General (Retired) Stephen Townsend served as the Combatant Commander of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) from July 2019 to August 2022. In this capacity, he was responsible for all U.S. military operations, activities, and investments in 53 African countries to protect and advance U.S. security interests. His previous leadership roles include serving as Commander of the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command, as Commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps, the U.S. Army’s rapid deployment contingency corps.

General Townsend led and commanded troops at every echelon from platoon to corps and combined joint task force. His key staff assignments included service as a planner and operations officer at battalion, brigade, division and joint task force levels. At U.S. Pacific Command, he was the J-5 strategy and plans officer for China and later Special Assistant to the Commander. At U.S. Central Command, he was the Executive Officer to the Commander. On the Joint Staff, he was the Director of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination Cell.

General Townsend’s combat and operational experience include Operation Urgent Fury, Grenada; Operation Just Cause, Panama; and Operation Uphold Democracy, Haiti. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, he led 3-2 Stryker Brigade, Task Force Arrowhead, on offensive operations across Iraq during “the Surge.” He served four tours in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom culminating as Commander, 10th Mountain Division (Light). General Townsend also led all U.S. and multi-national troops fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as Commander, Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve between August 2016 and September 2017.

CTC: Looking back on your time as the commander of U.S. AFRICOM, that was a time period that we saw a shift away from some of the traditional battlegrounds of Iraq and Afghanistan and the broader war on terrorism. And we’ve seen some people suggest that Africa, in this timeframe, has become an epicenter for global jihadi terrorism.1 Would you agree with that characterization? More broadly, how would you frame the current nature of the jihadi threat in Africa?

Townsend: I think I would agree with that general characterization. It was in probably late summer of 2017, I was the commander of CJTFOIR [Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve], and I was doing a press conference and one of the reporters asked me, “General, when you’re done here with OIR, where do the surviving remnants, elements of ISIS go?” And I said, “Well, I’m not sure. I’m no expert on Africa, but I think they’re going to go to ungoverned or under-governed spaces where they have room. And I think they’re going to Africa.” That was my answer in 2017. Then I got to live that from 2019 to 2022 in Africa. So I do think the epicenter of global jihadism is going to Africa.

I think you’re still going to see key pockets [elsewhere]. … al-Qa`ida are in Iran. We know that key leaders of ISIS and al-Qa`ida have some sanctuary in northwest Syria. I believe they’re going to return to Afghanistan because I don’t believe you can count on the Taliban to uphold their deal to keep al-Qa`ida out of there. But I do believe that the bulk of the effort and the fighters are moving to Africa. I think the current nature of that threat is probably regional today: not a global threat, not a threat to the United States’ interests outside the region today. But they fully have the intent for that.

I believe ISIS’ intent is to reestablish a new caliphate in West Africa. I think they want to do that in a lower-key way. They’ve learned from the War on Terror as well, and they’re deliberately trying to keep that lower key. I think al-Qa`ida has a more dangerous, slower, more patient approach to increasing influence, but clearly, they’re carving out space both in the Horn of Africa and in West Africa. And I think they’re probably the largest threat to U.S. interests in the region today. And as they gain capacity, they’ll broaden their picture to the region and globally, to include our homeland eventually, I think.

CTC: You mentioned both al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State. In looking at those, do you see differences in their approach to the African continent? Obviously, they are two organizations that have competed, but share a very similar ideology. How has their approach differed, and do you see a potential for collaboration in the long term if they get past some of their strategic differences?

Townsend: For ISIS, the approach has been much more direct, in your face, and aggressive in nature in Africa. And for al-Qa`ida, it’s been a little bit more patient, [an] attempt to build influence and carve out space. For al-Qa`ida, they actually have a playbook … they’ve said, “Hey, don’t make the mistake of calling yourself al-Qa`ida.” There’s a group in West Africa and in the Sahel called JNIM. They were told, “Don’t adopt al-Qa`ida in the Sahel. Don’t adopt that name.” So they have a deliberate playbook: Don’t attack in cities for now; don’t plant a flag and declare yourself a caliphate. So there’s a very deliberate attempt to lower some of the things that they think will trigger Western interest and possible intervention. That’s their approach.

ISIS has been more aggressive. Interestingly enough, when I first got to AFRICOM, we actually observed ISIS and al-Qa`ida elements working in cooperation in West Africa. Over those three years, that changed, and they came into competition pretty directly. We saw ISIS and Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region fighting. We saw ISIS and al-Qa`ida elements in the Sahel fighting. And that cooperation has waned a pretty good bit. 2 But their approach generally [is] probably strategically the same: Carve out influence in the spaces that they think are safe enough for them in Africa and to lessen Western influence, drive the West out. [It’s the] urban centers where the governments of African nations typically are and [the approach is to] lessen their influence—essentially contain them to major cities, and own the rural spaces in between.

