In Africa, the Legacy of the US War on Terror Is Death and Chaos

The United States’ 20-plus-year War on Terror has led to disasters throughout the Middle East. But the greatest failure of US counterterrorism operations may be in Africa, where they have destabilized multiple governments and led to a huge spike in violence.

A US sergeant at a training area in Mubarak Military City in the Egyptian desert on October 8, 2001. (USAF / DOD / AFP via Getty Images)

America’s global “war on terror” has seen its share of stalemates, disasters, and outright defeats. During twenty-plus years of armed interventions, the United States has watched its efforts implode in spectacular fashion, from Iraq in 2014 to Afghanistan in 2021. The greatest failure of its “forever wars,” however, may not be in the Middle East, but in Africa.

“Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated,” President George W. Bush told the American people in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks, noting specifically that such militants had designs on “vast regions” of Africa.

To shore up that front, the United States began a decades-long effort to provide copious amounts of security assistance, train many thousands of African military officers, set up dozens of outposts, dispatch its own commandos on all manner of missions, create proxy forces, launch drone strikes, and even engage in direct ground combat with militants in Africa. Most Americans, including members of Congress, are unaware of the extent of these operations. As a result, few realize how dramatically America’s shadow war there has failed.

The raw numbers alone speak to the depths of the disaster. As the United States was beginning its forever wars in 2002 and 2003, the State Department counted a total of just nine terrorist attacks in Africa. This year, militant Islamist groups on that continent have, according to the Pentagon, already conducted 6,756 attacks. In other words, since the United States ramped up its counterterrorism operations in Africa, terrorism has spiked 75,000 percent.

Let that sink in for a moment.

75,000 percent.

A Conflict That Will Live in Infamy

The US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq opened to military successes in 2001 and 2003 that quickly devolved into sputtering occupations. In both countries, Washington’s plans hinged on its ability to create national armies that could assist and eventually take over the fight against enemy forces. Both US-created militaries would, in the end, crumble. In Afghanistan, a two-decade-long war ended in 2021 with the rout of an American-built, -funded, -trained, and -armed military as the Taliban recaptured the country. In Iraq, the Islamic State nearly triumphed over a US-created Iraqi army in 2014, forcing Washington to reenter the conflict. US troops remain embattled in Iraq and neighboring Syria to this very day.

In Africa, the United States launched a parallel campaign in the early 2000s, supporting and training African troops from Mali in the west to Somalia in the east and creating proxy forces that would fight alongside American commandos. To carry out its missions, the US military set up a network of outposts across the northern tier of the continent, including significant drone bases — from Camp Lemonnier and its satellite outpost Chabelley Airfield in the sun-bleached nation of Djibouti to Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger — and tiny facilities with small contingents of American special operations troops in nations ranging from Libya and Niger to the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

For almost a decade, Washington’s war in Africa stayed largely under wraps. Then came a decision that sent Libya and the vast Sahel region into a tailspin from which they have never recovered.

“We came, we saw, he died,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joked after a US-led NATO air campaign helped overthrow Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, the longtime Libyan dictator, in 2011. President Barack Obama hailed the intervention as a success, but Libya slipped into near-failed-state status. Obama would later admit that “failing to plan for the day after” Qaddafi’s defeat was the “worst mistake” of his presidency.

As the Libyan leader fell, Tuareg fighters in his service looted his government’s weapons caches, returned to their native Mali, and began to take over the northern part of that nation. Anger in Mali’s armed forces over the government’s ineffective response resulted in a 2012 military coup. It was led by Amadou Sanogo, an officer who learned English in Texas and underwent infantry-officer basic training in Georgia, military intelligence instruction in Arizona, and was mentored by US Marines in Virginia.

Having overthrown Mali’s democratic government, Sanogo and his junta proved hapless in battling terrorists. With the country in turmoil, those Tuareg fighters declared an independent state, only to be muscled aside by heavily armed Islamists who instituted a harsh brand of Sharia law, causing a humanitarian crisis. A joint Franco-American-African mission prevented Mali’s complete collapse but pushed the militants into areas near the borders of both Burkina Faso and Niger.

Since then, those nations of the West African Sahel have been plagued by terrorist groups that have evolved, splintered, and reconstituted themselves. Under the black banners of jihadist militancy, men on motorcycles — two to a bike, wearing sunglasses and turbans, and armed with Kalashnikovs — regularly roar into villages to impose zakat (an Islamic tax); steal animals; and terrorize, assault, and kill civilians. Such relentless attacks have destabilized Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger and are now affecting their southern neighbors along the Gulf of Guinea. Violence in Togo and Benin has, for example, jumped 633 percent and 718 percent over the last year, according to the Pentagon.

US-trained militaries in the region have been unable to stop the onslaught and civilians have suffered horrifically. During 2002 and 2003, terrorists caused just twenty-three casualties in Africa. This year, according to the Pentagon, terrorist attacks in the Sahel region alone have resulted in 9,818 deaths — a 42,500 percent increase.

At the same time, during their counterterrorism campaigns, America’s military partners in the region have committed gross atrocities of their own, including extrajudicial killings. In 2020, for example, a top political leader in Burkina Faso admitted that his country’s security forces were carrying out targeted executions. “We’re doing this, but we’re not shouting it from the rooftops,” he told me, noting that such murders were good for military morale.

