Digital press briefing with Major General Dagvin R.M. Anderson, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, to discuss U.S. partnerships with African nations to reduce extremism, combat terrorist organizations, and bring about peace and prosperity throughout the African continent.
Moderator: Good morning to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants from across the continent and thank all of you for taking part in this discussion. Today we are very pleased to be joined by Major General Dagvin Anderson, Commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, who will discuss U.S. partnerships with African nations to reduce extremism, combat terrorist organizations, and bring about peace and prosperity throughout the African continent. General Anderson is joining us from Stuttgart, Germany.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from General Anderson, then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many of them as we can during the time that we have.
If you would like to join the conversation on Twitter, please use the hashtag #AFHubPress, and follow us on Twitter, @AfricaMediaHub and @USAfricaCommand.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to General Anderson for his opening remarks.
General Anderson: Marissa, thanks, appreciate the introduction, and I’m happy to be here. I really appreciate all the interest and the folks from the continent tuning in to ask some questions and to listen to what we have to offer here.
Just to open up, we understand as we look at from Special Operations Command Africa in Stuttgart, we work with the continent quite a bit, across the entire continent. And so we understand there are several shared threats that many countries are looking at, whether that is what’s happening with COVID right now and causing issues around the world – that’s a global threat that we’re all working together as an international community on – but also the food insecurity, the droughts that are happening, the locust infestation that is hitting East Africa. These are all things that compound issues that are already extant, and then the humanitarian crisis that’s looming that is being fueled by the terrorists is also something that we watch carefully. And then, making sure that as we look at this, we realize this is not solely a military effort, that this is an effort that takes partnership with our Department of State, USAID, other nongovernmental organizations, in order to address these underlying conditions and these underlying issues that create opportunity and create places where terrorists can exploit. And so for us, it’s looking at this holistically is important, and looking at how we can address this not just as a military but as a government, but also as a community of international actors – both international governments and international organizations, especially nongovernmental organizations who can help bring relief to some of these areas.
We have seen the violent extremist organizations, these terrorists, take advantage of these conditions over the last five years especially. Al-Qaida has had a very deliberate campaign to exploit these seams and grievances and to expand their reach, especially into the west. We’ve seen that they’ve taken advantage of this also by closing schools, so they – they take away the future. They eliminate that future by shutting down these schools: over 9,000 schools across Africa shut down; 3,000 in Mali and Burkina Faso. That is very concerning to us because what does that mean for future development, for future opportunities for people that live in these regions? And what does it mean as these violent extremist organizations then replace those schools with their ideology and their teachings, which we believe is antithetical to a free and open society and prosperity?
So as we look at this, in the west, probably the fastest-growing humanitarian crisis is in the Sahel. There’s a deliberate campaign by these terrorists to exploit that. We recently – the Associated Press published in 2012 the al-Qaida playbook that was discovered, and it really laid out how al-Qaida’s methodically entrenching themselves into the society and into the Azawad area of northern Mali, and then using that to expand as a base going forward. That’s very concerning to us because it’s a deliberate strategy, and part of that strategy is to be quiet about how they act, how they expand. They’re not looking to advertise a lot of what they’re doing. And then what we’ve seen them do is they’ve expanded now in Mali, but now into northern Burkina Faso, where they attacked infrastructure, then they took out local governance and security forces, and now they are using that, their presence, to control the local economy and exert their control over the population. And we’re seeing them continue to move further south in Burkina Faso towards those littoral nations in the Gulf of Guinea, and also further west towards Senegal and West Africa. So that’s concerning to us as we watch them continue to move throughout the region.
We also see it in these – and that’s very much driven by al-Qaida. So some local terrorist groups, some groups that had local grievances now are being galvanized into a larger ideology and a larger movement, and so that’s concerning to us.
We’re also seeing Islamic State do that in the west with Islamic State-West Africa and Grand Sahara, those two organizations. We’re also seeing Islamic State move down the east coast of Africa as well. So we’re seeing them establish affiliates or leverage local grievances and consolidate those into their larger movement in DRC and Central African Republic and down towards Mozambique, as well as in Somalia. So as we see both Islamic State and al-Qaida take their overall methodology, their ideas, we see them leverage local grievances and spread their ideology, which is concerning; it should be concerning not only to the United States but to the international community. They are looking now – as they have lost ground and lost momentum in the Middle East and in Syria and Iraq, they’re looking, I believe, to Africa to try to find a means to re-establish themselves. And we can’t forget that al-Qaida has African roots and has a lot of African connection as well that we need to be conscious of and need to understand how do we counter that.
So as I – and as I look at this, I don’t – and then the last piece I’ll mention is in Somalia, obviously, great concern with what al-Shabaab is doing there to destabilize that region and destabilize the Horn of Africa, which has a lot of potential, a lot of opportunity, yet the violent extremism is limiting that opportunity. And al-Shabaab, another affiliate of al-Qaida, is really driving that instability in the region.
With that said, though, I don’t want to leave this as purely negative. There are plenty of opportunities in Africa, and I’ve seen it – I’ve been down to Africa several times; I enjoy every trip I make down there. The people are just wonderful, and every country I’ve been to, I have had very good engagements. There’s opportunity there. There’s a lot of youth. Youth brings energy; that energy needs to be harnessed, and that energy needs to be – you need to give them education and opportunity. And so how do we go forward with that? And that’s not a military solution, that’s a whole-of-government solution and that’s an international solution, but that’s something we need to look at as a community of nations of how do we harness the energy that that youth brings, because there’s opportunity with that if we can help move that forward.
