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Moderator: Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub. We sincerely apologize for the delay. There were some tech issues on the side of our AFRICOM partners, and so we say a huge thank you to those journalists who stayed on with us.
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 the Special Operations Commander, Rear Admiral Jamie Sands, who is speaking to us from Stuttgart, Germany.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Rear Admiral Sands, 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 allotted.
For those listening in French, you may type your questions in French in the Q&A. If you would like to join the conversation on Twitter, please use the #AFHubPress and follow us on Twitter @AfricaMediaHub.
As a reminder, today’s briefing is on the record, and with that, I will turn it over to Rear Admiral Jamie Sands for his opening remarks. Over to you.
Rear Admiral Sands: Thank you very much, Marissa. Thank you for the opportunity to talk to this distinguished group. And again, I’d like to apologize. The technical issues were on my end, and I apologize for the delay and appreciate all the journalists who stayed on.
I’ll open with some brief comments. I’ve been in command here at Special Operations Command Africa for roughly 10 months at this point, and I’ll provide my perspective and then answer with my perspective the questions that you ask.
I would start by saying that – maybe stating the obvious: African nations and the continent is a land of extraordinary opportunity, but it is beset with some rather serious threats. In summary, I would say of those threats, we see al-Shabaab in East Africa continuing to attack the people of Somalia. Al-Qaida, the al-Qaida affiliate JNIM is expanding in the Sahel and moving down into coastal West Africa. Islamic State in West Africa province is consolidating after displacing Boko Haram near the Lake Chad Basin. And other violent extremists and criminal groups threaten stability across the continent.
A key theme is the importance of allies and partnerships across the continent. A safe, stable, and prosperous African partners benefit from the international community, and what we continue to see – what we’ve learned before and we relearned – is that no country can fight extremism alone. Countering violent extremism requires strategic patience, a long-term commitment, and an integrated campaign involving a variety of international partners. Values matter in this fight. Values are central to effectively creating stability and eliminating extremism. Our shared values form a platform of trust between the United States and African nations.
Some thoughts in closing. No nation can solve this challenge or this problem alone. Partnerships are key. Prevention of extremism through governance reforms and progress is an easier path than fighting established violent extremists through kinetic activity. Values matter. Transparency, accountability, and inclusion are key as we move forward. International investment is critical, and this investment must be paired with security, good governance, and aid.
On behalf of the United States and Special Operations, we will stand with our African partners to stem the expansion of violent extremists and their ideologies.
And with that, Marissa, I’m going to open it up for any questions, please.
Moderator: Thank you, Rear Admiral Sands. 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: the security situation across Africa, the threat of violent extremism, and the recent counterterrorism exercise Flintlock.
Our first question will go to one that was sent in to us from Mr. Eric Marfo of the Ghana News Agency, and his question is: “What are the causes of terrorist activities and coup d’etats in Africa and what measures should various Governments put in place to ensure safety on the continent?”
Rear Admiral Sands: Eric, thank you for that question. I’ll offer my perspective, recognizing that I don’t have a perfect answer for a really complicated question or complicated issue. But when you say what are the causes of these coups that we’re seeing and the instability, I think there are multiple and I’ll highlight a few that I believe are most important.
The first is the continued expansion of violent extremist organizations creates tremendous instability, especially with regard to security, and we see in many locations a corresponding increase in the number of internally displaced personnel. The lack of security and the numbers of internally displaced personnel, combined with, in some regions, a perception of disadvantagement that takes place between the government and the population, really form to create an environment where the population loses faith in the government and either decides deliberately to overthrow the government through a coup or, as we saw in some – in one country, Burkina Faso, we think it was a mutiny that turned into a coup.
So I think these overlaying and compounding issues of security and governance are fundamentally the reason behind the multiple coups we’ve seen in the region.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we’ll go live to one of our participants. We’ll go to Simon Ateba of Today News Africa. Simon, you may ask your question.
Question: Yes. Thank you for taking my question and thank you for doing this. This is Simon Ateba with Today News Africa in Washington. Recently, the U.S. Government designated six Nigerian nationals for their support of the terrorist group Boko Haram, sanctioned them effectively. I was wondering if you could give us an update on the activities of Boko Haram, especially financial activities and how the U.S. – what the U.S. Government is doing to track those who are supporting them beyond those six – these six that have been sanctioned.
And also, if I may ask you an additional question. AFRICOM commander recently also testified in Congress and warned against the naval base that the Chinese are building in – want to build in West Africa. And I was just wondering how – if you could explain how that naval base is not – is a threat to the U.S. national security. Thank you.
