US troops are quietly helping fight ISIS, al-Qaida in West Africa

Al-Qaida on the rise in West Africa.
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US soldiers train Ghanaian troops how to clear a room. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army's2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade.)

While the world is focused on the fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia, the U.S. military is working behind the scenes to help partner nations face the growing danger posed by al-Qaida and the Islamic State group in West Africa.

Marine Gen. Michael Langley, head of U.S. Africa Command, recently told reporters that a branch of al-Qaida in West Africa known as Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, or JNIM, as well as ISIS West Africa are trying to expand into countries along the Gulf of Guinea, such as Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.

However, Langley said the U.S. military has no plans to expand its small footprint in West Africa to help partner nations combat these militant groups.

“Increasing capacity of the states that we partner with is essential,”Langley said during a March 17 news conference. “They said: ‘We don’t want your boots on the ground; we don’t need that; we’re not asking for that; we’re asking for your ‘advise and assist’ capabilities.’ We need to be able to help them in those veins. The theme of that is partner-led, U.S.-enabled.”

Founded in 2017, JNIM has managed to attract fighters from several different militant groups including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar-al-Din, and the Macina Liberation Front, said Seth Jones, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, D.C.

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Over time, JNIM has evolved from a terrorist organization into an insurgent group that controls territory, Jones told Task & Purpose. The group is funded through several methods including levying taxes on people in the territory it controls along with smuggling weapons and extorting drug dealers.

U.S. soldiers train Ghanaian troops. (2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade/U.S. Army)

JNIM and other militant groups in West Africa are currently expanding into northern Ghana; villages in Burkina Faso, near the Ghanaian border, and in Mali, Jones said.

However, it does not appear that any West African countries are at imminent risk of falling to Islamic militants, unlike the near collapse of Mali in 2013 that prompted the French to launch Operation Serval.

“The situation is deteriorating, but not at a point yet where it’s threatened state collapse,” Jones said. “We’re not there yet. Hard to know when we’ll get there. It started happening pretty quickly in 2013 that led to [Operation] Serval”

The U.S. military has a handful of troops in West Africa, who are working to train partner nations to stop the spread of al-Qaida and ISIS into their countries.

Roughly 6,500 U.S. troops, civilians, and contractors operate in Africa as part of U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, of which about 1,500 Americans are deployed throughout West Africa, said AFRICOM spokeswoman Kelly Cahalan.

The number of U.S. special operators that operate in Africa is roughly the size of the size of the U.S. military’s footprint in Syria, where about 900 American troops are deployed, Navy Rear Adm. Milton J. Sands III, commander of Special Operations Command Africa, or SOCAFRICA, told the New York Times for a story in March.

Those U.S. special operations forces help train African partners but do not go on combat operations with them, said Marine Col. Robert Zyla, deputy commander of SOCAFRICA. Sometimes, U.S. troops in a secure location provide partner forces with “remote and advice and assistance,” but they are geographically separated from the partner troops on the ground, he said.

That allows U.S. special operators to provide intelligence and other actionable information to partner forces on the ground without putting themselves at risk, said Zyla. That said, U.S. troops do not use their “collective self-defense” authorities to coordinate airstrikes in West Africa, he said.

U.S. soldiers train Ghanaian troops. (2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade/U.S. Army)

The fight against militant groups in West Africa is different in size and scope than the U.S. military’s efforts in Somalia, Zyla told Task & Purpose. Whereas al-Shabaab is a homogenous group, several militant groups in West Africa have banded together to form a confederation that is represented by JNIM’s flag.

With roughly 9,000 fighters, these violent extremist organizations are spread throughout western Africa, posing a threat to the entire region, Zyla said.

“The biggest thing there is just the geography, the amount of space that these regional threats are transiting,” Zyla said when describing the challenge of fighting violent extremist groups in West Africa. “It’s probably [the size of] between Oklahoma and Virginia as far as comparable space in the United States.”

Now those militant groups want to move into coastal West Africa, which has a large economic base that these groups want to tap into for financial support, he said.

One way the U.S. military is seeking to stop al-Qaida and other militant groups from expanding their territory is by holding military exercises with partner nations, such as Flintlock, which also stresses the respect for good governance and how to transition from military to law enforcement efforts, Zyla said. Flintlock is AFRICOM’s premiere special operations exercise, which most recently took place in March. A total of 29 countries participated in counter-terrorism drills.

“It allows our active partners – Flintlock, that is – to work together and learn from each other on how to become better citizens of their own countries and conduct operations in a way that reduces instability,” Zyla said.  

Separate from SOCAFRICA’s efforts, the U.S. Army’s 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade has partnered with Ghana’s Army Northern Command to train Ghana’s forces in the skills needed to counter violent extremism in the northern part of the country, said Neil Ruggiero, a spokesman for U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa

The soldiers with 2nd SFAB conduct the training in Tamale, Ghana, and they do not accompany the Ghana Army on combat operations, Ruggiero told Task & Purpose.

Master Sgt. Mark Miller recently returned from a six-month deployment to Ghana, where he was the team sergeant for a group of 10 SFAB soldiers. They taught the Ghanaian troops basic infantry skills including small unit tactics, patrolling, and marksmanship.

The Ghanaians were willing to learn, and they showed signs of improvement, especially in their room-clearing skills, Miller said.

“They had a technique that they would use that to us would be kind of absurd, but to them was normal practice,” Miller said. “After they showed us how they did their urban operations, we showed them how we did ours, and they were very receptive [to the idea that] maybe their way is not the best way, and they are open to trying different practices that are going to make them better.”

The mission to Ghana shows the benefit of having a small number of trainers spend several months with partner forces, said Maj. Pete Nguyen, a spokesman for the 2nd SFAB.

In the past, the Army would deploy an entire brigade combat team for a short period of time to conduct security force assistance, Nguyen told Task & Purpose.

“That was a real problem for us,” Nguyen said. “It took away from a division’s ability to really muster combat power and to work together as a division team. It’s really incredible what you can do with 10 people who have a persistent presence in a country, where a partner knows that they’re not just here for six weeks at a time, but they’re going to be here for six months at a time – and if we want them, they’ll come back for another six months as well. It serves the purpose of preserving combat power for the United States while also fulfilling U.S. interests by showing nations around the world that we are interested in them, that we do care about theater security cooperation efforts.”

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