• Telephonic press briefing on the first ever West Africa Joint Operations (WAJO) regional exercise that took place March 29-31, 2021. The briefing featured Julie Cabus, Deputy Assistant Secretary and Assistant Director Training Directorate, Bureau of Diplomatic Security, and Michael C. Gonzales, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs.  The speakers addressed the regional exercise, which was designed to connect counterterrorism investigators with their judicial counterparts in three nations (Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger).

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Moderator:  Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub.  I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and thank all of you for joining this discussion.  Today, we are very pleased to be joined by Julie Cabus, the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s Deputy Assistant Secretary, and Michael Gonzales, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs.  Deputy Assistant Secretary Cabus and Deputy Assistant Secretary Gonzales will discuss the first-ever West Africa Joint Operations regional exercise that took place on March 29th to 31st of this year.  They are joining us from Washington, D.C.

We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Deputy Assistant Secretary Cabus, then we will turn to your questions.  We will try to get to them – to as many of them as we can during the briefing.  If you would like to join the conversation on twitter, please use the hashtag #AFHubPress and follow us on @AfricaMediaHub.

As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and with that, I will turn it over to Julie Cabus, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, for her opening remarks.

Ms. Cabus:  Ms. Scott, thank you very much and good morning to those here in the U.S. and good afternoon to those of you who are overseas.

The Department of State last week organized the first-ever West Africa Joint Operations regional exercise to connect counterterrorism investigators with their judicial counterparts in three nations: Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. 

Approximately 80 law enforcement and judiciary officers took part.

The exercise was organized by the Department of State’s Antiterrorism Assistance Program, also known as ATA.  ATA is the U.S. Government’s premier provider of counterterrorism training and equipment grants to foreign law enforcement.  Since its creation in 1983, ATA has delivered counterterrorism training to more than one thousand – excuse me, 150,000 law enforcement officials and first responders from more than 150 countries.  The Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism provides ATA with funding and policy guidance, and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s Diplomatic Security Service conducts training and equipment deliveries in each country.  The Department of Justice’s Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance, and Training was also a key contributor to the success of this training and exercise.

The West Africa regional exercise that just concluded was partly modeled on the successful East Africa Joint Operations exercise.  Those exercises have taken place since 2014. 

For this exercise, we focused on gathering timely, accurate evidence while working with judicial authorities to ensure adherence to local laws.  Goals of the exercise included: enhancing the investigative capacity and capability of units focused on terrorism cases in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger; ensuring investigations adhere to the rule of law and the principles of human rights; and facilitating regional cross-border cooperation by sharing best practices.

The West Africa exercise was originally designed as a more comprehensive multinational exercise.  However, plans were modified due to travel restrictions created by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Initial feedback has been very encouraging, especially with the coordination between law enforcement professionals and their judicial counterparts.  Addressing terrorist threats requires a holistic approach.  All three countries have been trying to handle the increasing number of terrorist cases and suspects in their custody.  They have taken multiple steps to improve their ability to adjudicate and prosecute terrorism cases, and we are happy to partner with them to provide some additional capabilities, increase cooperation between law enforcement and judicial actors, and test them out in real-world scenarios confronting them on a near daily basis.

My duties focus on international law enforcement, while my colleague, Deputy Assistant Secretary Michael Gonzales, from the Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs, can address broader U.S. policy issues.

Thank you once again and welcome once again.

Moderator:  Thank you so much.  We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.  For those asking questions, please state your name, affiliation and limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing: the West Africa Joint Operations regional exercise that took place on March – in March 2021.

We have received some questions submitted in advance by email, and journalists may continue to submit questions in English on twitter and via the email  Please be considerate to other journalists on the call and make your questions as brief as possible, in the interest of time.

So I’m going to take moderator’s prerogative here and ask the first question, because DAS Cabus, you mentioned law enforcement – law enforcement several times in your opening remarks.  Can you talk about the difference it is for this program that you’re doing versus other programs that the U.S. has focused on counterterrorism that are connected to AFRICOM or connected to our Defense Department?

Ms. Cabus:  Yes, ma’am.  ATA primarily works with law enforcement, while the U.S. Defense Department primarily works with military forces.  However, from time to time, we do see an overlap in some countries.  Designated military units will perform duties such as border patrol that in the United States, for example, would normally be performed by civilian law enforcement.