Rear Admiral Sands: Simon, thank you very much for your questions, and I’ll take the first one you asked about the sanctions of individuals by the U.S. Government in Nigeria, and then where I see Boko Haram.
Let me start by saying when it comes to sanctions, really policy decisions are not my area of responsibility or expertise, but I would just say that it’s important for us to acknowledge and stand up for the protection of human rights and our movements against violent extremist organizations. I would tell you that Boko Haram is being somewhat absorbed by ISIS-WA, ISIS-West Africa. So they’ve been fighting, and we’ve seen a – essentially an assumption of responsibility there, or an overthrowing by ISIS-West Africa. I would – I still consider Boko Haram to be a threat, but they’ve been largely absorbed by ISIS in that region. So there – it’s an evolving threat. ISIS is growing and Boko Haram appears to be diminishing, or folding into that ISIS ideology.
With regard to the AFRICOM commander’s testimony and his emphasis on the importance of preventing China from establishing a naval foothold on the west coast of Africa and why that’s important, I would offer that it’s simply a matter of geography. The closer a Chinese naval presence is to the East Coast of the United States, or North America, the shorter the distance required to transit, the greater – excuse me, the response time for the United States would be decreased, and that’s not something that we’re – we want to accept. And so I think that would – that may give you some additional insight into the why behind General Townsend’s concern about any sort of establishment of a Chinese base on the west coast of Africa.
Moderator: Thank you. For our next question we’ll go live to Hariana Victoria from TPA out of Angola. Hariana, you may ask your question.
Question: Thank you. Thank you very much for the opportunity and thank you very much for doing that. Surely this will help our public to be more informed, and I really appreciate your time to doing that.
So my question is in regard the African governments. So since there is a lot of threat of terrorist groups in Africa that are growing, and there is a lot of concern, I would like to know if the commands that are working in Africa are seeing more commitment and more interest of the African government to do more in order to fight those terrorist groups, and how the African countries are being prepared to face this increasing of threat from those terrorist groups. That’s my question. Thank you.
Rear Admiral Sands: Hariana, thank you so much for the question, and I appreciate you being here and just highlighting the fact that this discussion hopefully can inform more of the public on what we’re doing and what the African nations are doing with the United States as a partner to push back and stem the threat of violent extremists across the continent. So thank you for being here and thank you for the question.
I think first I’ll address your question on what have we seen from African nations on their acknowledgment of the challenge of violent extremist organizations in many of their countries, and then also their level of commitment to the fight. And I’ll offer my perspective, again, after 10 months. But I can give you some personal perspective on this, having talked to many African leaders, both civilian and military, about this.
What I would tell you is I am seeing a tremendous level of commitment and acknowledgment of the problem, right, which is I think incredibly important – the acknowledgment of the problem and a commitment to do something about it as well as a recognition that it is going to require partnerships. And so this is where we think in the United States and some of our European partners and others, partners across Africa can help.
And your question there on, well, how are they being helped – how are they moving forward to address the problem? The number one method is the establishment of better connection and trust between the government and the population. And so that’s where we focus our efforts primarily from the United States, is to help facilitate that through activities that bring the government and the population, especially in areas that may have the perception of being disaffected or disadvantaged, together with the government. That good governance is the ultimate solution to the expansion of violent extremist organizations. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we will go to Nigeria to a question sent in to us from Milliscent Nnwoka of Channels Television. Her question reads: “Russia has been influential across the continent, from mining connections to the use of private security contractors such as the Wagner Group. Have you noticed any changes or do you see anything changing in Africa’s security flowing from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?”
Rear Admiral Sands: Milliscent, thank you for that question. I would offer that as I look at Wagner in Russia, this paramilitary organization owned and bought and paid for there by Prigozhin, I have begun to categorize them or think about them in the same way I think about an organization like al-Qaida. They move across – they kind of move into an area or areas in Africa and they spread insecurity, they spread violence, and they disadvantage the countries with which they engage.
I think Wagner is of particular concern on the African continent. If you look specifically at Mali, what we are seeing is we have a high level of confidence that we’re seeing an increase, or a high level of confidence in the correlation between Wagner’s arrival in Mali and the increase in reported atrocities in Mali. I would offer that Wagner leaves countries less secure, less safe, and poorer just every time.
With regard to your question about how the war in Ukraine is affecting Wagner on the continent, we really don’t have any direct intelligence on that. I think that we – I have heard reports that I can’t really confirm with any intelligence that I have that there has been a movement of Wagner from the African continent into the Ukraine, but I just don’t have intelligence that would either confirm or deny that. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. The next question goes to Mali, a question that came to us in French, and this is from Massiré Diop from L’Indépendant out of Mali. His question is: “Is there a connection between natural resources and the expansion of terrorism? Despite your warnings, more and more African states are using Russian paramilitaries. Don’t you think this is a sign of a failure of American security policy in Africa?”