We believe very much in Special Operations that we invest in people. People are more important than hardware, they’re more important than technology in a lot of ways. It’s how do you – how do you work with the human resource and human capital? That’s what builds our future.
There’s also several of the fastest-growing economies there in Africa. We can’t forget that that opportunity exists as well, and how do we help that? Africa is resource-rich and there is opportunities for international investment there, so how do we do that that benefits – that’s mutually beneficial as we go forward as a global community?
And then, as we’ve seen, there’s some momentum too. We have made some progress. There is progress in Somalia, where al-Shabaab is being pushed back. There’s progress in the Lower Shabelle, where we have expanded governance and removed the exploitation of al-Shabaab as an international effort – that’s with AMISOM, the Somalis, and the U.S. partnership along with other Western partners that are involved, and the Turkish have been involved in the training, the United Kingdom is involved there as well. We’re also seeing some limited progress in the Sahel. We talk about the negatives there, but some recent partnership that we’ve had with our forces, U.S. forces in Niger, with the French forces that are in Mali. We have seen Islamic State pushed back. They had some momentum at the end of the year moving towards the tri-border region there with Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The French have done a fabulous job of pushing them back, and, honestly, the U.S., French, and the partnership there was – allowed the elimination of Droukdel, the number four leader of al-Qaida, one of their senior leaders. He was treated as an equal within that community, and – we were able to eliminate him as a threat. That is a significant international cooperative effort that enabled that.
There’s also opportunities where we have seen African partners come together with MNJTF [Multinational Joint Task Force], with G5 in the Sahel, that that is making progress as well. So it’s slow progress, it’s fragile, but it is progress, and so how do we continue to reinforce that and continue to ensure we make progress.
And the other place where I see – in the west again – is the Task Force Takuba, which is an international effort to come in and help advise the Malian partners and operationalize them so that the Malian military can be more effective to take on the threat that is posed to their government. And in the west we also conduct Flintlock, which is a large exercise that we do as a command that brings multiple countries together in order to help build their capacity and their ability to meet these threats. And that also builds relationships among these partners, and it’s not just the African partners but it’s relationships between European and African partners and the interconnectivity between these countries within the region so that they do more intelligence sharing and information sharing and training together that, really, we find powerful in the west.
So just to close here my opening comments – I don’t want to go too long – there is no military solution. These are wicked problems. These are incredibly difficult problems. In order to attack a wicked problem, you need to look at it from multiple angles. You can’t just solve with one tool, and that tool means you use nongovernment organizations, you use aid, development, economic development – all come together to get after this problem, and it means that you harness the wisdom of crowds, the wisdom of what multiple people and multiple organizations bring, because no one group, no one nation is going to have the solution to this very difficult problem. And then you think deeper: what are the third and fourth order effects? What is it that comes? Because if I’m only solving in the first order, I’m probably not solving that problem where it needs to be attacked. So you have to think in third and fourth order effects, and how do we do that, and then use innovation to go after these things. And innovation doesn’t mean technology; it means looking at what are the creative ways to come together to solve these problems. And sometimes it may be technology, sometimes it may be investment, other times it’s leveraging those resources that you have available in order to take these problems on and to solve them.
So I would say that I do have hope that there is opportunity, and the biggest hope I have is that these violent extremist organizations do not bring hope, right. They don’t bring peace and stability. When we come together as a group of international actors, we can bring hope to people and we can bring a better future. And so that’s why I do believe we’re making progress and I do believe that we are having a positive effect across the continent.
I’ll pause there and open up for comments. So, Marissa, I’ll turn it back over to you.
Moderator: Thank you, General Anderson. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. We ask that you limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing: U.S. Special Operations during COVID, assessments of violent extremism across the continent, and a U.S. military view of opportunities and threats.
Our first question will go to the Q&A box, from Jonathan Rosenthal of The Economist. “Is it emerging insurgency in northern Mozambique a largely local insurgency, or do you believe that it is drawing inspiration, learning, and support from groups elsewhere?”
General Anderson: So to answer Jonathan’s question there, I – we are looking at and assessing what’s happening in northern Mozambique, up in the Cabo Delgado region. So we are concerned with it because we do believe that there is a local issue there, a local grievance that is now being leveraged by Islamic State in particular. The reason we believe that is we have seen them over the last 12 to 18 months develop in their capabilities, become more aggressive, and use techniques and procedures that are common in other parts of the world – in the Middle East – that are associated with Islamic State. We’ve also seen that they publicly – obviously, publicly come out and said they’re affiliated with Islamic State, which doesn’t always mean how closely linked they are. But we have seen media releases and media engagements that have been very well produced and very – have the fingerprints and hallmarks of Islamic State.
So we do believe that there is a deeper connection there. We believe that Islamic State is engaged in – with that faction in northern Mozambique – that is, ISIS-Mozambique – and that they are having influence. We don’t know to what extent, so we are still assessing that and we are working with our embassy there and the Government of Mozambique to look at what we can do to further assess and understand how that threat’s developing and what that means to the region.