I think that this is an important distinction because in primarily francophone countries, their police services and gendarmerie do perform perhaps both civilian law enforcement roles and responsibilities while undertaking some military roles and responsibilities.  However, our focus is primarily on civilian law enforcement.  ATA is one of many programs within the Department of State that uses partner nations in addressing terrorist threats, and we assist them to do so.  In addition, the State Department programs are coordinated with the Defense Department, U.S. Department of Defense.  For example, DOD’s AFRICOM conducts Flintlock exercises in West Africa, and in recent years ATA and ATA-trained civilian law enforcement have increasingly participated in Flintlock exercises with the better goal of coordinating military efforts with civilian law enforcement efforts.  

Moderator:  Thank you.  DAS Gonzales, we have a question from Senator Iroegbu of the Global Sentinel in Nigeria.  His question is:  “How pervasive is ISIS and al-Qaida penetration of Nigeria and West Africa in general?”  

Mr. Gonzales:  Good afternoon and thanks for the question.  In terms of the areas that are affected, I would argue that ISIS and al-Qaida are spread quite broadly across Nigeria and West Africa, whether we’re talking about ISIS-West Africa or Boko Haram in Nigeria’s northeast or ISIS-Greater Sahara or JNIM-type affiliates further west.  

When we talk about the actual number of individuals, it may be rather limited, a few thousand.  But given their operations and their ability to infiltrate in different communities and spread out and collect resources, I would argue that both ISIS and al-Qaida affiliates and members are spread rather broadly across the region.  

Moderator:  Thank you.  The next question is from Bloomberg News from Katarina Hoije in Chad.  Her question is:  “Does this training last month point to a change in the U.S. strategy in the Sahel?”  So again, I think DAS Gonzales, you can take that one.

Mr. Gonzales:  Sure, happy to.  I would argue that this training is a good manifestation of the implementation of our strategy in the Sahel in terms of the three Ds, as we call them: diplomacy, defense, and development.  Ultimately, addressing the challenges in the Sahel will require security interventions, but ultimately, the answer to the challenges of the Sahel lies in addressing the crisis of state legitimacy and delivering governance and services to marginalized communities.

And so this West Africa Joint Operation exercise that we saw last month is a really good example of the U.S. partnering with our partner countries in the region to develop their capacity so that they can gain greater confidence of their publics by effectively delivering accountability and follow-up to the security threats that are posed to communities.  

As Secretary Blinken said during his confirmation hearing, the U.S. is reviewing our strategy in the Sahel as well as in other places.  But ultimately, we believe the approach will be a combination of addressing the security dynamics, working with our partners both in the region and internationally to bolster governance and make sure that the state is present and is credible and able to address the needs and respond to the desires of the populations they serve.

Moderator:  Thank you.  DAS Cabus, just how does the State Department work with local governments on these programs?

Ms. Cabus:  Thank you for that question.  Fortunately, at every U.S. embassy across the world there is one of my colleagues, a Diplomacy Security special agent, who is known as a Regional Security Officer.  The Regional Security Officer coordinates all training that is offered by the Antiterrorism Assistance training program, and they work with their host nation, their local government partners, and they will help to define what training is needed and the participant lists for that training.  

That connection is very important, because within each country ATA programs are led by our U.S. embassy country teams and our regional security officers.  In most cases, they develop and maintain long-term bilateral relations with law enforcement in each country.  The embassy will typically propose ATA programs before a program proceeds, and ATA officers in collaboration with the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau will assess the needs and willingness of partners to work towards addressing those needs.

However, I should note that each country has the opportunity to express their wishes and desires for the types of training that they would like to receive.  It is a true partnership.  We identify the needs, and we work with each nation to address those needs.

Moderator:  Thank you.  We have a question from Sarel Van Der Walt of Beeld/Die Burger newspaper in South Africa.  The question is for DAS Gonzales:  “Do you see a link between what is happening in West Africa and the problems in Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique?”

Mr. Gonzales:  That’s a great question.  In terms of the dynamics we see on the ground, yes, I think there is many, many similarities.  There are extremists who are identifying regions that have long faced lack of governance or have been very isolated or remote from the center, from the capitals, from responsive governance in their countries, where social grievances exist, and they’ve manipulated that in order to advance their cause and their efforts.  

In terms of tangible links or coordination between ISIS-Mozambique and the ISIS or al-Qaida groups that we see in West Africa, no, we don’t see that very manifestly.  We certainly do see ISIS-Mozambique coordinating with ISIS-Central Africa Province as well as with ISIS-al [inaudible] based out of Somalia.  But in terms of the more tangible links between West Africa and ISIS-Mozambique, we don’t see those.  But again, the drivers that are enabling factors that lead to violent extremists to take advantage of these kinds of situations certainly do share the many similarities between the two regions.