CTC: To look at a couple regions more specifically now, in one of its recent reports, the U.N. monitoring group who tracks the global threat reported that the level of violence and threat was increasing in the Sahel specifically.3 Given the recent political destabilization of Niger, to what degree are you concerned that jihadis could destabilize the Sahel and even take over large swaths of territory like they have previously in some regions?

Townsend: I agree with the U.N. report. I think the data shows—and this is data we tried to convey to Washington and the Department of Defense before I left command at AFRICOM almost exactly a year ago—that the level of violence and threat is increasing in the Sahel. No doubt about that. The data shows that clearly. With regards to the recent destabilization in Niger, am I concerned that jihadis could further destabilize in the Sahel? Absolutely. Yes, I am concerned. I think it’s possible. I think it’s even likely. This is a worst-case scenario for the West, particularly Europe, because I believe that any problems that manifest from the Sahel will appear in Europe first before they appear in the United States.

But as I conveyed to our leaders in Washington on numerous occasions, there are countries there that probably matter more significantly to the United States. What we see going on in Mali, we would not want to see going on, for example, in countries like Ghana or Senegal or Cote d’Ivoire, those littoral states. Do I think that’s possible? Absolutely. It’s very possible.

CTC: Speaking of Niger, what do you believe the impact of the recent coup could be for broader U.S. strategic interests in the region? Beyond even the CT issues, how does it impact our posture, presence, and operations in the Sahel or the broader region?

Townsend: That’s to be determined. Bottom line up front, the short answer is I think it’s not good for America’s interests, presence, and posture and operations in that region. Now, I’m not involved in the conversations that are going on right now between the Department of Defense, Department of State, the administration, and AFRICOM as to what the plans are. In my own view, it’s not going to necessarily drive us out of the region. It may not even drive us out in Niger.

In my opinion, we want to stay engaged in Niger. I know that we have a law and that will trigger Section 7008 restrictions and that we will have to significantly reduce our support since the administration has declared this is a coup. Because it’s a coup, we will have to withdraw a lot of support to the regime there. I think we ought to try to find a way to stay engaged in the region because our engagement not only supports Niger, it supports our interests. So for that reason, we should try to find a way [to] thread this needle so we can stay engaged in the region.

I don’t think that we have to abandon the region. We should not abandon the region. And in fact, I’m not even sure that it means we have to abandon our posture in Niger. Maybe we don’t maintain a posture in the capital; maybe we do. Maybe we maintain posture at our Agadez air base; maybe we don’t. We have to try to find a way to stay engaged as much as possible and work with our partners across that region despite this coup.

Now retired General Stephen Townsend, then commander of U.S. Africa Command, is pictured at Camp Simba in Manda Bay, Kenya, on October 27, 2021. (Senior Airman Andrew Kobialka/U.S. Air Force)

CTC: Looking to the east little bit, you had highlighted in past testimony the nature of the threat from al-Shabaab, citing it as the greatest threat to the United States specifically to the homeland from that region.4 How has this al-Qa`ida affiliate been able to maintain its strength in the face of a pretty persistent CT effort against it? It seems like a remarkably resilient organization. What are your thoughts on how they’re able to maintain this presence and their pace of operations.

Townsend: First of all, I disagree with the characterization that we have maintained persistent CT pressure against al-Shabaab. In fact, we have not. For half of my command at AFRICOM, we had very intermittent CT pressure against al-Shabaab. When I arrived in 2019, I thought the CT pressure was pretty good. That was a result of several forces working in concert: U.S. CT efforts, the Department of State and the DoD, AFRICOM, but also at that time AMISOM operations were fairly aggressive and the Somali government was very focused on clearing certain regions of Somalia. I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw.

Very quickly, the wheels started coming off of that. After probably less than six months, the Somalis stopped operations. Essentially, all except for their higher-end SOF forces, the forces that we were partnered with—the Danab or Lightning battalions, the rest of the Somali army stopped major CT activities, and they turned inward and became very focused on political frictions internal to Somalia in the run-up to the election. That [election] was delayed significantly; [it] finally occurred well past President Farmaajo’s mandate. As a result of the Somalis [having] stopped operating, the AMISOM forces stopped operating.

