U.S. Counterterrorism in Africa

US Counterterrorism in Africa

Since 9/11 the United States has significantly scaled up its counterterrorism (CT) activities in Africa. The U.S. has conducted unilateral CT operations as well as extensive training for African partner forces involved in the CT fight. Despite this long counterterrorism campaign the growth of jihadist groups continues in Somalia, north Africa, and west Africa. Many of the violent extremist organizations (VEOs) are aligned with either al-Qa’ida or the Islamic State.

PSI and TSCTI. In 2002 the U.S. established its Pan Sahel Initiative (PSI) aimed to improve the intelligence and border security capability of some Sahelian countries. [1] Later, in 2005, a much larger program labeled the Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI) involved economic, political, diplomatic, and military components. The military component of TSCTI was Operation Enduring Freedom – Trans Sahara. In 2002 the U.S. established a presence at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti – initially basing SOF elements to respond to counterterrorism events in the region. The base has grown and currently houses 3,000 troops that conduct operations throughout the Horn of Africa, east Africa, and beyond.

AFRICOM and SOCAFRICA. An annual special operations exercise (FLINTLOCK) was instituted in 2005 supported by SOCEUR and later by SOCAFRICA involving several nations in the region. In 2007 the U.S. established Africa Command (AFRICOM). For many years the United States has been deploying forces to Africa to conduct counterterrorism (CT) operations and to advise, assist, train, and accompany security forces of partner nations conducting CT operations.

Training Teams. U.S. Special Forces, MARSOC, other units have been providing training and assistance to countries in the Sahel, Lake Chad, and Horn of Africa regions. Over time many of these operations became known to the public. However some of these CT operations were ‘under the radar’. Other missions barely register in the press – such as the operation against the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa. A few became well-known due to unfavorable events.

Costly Operations. One example of an event that caught Americans by surprise includes the U.S. military involvement in Niger where four members of the 3rd Special Forces Group were killed in an ambush in October 2017. Another operation is the al Shabaab raid on Camp Simba at the Manda Bay Airfield where three Americans died in January 2020.

Support to Partners. In addition to ‘boots on the ground’ the United States has provided logistical and intelligence support to African and European nations in the CT fight – especially in west Africa. This includes three critical components to the CT campaign: in-flight refueling of European aircraft, airlift of European and African soldiers and vehicles, and all sources of U.S. intelligence. AFRICOMs efforts in CT in Africa is complemented by those of the U.S. State Department. [2]

Spotty Progress. There have been some successes in the counterterrorism fight in Africa but there have also been cases where progress has been very slow. Long running conflicts are in progress in Somalia, Libya, and the Sahel region of Africa and they are unlikely to end soon. The United States has had a presence in all of these areas – employing conventional and special operations forces for several years in these conflicts. However, it appears that insecurity and instability has gotten worse over the past decade despite efforts by the United States and other international actors.


Somalia has been a failed state for many decades. Al-Shabaab militants have contributed to this state of insecurity and instability in Somalia. The group holds large areas of the rural countryside and conducts frequent attacks in the cities of Somalia. The al-Qaeda affiliated insurgent / terrorist group has been intent on toppling the UN-backed federal government. In addition to establishing a caliphate in Somalia, Al Shabaab has a stated desire to attack the U.S. homeland. The Defense Intelligence Agency has assessed that the threat from al Shabaab and ISIS-Somalia remains high. The strength of al Shabaab is estimated to be between 5,000 to 7,000. ISIS-Somalia is much smaller, estimated at 100 to 300 fighters.

In 2019 the U.S. conducted over 110 airstrikes in Central and Southern Somalia killing over 800 militants. U.S. military personnel (about 700) have been providing advise, assistance, and accompanying Somalia forces and partner nations of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). [3] SOF teams have been training select Somali units to include the Danab Advance Infantry Brigade.

Lake Chad Basin

The Boko Harem group has had a long presence in the Lake Chad Basin area of Africa. It’s area of operations straddles the border of Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Niger. ISIS-West Africa also operates in this region. The VEOs in the Lake Chad Basin area have not been significantly degraded. Other jihadist groups aligned with Middle Eastern organizations threaten to expand as well.

The VEOs are aided by the corruption and ineffectiveness of the regional governments – notably the Nigerian government. The Nigerian Army has not been able to defend remote locations and is now consolidating its forces onto larger more defendable bases yielding much of the Nigerian northeast countryside to Boko Harem. The US posture in this region has gone from a “degrade” strategy to one of “containment”.

Sahel Region

Islamist militants have been a source of insecurity in the Sahel area of Africa. The militants, aligned with al Qaeda, are fighting for control of the land along Niger’s western border with Mali and in other Sahel nations. The militants operate with basic weapons, pickup trucks, and motorcycles and are very mobile. They have been increasingly active the last several months in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. The VEOs in the Sahel region have not been degraded nor contained. There are indications that the VEOs will continue to expand their operational area. The most active and effective VEO in this region is Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM).

The U.S. currently has Special Forces teams operating in the region conducting a train, advise, and assist mission. An airfield was built and is now operational in Agadez, Niger to assist the regional government forces in providing security for its threatened areas. The airfield also functions as a U.S. drone base – beginning ISR operations in November 2019. However, there have been rumors that, having just completed the base, the U.S. may phase out or scale down operations at Air Base 201.


From 2014 to 2016 the Islamic State had a big presence in Libya but has since drifted south into the desert. The current civil war in Libya makes it difficult to truly assess the Islamic State in Libya. ISIS-Libya and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have been a bit quiet in north Africa the last part of 2019.

