United States Special Operations forces (SOF) — including Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets and Marine Corps Raiders — are the US military’s most highly trained soldiers, specialising in counterterrorism, counter-insurgency, and “direct action” combat raids, among other missions. Their operations are shrouded in secrecy.
Although US commandos operate on the African continent with the agreement of host governments, ordinary Africans are rarely told about the full extent of US activities — nor offered a say in how and why Americans operate in their countries. Even basic information, like the sweep and scope of deployments by elite US troops and clandestine combat by American commandos on the continent, is mostly unreported across Africa.
But a Mail & Guardian investigation can, for the first time, reveal where US special operators have been active on the African continent — and offer exclusive details about low-profile missions that have been largely kept under wraps.
In 2019, US Special Operations forces were deployed in 22 African countries: Algeria, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Chad, Côte D’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, Tanzania and Tunisia.
This accounts for a significant proportion of US Special Operations forces’ global activity: more than 14% of US commandos deployed overseas in 2019 were sent to Africa, the largest percentage of any region in the world except for the greater Middle East.
These figures come from information provided to the M&G by the US military’s Special Operations Command and Africa Command (AFRICOM).
An interview with Donald Bolduc, a retired brigadier general and head of Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) until 2017, shed further light on these operations. He said that as of 2017, US Special Operations forces had seen combat in 13 African nations. America’s most elite troops continued to be active in 10 of those countries — Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia and Tunisia — last year.
The military footprint of the United States in Africa is extensive. Previous reporting has revealed the existence of a string of military bases across the continent. Formerly secret 2019 AFRICOM planning documents show that there were 29 bases located in 15 different countries or territories, with the highest concentrations in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.
More secretive still are the activities of US special operators. Their presence in African countries is rarely publicly acknowledged, either by the US or host nations; citizens are not told what these elite troops are doing on their land.
The US military is tight-lipped about exactly what its elite forces do in each country, but special operators have long conducted missions that range from capture-or-kill commando raids to training missions.
The M&G has spoken to a wide range of sources to fill in the blanks, including US military officers and diplomats; active and retired US special operators; African government and military sources; recipients of US military training in Africa and civilian witnesses. What emerges is a comprehensive picture of US special forces activities in Africa.
Some operations are conducted under the auspices of the so-called 127e programs, named for a budgetary authority that allows US Special Operations forces to use local military units as surrogates in counterterrorism missions. For reasons of security, Special Operations Command will not release information on 127e programs, said spokesperson Ken McGraw.
However, the M&G has confirmed that in recent years the US has conducted at least eight 127e programs in Africa, most of them in Somalia. These activities in Somalia were conducted under the code names Exile Hunter, Kodiak Hunter, Mongoose Hunter, Paladin Hunter and Ultimate Hunter, and involved US commandos training and equipping troops from Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda as part of the fight against the Islamist militant group al-Shabab.
Currently, the US is conducting two 127e programs in Somalia, according to an AFRICOM official.
The number of ground missions carried out by US commandos in Somalia has never previously been revealed, but US Air Force documents obtained by the M&G and corroborated by Bolduc indicate the scale of these efforts. The documents, from the 449th Air Expeditionary Group based at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, show that the US and partner nations conducted more than 200 ground missions against al-Shabab between June 2017 and June 2018.
This number is no anomaly. “That’s about average, annually, for the time I was there, too,” said Bolduc, who headed Special Operations Command Africa from April 2015 to June 2017.
Africa Command characterises missions with partner forces as “advise, assist and accompany” or “AAA” missions, but such operations can be indistinguishable from combat. During a 2017 AAA mission, for example, Navy SEAL Kyle Milliken, a 38-year-old senior chief petty officer was killed and two other Americans were wounded in a raid on an al-Shabab camp about 65km west of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital.
AFRICOM does not disclose the number of advise, assist and accompany missions by country, but in an email to the M&G, the command acknowledged 70 such missions in East Africa in 2018, 46 in 2019 and seven in 2020 as of early June.
Among the other special ops-oriented efforts that are still active in the region ― as of February this year ― is Oblique Pillar, an operation that provides private contractor helicopter support to Navy SEALs and the units of the Somali National Army whom they advise; Octave Anchor, a low-profile psychological operation focused on Somalia; and Rainmaker, a highly classified signals intelligence effort.