But yes, we do believe there are external actors that are influencing that and making that more virulent and more dangerous up in the Cabo Delgado region. Thanks.
Moderator: Thank you. The next question will go live to Anita Powell of Voice of America.
Question: Yes, hello, can you hear me?
General Anderson: Loud and clear.
Question: Brilliant. Okay, thank you so much. That was very clear. I just want to ask you: U.S. Africa Command is on the move. I want to ask you how that’s going to affect your mission and if you have any details on that. And also, can you give any specific examples of how extremist groups are exploiting the mess created by COVID disruptions on the continent?
General Anderson: Anita, I appreciate the question. So I guess AFRICOM on the move, I’m not – I think you’re referring to the recent Department of Defense announcement about shifting some personnel and headquarters locations in Europe. So, from our perspective at U.S. AFRICOM and SOCAFRICA, we’re doing the initial analysis on that. We’ve gotten the direction, so we’re looking at what that means. This is very much in the early stages. This is not something that’s going to happen rapidly for us because we are still working through what that means as far as locations and where we’ll go. So this will be several months of analysis, I think, and it’ll take a while before we actually execute that move.
That being said, this is not going to affect our focus on the continent; it’s not going to affect our operations. This is something that is very much tangential to what we’re doing, so it’s not going to be something that will distract us at all. We will remain focused on the continent and we will remain focused on the violent extremists and how they’re continuing to develop, and we’ll continue to remain – our primary focus is with our partners to ensure that we stay, remain engaged. And I can say that with complete certainty because, as you said – and I’ll just use this to bridge into your question on COVID – COVID was an even bigger disruption. It was a global disruption. And throughout that entire period, we remained focused on the continent. Special Operations, U.S. Special Operations Forces, stayed engaged and did not leave the continent. We did not walk away from our partners. We stayed engaged. We continued to put pressure on these violent extremists throughout COVID.
So I can tell you, moving a building or moving a headquarters to another location within Europe is going to be nothing compared to the stress and the disruption that was posed by COVID, and we were able to do that and still maintain our engagement with our partners and still maintain pressure on the VEOs [violent extremist organizations].
Now, that said, with COVID, yes, I do believe the extremists will look to exploit any opportunity they get, and COVID presents those opportunities because COVID stresses any government. I mean, look – just look at the global implications of what COVID has had, and it’s stressing every government on the planet. So, that said, we know the governments and these – the nations of Africa are also feeling that stress, and the VEOs will look to exploit that.
I can’t tell you exactly how because that will manifest itself in different ways in each of these countries. But these VEOs are very dynamic and they’re very flexible, and they will look to see where those weak points are and where that can be exploited, and they will go after it. Our job is to work with these countries and work with these governments to help them withstand that pressure, and that’s not necessarily a military effort. That goes to USAID, it goes to the U.S. Government; there’s lots of economic development, there’s lots of other ways to counter the stresses that COVID brings and that COVID has inflicted on many of these countries on the continent.
So I think that our engagement will be multifaceted and it will have to be able to flex – be flexible in order to respond to where these countries need the assistance, and it will be different depending on the region and what country that is. But that said, we remain focused on the VEOs. We remain focused on countering terrorism wherever it is, and we stay engaged with our partners to build their capacity and reinforce their ability to counter the threats that they face. Thanks.
Moderator: And next question will go to our Q&A. It goes to Abdou Khadir Cisse from Dakaractu.com in Senegal. His question is, “The United States put the jihadist Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi in the list of – on the list of international terrorists. Where are you in the hunt for this man involved in the death of American soldiers in 2017?”
General Anderson: So that’s a great question and, obviously, one that we take direct interest in. So we are pursuing him actively and we are – we are pursuing the leadership of AQIM [Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], of JNIM [Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin], of al-Qaida affiliates in the Western Sahel; we are pursuing actively with our partners. So I do want to make clear that the U.S., while we have a direct interest in 1Sahrawi in particular, but all of these leaders, we work through our partners to enable them to go after these threats, and our European partners to go after them. And I think, again, our – the best example of that was a partnership we had going after Droukdel.
So that was in direct coordination with the French. The French executed a brilliant operation to take him off the battlefield. That was enabled with a partnership, though, between the U.S., French intelligence, as well as the Malians, in order to develop that intelligence to go after him. So when we do this, this is a team effort. This is not strictly a U.S. effort. We work together on this and we rely on each other’s strengths and we rely on each other’s ability to get after this common threat.
And that’s where I see this going after whether it’s 2Sahrawi, whether it’s Droukdel, or other leaders that are in the region, terrorist leaders. We partner to go after them, and we can – no one nation can do that alone. So I think it’s important to emphasize the criticality of that partnership, and sometimes that partnership is behind the scenes and quiet, but nonetheless, it is vital. And so we appreciate the cooperation of all the nations in the Sahel, especially with the G5 as they’ve come together to attack this common threat, and then with our European partners. Obviously, the French have the largest footprint and in the lead there, but there are others such as the Dutch, the Belgians, the Canadians, the Germans. There are multiple countries that are involved in this because we all understand this is a common threat that we need to come together and work towards defeating.
So when it comes to that, yes, we are going after 3Sahrawi. Obviously, there is a direct relationship: We spilled blood with our partners in Africa, and he was directly engaged in that, so we have a direct interest in going after him and removing him and his organization that bring that kind of violence and that instability to the countries of the Sahel. So yes, we are committed to following up on him. Thanks.