Rear Admiral Sands: Thank you very much for that question, specifically is there – is there a – do we see a connection or do I see a connection between what’s happening with natural resources and then the expansion of violent extremist organizations? And as I said earlier, I’m going to throw Wagner right into that, and I think you did too in your question, which I think is appropriate.
So I think the short answer is yes, we see violent extremist organizations using things like artisanal gold mines to create funding and to – just like they do when they tax supply lanes. And so they’re raising money by taking resources from the countries that they – portions of which they occupy. We see Wagner doing very similar activity where countries will bring them in in some cases and offer them portions of their natural resources as payment. And so both VEOs and Wagner are benefiting by stealing the natural resources or exploiting the natural resources of the countries in Africa where they’re present.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we will go live to Solly, Solly Rakgomo of Radio Duma FM out of Botswana. Solly, you may ask your question. Solly, please unmute.
Question: Yeah, can you hear me?
Moderator: Yes, we can. Please ask your question.
Question: Okay. Thank you very much. I have a problem here, because when you ask – when I – I want to ask about the contribution of poverty and unemployment amongst the youth, because when you look across African countries, especially the Sahel, there is a lot of unemployment and poverty among the youth which leads to recruitment and radicalization. Yet, at the same time, we see many multinational corporations from Western countries – France, America – exploiting resources there and not improving the lives of the people and engaging in corrupt activities with a corrupt symbiotic relationship with the governments. So do you think we can defeat terrorism while multinational corporations are doing the worst and also unemployment and poverty on the rise among the youth? Thank you.
Rear Admiral Sands: Solly, thank you for your question. You talk about this connection, right, between unemployment and poverty and the expansion of extremism, right, the disadvantaged population in some ways maybe feeling some hopelessness from the situation they’re in making them vulnerable or making the – kind of that twisted message of violent extremists appealing. It offers them some hope.
And so I think while this is not a – I’m a military officer here, so this isn’t my expertise either – I would offer that I think that what you said is true and in that there is a connection and a contribution to the extremist organizations due to unemployment and poverty. As I said in my opening remarks, there are tremendous opportunities for partnerships, to include civil-military partnerships or economic partners, industry partnerships in – across the continent in a way that can advantage and be respectful of and appropriately compensate the countries and the workers that they’re – where the arrangements are made.
I think we see, unfortunately, as you’ve kind of highlighted in your question, there are multiple examples of where organizations will go into an African nation and take advantage of it and really pull out the resources without much of the money or advantage going back into the country that’s providing the resources. I think probably the best example of this is what we see with the Chinese activities in areas like the Central African Republic, where they have large mines and don’t necessarily treat the workers well or compensate the workers well and really extract the resources for the benefit of their own population more than the benefit of the African nations that they are in. And so I think, again, I guess I agree with what you’re saying; I think there is a connection between unemployment and poverty with extremism, or extremist opportunity, right, for expansion that we have to address, and I think we also have tremendous opportunity for an increase in industry partnerships across Africa.
Actually, and one correction. I said the Central African Republic, but I meant the DRC, where we’re seeing Chinese activity in mining. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we’ll go to Murtala Issah of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, who sent us a question in the Q&A. His question is: “I believe you have heard that the Burkinabe Government is asking for help from ECOWAS. Mali is struggling. It appears that the terrorists are winning the war, killing at will and taking lands. Is there any hope of driving these guys out of West Africa? Is this war winnable?”
Rear Admiral Sands: Murtala, thank you for the question. The answer is yes, absolutely there is hope. Yes, absolutely this war, right, which is really a pushback or a fight against a violent ideology that oppresses people, is absolutely winnable. We’re – I mean, we see it again and again. It’s decisions made by governments and by the people of those countries to not accept this bad option that they’re being offered through these violent extremist behaviors, organizations, and their activities.
The key to this, again, is the – is good governance, it’s security, and it’s trust between the individuals, the people of a country and their leadership. As I said really in my opening comments, the way that we win this, the way that we push back on the expansion, is through partnerships between African nations, partnerships between the United States and other allies and nations who have interests in Africa and in advancing a stable and secure Africa which benefits not just the African nation but the entire world. And it’s a – it is a tremendous oversimplification to say this, but of course Africa matters. We’ve got about 25 percent of the world’s population that will be on the continent by the year 2050. And so this is a – this is – it’s not just a question of will we win; it’s really a question – it’s really a statement, I guess, that we must win. We can’t accept an Africa, an African continent ruled and controlled, right, by violent extremist organizations. Thanks.