Another major theatre of US special operations is northwest Africa. Much of the world, for example, first became aware of US military operations in Africa in October 2017, after the Islamic State (IS) ambushed American troops near Tongo Tongo in Niger, killing four US soldiers — two of whom were Green Berets. Those troops belonged to Operational Detachment-Alpha Team 3212, an 11-man unit working with a Nigerien force under the umbrella of Juniper Shield.
Juniper Shield is the United States’ marquee counterterrorism effort in northwest Africa, involving 11 nations: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia. Under Juniper Shield, US Special Operations forces have long trained, advised, assisted and accompanied local partner forces conducting missions aimed at terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and its affiliates, Boko Haram and IS. The effort, according to the AFRICOM documents, was ongoing as of February.
The other key activity in the region is Exercise Flintlock — an annual special operations training exercise, conducted by Special Operations Command Africa, focused on enhancing the capability of nations in West Africa to plan and conduct counterterrorism missions. Participating African nations included Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Cabo Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo.
Libya has also been a major focus. Last year, the United States withdrew its commandos from Libya as the civil war there flared. “Due to increased unrest … a contingent of US forces supporting US Africa Command temporarily relocated from the country in response to security conditions on the ground,” AFRICOM announced in April 2019. Those troops have never returned, according to AFRICOM spokesman John Manley. But that has not, apparently, halted US operations focused on Libya.
According to the AFRICOM documents, Operation Junction Serpent — a surveillance effort in Libya that began as part of the 2016 campaign of airstrikes against Islamic State targets in the coastal city of Sirte — is still active. Under Junction Serpent, Joint Special Operations Command or JSOC — the secretive organisation that controls the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 and other special mission units — was given special authority to develop targeting information for air strikes. A sister operation named Odyssey Resolve, involving intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights over Libya, was another component of the special operations campaign of air strikes in Sirte and was also ongoing as of February.
Not all of the places where US commandos operate in Africa are in or near war zones. Take, for example, Botswana — one of the continent’s most established and peaceful democracies.
In response to questions from the M&G, the US Embassy in Botswana said that elite US troops participated in Exercise Upward Minuteman, a three-week training event held in June 2019 at the Thebephatshwa Air Base in Molepolole. The training involved 200 National Guardsmen from the North Carolina National Guard and an unspecified number of soldiers from the Botswana Defence Force (BDF). It includes everything from weapons training to air and ground assault simulations.
“The US Military enjoys a strong bilateral security co-operation relationship with the BDF since its inception. As such, we conduct a variety of military-to-military engagement that at times includes special forces. Over the recent years we have conducted SOF-specific expertise exchanges in 2017 and 2019,” said the embassy’s public affairs officer, Ineke Margaret Stoneham.
Botswana’s armed forces enjoy a relatively clean reputation. This is not true of all the countries with which the US has partnered. Take Burkina Faso, where US special operations units have trained Burkinabe security forces in countering improvised explosive devices, and advised them ahead of counter-terrorism operations. In July, a Human Rights Watch report implicated Burkinabe soldiers in mass killings in the northern town of Djibo — and this is not the first time they have been accused of serious human rights violations.
Temi Ibirogba, a programme and research associate with the Africa Program at the Center for International Policy, warned that training, equipping and assisting the militaries of nations accused of human rights violations empowers them and provides justifications for abuses. “If the most powerful democratic nation in the world is supporting your military, you’ll surely believe that the human rights violations you’ve committed are excusable,” she told the M&G.
Speaking on background, a US State Department spokesperson told the M&G that, “The United States is deeply concerned by the growing number of allegations of human rights violations and abuses perpetrated by state security forces in the Sahel, including those documented by Human Rights Watch.”
The spokesperson added: “We exclude from assistance and training individuals or units guilty of human rights violations. We will, therefore, be following ongoing investigations closely to determine how these allegations will affect our legal obligations under US law. To date, we have no information indicating that US-trained or -equipped individuals or units have been implicated in any of the abuses reported.”
Andy Duhon, a former US Special Operations forces officer with more than a decade of experience operating in the Sahel region, questioned the effectiveness of the US military’s involvement in Africa. He said that the US does not understand what African countries want and, as a result, is unsure how to best intervene.