This became the status for another year or so, and then we—our [then U.S.] administration—in the late fall of 2020 directed AFRICOM to withdraw our forces from Somalia. We didn’t have a lot there, several hundred forces in Somalia. We were told to pull them all out, and we could continue our advise and assist mission from bases outside of Somalia. We were just prohibited from maintaining bases in Somalia. So we started commuting to work. As a result, that CT pressure went from a pretty good level, I thought, in the fall of 2019 to very low by January 2021. And so there wasn’t persistent pressure. I think al-Qa`ida had room to grow, and in that space, they got bigger, they got bolder, they got more aggressive.

Then we started turning that around. There were successive interventions with the new administration. The new administration started looking at this problem right after they took office. Around May 2022, we got the authorities to go back into Somalia and stay there.5 That coincided with a shift in mission from AMISOM to ATMIS,a and that coincided with the election and inauguration of a new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohammed, in Somalia. And then we started working in concert again.

So, we haven’t had persistent pressure against al-Shabaab. It has ebbed and flowed, waxed and waned, and only in the last year or so has it been approaching the levels of what it was in the fall of 2019.

CTC: Given that, what is the strategy against al-Shabaab, both in terms of Somali government but also obviously our own longer-term strategy? As you just said, we’ve ebbed and flowed in terms of our level of engagement. There’s also been lots of discussion about the type of engagement that’s required from the U.S., debate over the effectiveness of an airstrike campaign versus boots on the ground. How do those different variables fit together? What do you see as the U.S.’s own long-term strategy in Somalia?

Townsend: In one word, our strategy in Somalia is containment. That’s not satisfying certainly for the Somalis to hear, but that is our strategy. That’s how we resource it. [There’s] the euphemism [in counterterrorism]: ‘mowing the grass.’ You have to mow the grass every week. And you have to mow the grass indefinitely every week when you resource containment. Now that’s OK, because I think we’re really depending on the Somalis and the ATMIS efforts to address this problem. And the U.S. doesn’t want to get drawn in so that we’re responsible for solving that. I’m perfectly supportive of that idea. I think what we need to do is continue the military efforts that we’re doing. Our effort there, in my view, needs to have more diplomacy and more whole-of-government efforts there.

We get criticized in the media for our strategy being primarily military. I don’t know if that’s a fair criticism or not. The thing that you see the most is military, but again, we didn’t even insert back into Somalia the same number that we pulled out. [It was] probably a little over half. And so there’s still a very small DoD footprint in Somalia, and they’re focused on training and advising and assisting our partners and getting them out the door to go do operations. It is not Afghanistan; that’s my point.

I think we’ve deliberately tried not to make the mistakes of Afghanistan and make our effort too ambitious. But I do think there’s room there for more diplomatic support to the government and more whole-of-government support and international support for the government of Somalia to continue their fight against al-Shabaab. I think negotiations with al-Shabaab ought to be part of that. I think those negotiations ought to be led by the Somali government, supported by the United States and their Western partners. And President Hassan Sheikh Mohammed, right after he was elected, told me that he fully intended to negotiate with al-Shabaab at some point in the near future. But he wanted to do it from a position of strength. When he took office, he felt like he was at a position of relative disadvantage vis-a-vis al-Shabaab, and I agreed with him at that time. So we were coming back in with a persistent presence; he was coming into office with ideas to take [to] the fight. He wanted to do a couple things, and one of them was [to] improve relations with the federal member states, which I thought was good. He wanted to get the clans supportive and get the federal member states supporting the effort, and he wanted to take the fight to al-Shabaab and gain a position of advantage on the battlefield over there before he began these talks.

So, I think it’s critical, absolutely critical, to maintain a U.S. military presence in Somalia, and I had this conversation with Hassan Sheikh Mohammed, during my first meeting with him, and he asked me, “How might I obtain more support from the West and from the United States?” This was several months after the start of the Ukraine war. And I told him, “Mr. President, be less like Afghanistan and more like Ukraine. And you will get more support.” I think he has shown in his first year in office that that’s what he’s trying to do.

CTC: Looking a little bit to the south, Islamic State Central African Province has been a rising star for the Islamic State in Africa over the last several years, offering its recruits in the region a viable affiliate to join and also enabling regional attacks in Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, and other plots elsewhere in the name of the so-called caliphate. What do you think of that particular group’s current capabilities? Do you see them as a significant threat in Central and East Africa?

Townsend: ISIS Central Africa and the Allied Democratic Forces, I think their capacity is relatively low compared to the sophistication and capacity of, for example, al-Shabaab or JNIM or ISIS Greater Sahara. I do think they have capacity relative to their adversaries there in the security forces in the region. One, that’s a very tough region to operate in for anyone, so it’s very hard to get back into those areas and get after any threat, because of rugged and remote nature of that threat. But as a result, that threat is somewhat contained.

