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AFRICOM shifts strategy from degrading to containing West Africa insurgents, OIG report says

Violent extremists are "not degraded nor contained to the Sahel and Lake Chad region," AFRICOM says

United States Africa Command has shifted its strategy from degrading violent extremist organizations in West Africa to simply containing their spread, the U.S. Department of Defense Inspector General said in a report to Congress.

The report comes amid a “Blank Slate Review” of AFRICOM by the Pentagon that could see a reduction in the U.S. military presence across the continent.

“The threat posed by VEOs in West Africa is growing,” said the Office of the Inspector General report on counterterrorism operations in East Africa, and North and West Africa published on February 11.

The purpose of the U.S. operations is to degrade al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates and other violent extremist organizations, but AFRICOM told the OIG that VEOs in West Africa are “not degraded nor contained to the Sahel and Lake Chad region,” and that if not contained, they “have the potential to spread through the region and impact Western interests.”

The challenges in the region, which is roughly the size of the United States, are linked to extreme poverty, lack of stability, and economic fragility, AFRICOM said.

In the quarter ending on December 31, AFRICOM switched from a “degrade” strategy to a “containment” strategy.

AFRICOM told the OIG that a “degrade” mission aims to reduce extremist groups’ effectiveness so that they cannot project power. The command’s January 2019 Campaign Plan states that it considers a VEO degraded if it meets several conditions, including that command-and-control is disrupted, and that the group cannot conduct effective operations, including information operations.

The “degrade” strategy “requires U.S. and partner forces to apply consistent counterterrorism pressure” on VEOs to prevent resurgence, the report said, but AFRICOM relies on partner forces in Africa that will likely require advice and assistance “for a long period of time” before they are able to counter threats on their own.

The numerous and dynamic terrorist threats in Africa often require “U.S. forces and their allies to step in and execute immediate responses,” the report said. “This need for ongoing operations, coupled with the often slow development of partner forces, could require ongoing commitment of U.S. military resources.”

The report said that in its 2019 Posture Statement, AFRICOM said its Line of Effort to support partners in the Sahel and Lake Chad region is to “conduct engagements, exercises, and limited operations,” and to provide security assistance to “increase partners’ willingness and capabilities” to counter extremists.

It describes a desired end state in which “threats from VEOs and transnational criminal organizations are reduced to a level manageable by internal security forces” belonging to the partner countries.

The OIG report said intermediate objectives listed in the January 2019 AFRICOM Campaign Plan include ensuring that G5 Sahel Partners have the capacity and capability to contain Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, the al-Qaeda-linked JNIM group, and other VEOs in the Western Sahel; and that partners in the Lake Chad region can contain Islamic State West Africa Province, Boko Haram, and other groups there.

Islamic State militants in Nigeria
A still from a June 15, 2019 ISIS propaganda video, purportedly showing Abu Salamah al-Manghawi delivering a speech alongside Islamic State West Africa Province militants in Nigeria.

Militant Islamist groups in the Sahel and Lake Chad regions

West Africa faces violence on two main fronts – the sub-Saharan Sahel region and the area further southwest around Lake Chad.

The complex insurgency in the Sahel began in Mali in 2012, and the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) has struggled to contain the militants despite help from regional and international partners, allowing the insurgency has spread into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.

More than 4,000 people were reported killed in militant attacks in those three countries last year, according to the United Nations.

Many armed groups including Islamic State affiliates are active in the Sahel, but the majority of attacks are attributed to Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin, or JNIM, which formed in March 2017 from a merger of several smaller groups. JNIM’s leadership has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency told the OIG that JNIM is the most active and effective insurgent group in the Sahel, and that it has between 1,000 and 2,000 fighters. The DIA said JNIM’s goal is to unite terrorist groups in the Sahel and eliminate Western influence, especially former colonial power France, which has been conducting counter-terror operations in the region since 2013.

