 soldiers died in October, just weeks after the four US Special Forces soldiers and four Niger soldiers were killed in the Niger-Mali border region.

In August, Burkina Faso also suffered an Islamist terror attack that killed 18 (including the 2 attackers), and wounded a further 22, at the Café Aziz Istanbul, a popular Turkish restaurant in the capital, Ouagadougou. Among the dead were citizens of Burkina Faso, France, Kuwait, Canada, Libya, Senegal, Nigeria and Turkey.

This mirrored a similar attack in 2016, only 200 metres away, in the same city district, claimed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), against the Splendide Hotel (pictured right).

Also attacked was the adjoining Cappuccino Café, in which 29 people (including the 3 attackers) were killed. A picture of the three gunmen (left) was released along with a statement by AQIM, the terror group which claimed responsibility for the attack. Al-Qaeda identified the men as Al-Battar Al-Ansari, Abu Muhammad al-Ahmad al-Buqali and Fulani, with each given a nom de guerre.

The French Barkhane force is headquartered in Chad, with a regional base in Gao in Mali, a Special Forces detachment in Burkina Faso, an airbase in Niamey, Niger (from where it deploys its drones) and other troops deployed across the Sahel, with the primary role of tackling the various jihadist groups, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Despite the success the French military had in liberating the northern towns from Islamist fighters in 2012, there is now a growing resistance in Mali to the continuing French military presence in the country, hence the emerging role of the G5 force will be to tackle what are quite often locally rooted jihadist groups, particularly in the border areas.

The Mauritania-Mali and the Mali-Niger border regions are insecure, an area where jihadists are active. The G5 force will have the authority to cross borders on “hot pursuit” missions, denying Islamist jihadis refuge simply by moving from one country to the next

The UN’s regional military component, MINUSMA, is not specifically engaged in actively fighting terrorist groups, as its primary role is to underwrite the implementation of the internal Malian peace agreement, the Algiers Agreement of 2015, by providing security for basic public services and helping to consolidate political stability. The level of success in this mission is subject to very subjective interpretations by various elements across the region.

This month, the African Union predicted that up to 6,000 former IS combatants who have been fighting in Syria and Iraq are expected to eventually make their way back to the region, creating another security concern, and increasing the threat of further attacks against regional targets. Most of these jihadis have been radicalised and well trained, and all will have extensive battle experience from their activities with IS.

In Nigeria, as the year ends, a large number of Boko Haram fighters briefly overran Magumeni, a town in the northeast, about 50 kms north of the Borno state capital, Maiduguri in the latest attack in the restive region. The town and surrounding area have been frequently attacked by fighters loyal to the Islamic State-supported factional leader, Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi. Boko Haram originally seized large parts of Borno and the neighbouring states of Adamawa and Yobe in 2014, as part of its quest to establish its hardline Islamic state in the remote northeast region. But counter-insurgency operations by the Nigerian Army since early 2015 have left Boko Haram largely reliant on guerrilla warfare tactics, with the occasional high profile operation, and the organisation lacks the resources and the manpower to seize and hold substantial territory. Instead, it has become more reliant on suicide bombers, and in late November, at least 50 people were killed in Adamawa, when a teenage boy set off his explosives at a mosque in the town of Mubi.

Nevertheless, despite regular and recurring claims by President Buhari and his military high command that Boko Haram is all but defeated, in July, 69 people, most of them well armed soldiers and civilian militia members, were killed in an ambush on their convoy as they were escorting an oil exploration team from the Nigerian National Petroleum Company, NNPC, in the Lake Chad basin.

In another strategy to eliminate the Boko Haram threat from Nigeria’s territory, the Government announced that 36 state leaders have approved the transfer of $1 billion to the federal government. The money from the Excess Crude Account, which is used to hold revenues from Nigeria’s oil production, is intended for the purchase of security equipment, procurement of intelligence and general logistics needs.

Weapons procurement for the battle to defeat Boko Haram has been marred over the years by a massive corruption scandal, with Nigeria’s former national security adviser facing criminal charges that over $2 billion, meant for the purchase of arms for the Nigeria Defence forces, was stolen and allegedly ended up in the pockets of some highly placed individuals.

On the military front, President Muhammadu Buhari has extended the tenure of Nigeria’s military chiefs. The extension was confirmed in a statement by the spokesperson to the Minister of Defence, Mansur Muhammad Dan-Ali.