Moderator: Thank you. We’re going to move to East Africa now, to Ms. Mary Wambui of Nation Media Group, and we’re going to also have a question from Manaye Silabat of Fana Broadcasting in Ethiopia.
So the questions are, “What is the major challenge fighting terrorism in East Africa during the corona pandemic?” And, “Has the region, more so East Africa and in particular Kenya, have they been flagged as being under an active terror threat since March when the pandemic hit?”
General Anderson: So let me just talk about East Africa here a little bit. So, one, we have continued to stay engaged, and there’s been some operations that have been in the news where we have partnered with AMISOM and partnered with the Somali national army in order to continue the fight against al-Shabaab. That has gone on unabated. So COVID or not, we have continued those operations and continue to partner.
Now, there was – we did have to slow down a little bit in order to make sure we had the proper precautions in place that we could – we could engage safely in a COVID environment. We worked through those very quickly. That – those answers, those solutions came within days, and then we were back with our partners and back, engaged fully.
So to say that there has been East Africa with the corona – I don’t think the threat has changed that much nor do I think our ability to engage that threat has changed that much. Yes, we are taking additional precautions. Yes, we social distance when we work together and we make sure we have the proper protective equipment. But we still get after this threat with our partners. All our partners have been fully engaged: Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, as troop-contributing countries to AMISOM, have been engaged in this along with our are Somali partners. So I don’t see that there’s a difference.
As far as a threat in Kenya or Ethiopia because of COVID, has that changed? I don’t think that has changed. I think that that threat still exists. Now, what has – what we have seen is al-Shabaab made some very bold statements that this was a threat only to the nonbelievers, that this would not affect al-Shabaab, but yet we have seen that some of their leaders not only have contracted COVID but have died from COVID. So COVID knows no borders and it knows no difference between religious backgrounds or anything else. It will attack indiscriminately, and that goes for al-Shabaab just as well. So they made some incorrect, non-fact-based statements that are coming back to prove that they were not – they were not right. So COVID is affecting everybody.
Now, that said, yes, we’ll see how COVID affects the region over the long term. I think that’s still to be determined, but we will still stay engaged against the violent extremists and we will still take the fight to al-Shabaab, and we are still committed to removing that threat from the region.
Moderator: Thank you. The next question goes to Christina Ferreira of the Portuguese news agency Lusa, based in Lisbon. The question is about Mozambique, so we may just stay here for a moment because we have a lot of questions on Mozambique. So her question is, “What kind of answer does the Major General defend in Cabo Delgado and what could be the role of the U.S. in the answer?”
General Anderson: So I think as we look at this, we need – we’ve learned, obviously, over 20 years several lessons on how to address violent extremism, and it’s not just – and violent extremism takes different forms in different locations. But the United States has engaged that, obviously, in the Middle East, quite a bit in Afghanistan and Iraq, Syria, but also in Colombia, in the Philippines, and in other places around the world. So we have seen this and understand how this develops, and so that’s what we’re looking at what’s happening now in northern Mozambique.
So in that Cabo Delgado region, once they’re – local grievances exist in many parts of the world, but when that starts to transition, when it starts to be influenced by an external actor, that’s when we start to be more concerned. Because what we’re seeing now is that is no longer just a local grievance that can be handled by – solely by maybe local authorities, but now that becomes something that is being inflamed by Islamic State, by the Islamic State-Core, that now that provides them training, it provides them education, and it provides them additional resources.
So now, what does that mean to the local authorities and the local government? So what we have seen so far is that this is developing in a way that we don’t – we’re concerned about. We don’t like to see how it’s being – how that relationship between Islamic State and the local initial grievance has developed. We do believe that that will take multiple nations. It will not solely – Mozambique needs to take the lead on this but it won’t solely be Mozambique. Other countries in the region will need to engage: Tanzania, Malawi, and others will need to help because this is going to – the terrorists know no borders. They will cross borders. They will engage. They will seek safe havens and refuges where they can in order to continue to disrupt the region.
That said, the United States Government has been engaged in other areas. Just like I keep saying, this is not solely a military engagement; this is also law enforcement, it’s also development, it’s economic development, and these are areas where the U.S. Government has been engaged in and has provided support to Mozambique. Something that may not seem directly related, but just the support – we gave a lot of support the Mozambique after the typhoon hit. That was a significant event for Mozambique, and the reason that’s important to engage is because the terrorists will seek – if we don’t provide that aid and assistance and the international community doesn’t come together to help provide a way forward after these crises, the violent extremists will seek to exploit that and they will seek to turn the populace away from the government and they will seek to provide an alternative narrative and an alternative means.
And so in order to do that, all of this comes together, all of these different types of engagement come together in order to counter terrorism. So if you’re looking to us as the military, that means things have gotten very bad and that it becomes closer to the last resort. So part of this is engaging on a larger effort, so the governments need to come together to engage on these terrorist activities to eliminate some of the underlying conditions, to provide opportunity, provide economic development, and to look at how we can go forward. Then, if required, then the military can come in and assist.