“The US isn’t doing enough. It wants to help but it needs to do a better job of understanding grassroots organisations, governments and the military, instead of just sending money towards long-term training and equipment programmes,” said Duhon.
Comfort Ero, the International Crisis Group’s Africa Program Director, said that the extent of US Special Operations forces in Africa illustrates the “creeping build-up” of the US military on the continent. Although, she added, it’s a mixed message: “There’s a build-up on the one hand, and restraint on the other. It’s clear that the US does not want to be on the frontline.”
Ero said that the lack of transparency ― from both US and African governments ― on the US military’s presence in Africa is a cause for concern, as is their apparent willingness to work with authoritarian governments. “It does feed into that broader concern that some states are being propped up … the US is seen as legitimising and further prolonging authoritarian tendencies, or states [that] are not seen as having legitimacy.”
Keep reading for detailed case studies on how US military training works in Burkina Faso, and the US-sponsored special forces unit in Somalia.
The United States’s military involvement in Burkina Faso is opaque. Even diplomats and military officials from other countries who are based in Burkina Faso told the Mail & Guardian that they have little knowledge of what exactly is happening on the ground.
According to Major Andrew Caulk, public affairs director for Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA), the US mission in Burkina Faso is small, comprising fewer than 100 people. “Our presence there is much smaller than some might think, but provides critical linkages with partners,” he said.
Despite this relatively small footprint, training and interactions between Burkinabe security and the US military appear widespread and regular. The US provides air support, surveillance and intelligence to the French ― who lead a military intervention against Islamist militants in the Sahel ― and intermittent training to Burkina Faso’s security forces.
Training focuses on community engagement between the Burkinabe military and civilians. The US also trains Burkina Faso’s security forces on counter-IED (improvised explosive device) operations and first aid.
Smaller, ad-hoc initiatives also take place. For example, a chaplain with SOCAFRICA has trained ten Burkinabe chaplains in Burkina Faso to help them better provide for the wellbeing of troops.
During visits to the west and east of the country, the M&G spoke to three high-ranking security officials from the army and gendarmerie (police), who each said they had been trained by the US in recent years in counter-IED operations, first aid, and hostage-negotiation and border patrol-tactics, as well as how to engage with communities.
One army officer based in Fada N’Gourma, the main town in the east, said teams have been receiving training from the US since 2018. Sessions run for two weeks and include 30 people from the army and police. The men are trained by up to 20 Americans and taught the importance of winning civilian trust and counter-IED training, he said. They were given explosive detection kits, cameras and bags that could be used to send samples to a laboratory.
“The training was very good and very practical. Short but intense,” the officer said. He was not authorised to speak on the record. Another training session was supposed to take place this year but because of Covid-19 it’s been put on hold.
In recent years, SOCAFRICA’s focus has shifted from the north and Sahel regions to the east, because of increasing attacks there linked to Islamic militants, according to one SOCAFRICA officer formerly based in Burkina Faso who didn’t want to be named.
In 2016 and 2017 teams were stationed in Ouahigouya, Kaya and Dori towns, in the north, centre-north and Sahel regions, respectively. Last year, before embarking on Operation Otapoanu ― a Burkinabe military operation in the east aimed at dislodging jihadists ― a four-man US Special Operations forces team trained 15 Burkinabe security forces for one week, on counter-IED operations and first aid before a mission, he said. During its six months in Burkina Faso, the SOCAFRICA team worked with 100 soldiers on medical training in Fada N’Gourma and issued locally procured medical kits.
The general approach was to combine military training with civil engagement, such as teaching the army to clear the roads of bombs, getting the police to set up checkpoints and then bringing in a company to repair the potholes, making it harder for armed groups to plant explosives, he said. The officer told the M&G that everything the team did was carried out under Operation Juniper Shield.
A gendarme based in Tougan town in the western region of Boucle du Mouhoun, said he was one of a dozen gendarmes who participated in a two-year programme, which included being flown to New York City in 2016 to learn about border security, as well as how to find contraband and fight bandits. The training also included two months in a small town, 20km outside Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, where four US instructors taught the gendarmes about border security in a mix of theoretical and practical classes. The gendarme said the US did not accompany them in military operations, but trained and equipped them with the “necessary basics” to carry out the fight.