American-mentored military personnel in that region have had only one type of demonstrable “success”: overthrowing governments the United States trained them to protect. At least fifteen officers who benefited from such assistance have been involved in twelve coups in West Africa and the greater Sahel during the war on terror. The list includes officers from Burkina Faso (2014, 2015, and twice in 2022); Chad (2021); Gambia (2014); Guinea (2021); Mali (2012, 2020, and 2021); Mauritania (2008); and Niger (2023). At least five leaders of a July coup in Niger, for example, received American assistance, according to a US official. They, in turn, appointed five US-trained members of the Nigerian security forces to serve as that country’s governors.

Military coups of that sort have even super-charged atrocities while undermining American aims, yet the United States continues to provide such governments with counterterrorism support. Take Colonel Assimi Goïta, who worked with US Special Operations forces, participated in US training exercises, and attended the Joint Special Operations University in Florida before overthrowing Mali’s government in 2020. Goïta then took the job of vice president in a transitional government officially charged with returning the country to civilian rule, only to seize power again in 2021.

That same year, his junta reportedly authorized the deployment of the Russia-linked Wagner mercenary forces to fight Islamist militants after close to two decades of failed Western-backed counterterrorism efforts. Since then, Wagner — a paramilitary group founded by the late Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former hot-dog vendor turned warlord — has been implicated in hundreds of human rights abuses alongside the longtime US-backed Malian military, including a 2022 massacre that killed five hundred civilians.

Despite all of this, American military aid for Mali has never ended. While Goïta’s 2020 and 2021 coups triggered prohibitions on some forms of US security assistance, American tax dollars have continued to fund his forces. According to the State Department, the United States provided more than $16 million in security aid to Mali in 2020 and almost $5 million in 2021. As of July, the department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism was waiting on congressional approval to transfer an additional $2 million to Mali. (The State Department did not reply to a request for an update on the status of that funding.)

The Two-Decade Stalemate

On the opposite side of the continent, in Somalia, stagnation and stalemate have been the watchwords for US military efforts.

“Terrorists associated with Al Qaeda and indigenous terrorist groups have been and continue to be a presence in this region,” a senior Pentagon official claimed in 2002. “These terrorists will, of course, threaten US personnel and facilities.” But when pressed about an actual spreading threat, the official admitted that even the most extreme Islamists “really have not engaged in acts of terrorism outside Somalia.” Despite that, US Special Operations forces were dispatched there in 2002, followed by military aid, advisers, trainers, and private contractors.

More than twenty years later, US troops are still conducting counterterrorism operations in Somalia, primarily against the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab. To this end, Washington has provided billions of dollars in counterterrorism assistance, according to a recent report by the Costs of War project. Americans have also conducted more than 280 air strikes and commando raids there, while the CIA and special operators built up local proxy forces to conduct low-profile military operations.

Since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, the United States has launched thirty-one declared air strikes in Somalia, six times the number carried out during President Obama’s first term, though far fewer than the record high set by President Trump, whose administration launched 208 attacks from 2017 to 2021.

America’s long-running, undeclared war in Somalia has become a key driver of violence in that country, according to the Costs of War project. “The US is not simply contributing to conflict in Somalia, but has, rather, become integral to the inevitable continuation of conflict in Somalia,” reported Ẹniọlá Ànúolúwapọ Ṣóyẹmí, a lecturer in political philosophy and public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University. “US counterterrorism policies are,” she wrote, “ensuring that the conflict continues in perpetuity.”

The Epicenter of International Terrorism

“Supporting the development of professional and capable militaries contributes to increasing security and stability in Africa,” said General William Ward, the first chief of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) — the umbrella organization overseeing US military efforts on the continent — in 2010, before he was demoted for profligate travel and spending. His predictions of “increasing security and stability” have, of course, never come to pass.

While the 75,000 percent increase in terror attacks and 42,500 percent increase in fatalities over the last two decades are nothing less than astounding, the most recent increases are no less devastating. “A 50-percent spike in fatalities tied to militant Islamist groups in the Sahel and Somalia over the past year has eclipsed the previous high in 2015,” according to a July report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Defense Department research institution. “Africa has experienced a nearly four-fold increase in reported violent events linked to militant Islamist groups over the past decade. . . . Almost half of that growth happened in the last 3 years.”

Twenty-two years ago, George W. Bush announced the beginning of a global war on terror. “The Taliban must act, and act immediately,” he insisted. “They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate.” Today, of course, the Taliban reigns supreme in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda was never “stopped and defeated,” and other terror groups have spread across Africa (and elsewhere). The only way “to defeat terrorism,” Bush asserted, was to “eliminate it and destroy it where it grows.” Yet it has grown, and spread, and a plethora of new militant groups have emerged.

Bush warned that terrorists had designs on “vast regions” of Africa but was “confident of the victories to come,” assuring Americans that “we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.” In country after country on that continent, the United States has, indeed, faltered and its failures have been paid for by ordinary Africans killed, wounded, and displaced by the terror groups that Bush pledged to “defeat.” Earlier this year, General Michael Langley, the current AFRICOM commander, offered what may be the ultimate verdict on America’s forever wars on that continent. “Africa,” he declared, “is now the epicenter of international terrorism.”