Where we provide the best assistance is when we work with our partners, because these are very localized – even when it’s al-Qaida or Islamic State that are involved, these are still localized issues and it requires the understanding and nuance that the local government and the local forces bring. So, for us, that means we need to engage with our partners; we need to provide them additional capacity and build their ability to counter terrorism. Sometimes it’s education to understand what those indicators are, how they develop. It means providing additional – sometimes it’s additional equipment and resources; sometimes it’s additional training. But again, it is – it’s dependent on what is happening in that immediate environment and what can be tailored to that amid that threat.
So, as I said earlier, we are working with the embassy there and the Government of Mozambique to assess what is happening in the northern province, there in Cabo Delgado, and how is that developing and what would be the best way to engage. Is that through development? Is that through law enforcement? What can we do to bring other partners into that in order to bring their capabilities to bear? And then as a last resort, what is it we need to do as a military in order to help? But again, we like to keep this away from the military as much as possible because there are multiple other means to engage with violent extremism to eliminate those underlying conditions ahead of that.
That said, though, we do see this accelerating in northern Mozambique. That is why we are looking at it and doing an assessment right now to determine what the right way forward is. Hopefully that answers some of that. I did talk a little bit more about Mozambique, since you said there’s quite a few questions there, to kind of set up a foundation. But I’ll turn it back over to you, Marissa, and see what other questions you have.
Moderator: Fantastic. Just thank you, General, for going over Mozambique. We had quite a few questions and I think you – you’ve hit on all of them. Andrew Meldrum of Associated Press in South Africa wanted to know about strategy, so I think you touched on that a little bit. Carien Du Plessis, freelance, South Africa, also wanted to know about the conflict and whether the U.S. would give support and any other actions there to help. You touched on that. And Mr. Emidio Beula of Centro para Democracia e Desenvolvimento in Mozambique also just wanted to know how we view the situation and will it evolve and the kind of support, and you’ve touched on all of those things. So, thank you. And to those journalists, if you didn’t feel like your question was specifically answered, please put your question into the chat.
Okay, we will move on next to a question from – on training and support, from Mr. Frank Andrews, a freelancer in the United Kingdom. “What is the future of the U.S. train-and-assist strategy in Africa moving forward, and do you plan to increase the use of training and equipping local troops to fight violent extremism?”
General Anderson: So let me talk about that in two parts there. So we will continue to train and assist our partners that we are engaged with that are working against violent extremism. So where we have our two main areas of focus: in the east working with our partners in Somalia, in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda. So those are the folks, those are the countries that are focused in the fight against al-Shabaab, and we will continue to engage and train with those partners.
In the west, we will continue to engage and train with our partners in Niger. That’s where our main effort is, and we’ve seen really strong results where Niger has built upon that over time. They’ve built a very capable special operations force and they have built a very capable leadership development program where then they take these leaders out and they seed them into other parts of their military, and we’ve seen a really good effect with that.
So it really comes down to it’s not only what we can do, it’s what our partners are willing to do as well. The partner has to have the will to engage. They have to have the will to take this training and develop it beyond. We can only give them a foundation; they have to continue to move that forward. And we have seen that with several of our partners, but Niger is, I think, a shining example of a partner who may not have a lot of resources but has the will to take what we – what is provided to them by the international community and use it to great effect. And it goes back to my statement earlier about taking on a wicked problem. Sometimes you have to be innovative, and innovation doesn’t mean it’s all technology; it doesn’t mean it’s more of the latest of weapons or equipment. What it means is, how do you get after this threat? How do you think through this threat and how do you engage in order to counter it? And I think that’s what we’ve seen some of our partners do a very good job with.
As we look at that, we will continue to engage with partners episodically in the in the littoral region and in West Africa, so from Senegal all the way down around through Nigeria. That whole region is under threat from what’s happening in the Sahel because we’re seeing it spread. That’s a great area where I believe we can engage with our civil-military support elements and talk about how to engage, how the military engages with the civilian populace. The key is the civilians need to have the trust and confidence that their military is there to protect and support them. When the military comes, they need to run to the aid of – run to the military and to their aid. So how do – how do we help train these militaries in that civil-military engagement? Because that’s where the terrorists look to engage. It’s very much a civilian-centric model, and they look to separate those populations from the government and from the militaries and to seek an alternative form of governance or an alternative to what that central state provides.
So it’s important then to make sure we engage with these militaries and that they understand how to engage with the civilian population and how to provide that security that they need. I think we’ve seen – matter of fact, I know we have seen very good results of that in our episodic engagements in West Africa. We’ve seen it through our engagements in our exercise Flintlock, and we continue to see that develop. So as we go forward, that train-and-assist strategy is multifaceted and it’s not all about going after kinetic operations and high-end weapons; it’s also going about how do we train our partners.
A piece of that training is training them on the laws of armed conflict and how to engage with human rights. That is an important part of this as well, and I think sometimes under-sung of what we bring as the military in training that. To me, that’s one of the most powerful tools we bring. Because if the population doesn’t trust and believe in their military, then how are they going to trust and believe in the security that they bring from that government? And so to do that, you have to bring values that matter. You have to bring values that the people want and need, and that’s what I believe we help our partners engage. So we train them in the laws of armed conflict, we train them in how to engage with the civilian population and how to protect those civilians. I think we have had great results with that over time, and I continue to see progress being made in many countries.