The military chiefs whose tenure were extended are General Abayomi Gabriel Olonisakin, the Chief of Defence Staff; Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai Chief of Army Staff; Vice Admiral Ibok-EteIkwe Ibas, the Chief of Naval Staff; and Air Marshal Sadique Baba Abubakar, the Chief of Air staff (pictured)

In Gabon, police arrested dozens of people in early December, following an attack against foreign nationals in the capital, Libreville, allegedly committed in retribution for “US attacks against Muslims” according to security officials in the capital. The men detained were mostly traders and sellers in the popular market in Libreville where the attack occurred, and all those detained appear to be from West Africa.  They were taken to police headquarters for questioning.

Two Danish nationals working for the National Geographic channel were wounded in the unprecedented attack, and Gabon police identified the assailant as a Nigerian from the Muslim Hausa/Fulani community of northern Nigeria, who shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) during the knife attack. The assailant, who has reportedly lived in Gabon for 19 years, said in his first statements that he had “acted in retaliation for US attacks against Muslims and America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” according to Gabon’s Defence Minister Etienne Massard. Gabonese authorities have been reluctant to classify the attack as an act of terrorism, though this incident will create a sense of unease in the country’s expatriate community, who have been immune to date from the troubles in neighbouring countries

Further north, in Libya, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the former Libyan dictator, has been seeking to make a comeback after his years in detention in Zintan, and claims to be leading a military campaign against what he calls terrorist groups around Tripoli. Saif was freed in June after six years as the prisoner of the Zintan militia, following his capture after the killing of his father, Muammar Gaddafi, and the resultant fragmentation of the country.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi welcoming Sheikh MBZ of UAE before overthrow of Gaddafi family

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi was the respectable international face of the Libyan regime, the heir apparent, a London School of Economics graduate considered a moderniser who would bring Libya back into the fold of international respectability after the years of embargoes and sanctions imposed by the West against Libya. Sentenced to death in absentia by a Tripoli court in 2015, the Zintan Brigade refused to hand him over to the authorities in Tripoli and held him in reportedly comfortable detention in Zintan, until his recent release.

Saif al-Islam now claims to be gathering a force that has, as its first step, apparently taken control of the coastal town of Sabratha, and he has allegedly threatened to fight his way to Tripoli, supported by the tribal alliance that had been loyal to the Gaddafi family until the death of the Libyan leader in late 2011. Reportedly, the forces which fought for Saif in Sabratha against IS and its allies (the gangs running the illegal immigration to Europe and the oil-smuggling mafias) are principally members of the tribes who traditionally have supported the Gaddafi family and tribe. Most appear to be former members of the former Libyan Army, and continue to be loyal to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.

It is unclear, however, to what extent Saif al-Islam is claiming credit for military operations that may have been carried out by others. Much of the recent fighting around Sabratha has been between tribal militias vying for control of the lucrative smuggling routes, and some analysts familiar with Libyan politics and personalities have expressed doubt that Saif al-Islam is in any position right now to muster sufficient armed and trained loyalists to pose a serious threat to the capital.

Observers say Gaddafi could still emerge as a political force in due course, if elections are held next year and if he is allowed to stand, despite an outstanding ICC arrest warrant for alleged crimes against humanity. He does retain a degree of popularity on the ground, especially in the south where his tribal connections remain strong. He is seeking to benefit from the chronic sense of uncertainty and insecurity since his father’s fall.

Libya has two rival parliaments, and a kaleidoscope of competing fiefdoms run by warlords and militias. A tenuous UN agreement designed to hold the nation together is wearing thin and its critics claim it formally expired on 17 December, the anniversary of its signing in December 2015.

If there is no agreement between the diverse factions to amend and extend the agreement, there are fears that the current most powerful military figure, General Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), which holds sway in the east, will seek to capture Tripoli, and oust the UN-backed prime minister, Fayez al-Serraj, and his Government of National Accord (GNA).

Khalifa Haftar
Khalifa Haftar

Khalifa Haftar (pictured left) insisted on 17 December 2017 that the mandate of the country’s UN-backed government deal had expired. The UN-brokered agreement, signed in Morocco on 17 December 2015, established Libya’s Government of National Accord for a one-year period, and renewable only once (17 December 2016).

Despite that deal, Libya has remained divided between the GNA government in Tripoli led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj and the rival Administration backed by Haftar in the east. In a televised speech General Haftar, who has never recognised the GNA’s authority, said the “expiry of the Libyan political accord” marked a “historic and dangerous turning point. All bodies resulting from this agreement automatically lose their legitimacy, which has been contested from the first day they took office”.

