Maj.-Gen. Dagvin Anderson is the Commander of the United States (U.S,) Special Operations Command Africa. Addressing a digital briefing with reporters, he speaks about U.S. partnerships with African nations to reduce extremism, combat terrorist organisations in order to bring about peace and prosperity throughout the African continent. WALE ELEGBEDE reports
Fight against terror during pandemic and beyond
Again, our commitment to countering terrorism and Violent Extremist Offenders (VEOs) since COVID-19 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 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 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 delegitimise or undermine the terrorist narrative, is you provide these services, you provide these capabilities to the people, and that if we 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 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 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 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. 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 new countries or countries that we haven’t been to for a while as we engage.
Extremist groups exploiting COVID-19 disruptions on the continent
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. 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, 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.
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, 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 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
Partnership with Nigeria on counterterrorism
We have partnered with great effect with Nigeria in counter-terrorism 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 neighbours 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 U.S. 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.
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 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 are 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 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, although small, they’ve 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. We see them being very resilient, creative, and flexible.
So I’d ask 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 exploit.