This Lead Inspector General (Lead IG) report to the United States Congress on the East Africa Counterterrorism Operation and the North and West Africa Counterterrorism Operation is the 7th quarterly report detailing both operations. The purpose of these operations is to degrade al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates, and other terrorist groups, in designated regions of Africa. This report covers the period from January 1, 2020, through to March 31, 2020.
Across the continent, VEO activity appears to be outpacing U.S., European, and African efforts to counter it. On January 5, al Shabaab militants attacked Camp Simba, a Kenyan base at Manda Bay, Kenya. One U.S. Soldier and two DoD contractors died in the attack. In February, General Stephen Townsend, Commander of United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM), told Congress, “We were not as prepared there in Manda Bay as we needed to be.” During the quarter, USAFRICOM increased airstrikes in Somalia, and African Union and Somali forces retook a southern town from al Shabaab. Despite these efforts, USAFRICOM told the DoD OIG that al Shabaab “remains adaptive, resilient, and capable of attacking Western and partner interests in Somalia and East Africa.”
In West Africa, VEO attacks continued to increase. USAFRICOM provides limited operational support and non-lethal assistance to African, French, and other allied forces in West Africa. During the quarter, France, which leads international counterterrorism efforts in the region, announced that it would send 600 additional troops to West Africa.
In North Africa, VEOs did not launch any attacks in Libya during the quarter, but an unidentified group attacked a checkpoint outside of the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia. In Libya, fighting in the year-long civil war intensified following a significant increase of foreign mercenary forces. As many as 2,500 fighters associated with the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary company, and as many as 3,800 Syrian fighters were in Libya during the quarter. Diplomatic efforts to end the civil war, including the Berlin Conference in January, continued but did not result in a political solution to the conflict.
The coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) pandemic was an emerging challenge to U.S. Government counterterrorism and counter-VEO efforts during the quarter. USAFRICOM scaled back its advising to African forces as a result of the pandemic, and many DoS and USAID staff returned to the United States under a DoS authorized departure order. USAID reported that these staff reductions and diversions of USAID stockpiles of personal protective equipment challenged the agency’s pandemic response in Africa. The DoD, DoS, and USAID received emergency appropriations to respond to the pandemic; the Lead IG agencies will oversee the execution of these funds.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated protective measures will likely be felt across the continent, including in East Africa, where a locust infestation continues to destroy agricultural crops, and West Africa, where conflict often prevents humanitarian assistance from reaching those in need. USAFRICOM told the DoD OIG that it did not observe any changes in VEO activity in East or West Africa as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic during the quarter. However, as local forces reduce operations to prevent the spread of the virus, VEOs could exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to recruit fighters and prepare attacks.
The East Africa and North and West Africa Counterterrorism Operations were designated as overseas contingency operations in February 2018. At the time of the designation, both operations were pre-existing counterterrorism operations. The Secretary of Defense removed the overseas contingency operation designation for both operations in May 2019, but the two operations continue to receive Overseas Contingency Operation funding.
Section 8L of the Inspector General Act of 1978 provides a mandate for the three Lead IG agencies—the Department of Defense, DoS, and USAID Offices of Inspector General—to work together to develop and carry out joint, comprehensive, and strategic oversight. Each Inspector General retains statutory independence, but together they apply their extensive regional experience and in-depth institutional knowledge to conduct whole-of-government oversight of this overseas contingency operation.