As the Pentagon was reviewing new plans for special operations missions in Africa, reducing overall troop numbers on the continent, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis designated three new named contingency operations.
The most recent quarterly report from the Department of Defense Inspector General notes the creation of Operation Yukon Journey, a counterinsurgency operation, and counterterrorism operations in both northwestern and eastern Africa.
Those were named in February, according to the report. The report covered activities in Operations Inherent Resolve from July to September.
At the time and in the months afterward, details of the Defense Department investigation emerged in the October ambush of US soldiers in Niger that left four US and four Nigerien soldiers dead, leading officials to call for increased air support and changes in how special operations forces conducted missions.
The three classified operations begun in February under Mattis’ direction are given brief description in the IG report, their essential function being to “seek to degrade al Qaeda and ISIS affiliated terrorist networks in the Middle East and specific regions of Africa.”
While those operations note only regions, ongoing work in numerous countries against specific militant groups most likely reveals some of those involved.
Africa gained attention as another front on the US’s stated global war on terrorism as Islamist militants pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.
Such groups included Boko Haram, a jihadist militant group active in Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and northern Cameroon and al-Shabab in Somalia.
The Defense Department IG staff submitted a list of questions to the department about topics related to the operations, including the objectives of the operations, the metrics used to measure progress, the costs of the operations, the number of US personnel involved, and the reason the operations were declared overseas contingency operations, according to the report.
The Pentagon gave classified responses to some of the questions, which were not divulged in the public report.
It seems some of the classification may run counter to normal acknowledgement of such operations.
“The DoD informed the DoD OIG that the new contingency operations are classified to safeguard U.S. forces’ freedom of movement, provide a layer of force protection, and protect tactics, techniques, and procedures .
However, it is typical to classify such tactical information in any operation even when the overall location of an operation is publicly acknowledged,” according to the IG report.
One action noted in the report but not linked to the recently revealed operations was a Department of Treasury action against terrorist finances on the continent as part of OIR.
In September, Kenyan officials arrested Waleed Ahmed Zein, who had served as an ISIS financial facilitator. He moved more than $150,000 through complex networks spanning Europe, the Middle East, the Americas, and East Africa from 2017 to early 2018, according to the report.
Those funds were sent to ISIS fighters in Syria, Libya, and Central Africa.
As recently as this summer, the US military was conducting missions in at least 20 African nations. Most of those are limited to airstrikes or advise-train-and-assist work with allied government forces.
For example, in mid-September, US Africa Command officials acknowledged a US airstrike 37 miles west of Mogadishu, Somalia, when US and partner forces came under fire while conducting operations “against al Shabab, an al-Qaida-affiliated terrorist group.”
The strike killed two militants and wounded a third, according to Africom. In June, one US soldier was killed and four more were wounded during an al-Shabab attack in the southern Somalia Jubaland region.
As of September, the United States had carried out more than 20 airstrikes against al-Shabab in Somalia in 2018. Africom officials confirmed that an estimated 500 US soldiers were on the ground in Somalia.
While reports as recently as August noted the footprint of US forces on the continent were expected to be reduced by hundreds, a larger training presence could be on the horizon.
The newly appointed commander of US Army Africa, Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier Jr. told Army Times that one way to improve joint force readiness and training with partners could be to deploy a Security Force Assistance Brigade, or SFAB, to the continent.
The SFAB is a relatively new concept of an entire brigade specifically built and designed to train, advise, and enable foreign militaries and police forces.
The first SFAB deployed to Afghanistan earlier this year; a second is expected to deploy there at the end of the year.
“We have a regionally assigned force right now, it’s transitioning to 2nd Brigade of the 101st [Airborne Division]. So, we have forces we can call upon,” Cloutier told Army Times. “But in keeping with the Army’s focus on readiness, we have to balance the employment of the [regionally assigned force] in Africa against maintaining the [brigade combat team’s] readiness.”
On a typical day, an estimated 2,000 Army Africa soldiers are on the continent.
Campaign support plans are classified, Cloutier said, but he shared broad outlines.
Those include developing security in Somalia, containing instability in Libya and supporting partners in the Sahel and Lake Chad region.
The Sahel is the region of western and north central Africa that runs from Sudan westward to Senegal.
“We’ve done a lot of security cooperation in the Lake Chad region, and that area includes Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. We’ve done some training in Somalia … and south of that,” Cloutier told Army Times.