Moderator:  Thank you.  The next question goes to Anita Powell of Voice of America.  Her question is:  “Can you talk about what U.S. forces learned from the security experts in these three African nations” – so Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger – “especially regarding their experiences with domestic terrorism?  Can any of these lessons be applied to the challenges that the U.S. is facing?”  

DAS Gonzales, over to you.  And DAS Cabus, if you’d like to add anything on that question as well.  

Mr. Gonzales:  Actually, I think that may be more of a tangible, ATA-focused question better responded to by DAS Cabus, if she doesn’t mind.

Ms. Cabus:  Happy to take that question.  I would just say that, again, the primary focus of ATA is to work with civilian law enforcement, so to comment on what we – forces, which generally indicates military for us here in the U.S., I’m not in the position to comment on that.  But what I can say about lessons learned and the exchange of mutual thematic problem sets is just that.  

We all have – every country in the world has – transnational and then homegrown issues that affect them based on conditions on the ground and then sort of regional influences.  I can say from the perspective of ATA, or from the perspective of ATA, that we – our lessons, our takeaway, is that the nations in which we work with there is a high level of willingness and desire to secure the host nation in which we are working and partnering with.  

The civilian law enforcement organizations have a commitment to their communities in which they serve to provide the best support and security that they can provide, much like our police forces here in the United States.  And so with that commitment and that desire, those mutual themes, we find that in the countries in which we are working there is an eagerness, a willingness, and a desire to ultimately be as well informed and well trained as one can be to combat not only homegrown issues but those issues that are faced regionally, so that ultimately these organizations can be – and these countries can be safer and more secure.

Moderator:  Thank you.  I see that we have Anita Powell of Voice of America on our line.  Operator, open the line, please.  

Anita, are you on?

Operator:  She just went out of queue.  I will open her line, though.  One moment.

Moderator:  Oh, okay.  No problem.  Okay, next question goes to a question that we have from – a question from AG Haussmann from API in Cote d’Ivoire regarding specifically Cote d’Ivoire and attacks that are there and what the U.S. State Department is doing and how a program like ATA can stop the deaths and helping to bring people to justice.  

DAS Cabus.

Ms. Cabus:  Certainly, ATA allows for the opportunity to build capacity, and certainly, it also allows to – that capacity allows for fundamental investigative, prosecutorial processes to be refined and implemented and sustained, and therein lies the benefit of an ATA-type program.  I think that was perhaps a two-part question, and I – the second part might best be answered by DAS Gonzales.  But moreover, really and most importantly, is the capacity piece to all of that – the ability to ensure that the rule of law is being followed, human rights are being respected, and that sound investigative processes are in place so that criminals and bad actors can be brought to justice effectively and in a timely fashion.  And this is what ATA would have to offer through effective training.

Mr. Gonzales:  And let me just jump in on this.

Moderator:  Yes, please.

Mr. Gonzales:  I think one of the beauties of a program like this is the very fact that it is bringing together experts – in this case, investigators and judicial officials – from multiple neighboring countries.  Because, ultimately, whether we’re talking about terrorist threats or transnational organized crime, increasingly insecurity and the drivers of insecurity across not only West Africa but globally are transnational.  And so bringing together partners from either side of borders really helps ensure that the bad guys, if you will, are not able to exploit the ungoverned spaces where remote country boundaries mean that officials from countries are relatively less present.  It helps bolster, whether it’s ATA or other programs, the capability of border security officials.  And again, in a case like this program where you have the judicial officials interacting with the investigators directly, there’s this mutual complementarity of communication of how do you conduct an investigation to make sure that what is being collected and provided to the judicial process is effective and responsive to the needs in the judicial process to ensure that there’s accountability that’s held, whether that’s happening within a country or, in the more complex cases, whether they’re happening between countries.  And so lots and lots of benefits from programs like this for improving the effectiveness of law enforcement, improving the delivery of accountability by the government, and ultimately, protecting the people.

Moderator:  Thank you.  DAS Cabus, ATA addresses deficiencies in several areas, including protection of national borders and response to critical incidents.  How has COVID affected these deficiencies and how does ATA training incorporate COVID mitigation in how these local forces can do a better job during COVID and in a post-COVID environment?

Ms. Cabus:  Let’s see if I can remember all those questions all at once here.  Let me just say this unequivocally: COVID has not diminished threats around the world, and particularly in the West Africa region, and I am comfortable in saying that.  It has, however, affected our ability to deliver training because of concerns for health and wellbeing.  In some instances, training was postponed or canceled, and we’ve just started to return to training in West Africa in March of this year, 2021.  We are committed, however, to making up for lost time; it has not diminished our desire to connect with our partner nations and provide as much training as we can.  And we will, certainly, provide everything that we have committed to.