“Americans are by our side every year,” he said. But he would not elaborate on what weapons he was equipped with. A Special Operations forces officer said the US usually equips its allies with M4 rifles.
In Dedougou, another town in Boucle du Mouhoun, a gendarme said that in 2012 he was trained on airport security and hostage negotiation by the FBI as part of the anti-terrorist training.
In recent months there has been a reshuffling of forces in the country and in the region.
In May, the US repositioned some of its air support, together with logistics and maintenance, from Burkina Faso to the US base in Djibouti, said Caulk, the SOCAFRICA spokesperson. The planning for this move was already under way before talks began late last year about scaling back the US presence, he said.
Caulk also confirmed that special operation forces were transferred from the Niger-Libya border to the Liptako-Gourma region, the tri-border area between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. The move is expected to be completed soon and signifies a recognition of a growing threat in the area.
The initial location was chosen to deal with violent extremist organisations and weapons supply coming through Libya into Niger and the whole Sahelian region, but now that’s less of a concern, he said. “When you look at the region as a whole, Burkina Faso is in an incredibly fragile position, Mali is looking increasingly unstable and we’re starting to see attacks in the [Gulf of Guinea] coastal region,” said Caulk.
Recently, AFRICOM told the US Defense Department’s Inspector General that “Burkina Faso’s military continues to struggle with an increasing terrorist threat and will continue to face growing instability and insecurity,” according to a report from the Inspector General.
Within Burkina Faso’s government, there is concern that if US presence is reduced there will be a notable gap, specifically of information. “Intelligence would be lost,” said a high-ranking official in the ministry of defense who wasn’t authorised to speak on the record. “The Americans can target specific zones and see and listen to everything,” he said.
The US provides human intelligence, satellite imagery and video over the tri-border region, which it shares with international partners and the Burkinabe.
In 2013, Somalia’s federal government wanted to create a counter-terrorism combat force to take on Islamist militants al-Shabab, which seeks to overthrow the government. After negotiations with the United States, an elite special forces unit was created in 2014: the Danab (“Lightning”) Brigade.
The unit has developed a reputation as Somalia’s most professional fighting force. As far as the Mail & Guardian can assess, it is almost entirely funded by the US government. According to a US Department of Defense official familiar with the negotiations, US officials even influenced the design of Danab’s current iteration.
At first, US funding for Danab was routed through the State Department, and was used to pay for the services of Bancroft Global Development, a private military contractor. It was Bancroft personnel who set up Danab, and continue to train and advise the unit. Bancroft personnel are not necessarily American ― many are South African, British and European ― and are, therefore, not bound by the same rules of engagement as the US military.
This can lead to complications. Tommy Ross, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for security co-operation in the US Department of Defense (DoD) and senior advisor on intelligence and defense to Senate leaders, said he thinks the relationship between Bancroft and the State Department “is a recipe for disaster”, but said he does not have the same concerns about US troops that mentor Danab.
Ross also noted that Bancroft has other areas of business in Somalia. Indeed, at one point the State Department paid Bancroft rent through a subsidiary, Indian Ocean Properties (it is unclear if the department still pays Bancroft through its subsidiary). Ross added, “I worry about the potential for conflicts of interest and profiteering that could emerge from this posture and could potentially undermine US policy and interests in Somalia.”
State Department funding for Bancroft has continued, but now assistance also comes from the US military, some of it directly to Danab. Some of this falls under the 127e program, a US budgetary authority that allows US Special Operations forces to use local military units as surrogates in counterterrorism missions.
In addition, AFRICOM recently reported to the Defense Department Inspector General that it has continued to facilitate the purchase and transfer of equipment to the Danab Brigade under provisions of Title 10 US Code section 333, which authorises providing training and equipment to the security forces of foreign countries to increase their counterterrorism capabilities.
According to former Danab leaders who spoke to the M&G, this direct funding gives the force the flexibility to adapt more quickly to changing conditions. Like Bancroft, US special operators have also provided on-the-ground training to Danab soldiers, and accompany Danab fighters on missions in an “advise and assist” capacity.