According to the DIA, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb uses North Africa as a support zone for JNIM operations, and moves and shares funds to affiliates in the Sahel.

A January report to the United Nations Security Council said that JNIM “continues to represent the principal international terrorist threat” in the region. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that the spiraling violence in the Sahel has spread to coastal states of West Africa, and the U.N. noted that JNIM has “increased its presence in littoral countries.”

Violence in the Lake Chad area began in Nigeria in 2009, when the jihadist group known as Boko Haram began its bloody insurgency. It has since spread into neighboring Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

Boko Haram split into two factions in mid-2016. The faction also known as JAS is headed by long-time leader Abubakar Shekau, but ISIS central gives formal backing to the other faction, which it calls Islamic State West Africa Province. ISWAP’s main area of operations is the Lake Chad area of Nigeria, Chad and Niger, and to a lesser extent Cameroon, but the group has intensified attacks on military locations further west in recent months.

The DIA and AFRICOM estimated that Boko Haram has 1,500 fighters operating in the Lake Chad region, the OIG report said, chiming with a report to the U.N. Security Council dated February 4 that said the Shekau faction strength was estimated at between 500 and 2,000 fighters.

DIA analysis of ISWAP propaganda “shows tight links with the group’s central command,” and that although ISWAP has “established pockets of governance and imposes taxes” in northeast Nigeria, the group may still receive funds from ISIS central.

DIA estimates there are around 3,500 ISWAP fighters in the Lake Chad region, while the February U.N. report estimated ISWAP’s total strength to be around 5,000.

ISIS fighters in Burkina Faso
An undated image of ISIS fighters in Burkina Faso released on March 22, 2019. The ISGS fighters were placed in Islamic State West Africa Province, and the image was likely taken in December 2018.

“Up to 300” ISIS-affiliated militants are active in the Burkina Faso-Mali-Niger tri-border region, DIA said, an estimate that appears low, given frequent successful counter-terror operations in the area, particularly those conducted by the France-led Operation Barkhane. However, the February U.N. report said that ISGS “faced significant attrition from counterterrorism operations but the group retains a stronghold in the tri-border area.”

“The operational efficiency of terrorist groups in the region is enhanced by deconfliction and operational collaboration between the groups in high-profile attacks,” the U.N. report said. DIA said that ISGS “has actively cooperated with JNIM in Mali since January 2018,” but that relationship may be strained as ISIS attacks gain more media coverage.

Further complicating matters, since May 2019, ISIS has attributed insurgent activities in the Sahel area to ISWAP rather than to Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. But ISGS likely has “increased ties and communication” with ISWAP, the OIG report said, while the U.N. report said that ISGS “benefits from a closer relationship” with ISWAP, and has “embraced tactics that proved efficient against the military forces of Nigeria.”

“The presence of joint facilitators for Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and Islamic State’s West African Province could presage an enhanced operational connection between the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin theatres,” the U.N. report said, adding that ISGS leader Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi “will likely remain operationally independent” from new ISWAP leader Abu Abdullah Idris Ibn Umar Al-Barnawi.

Flintlock 2019 closing ceremony, Burkina Faso
A Burkinabé honor guard stands at attention during the closing ceremony in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso of Exercise Flintlock 2019, which included members of the G5 Sahel and the Multinational Joint Task Force, March 1, 2019. Image: US Navy/MC2 (SW/AW) Evan Parker

AFRICOM efforts in West Africa

The OIG report notes that “the U.S. military does not have direct action authority to conduct unilateral counterterrorism operations” across West Africa.

Instead, the report said the U.S. provides support to partner nations and regional efforts including the G5 Sahel Joint Force (FCG5S) – which consists of approximately 4,500 troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger – and in the Lake Chad area to the Multinational Joint Task Force, which is composed of troops from Benin, Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Benin and Cameroon.