COVID comes with a lot of new requirements, and so even while we are delivering training, we are doing so safely and in accordance with guidelines particularly from our Centers for Disease Control here in the United States.  And while training was reduced throughout much of 2020, our instructors are increasingly returning to the field committed and with a willingness to deliver training as if it were as close to back to normal as we could be.  And 75 percent of our embedded ATA mentors – so our personnel who are working with the host nation to ensure that training is maintained and continues to progress – are back in their host nations, performing their duties and functions.

We are committed to keeping our partner nations safe and healthy, and so we will not undertake any undue risk during COVID, but we do recognize that the threats persist and we also have found a way to deliver training effectively, with some modifications, so that we can make up for time that was lost, particularly in 2020, due to COVID.

So it’s really we’re back on the path towards getting back to full capacity because we understand the importance of what we’re trying to do both for individual countries and as well as regional partnerships.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Operator, we’re going to go to questions live.  Anita Powell from Voice of America.  Operator, open the line.

Question:  Hello, can everyone hear me?

Moderator:  Yes, we can hear you fine.

Question:  I’m really glad.  I just wanted to ask a little bit more clearly – maybe my question was muddled.  What did your side learn about law enforcement and the justice system from these three countries, especially since the U.S.’s law enforcement and justice system are under a lot of scrutiny right now?  What did they teach you about not marginalizing people, which could be seen as a first step to extremism and radicalization?  What did they teach you about that?

Ms. Cabus:  I would say – this is DAS Julie Cabus – I would say that there are some universal themes in law enforcement that transcend boundaries or countries or regions, as it were.  And I often talk about commitment to community, commitment to respect and human rights, and the universality of those themes is apparent both here in the United States as well as in places like Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.  And there’s also an acknowledgment and an understanding that there are processes in place, that there are laws and rules of conduct and that there – that police interaction and law enforcement capability go hand in hand with judicial effectiveness and that there is – there are relationships that exist regardless of the role that you play, whether you’re the investigator, whether you are the local police official, whether you are the sitting judge on a case, that there are relationships that exist that must be developed and maintained in order for effective execution of an application of law and of due process.

And so in 22 years’ experience in doing what I have done – and in full disclosure, I had the pleasure of serving in Niger early on in my career – my experience has shown me that these are universal themes, that these are policies that transcend borders.  And so for us, for our trainers and for our interlocutors on the U.S. side, I think the biggest takeaway certainly was that regardless of what language you speak or where you may live in the world, there are – there are things that are absolutely universal in law enforcement and then application of law, and it’s a bit of an affirmation that we’re different but we are the same, and that helps when delivering training because there’s a fundamental belief in things like community connections, human rights, and that makes the delivery of training much easier when you have those foundational shared principles.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Next we’ll go live to a question from Katarina Hoije from Bloomberg News.  Operator, please open the line.

Question:  Good afternoon or good morning, everyone.  Just a follow-up question linked to my previous question about the change in the U.S. strategy in the Sahel.  As you noted, the security situation has been deteriorating, and not only the security level but there’s also been fairly recent coups in Mali and also a recent coup attempt in Niger.  In Mali, we know that the soldiers – some of the soldiers who were leading the coups were trained by the U.S.  In Niger, it’s yet to be confirmed.  I’m wondering, what is your reaction to the fact that the soldiers that you have trained later on turn on their governments?  And also, is this something that you have taken into account when you are looking at a new strategy or former [inaudible] strategy?

Moderator:  DAS Gonzales, please.

Mr. Gonzales:  Sure, thank you.  Certainly, our training seeks to build the capacity of law enforcement and security sector personnel, and so we are scrupulous not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because the U.S. legislation requires that we fully vet, whether the units or the individuals that we are going to be training.  And so we do pursue that very seriously to make sure that those who we are training are known to us and that we are providing training to people who don’t have credible allegations of gross human rights abuses under their belt.  And so we remain committed to that.  We will continue to work with our partners to build the capacity of the security sector personnel and institutions so that they can ultimately uphold the constitutions and the laws of the countries that they are responsible for.  And our commitment remains strong in terms of supporting, whether the security sector or the civilian institutions, in order to bring particularly Mali but the countries across the Sahel greater security, greater stability, and a prosperous way forward to the future.

Moderator:  Thank you.  DAS Cabus, what is the role of the implementing partners in-country?  Are there – obviously, there’s folks from the justice system that we use, from the police system.  What precisely is their role and who decides who participates in these programs? 