Moderator: Thank you. Thank you. Next we’ll go live to Nick Turse from Rolling Stone out of the UK. Mr. Turse, you may ask your question.
Question: Thanks very much for taking the time to talk today, Admiral. You spoke earlier about coups, and I just want to unpack this a little further. One thing that you didn’t mention was that in the last two years alone, U.S.-trained officers who have worked with SOC Africa have overthrown West African governments at least four times: twice in Mali, once in Guinea, and this year in Burkina Faso. Can you comment on why these officers who work with SOC Africa are overthrowing the very governments that SOC Africa is attempting to strengthen? And is SOC Africa taking any steps to prevent this from continuing?
Rear Admiral Sands: Thanks, Nick. That’s a question we really get all the time, where I think the implication may be that should we be – should we really be working with any countries in Africa, because there’s a risk that there could be a coup. And I guess that’s just not how we look at it. We lead every single training engagement that we do with a focus on human rights and on the importance of democracy and civilian oversight of the military. So these coups are completely opposite to everything that we’re teaching. I talked about the values that we address and we stand on, and how important those are in our engagements. I mean, they’re the foundation of our engagements.
I would tell you, Nick, that there’s no one more surprised or disappointed when partners that we’re working with or have been working with for a while in some cases decide to overthrow their government. That’s just not something that we – we have not found ourselves able to prevent it, and we certainly don’t assess that we’re causing it and our partnership is causing it. Our intent is to continue to extend a hand to African nations to help them, and really help them address some of the underlying causes of these coups. These coups with individuals with whom we’ve worked with participating are not a result, I don’t assess, of our military training. They’re really a result of the conditions that I highlighted before – the decreasing and shrinking security environment; the large number of internally displaced personnel; the lack of governance and, in some cases, governance that is not necessarily aligned with the rights and will of their people.
So I think it’s a good question and I’m glad you asked it, Nick, but I would tell you that while this has happened, we intend to remain engaged and remain partners with our African partners because there is no other option, right? There is – we’re going to – we have to get after the root causes of this violent extremism – the reasons that they’re able to expand and gain a foothold in populations – and in order to do that we have to be present and we have to be engaged and we have to be helping these nations on our foundation of shared values. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we will go live to Pearl Matibe. Pearl, please state your affiliation.
Question: Hello, Admiral. It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you again, particularly representing U.S. Africa Command. I’m Pearl with Power FM 98.7, South Africa. My question to you, Admiral, is just taking a look at when Africa Command started when President Bush launched this new command, what is it, for example, that you are doing or have done in the past – maybe not doing now – or plan to do in the future about the fact that, initially, the broader African population had some negative critical assessment of the United States increasing its presence on the continent.
Yes, I understand when you’re engaging with the partners. But sometimes African militaries do not have that same engagement with their own populations, with their own civilian populations. In fact, their civilian populations, in many instances, run away from those same militaries. So how is it that you might be, perhaps, helping to change the perception of the fact that if the United States is increasing its presence that it’s more of wanting to have more control? I just want to understand is there any narrative or any messaging of you improving how Africans perceive themselves?
I’ve seen you do things in Morocco where there’s exercises and you’re doing, like, some medical treatment for the local societies and communities. I don’t see that in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Thanks, Admiral.
Rear Admiral Sands: Pearl, thank you very much for that question, and your background there too I think is really important because you’re right. I think we did, especially with the establishment of AFRICOM. We saw real concern from African nations about, hey, what’s – what’s this about? Why – what do you want to do? We’re not exactly keen on the idea of more of a U.S. presence, especially some sort of persistent presence in many nations on the continent. And so as we – as we move forward, our first role was really to establish trust and to demonstrate our intent through actions and not just words.
And I think we’ve done – you highlighted one example, one country where we’ve really focused on increasing the connection and the understanding between militaries, governments and their own population. I would offer that what we’ve seen is the number one driver of VEO recruitment is abuse by government forces. And as you’ve highlighted, that has happened; right? This is not a – it’s not a perfect situation, to say the least.
But yeah, I’ll repeat that. The number one driver of violent extremist organization recruitment is abuse at the hands of government forces. So we work as partners with African nations to help them address these abuses or address these potential issues through good training, good leadership, a focus on values, on rule of law, on civilian oversight of the military, and we build trust collectively through that process.