AFRICOM told the OIG that it deploys “limited and light U.S. footprint” training and equipping activities conducted bilaterally with the G5 Sahel countries. The report said that U.S.-funded support to the FCG5S “includes training and equipping of battalions in Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Chad.”

AFRICOM did not provide specifics on funding. U.S. equipment deliveries to the FCG5S states started in the summer of 2019 and will continue through winter 2020, the report said, adding that AFRICOM “did not provide details on the types of equipment and how many were allocated.”

A U.S. State Department official told The Defense Post in November that, using Fiscal Year 2017 and 2018 funding, the U.S. obligated approximately $242 million in bilateral security assistance to the G5 Sahel states, of which $111 million is going directly to FCG5S-designated forces. The official said information on FY 2019 security assistance would be available “in the near future.”

U.S. capacity-building efforts in West Africa vary, and the OIG report detailed some of those activities.

A small contingent of U.S. personnel work in the Intelligence Fusion Center in Nigeria, “from which some advise and assist activities” are conducted. Special Operations Command Africa personnel train with the Cameroonian Navy and the Rapid Intervention Battalion on maritime and riverine operations, and engagements in Chad are also limited to riverine operations. U.S. Army Africa in Benin provided transport to the MNJTF headquarters in Chad, and began planning for counter-improvised explosive device training scheduled for this month, the report said.

Niger Armed Forces at Nigerien Air Base 201
Niger Armed Forces members clear a corridor during a training exercise with the 409th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron air advisors at Nigerien Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger, July 10, 2019. Image: US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Devin Boyer

In Burkina Faso and Mali, “most advise and assist activities are conducted through civil-military elements,” while Niger is the focus of the most significant U.S. military efforts: the country of 21 million people reportedly hosts around 700 U.S. troops, but the OIG did not confirm this, saying only that there were approximately 800 U.S. personnel in West Africa.

During the quarter, a U.S. Special Forces Operational Detachment provided advise-and-assist support to the 51st Special Intervention Battalion in Diffa in the Lake Chad region. Another detachment provided similar support to the 11th Special Intervention Battalion, which is conducting operations in the tri-border region between Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. A third detachment “oversaw train, advise, and assist activities with a counterterrorism force in Arlit” in north-central Niger.

The U.S. also maintains a significant aerial capability in the country. Armed and unarmed U.S drones fly from Air Base 101 at Niamey, and in November, AFRICOM said U.S. intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flight operations had begun from Nigerien Air Base 201 in the northern city of Agadez.

Work on the large and controversial air base began in 2016, and the six-year transition from Air Base 101 to Air Base 201 cost an estimated $110 million, the OIG said, citing a Military Times report.

In January, the U.S. handed over to the Niger Air Force a hangar in Agadez that will house two C-130 transport aircraft.

Burkina Faso SPEAR unit training
Burkina Faso Special Program Embassy Augmentation Response unit moves a “terrorist” during a simulated attack in Ouagadougou, February 27, 2019. Trained and equipped by the US State Department’s Anti-terrorism Assistance program, SPEAR manages emergencies involving US diplomatic facilities or personnel. Image: US Army/Staff Sgt. Anthony Alcantar

AFRICOM blank slate review

After taking up the post last year, Defense Secretary Mark Esper initiated a review of U.S. military operations and posture worldwide, beginning with a “Blank Slate Review” of AFRICOM. The review aims to align resources with objectives of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which shifted the focus of U.S. efforts from counter-terrorism to countering Russia and China, the so-called “great power competition.”

China focuses on strengthening political and economic ties in West Africa, but AFRICOM and the DIA told the OIG that these activities “do not pose direct threats to U.S. access or influence in West Africa.”

Both AFRICOM and DIA assessed that China’s expanding telecommunications presence in the region could increase the risk of Chinese surveillance against Western and host nation personnel and interests. Both told the OIG that Russia is most active along NATO’s southern flank in North Africa, where it seeks to “demonstrate itself as an alternative partner to the West.”