Ms. Cabus:  Thank you for that question.  The implementing partners represent, essentially, or provide a skill set that has been identified as a need for the host nation.  And inasmuch as we in ATA conduct the majority of our training abroad, we prefer to use partner nations’ academies, ranges, and training facilities.  We essentially provide the subject matter experts to implementing partners to deliver the specific training that has been developed and agreed to between the United States and the host nation.  Partner nation forces will then tangibly demonstrate how ATA training and equipment has enhanced their capability, and so our implementing partners are able to see the fruit of the labor between them and the host nation.  

In essence, it’s the delivery.  In essence, it’s the expertise that we’ve agreed upon between the U.S. and the host nation, and it’s the implementing partners’ responsibility to deliver on that request.  And so we source from across the breadth of law enforcement capabilities in the United States in order to provide the most-well-versed personnel to deliver the highest-quality training that we possibly can.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Just a couple more questions before we wrap up.  Since DAS Gonzales already talked about the link in West Africa and what’s going on in Mozambique, is there a possibility that there will be ATA programs for the Southern Africa region?  DAS Cabus.

Ms. Cabus:  I would like to believe that anything is possible.  We’ve only recently been asked to assess Mozambique for an ATA program, which we are very excited about and are looking forward to our continued partnership with Mozambique.  This is a long-term process that involves working with the resident U.S. embassy and the partner nation and other State Department equities in order to develop the most appropriate training, equipment, and mentoring needs.  These programs are consultative; they require a budget and planning prior to delivery.

So we see Mozambique as the first step in that direction, and we are certainly willing to consider any and all proposals that would help benefit our partners in the southern region of Africa. 

Moderator:  Thank you.  Lastly, what outcomes does the U.S. hope to achieve with this program?  And if there are some success stories that you can tell us about ATA, please do so at this time.  DAS Cabus.

Ms. Cabus:  Very tangibly, we hope that we are able to enhance investigative capabilities for partner nations and their investigators.  We hope to ensure the rule of law and principle of human – the principles of human rights, and we hope to facilitate regional cross-border cooperation by sharing best practices, as mentioned a bit earlier.  

Our success stories are incredible, and also, to some degree, very unique.  For example, U.S.-trained, Diplomatic Security-trained law enforcement personnel from more than two dozen nations participated in Flintlock, which was the West African exercise in 2020.  It’s a counterterrorism exercise that was held in February in Mauritania and Senegal.  This regional exercise included Mauritanian national police and gendarmerie, all of whom have been trained by the Office of Antiterrorism Assistance.  They conducted vehicle interdictions in Nouakchott, and Flintlock is Africa’s largest counterterrorism exercise focused in part on coordination between trans-Saharan nations.  So this was a big deal for us back in 2020, and it shows the capabilities that exist across a very large, physically large region of the world.  So, a great success for us.

Benin was the latest nation to partner with Diplomatic Security, and they did so with a dedicated program called the Special Program for Embassy Augmentation Response.  It’s – the acronym is SPEAR.  And they signed a formal memorandum of agreement between the United States and Benin to develop this capability.  This is a highly trained, specialized group of law enforcement.  Think in terms of a quick reaction force or a tactical-type team, and this is to help develop this capacity for Benin and have better response at diplomatic facilities within the nation’s capital, as it were.

Moderator:  Thank you.  And finally, DAS Gonzales, if you can give us some final words and tell us why programs like ATA are so important to the U.S. security policy in Africa.

Mr. Gonzales:  Absolutely.  Fundamentally, insecurity in West Africa directly affects U.S. interests and poses a threat to our values, our partners, and our citizens.  And so, ultimately, it is in the U.S. national interest to ensure that our partners are able to better monitor, detect, and deter the threats that are posed, and when they’re not able to do that and strikes or attacks do happen, it’s in our interest to make sure that they have the capabilities to understand how they happen, to hold those who were responsible to account, and learn from those experiences to make sure that they’re better able to detect and deter in the future.  And that’s exactly what this ATA program has sought to do.  We’re really excited to see the results that come out of it, not only in terms of the in-country collaboration and the improved efficiency and effectiveness of collaboration between investigators and judicial folks, but really that cross-border issue, going back to that question of transnational organized crime and the transnational nature of extremist threats.

So we remain committed to working in these kinds of efforts as well – on the security side as well as addressing those drivers of governance and development that are so vital to the longer-term viability and success of the Sahel region.  Thank you.

Moderator:  That concludes today’s call.  I want to thank Julie Cabus, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s Deputy Assistant Secretary, and Michael Gonzales, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs, for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating.  If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at  Thank you.


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