And then finally, your comment too, a really good comment there on you’ve seen us do things like medical engagements or veterinary engagements. We are continuing to do those. And we actually just did two in Niger, both what we call a MEDCAP, a medical capabilities engagement where we – where the local government provides medical services supported and assisted by U.S. forces to the local population. And then we do the same thing and we – where the local government provides services, veterinary services to, like, the Fulani herders coming through, the Fulani tribes, for example, treating their animals and giving supplies and training to the herders to take better care of their animals.
Those are probably examples of what I would call or describe our most important operations in the continent, those that are focused on really creating connective tissue between governments and their people that isn’t necessarily there for a variety of reasons and building trust with our partners and then helping our partners build trust, in some cases, with their own population, which is the long-term solution to the expansion that we’re seeing with violent extremists. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Next, we’ll go to a question in our chat from Milton Maluleque from Deutsche Welle Africa. His question is: “What assessment do you make of the U.S. involvement in the fight against terrorism in Cabo Delgado, which is characterized by the Mozambican defense and security forces being trained by the U.S. and the dismantling of terrorist financing networks?”
Rear Admiral Sands: Milton, thank you for the question. I think when you look at Mozambique, it’s a good example of how we think, from the United States Special Operations perspective, we can add value to our partners. What we were able to do in Mozambique was deploy forces to conduct the joint exercise for training, which immediately raised the capability or helped raise the capability of our partners or security partners in Mozambique and also served as a platform to bring in additional partners to support the efforts in a more sustainable way in Mozambique.
So I look at Mozambique as a tragic example of the expansion of violent extremists but also a good example of what we can do through partnerships between the United States, African nations, and other partners, especially those from the European Union and across Africa. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question – and we are running out of time, but if we can get one or two more questions in, we’ll round this out. The next question came to us from Mary Wambui of Nation Media Group out of Kenya. Her question reads: “There are reports that al-Shabaab terror group is experiencing a resurgence with notable daily activities, especially in Somalia. Have you made a similar observation, and what do you make of that?”
Rear Admiral Sands: Mary, thank you for the question. We have made a similar observation. I would say – I would describe al-Shabaab as stable, where al-Shabaab has really continued to put down roots in Somalia. They have, I would say, sustained attacks against the government of Somalia, against military forces in Somalia, against the civilian population. They continue to function in some ways as a mafia-like organization that taxes citizens unconstitutionally, right, without cause. They attempt to provide government services in lieu of government presence. And they have seeded much of the area in Somalia or large portions of the area with improvised explosive devices that kill indiscriminately in many cases.
So I think I would describe al-Shabaab as being in a very kind of stable and secure place right now. We look at Somalia with concern and al-Shabaab in particular with concern, and we would like to see the continued efforts of the Somali Government with us as their partners with AMISOM or now ATMIS to continue to drive back al-Shabaab and restore government services and oversight across Somalia. Thank you.
Moderator: Rear Admiral, do you have time for one more question?
Rear Admiral Sands: Yes, ma’am. Absolutely.
Moderator: Okay. Okay. Our last question – we’re going to move to North Africa. And this question is coming to us from Mr. Ali Laggoune of Elbilad TV in Algeria. The question is: “Secretary Blinken said during his recent visit to Algiers that the United States seeks to develop its relationship with Algeria in terms of combating extremist groups and developing defense capabilities. Are there any more details about this subject?”
Rear Admiral Sands: Ali, thank you for that question. What I could offer on Algeria is that while I don’t have much in the way of additional details to provide, I would tell you that we are absolutely open to increased partnerships with Algeria and with – and from a Special Operations perspective, with their military and their special operations forces. It’s obviously a strategically important nation who we would be proud and we have a good relationship with, and we would be proud to thicken our relationship with when it comes to partnership. But I really don’t have any other details that I can provide. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Well, that is all the time that we have for today, Rear Admiral Sands. Do you have any final remarks?
Rear Admiral Sands: Really, I’d just like to close by saying, sincerely, thank you very much for what you’re doing as journalists. Thank you for your time and for listening and for caring and for expanding the – really the knowledge of the situation. Military transparency and accountability to our civilian populations is essential. And that’s why the U.S. military talks. And we really sincerely appreciate opportunities to talk to journalists like we are today. So thank you very much for your time. That’s all I have.
Moderator: Well, that concludes today’s briefing. I would like to thank Special Operations Command Africa’s Commander Rear Admiral Jamie Sands for speaking to us today and thank all of our journalists for participating and a huge thanks for your patience as you waited for us to start this briefing. If you have any questions about today’s briefing, you may contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at AFMediaHub@state.gov. Thank you.
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