Now, I’m looking at this from an international perspective, not a regional perspective. If you’re DRC or you’re Uganda or Rwanda, this is a huge threat for you. If you’re the United States, I would rank it a lesser threat, well after al-Shabaab, for example, or ISIS or al-Qa`ida in West Africa. I would rank it further down, and so as a result of that, my advice to Washington was that the U.S. [should] not do a great deal about that threat. Monitor it. I think it’s within the capacity of the regional countries there to address it and to contain it, and at most, I think we offer some training and assistance. Some of those countries, relations with them can be kind of tough for the U.S. So not just the U.S., but their Western, international partners can offer training and help them address that threat. Again for us, for the U.S., it’s more of a contain-and-monitor type [effort].

CTC: This has been one of the challenges that we’ve had when we look around the world at how to address the global jihadi threat: How do we make decisions about where to engage and where U.S. national security interests really and truly are at risk? When we look at the African continent, a lot of these groups that are out there, they’re affiliated with organizations that we know pose a broad strategic risk to the United States, but individually, they operate at more of a regional or even local level. In your change of command ceremony, leaving AFRICOM, you stated, “the continent is big, complex and diverse.”6 Regarding the threat, we see different groups that have different interests, different objectives. How do we assess those in terms of how they challenge our interests, both in the region and more strategically, and then how do we make decisions on where to engage, given that diversity of threat?

Townsend: First of all, I want to highlight a point I kept making to Washington and the first Secretary of Defense that I worked for there. About the time I took command, Secretary [Mark] Esper was taking office, and I told him one day, in one of my first engagements with him, that in Africa, counterterrorism was ‘global power competition’ (GPC). I use that term specifically instead of ‘great power competition’ because I don’t believe China and Russia are ‘great’ in the same way that the U.S. is. A member of my staff said, “Sir, stop saying great power competition. If you want to use the same acronym, use ‘global power competition,’” and I went, “OK. I like that.” So that became AFRICOM’s thing: global power competition.

Counterterrorism in Africa is GPC. What is global power competition all about? It’s about gaining access and influence. That’s what it’s about. How do you do that? You do that by helping your partner with the problem they have. Among many problems in Africa, our partners struggle with terrorism, violent extremist organizations. By helping them with that problem, the U.S. made gains and maintains access and influence—access and influence that can counter China or Russia, for example. Our counterterrorism efforts are not a distraction from global power competition. Maybe they are in other places of the world. I can’t speak to that. I just know that in Africa, our counterterrorism efforts support our competition with China and Russia.

So, ranking the threats: Before you develop any strategy, you have to understand what the threat is. And in Africa, I rank al-Qa`ida as a higher threat than ISIS. In the Horn of Africa, that’s very specific because al-Shabaab, which is a franchise and part of al-Qa`ida, is more prevalent and powerful and influential than ISIS. The presence of ISIS in Somalia is relatively small and smaller still since the raid on one of the ISIS financial nodes in Africa some months ago.7 Now, make no mistake: Al-Shabaab is part of global al-Qa`ida’s efforts. Their emir, a guy named Diriye,8 is on the Hattin committee of al-Qa`ida, the corporate ‘Board of Directors’ of al-Qa`ida. That just shows you al-Shabaab is an extension of al-Qa`ida. Some people like to say, “Well, they’re just wannabes. They’re naming themselves to get some local recognition, maybe some wasta or maybe some resources.” That is true for a number of local and maybe even regional terrorist organizations on the continent. It’s not true about al-Shabaab.

Then in the West, the Sahel—that’s the number-two area that I’m concerned about [for] U.S. interests— it’s al-Qa`ida there, in the form of AQIM and JNIM. And then ISIS, it would be a secondary threat. Although probably more numerous, they have less capacity today in my view in West Africa.

Then you’ve got competing groups in the north. It’s mostly al-Qa`ida in Libya. Some ISIS there. Then further south, you’ve already mentioned Central Africa, ISIS Mozambique, for example; those are much lesser threats to the United States because of the geography and the geostrategic terrain.

The most important place I think we should focus is on the Horn of Africa because of the geostrategic terrain there, the Bab-el-Mandeb [strait], and the connections to CENTCOM there. And then West Africa would be our next concern because [of] our nation’s allies and partners that operate in that area.

CTC: Looking at how our competitors out there—namely Russia and China, but also Iran and others as well—how would you assess the challenge of them coming in and partnering with African governments where the U.S. does not? For example, what impact do we see in terms of a heightened Russian and Chinese presence in Africa?