In at least one such mission, on July 12 2019 near the village of Shanta Baraako in Lower Shabelle, an al-Shabab stronghold, US troops were present when two civilians were allegedly killed by Danab soldiers. A US Africa Command spokesperson confirmed a US presence near the village but said that American troops were not involved in any “direct action of any kind”.
Former Danab leaders and politicians told the M&G that situations in which alleged civilians are killed while the US and Bancroft are on the ground is not uncommon. In fact, one said incidents like the one in Shanta Baraako are the “tip of the iceberg”.
Last year, Danab and the United States became the subject of an increasing number of accusations of civilian casualties and arbitrary arrests. Mahat Dore, an MP based in Marka, a main town in Lower Shabelle, has recorded at least six incidents in which civilians were killed and property destroyed. Asked what he thought Africans should know about American Special Operations forces coming to their country, Dore said, “It depends on the laws of that country. If it is a country as lawless as Somalia, it will not help.”
Danab is headquartered in Baledogle, a Soviet-built airport about 100km north of Mogadishu. Baledogle was reconstituted as a US military base in 2012, and is host to one of the largest concentrations of US defence personnel in Africa, behind only bases in Djibouti and Niger. Danab itself has a contingent of 850 troops (according to AFRICOM, as of April 1).
The M&G spoke to two civilians who live near Baledogle, who both requested that their names be withheld. The first civilian said that since 2012, the base has been getting “bigger and bigger”. According to the second civilian, the construction on the base ― including a $12-million runway refurbishment ― has led to more employment opportunities for locals.
In 2019, Baledogle was attacked by al-Shabab fighters. Although they successfully breached the perimeter of the base, they were later repulsed and no fatalities were reported.
When asked if Danab or American forces ever disturbed the surrounding areas, the civilian said “absolutely no”, adding that Danab does not ask for bribes, operate checkpoints or disturb farming activities. If anything, the person noted, said, it would be nice if Danab and the US used their influence to stop clan fighting in the area.
Although praising both the Danab and the US, one civilian added that, for the sake of full transparency, it had to be noted that they were responsible for two civilian deaths in the area in 2016. Danab confirmed both incidents but disputed claims that the people killed were civilians.
In the first incident, in Haakow village, about 15km south of the US base, a man was killed in a botched capture raid as the commandos were going after a high-profile al-Shabab operative. The civilian said that the young man was not the target and that the terrorist escaped. According to Danab leadership, the young man was not the target, but was also an al-Shabab operator who fired at the forces first.
In the second incident, a respected religious elder and al-Shabab defector was mistakenly killed. Danab said this man was also a member of al-Shabab, but that al-Shabab propaganda was especially effective at convincing people the man was a noncombatant.
The civilian who recalled these incidents said at the time people were “a bit unhappy”, but that meetings between local elders and American and Danab officials “made the tension calm”. The civilian concluded: “From that event no harmful incident happened between us.”
The Danab Brigade really began to take shape in 2015, according to Paul Williams, a professor at George Washington University, who has researched its operations extensively. By 2017, it had become an example of what a professional Somali combat unit could look like: well-armed and trained, with troops from a diverse mix of backgrounds, recruited on merit and paid on time. Danab played a key role, alongside forces from the fledgling Somali National Army and the African Union Mission in Somali, in Operation Leopard Hunt, which sought to cut al-Shabab off from Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.
Although Operation Leopard Hunt successfully cleared al-Shabab from the town of Bariire, a major objective of the operation, soldiers were unable to hold it. At least 12 Danab soldiers were killed when al-Shabab retook the town in late September 2017.
This has proven to be the elite fighting force’s Achilles’ heel: although it is effective at forcing al-Shabab out of towns and areas, it cannot then hold on to these positions. “The Somali National Army isn’t trained to hold, so Danab can capture, but there isn’t a transitional army to keep the city. That has been a problem for a long time,” said Abdirizak Mohamed, a Somali MP, and the minister of security from 2015 to 2017.
He added: “Danab mostly do night operations; they have pre-planned target attacks and then they come back to base.”
In March this year, US Africa Command’s deputy director of operations, Miguel Castellanos, said that he expected the US to continue supporting Danab until at least 2027, with the goal to increase the size of the force to 3 000 soldiers.