That said, there are oftentimes mistakes that happen. War is a nasty, dirty business, and people get emotional and they make mistakes. It’s not so much that the mistake is made; it’s how does a country and how does a nation respond to that? Do they investigate it? Do they hold people accountable? And are they transparent in how they do that? I take great pride in the United States and that we do that. We have made mistakes over our history, and I don’t take pride in those mistakes, but I take great pride in the fact that we are open and transparent about how we try to fix our system and make it better. I don’t say we’re perfect, but I do say we strive to be better, and that is what we bring with our partners. And if we can partner with them and engage with them and help them understand that that transparency and that accountability is what gives them credibility, and that is what ultimately delegitimizes violent extremism, and that is what we provide as a counter to what they bring, and that is just as important in this fight against terrorism as it is what we build in their military equipment and their military training and in their actions that go out and kinetically attack these VEOs. That non-kinetic, that intangible is just as important, and I do believe – in my heart of hearts I know this is how I have engaged many partners around the world over my 27-year career, is engaging with our values and explaining why that’s important and bringing them along. And where we have done that with our partners, we have had great effect. But again, that goes to the will of our partners to engage and believe and have the faith that this is the way forward.
I’ll stop there, Marissa, and I’ll turn it back over to you.
Moderator: Thank you. The next question will go live to Firle Davies of BBC.
Question: Hi, good morning, can you hear me?
General Anderson: Loud and clear.
Question: Great. Thank you very much for this briefing. It’s very useful. Just one very brief question. Are you concerned about the increasing activities of foreign mercenary groups such as Wagner and the Dyck Advisory Group in places like Cabo Delgado and Central African Republic and, of course, in Libya? And how does that impact your efforts on the ground? Thank you.
General Anderson: Firle, I appreciate that question. I am very concerned about these private military contractors that come out and do this. I think there is – just in general, there is concern with this. And it goes to my last point of how do you ensure or how do you work with the human rights component and how do you work with the law of armed conflict, and who is providing the supervision and oversight of them? So that’s what concerns me with the private military contractors. Is there a role for them? Absolutely. And is there a role that they can help assist? Yes, of course, and many of these nations need to look at partners or places where they can get additional capacity or training. But how do we go about to ensure that these are done in a – in a way that provides proper oversight and that they’re responsible?
I don’t believe what we’ve seen with the Wagner Group has been responsible at all. Russia is directly engaged with them. I see them as being very corrosive. I see them as being detrimental to what should be a common international threat. Unfortunately, what we see is they’re fueling the conflict in Libya. To say that that is a private military contractor, I think, is a bit of a stretch because they’re bringing in weapons systems that we saw recently reported in the press that private companies just don’t have access to. Those are state-provided weapons systems. And so when you see something like that, that raises concern of what is your true purpose. Are you trying to provide stability or are you trying to fuel a greater fight? And those are questions that we have and we’re trying to get answers to, but it’s hard because many of these private military contractors are very opaque. It’s hard to understand who exactly they are and what they are doing and what their motives are. So that, to me, is concerning.
And when you bring up an actor like Wagner, we seen them operate not just in Libya but in several other countries, and I don’t believe that their ties to the Russian Government are exactly clear. I don’t think either side’s been very transparent in that, and that is also concerning.
Other groups, like the Dyck Group, I’m not quite as familiar with but same type of concerns of what is it exactly are their connections and what are they doing? That, to me, is what is important about what you do, what journalists do. You shed light on this, you force people to answer uncomfortable questions, and you bring that to light, and I think that’s an important part of this whole process as we look at this. So I appreciate what you do and I appreciate the questions you’re asking on that.
I can go into more of that, but I think that really kind of sums up over the broad picture of my concerns with several of these private military contractors operating on the continent.
I guess the last thing I will say is I understand why countries are concerned and why they’re turning to places – they’re turning to where they can to get assistance. I think that countries need to be very careful, though, as they invite these different actors to come in of what other baggage they bring and what corrosive effects may be brought in with them, and that we have seen that in other places as well. Thank you.
Moderator: Next question, we’ll go back to Abdou Khadir Cisse of Dakaractu.com in Senegal. His question is in relation to the level of terrorist threat in Senegal and what AFRICOM, what SOCAFRICA is doing about the threat to Senegal.
General Anderson: So a couple of points there. One, we have worked with the Senegalese military over the years with episodic engagements, and we’ve had great partnership and great results with them. Senegal is one of the most capable militaries in West Africa. They’re very engaged. I was just there in Flintlock, so they co-hosted this year’s Flintlocks; Mauritania was the primary venue and Senegal, down in Thies, was the alternate venue or the second venue. Really, really strong engagement. I got to go meet with several of their leaders, all very acutely attuned to the threat that’s moving through Mali and that is approaching their eastern border.
So I think that what we have seen is really good cooperation and engagement there. I’ve seen that engagement with their special operations forces as well as their military. One of the things that was a benefit was just during COVID, a field hospital that AFRICOM had provided and helped train has been used to help treat COVID throughout this entire crisis. So that’s where I’ve seen the partnership between the U.S. and Senegal work very well.
As far as that threat, what we have – we have been doing is we’ve been engaged with the – obviously, through the U.S. embassy but also through our connections with Senegal to make sure they’re aware of how we see the threat in West Africa. When I was there in February, we talked extensively about how we see that threat, the VEO threat moving further westward in Mali, and what that means to Senegal and how we can help assist them with their training and with their preparedness for that. A big part of that preparation is the intelligence sharing and the understanding of the threat. And so we are working with Senegal on multiple levels, including with the embassy, to make sure they understand how that threat is evolving, how – what the tactics are and how al-Qaida in particular moves, how they operate, and so that they can see those warning signs early.
