Marines jump out of an MV-22B Osprey while conducting parachute operations over Djibouti last year. At least 5,000 U.S. troops are operating on the African continent. (Sgt. Christopher Q. Stone / Marine Corps)
- Filed Under
Just five years ago, the Pentagon considered Africa such a strategic backwater that the global map of combatant commands carved the massive continent into two chunks and placed most of it under control of the chief of U.S. European Command in Belgium.
Yet since the 2008 creation of U.S. Africa Command, the military has conducted a quiet buildup there and today has at least 5,000 troops operating on the ground across the continent.
AFRICOM’s focus is the vast regions surrounding the Sahara desert, the Maghreb to the north and the Sahel to the south. Much of it is essentially ungoverned and has become a sanctuary for some of the most virulent strains of today’s radical Islamic movements.
Many of those groups have sent weapons and manpower into the 3-year-old Syrian civil war, temporarily diverting their attention away from Africa. But the governments in the region are bracing for a potential surge in violence if and when the Syrian conflict winds down.
“A significant number [of insurgents] throughout the region have headed to Syria, and not many have come back yet. ... All the governments are concerned about that, because they’ll come back ... with experience and better trained from the jihadis’ perspective,” Army Gen. David Rodriguez, chief of U.S. Africa Command, told reporters at the Pentagon on April 8.
Those threats in the region have helped transform the U.S. military’s Camp Lemonnier along the East African coast of Djibouti from a ramshackle outpost of a few hundred troops a decade ago into a hub of operations for AFRICOM and home to several thousand U.S. troops. And beyond the gates of Lemonnier, “throughout the rest of the area, there are small pockets of temporarily placed organizations and people,” Rodriguez said.
Those troops are providing support and conducting direct operations against the al-Shabaab militant group based in Somalia, which experts say is among the most sophisticated extremist groups to emerge in Africa in recent years. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for last November’s attack on a shopping mall in an affluent section of Nairobi, Kenya.
Rodriguez said those efforts, coordinating with several African militaries, have successfully diminished the groups’ reach and limited its outright control over cities and rural regions.
Camp Lemonnier also reportedly conducts extensive drone operations, which provide key intelligence about extremist activities in the region, as well as direct strikes like one in late January targeting an al-Shabaab leader.
In early April, the Pentagon announced the expansion of the Marine Corps task force at Moron Air Base in southern Spain, which primarily focuses on supporting AFRICOM. That air-ground task force will grow from 600 to 775 personnel, defense officials said.
The Marines in Spain will help improve the U.S. military’s response time for crises in the western part of Africa.
“We are looking hard at trying to improve our posture in West Africa, which is really the toughest challenge for security,” Rodriquez said.
Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos recently said he would like to see some Marines based permanently along the West African coastline in the Gulf of Guinea.
“This is where we hope to be,” Amos told hundreds of officers at the annual Sea Air Space Exposition in Maryland on April 7.
The U.S. conducted operations in western Africa last year in a French-led mission against extremists who, aligned with local desert tribesmen, ousted the democratically elected president of Mali. Over several months, the U.S. provided the French military with airlift, air refueling and intelligence along with a small team of U.S. personnel on the ground.
Low-profile and often classified special operations missions dominate the current AFRICOM strategy, including some direct counterterrorism missions and also training missions with local security forces.
“They’re a big part,” Rodriguez said of the special operations teams. “The small teams and the right places that have a tailored approach to what our partners need most. And the foreign internal defense and the training of small units is at the head of that list.”