Senior Pentagon officials have said that a reduction of forces deployed in West Africa is one option under consideration, although Esper said last month that no decision about U.S. force levels in Africa had been made.

A potential U.S. drawdown in West Africa has sparked concern from partners, notably France. Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said at a press conference with Esper in late January that “U.S. support is critical to our operations and its reduction would severely limit our effectiveness against terrorists.”

The France-led Operation Barkhane has a mandate for counter-terrorism operations across the Sahel region but focuses activity in insurgent-hit MaliNiger and Burkina Faso, working alongside local troops and other international operations, including MINUSMA and the FCG5S. On February 2, Parly said that the number of French troops deployed to the Sahel would be increased to 5,100.

U.S. forces based in Niger provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to their partners in the Sahel, as well as strategic transport and air-to-air refueling.

According to Elie Tenenbaum, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI) in Washington, the U.S. supplies 40% of Barkhane’s strategic transport and in-flight refueling, and 50% of its ISR, including interception of cellular communications. The Pentagon assesses AFRICOM support for Barkhane at $45 million per year, according to Tenenbaum.

This “limited U.S. support” in the Sahel “leverages an immense effort carried out by France and Europe,” Parly said, but Esper suggested that European allies could “offset whatever changes we make as we consider next steps.”

Danish Merlin helicopters deployed to Operation Barkhane
Danish Merlin helicopters deployed to the France-led Operation Barkhane in the Sahel. Image: @EtatMajorFR/Twitter

French partners already contribute to the Barkhane effort. According to Tenenbaum, Spain provides almost 40% of French strategic transport. Estonia is to almost double the size of its force protection contingent this yearDenmark has deployed two Merlin helicopters, and three Chinook helicopters from the United Kingdom currently support the operation.

France and the G5 Sahel states recently injected new urgency into the counter-terrorism fight, announcing a new Coalition for the Sahel which will see increased coordination between French and local forces. Barkhane and FCG5S forces operating under joint command will focus on the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger tri-border zone, targeting Islamic State as a priority.

Barkhane is already building command coordination with Sahel Coalition partner forces, setting up dedicated coordination mechanisms in Niger’s capital Niamey and Chad’s capital N’Djamena.

France has also been trying to build support for the new special operations Task Force Takuba that will train, advise, assist and accompany local forces in their fight against Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates in the region. Takuba will declare initial military capability in the summer and will be fully operational by the autumn.

So far, Estonia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Sweden have said they will contribute to Takuba, and discussions with Finland and Norway are reportedly ongoing, but the U.S. has declined.

“U.S. Africa Command will continue to support our French and other partners as they strive to improve security in West Africa through the establishment of TF TAKUBA,” spokesperson Becky Farmer told The Defense Post in November. “However, AFRICOM is not considering additional deployments to participate in TF TAKUBA.”

Rethinking US objectives in Africa

There are approximately 6,000 U.S. military personnel deployed across Africa, including around 3,000 in Djibouti at the largest U.S. base in AFRICOM’s area of responsibility, around 800 in West Africa and 500 special operations forces in Somalia, the OIG report said.

AFRICOM commander General Stephen Townsend told Congress last month that he believes the U.S. can achieve its counter-extremist objectives in Africa at the current force level, saying that around 5,100 troops were deployed. Townsend argued that U.S. military training of African partner forces is central to the strategic competition with Russia and China because it builds “long-term strategic alliances” with local governments.

AFRICOM told the OIG that “there is resourcing competition” within the command – it has limited resources to deploy for the multiple operations in its large area of responsibility, including personnel, support services, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets.

The OIG said that it has sought budget and spending data about the two counter-terrorism operations since it began reporting but it has not yet received any data and is therefore unable to estimate their cost.

AFRICOM told the OIG that it does not have visibility on expenditures for the operations, noting that counter-terrorism is funded through “multiple lines of accounting, some of which are outside of the DoD.”

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