I think another area where we work with Senegal and where they have a very strong effort is in their civil-military relations. They understand that very well. They engage with the civilian population. They have a very strong history of a moderate Islamic culture, and they are working with those religious leaders in order to buffer and in order to help create an environment that’s not conducive to the VEOs. And that’s really – that is just as critical as anything the military can do. So working with those moderate imams and those moderate leaders in the brotherhoods that are in Senegal in order to counter the narrative of these VEOs, in order to get out with the youth and explain to them what these VEOs are really bringing and what they are really saying is absolutely vital. And I think Senegal has been a leader in that in the west and they’ve done a very good job addressing that aspect of countering VEOs.
As far as the threat to Senegal directly, we see it moving in Mali; we don’t see that threat in Senegal directly yet, but that doesn’t mean that anybody in the region can be complacent, and we cannot wait for it to develop. The littoral nations there in the Gulf of Guinea are seeing that and they are responding. I think Senegal has done a good job being ahead of that and looking forward, but they need to continue to develop their capabilities across government, not just in the military.
I hope that answers the question. Thanks.
Moderator: We’re going to move to Nigeria. We have a few questions related to Nigeria. We’re going to combine two of them, one for Mr. Immanuel Odeyemi of Classic FM, Nigeria, the other from Mr. Bola Olajuwon from The Nation, Nigeria. They ask, “How much is being committed to the fight against terror since the onset of the pandemic and beyond?” And, “With the current COVID-19 pandemic globally, how would you describe U.S. partnership with African governments in the area of tackling terrorism and insecurity?”
I’m just going to throw another on Nigeria so you can sort of lump in all of these together. We have one from Mr. Innocent Odoh. He says that, “It’s very disturbing that despite the U.S. multiple levels of assistance in Nigeria, violent extremism and terrorism continue to ravage the country with a surge in deaths and destruction. Why does the partnership with the U.S. appear to be failing Nigeria?”
General Anderson: Okay. So yeah, there’s a lot there. So I’ll start with the first part.
Again, our commitment to countering terrorism and VEOs since COVID has not changed. We remained on the continent. We did not pull any forces back. We didn’t consolidate any forces. We stayed in all our forward locations. So we – and we remained engaged with our partners. So throughout COVID, there has not been a change in the U.S. posture towards fighting VEOs and fighting terrorism on the continent. When we look at the global pandemic and the partnerships, yes, there are stresses there and we talked about that. I also think there are opportunities. There are opportunities for us to partner. There are opportunities for us to engage in ways beyond the military, and I don’t want to get too far ahead; that’s really getting into some State and USAID-type opportunities.
But what we have seen from the military perspective is many of these countries want assistance in how to counter COVID, how to – how to work with that, how to educate on that. And I do believe that’s something the United States brings, and we bring that as a strength of our medical understanding, our medical engagement. We have had a long history of health engagement across the continent, and this health engagement has not been a temporary means of engaging for a one-time gift of aid. It has been an enduring engagement over many years that has helped build health infrastructure, that has helped build hospitals. That’s what’s needed to counter COVID.
So as I look at this, and it goes to – and the reason I bring this up again is because this is how you delegitimize or undermine the terrorist narrative, is you provide these services, you provide these capabilities to the people, and that if we as a – as a community of international nations can help build this capacity within these different African nations to provide these services to their people, this undermines the ability of VEOs to gain traction. This gives the opportunity, and health is a key sector to provide help in because it cuts across everybody, right. Everybody cares about health. Everybody cares about the health of their family. I care about the health of my own family. If I can help provide that, if we can provide that as an international community, then that delegitimizes much of the narratives that these violent extremists put out. So that’s why I see COVID as a potential opportunity for the international community to come together and provide that type of assistance over the long term.
Now, when it comes to other partnerships – because I know the question was probably not focused there – when it comes to engagement on VEOs through the pandemic, we will continue to stay engaged and look for opportunities in the future. So as we look at this, we still need to – where we’ve had established – an established presence, we’ve been able to mitigate the COVID impact and still stay engaged.
As we look to other places where we may come in episodically or we may come in where we haven’t been before, we need to look at then how do we – how do we have the infrastructure that we can come in and engage safely? So that’s added a layer of our calculus that we have to do for risk mitigation. That’s true for every nation in the world. That’s – COVID has created a new base line, a new level of risk that we have to be able to mitigate. So we are addressing that as we come into – as we come into new countries or countries that we haven’t been to for a while as we engage.
When it comes to Nigeria in general, Nigeria, obviously, is a critical nation to West Africa. It is huge just in its economy, in its population, and just its influence in the region. It is a critical nation and we realize that Nigeria is a lynchpin. For that to have an effect against the VEOs and to have an effect against these stressors, it really takes the Government of Nigeria to lead that effort and to build that energy to coalesce around. So no nation can come in and fix that problem for Nigeria. We can assist with that – and it’s the United States can assist, the United Kingdom, other countries can come in, many countries can come and assist with that partnership – but ultimately it takes leadership from Nigeria in order for us to focus our efforts. We need to understand where Nigeria wants to focus those efforts so we can partner appropriately to have the best effect.
