Are we training future coup leaders and creating new terrorists in West Africa?
Last week was a difficult one for the U.S. military mission in Africa’s Sahel. For the better part of 20 years, the United States has employed a plethora of counterterrorism and security cooperation programs, providing a steady flow of funds, weapons, equipment and American advisers, even deploying commandos on low-profile combat missions to thwart the rise of militant Islamist groups in West Africa.
Last Monday, the Defense Department’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Pentagon research institution, offered an assessment of the effort. Its headline could have hardly been more dire. “A 70-percent annual increase in violent events linked to militant Islamist groups in the Sahel propelled a new record of extremist violence in Africa in 2021,” according to the report.
Last year, attacks across the region jumped from 1,180 to 2,005. “This spike was the most significant change in any of the theaters of militant Islamist group violence in Africa,” the Africa Center announced. “This continues an uninterrupted escalation of violence involving militant Islamist groups in the region since 2015. While having originated and still largely centered in Mali, the propensity of this violence has now shifted to Burkina Faso, which accounts for 58 percent of all events in the Sahel.”
The dismal assessment was, however, overshadowed by news out of Burkina Faso. The same day as the Africa Center issued its report, a young military officer appeared on state television to announce that the Burkinabe military had suspended the constitution and dissolved the government, replacing the country’s democratically elected president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, with Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, the commander of one of the country’s three military regions.
While the U.S. counterterrorism effort has failed to stem the tide of Islamist militancy in West Africa, it has produced a startling number of putschists. Damiba took part in at least a half-dozen U.S. training events, according to U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM. In 2010 and 2020, for example, he participated in Flintlock, an annual Special Operations Command Africa exercise focused on enhancing the counterterrorism capabilities of West African nations, including Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. In 2013, Damiba was welcomed into an Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance course. In 2013 and 2014, he attended a U.S.-sponsored Military Intelligence Basic Officer Course-Africa. And in 2018 and 2019, Damiba participated in engagements with a U.S. Civil Military Support Element in Burkina Faso.
“Military seizures of power are inconsistent with U.S. military training and education,” AFRICOM spokesperson Kelly Cahalan told Responsible Statecraft. But Damiba is the third U.S-trained Burkinabe officer to overthrow his own government since 2014 and one of at least nine mentees of the U.S. military in West Africa to stage a coup since 2008. These mutinies also included three in Mali— including two by the same officer — and one each in Guinea, Mauritania, and the Gambia.
Last week’s Africa Center report and Burkinabe coup came on the heels of an attack — on Saturday, February 22 – of a French military base in Gao, Mali that killed a French soldier and wounded a U.S. service member. That unidentified military member was just the latest casualty in America’s low-profile, quasi-war in the Sahel. In 2018, at least four U.S. troops were wounded in an attack by militants on a United Nations “Super Camp” in Timbuktu, Mali. A year earlier, four U.S. soldiers were killed and two others were injured in an ambush by Islamic State militants in neighboring Niger. The U.S. forces have, over the last decade, been under hostile fire elsewhere in the region, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, and Mauritania.
While American troops have been killed and wounded fighting in West Africa, the overwhelming victims of violence in the region have, however, been the very populations that U.S. counterterrorism efforts were meant to protect. And the accounting of this bloodshed may be the most damning finding by the Africa Center. The estimated 4,839 fatalities linked to Islamist violence in the Sahel last year were, according to the new report, 17 percent higher than the previous year. And this jump followed a 57 percent increase from 2019 to 2020. “Militant Islamist group violence against civilians in the Sahel represents 60 percent of all such violence in Africa,” the Africa Center noted. “There are now more fatalities linked to militant Islamist groups in the Sahel than any other region in Africa.”