As expected, the United Nations Security Council continues to insist that the 2015 deal remains the “only viable framework” to prepare for elections next year. In September, the UN launched a fresh push to agree to a new accord aimed at bringing stability to Libya, though one of the main obstacles remains the inclusion of Haftar, whose Libyan National Army dominates the country’s east, in any potential government.

Haftar has backing from Egypt, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates. Russia has reportedly established a small military presence in western Egypt, close to the border with Libya, and Cairo and Moscow have come to a preliminary agreement recently that would allow Russian warplanes to use Egyptian airspace.

Haftar held talks in Paris in November with Tripoli-based militia leaders, on whom al-Serraj depends for his security, seeking to persuade them to stand down or defect to the LNA. The outcome of those contacts is unclear, but they are likely to have increased al-Serraj’s uncertainty and sense of insecurity about his future and that of his UN-recognised Administration. Al-Serraj recently met with the US President and reportedly requested a more active US role in Libya, which was rebuffed. According to one authoritative source in Washington, al-Serraj had requested “a military guarantee from the United States”. The source added that there are deep misgivings in Washington about corruption in the GNA, and the human rights record of the militias protecting it.

Libya GNA President Serraj meets US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington
Libya GNA President Serraj meets US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington

However, the fact Trump met al-Serraj at all is seen as a small if stuttering step forward, as it marks the first time Trump has taken a direct interest in the country since becoming President. It appears that Trump and the US Administration are willing to back the UN process, rather than become embroiled in another military adventure in yet another chaotic Muslim State in Africa.

To many Libyans, General Haftar is considered an untrustworthy and unreliable partner, though internationally he is considered an integral part of the country’s future, and the likelihood of a stable national Government coming into existence without his support and approval is remote. He has managed to extend his territory due to the support of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates, which supplements the support he has received from Russia, where he appears to have an extensive network of supporters.

But in reality, the UN-brokered agreement of December 2015 has failed to bind Libya’s divisions. The GNA in Tripoli was intended to form a unity government, with the House of Representatives in eastern Libya intended to approve the unity government, but it has yet to do so. The UN has been seeking to keep the peace process alive with a new action plan to reconfigure the transitional government, to make it more effective in delivering services, then convening a national conference early in 2018, followed in theory by elections, but there are serious doubts about whether elections are feasible in the current climate of general insecurity. If or when a vote does go ahead, Libya observers believe that Saif Gaddafi could benefit from the population’s general weariness about the political divisions and a nostalgia for the stability of the Gaddafi era.

One man who was aware of Africa’s importance to the United States was Muammar Gaddafi, the deposed Libyan leader and father to Saif al-Islam. During his address to the Summit of the African Union in 2005, the then-Libyan leader said:

“They are the ones who need Africa — they need its wealth. Fifty percent of the world’s gold reserves are in Africa, a quarter of the world’s uranium resources are in Africa, and 95% of the world’s diamonds are in Africa. A third of chrome is also in Africa, as is cobalt. Sixty-five percent of the world’s production of cocoa is in Africa. Africa has 25,000km of rivers. Africa is rich in unexploited natural resources, but we were [and still are] forced to sell these resources cheaply to get hard currency. And this must stop.”

Across Africa, China has stolen a march on the West in terms of cultivating investments and harnessing resources. Under President Xi Jinping, China has investment projects worth an estimated $60 billion, spread across dozens of African countries. This is substantially more in dollar terms than the investments of the Americans or Europeans. Earlier this year, China opened its first overseas military base, in the East African country of Djibouti. That is still small news compared with the reported 46 military bases that the US has across the continent. Beijing said its new military facilities in Djibouti are to secure vital shipping routes against piracy in the Gulf of Aden. That may be partly true. But there is also the factor of China wanting a security foothold in a continent where it has staked so much of its future economic growth plans.

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The big difference between the US and China is that while Beijing has devoted most of its resources to developing trade and industry with African states, Washington’s emphasis has been on military relations. China has gained much respect from African nations for its genuine commitment to partnership, by bringing capital and technology to Africa and in exchange gaining access to its natural resources (oil and gas, metals, and other minerals) Unlike the old European colonialism, China’s involvement in Africa is based on partnership and mutual development. For access to raw materials, China has built schools, universities, telecommunications, and transport networks, which are all helping the continent reach its huge potential.

OAM Principal John Gartner has worked for extended periods of time, and engaged with the highest levels of Government, in each of the countries covered in this review, and he continues to maintain a network of connected and informed associates throughout the region

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