We have partnered with great effect with Nigeria in counterterrorism in the past. We’ve had good engagements with their air force in particular and providing C-208 capability, which is a light, fixed-wing ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] platform, very capable, and we’ve had good engagement. We’ve had good engagements with their air force in integrating their air force with their ground forces in order to make their air force more effective. Nigeria is a large country, it’s got a lot of territory to cover, and so it’s critical that they have that air component and that air engagement. So we have had positive engagements there.
Recently, the Nigerian coast guard went out and rescued some Chinese fishermen that were adrift out off their coast. That was a combination of engagement from the U.S., where the U.S. had engaged with their maritime forces and helped build their maritime awareness along their coast. And that was in partnership with their neighbors in Togo and Benin as well, who helped with that whole operation to understand the intelligence that led them to where these fishermen were, but then it was the unit that went out and did that was a Nigerian special operations unit that our Navy SEALs had trained a few years previously.
So sometimes it’s not the immediate effect, it’s the effect that happens two or three years later as you combine these engagements that have a greater effect later on. I know that’s just one small example and it’s not directly against terrorism, but being able to engage in that maritime domain and to be able to understand what’s going on out there is critical, and that has been an engagement the United States has had over several years with Nigeria and those other coastal states in both the naval and the special operations forces.
More directly to his point, we have engaged with Nigeria and continue to engage with them in intel sharing and in understanding what these violent extremists are doing, and that has been absolutely critical to their engagements up in the Borno State and into an emerging area of northwest Nigeria that we’re seeing al-Qaida starting to make some inroads in. So this intelligence sharing is absolutely vital and we stay fully engaged with the Government of Nigeria to provide them an understanding of what these terrorists are doing, what Boko Haram is doing, what ISIS-West Africa is doing, and how ISIS and al-Qaida are looking to expand further south into the littoral areas.
So these are all places where we stay engaged and we stay in great partnership with Nigeria, but I share the – and I can’t remember who asked the question, unfortunately, but I share sentiment that it is quite disturbing that despite all this assistance, the VEOs are continuing to make progress and continuing to be a threat. I think there’s two factors in that. One, it goes to that each government has to focus on this and provide that focus for international partners to engage with. The other partner – the other part of this is we can’t underestimate the threat these violent extremist organizations pose. We, as a community of international nations, keep thinking we have defeated them or we have put them on their back foot and that they’re just moments from disintegration. I think after 20 years we have seen they are very resilient organizations that, although small, they’re able to leverage social media and other forms of media to have an outsized voice and that they continue to recruit and they continue to find opportunities.
And so they have evolved. What they were in the ’90s and what they preyed upon in the ’90s is different than what we saw in the 2000s in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, and now as we see them come back into Africa and engage more in Africa, we see them exploit other grievances and other divides. So we see them being very resilient, creative, and flexible. So I’d ask all of the partners, all of our partners, not to underestimate the threat and not to underestimate what they’re capable of doing and that they are very patient and that they are willing to look for opportunities as they emerge. So you can’t just say ‘we’ve defeated them,’ you have to continue to address weaknesses and places where these terrorist groups can – that they can exploit.
Marissa, I’ll turn it back to you again. That was a bit longer, but since there were so many questions on Nigeria, I thought I’d address it a little bit broader.
Moderator: No, thank you. Thank you so much. You’ve been forthright. And I just want to address someone who had a question in the queue. Princess Ekwi Ajide, I believe that the General answered your question about what do you think Nigeria is not doing right, so he sort of answered that in the last couple of questions related to Nigeria.
So I want to thank all of our participants, and particularly you, General Anderson. Just exceptional today. That’s all the time that we have for today. General Anderson, it sort of sounded like you wrapped up at the end, but I want to give you another opportunity for any final remarks or words that you may have.
General Anderson: So, no, I did kind of wrap it up there, but I guess the last piece – and as a theme throughout and I think everyone should have picked up on – is no one country can defeat these terrorist organizations alone. It takes a community to do it. It takes the wisdom of the entire international community to come together to address this. It takes innovation in ways that doesn’t require necessarily technology or high-tech, but it takes that engagement. And then, if we’re not thinking deeper, if we’re not thinking about the second, third, and fourth order effects that these terrorists prey upon, if we’re only going to try to kill terrorist leaders, if we’re only going to try to dismantle their organizations, then we’re not fully addressing the problem. We have to look at those third and fourth order social effects, economic development, health issues – all of these things that the extremists prey upon that give them a foothold in order to separate them from a legitimate government.
Those are where we, as a community of nations, need to be thinking and that’s where we need to engage. And so while I do understand the military’s role and that we have a critical piece to this, we are often the firemen that if you’re calling the firefighters, it means the fire has already broken out, and that we need to do things to do fire prevention and we need to be able to cut fire breaks to keep that fire from spreading.
So while I appreciate everyone’s interest in what the military brings, if you’re ringing the fire alarm it’s probably a little late. We need to do things ahead of it in order to prevent.
Marissa, that’s all I’ve got. I’ll close with that.
Moderator: Thank you. That concludes today’s briefing. I would like to thank Major General Dagvin Anderson, Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, for speaking to us today, and thank all of our journalists for participating.