Past and current CT efforts by the United States in Libya include drone strikes against ISIS leadership. A small contingent of U.S. SOF was withdrawn from Libya in April 2019 due to the unpredictable security environment. The presence of Russian mercenary forces impede U.S. counterterrorism operations in Libya. [4] Complicating the Libyan security environment has been the introduction of proxy forces from Syria, Sudan, and Chad.

U.S. Partners in Africa

France – the Sahel Lead. The United States is fortunate to have good international partners to work in the CT effort in Africa. The French have been in the lead for several years in the Sahel region. They currently have about 4,500 troops in this area of Africa supporting Operation Barkhane which started in 2014. In addition, France has (as of 2020) established a special operations task force – Operation Takuba will have several European countries participating.

G5 Sahel Joint Force. The five nations of Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania are currently trying to secure the region and its borders but it is facing some challenges. The G5 Sahel, established in 2017, remains under resourced and lacks sufficient training. The French play a major role in assisting the G5 Sahel force. The U.S. provides a limited footprint of training and equipping activities to the G5 Sahel.

MINUSMA. The United Nations is assisting in the security effort. The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali is engaged in an important but difficult peacekeeping mission. It is assisted by the United States and other international partners.

AMISON. The countries of Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and others have been contributing troops for a number of years to this joint mission in Somalia. The troops of the African Union Mission in Somalia has begun its withdrawal. By 2021 the AMISON mission in Somalia should be finished; although the security situation in Somalia is unlikely to significantly improve by then.

Key African Allies. There are some key African nations who are important partners – including Kenya, Niger and others. U.S. special operations forces are working with selected African units to improve their capability to fight the terrorists and insurgents. These include the Danab in Somalia, the 11th and 51st Special Intervention Battalion in Niger, and the Kenya Special Forces and Rangers, and others.

Root Causes of Discontent

Some African nations are struggling with internal divisions in their country that are conducive to the growth of violent extremist organizations. Tribal grievances, disenfranchised minorities, conflicts between farmers and herdsmen, lack of government services in rural areas, ethnic divisions, poor governance, heavy-handed government reaction to VEOs and the general population, human rights abuses, and other factors are reasons why VEOs can recruit and maintain support within some members of African society.

SOCAFRICA has taken the position that the counterterrorism effort needs to be conducted in conjunction with programs that improve governance, development, and economic opportunity in these African nations at risk. The “three Ds”: defense, diplomacy, and development – are important components to defeating VEOs. [5]

Future U.S. CT Engagement in Africa?

Changing Focus and Resource Competition. The current national defense strategy mandates a shift in focus from the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism fight of the past two decades to a concentration on great power competition. This means resources and personnel applied to the threat posed by Russia and China in Europe, the Indo-Pacific, and elsewhere. AFRICOM and SOCAFRICA will be competing with other Combatant Commands for training teams (SOF, SFAB, etc.), ISR, medical evacuation assets, personnel recovery assets, and more. There is a finite amount of SOF, intelligence, and other resources – something has to give. In this case it appears that Africa may come up on the short end of the stick.

Downsizing the Africa Mission. The Department of Defense has recently indicated that it is planning to reduce the footprint for the newly established drone base in Niger. It plans to cut back back on SOF forces being deployed to Africa. Of note are plans to deploy elements of the newly formed Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs) to conduct training and advising missions. [6]

There is some Congressional resistance to this shift in resources away from Africa. Our European allies are also displeased with a loss of U.S. support for the counterterrorism fight in Africa. The U.S. commitment in Africa is currently ‘under review’ and we should see some policy shifts within the next few months that indicate which path the U.S. will take in Africa. Many national security observers that follow events in Africa recognize that in order to continue to contain or degrade VEOs the U.S. will need to provide long-term assistance and advising until partner forces can deal with jihadists threats on their own.



[1] In conjunction with the Pan Sahel Initiative detachments from the 10th Special Forces Group began training military forces in Africa.

[2] See Counterterrorism in Africa – Innovation, Lessons Learned and Staying Ahead of the Threat, address at UN CT Regional Conference, State.gov, July 2019.

[3] See “AFRICOM predicts mission training Somalia’s ‘Lightning Brigade’ will last until 2027”, Military Times, March 17, 2020.

[4] The intelligence community has assessed that Russian paramilitary forces fighting alongside the Libyan National Army (LNA) shot down a U.S. surveillance drone over Tripoli in the later part of 2019.

[5] From “A View from the CT Foxhole” below.

[6] There are no known numbers provided as to how many SFAB ‘teams’ will deploy; but it does make for a good soundbite. While a ’12-man’ SFAB team is specifically trained to train, advise, and assist (TAA) foreign conventional partner forces it is a poor choice to partner with foreign SOF partner forces.


East Africa and North and West Africa Counterterrorism Operations, Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress, February 2020.

“A View from the CT Foxhole: Brigadier General Dagvin R.M. Anderson, Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command Africa”, CTC Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, February 2020.

U.S. Counterterrorism Priorities and Challenges in Africa”, Congressional Research Service (CRS), December 16, 2019.

“The Future Role of U.S. Counterterrorism Operations in Africa”, CTC Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, February 2014.

Images: Top image derived from map found in CRS 2019 report cited above.

About John Friberg 201 Articles
John Friberg is the Editor and Publisher of SOF News. He is a retired Command Chief Warrant Officer (CW5 180A) with 40 years service in the U.S. Army Special Forces with active duty and reserve components.