The general leading the U.S. military’s hidden war in Africa says the continent is now home to nearly 50 terrorist organizations and “illicit groups” that threaten U.S. interests. And today, gunmen reportedly yelling “Allahu Akbar” stormed the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital and seized several dozen hostages. U.S. special operations forces are “currently assisting hostage recovery efforts,” a Pentagon spokesperson said, and U.S. personnel have “helped move civilians to secured locations, as Malian forces clear the hotel of hostile gunmen.”
In Mali, groups like Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa have long posed a threat. Major terrorist groups in Africa include al Shabaab, Boko Haram and al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM). In the wake of the Paris attacks by ISIS, attention has been drawn to ISIS affiliates in Egypt and Libya, too. But what are the dozens of other groups in Africa that the Pentagon is fighting with more special operations forces, more outposts, and more missions than ever?
For the most part, the Pentagon won’t say.
Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, chief of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, made a little-noticed comment earlier this month about these terror groups. After describing ISIS as a transnational and transregional threat, he went on to tell the audience of the Defense One Summit, “Although ISIS is a concern, so is al Shabaab, so is the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa and the 43 other illicit groups that operate in the area … Boko Haram, AQIM, and other small groups in that area.”
Bolduc mentioned only a handful of terror groups by name, so I asked for clarification from the Department of Defense, Africa Command (AFRICOM), and Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA). None offered any names, let alone a complete accounting. SOCAFRICA did not respond to multiple queries by The Intercept. AFRICOM spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Falvo would only state, “I have nothing further for you.”
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While the State Department maintains a list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs), including 10 operating in Africa (ISIS, Boko Haram, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, al Shabaab, AQIM, Ansaru, Ansar al-Din, Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia, as well as Libya’s Ansar al-Shari’a in Benghazi and Ansar al-Shari’a in Darnah), it “does not provide the DoD any legal or policy approval,” according to Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza, a Defense Department spokesperson.
“The DoD does not maintain a separate or similar list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations for the government,” she said in an email to The Intercept. “In general, not all groups of armed individuals on the African continent that potentially present a threat to U.S. interests would be subject to FTO. DoD works closely with the Intel Community, Inter-Agency, and the [National Security Council] to continuously monitor threats to U.S. interests; and when required, identifies, tracks, and presents options to mitigate threats to U.S. persons overseas.”
This isn’t the first time the Defense Department has been unable or unwilling to name the groups it’s fighting. In 2013, The Intercept’s Cora Currier, then writing for ProPublica, asked for a full list of America’s war-on-terror enemies and was told by a Pentagon spokesman that public disclosure of the names could increase the prestige and recruitment prowess of the groups and do “serious damage to national security.” Jack Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard Law School who served as a legal counsel during the George W. Bush administration, told Currier that the Pentagon’s rationale was weak and there was a “very important interest in the public knowing who the government is fighting against in its name.”
The secret of whom the U.S. military is fighting extends to Africa. Since 9/11, U.S. military efforts on the continent have grown in every conceivable way, from funding and manpower to missions and outposts, while at the same time the number of transnational terror groups has increased in linear fashion, according to the military. The reasons for this are murky. Is it a spillover from events in the Middle East and Central Asia? Are U.S. operations helping to spawn and spread terror groups? Is the Pentagon inflating the terror threat for its own gain? Is the rise of these terrorist organizations due to myriad local factors? Or more likely, is it a combination of these and other reasons? The task of answering these questions is made more difficult when no one in the military is willing to name more than a handful of the transnational terror groups that are classified as America’s enemies.
Read the full article at The Intercept.