Townsend: My assessment of the global power competitors in Africa is similar to the assessment that we have of them globally. First of all, the acute threat is Russia. I worry about them less over the longer term. The longer-term threat is China. Now let me fill that out a little bit. You see very little Russian military activity in Africa. What you do see is the hand of Wagner, and we’ve called that out consistently at AFRICOM since, at least the last four or five years, pretty consistently calling out what Wagner’s doing on the African continent. We’ve seen them active in Sudan, we’ve seen them active briefly in Mozambique, we saw them very active in Libya, supporting [General Khalifa] Haftar and the Libyan National Army. We’ve seen them very active in Central African Republic; Wagner and the Russians practically run the government in the Central African Republic.

And we see them active in Mali most recently. These interventions are not helpful. They’re not good for anybody in Africa. That’s for sure. I think they prop up regimes that probably wouldn’t survive if it weren’t for Wagner’s support, and they give them some legitimacy. I think they probably might help in the short term with security challenges, but the Russian approach and Wagner’s approach is exploitative and extractive. They’re exploiting local conditions. They do have a strategic objective of lessening Western influence and they were successful in doing that. For example, they drove the French out of Mali. They reduced U.S. operations there. We weren’t in Mali, but we operated there. And they have been successful now in getting the withdrawal of the MINUSMA [United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali] mission that is happening now out of Mali. So reducing Western influence, increasing Russian influence, Wagner’s influence, and then extracting natural resources as payment in kind. That’s a short-term, acute threat. I worry less about the Russians longer term because one, it’s not the government’s effort … it’s the government through a mercenary proxy. Two, because their approach is exploitative and extractive, they’re not gaining support there.

China, on the other hand, I think has a much longer-term view and approach. Their counterterrorism assistance is not in high demand in Africa. Quite frankly, U.S. and Western counterterrorism assistance is in high demand there. The Chinese assistance is not. They offer it, but I think that the Chinese have a much longer view that’s more palatable in Africa, even with things like debt-trap diplomacy. As they get better and learn, they will get seek to gain more influence.

I think the bottom line is what the U.S. needs to do to counter these two global competitors is [to] stay engaged. Stay engaged in Africa. We don’t have to engage at the same level in all 54 countries on the African continent and island countries. We have to pick and choose. There’s geostrategic key terrain that we need to be focused on. We need to stay engaged.

CTC: You talked about Wagner, about the broader challenge that they pose. Is there anything more specific other than maintaining our overall engagement that we can and should be doing to address the challenge posed by Wagner? And related to that, have you seen or do you expect to see their presence or their level of influence change given the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and some of the challenges that Wagner Group encountered there?

Townsend: When Ukraine kicked off, [it] wasn’t very long [before] we saw Wagner become more directly involved in Ukraine, and we saw lessening of their operations [in Africa]. It impacted their footprint, their posture in Africa and their operations in Africa. We could see that. It took a few months for that to unfold, but after a few months, we could actually see them drawing down in parts of Africa and maybe just marking time in other parts of Africa, holding their own. So, what does that mean now? Well, we all saw the late Mr. Prigozhin’s—I don’t know what to call it—coup attempt. He said he wasn’t going after Putin. He was going after [Russian Defence Minister] Shoigu in Moscow, but we saw his brief march on Moscow and, before he was killed, we saw him relegated to Belarus and we saw him in the press telling his troops, ‘Get ready for Africa.’ I think they may get refocused there by the Kremlin. I don’t know. Perhaps they’ll go to Niger. I think they see an opportunity. I don’t know of any evidence that says the Russians were behind the recent coup, or unconstitutional change of government, whatever we’re calling it, so far in Niger. But I think they see an opportunity, much like Burkina Faso. Now, I tried to get the junta in Mali to shy away from increasing their ties with Russia. But they were committed to that already. Their president, Colonel Goita, essentially lied to my face by saying, ‘We’re not bringing in Wagner. We’re bringing in Russian military.’ Of course, we knew better, and we see who’s there now. It’s Wagner, not the Russian military. In fact, they didn’t coordinate their messaging. The junta government in Mali announced, ‘We don’t have Wagner here. We don’t have mercenaries here. We have the Russian military.’ And the Kremlin, a few days later, said, ‘There’s no Russian military in Mali. We don’t know what they’re talking about.’

So, do I think Wagner might try to take advantage of the lack of stability right now, the situation in general? Absolutely. I fear that they will try to do that. It’s possible that they are helping one side more than the other in Sudan. In fact, I think they’re supporting General Hemedti, and his Rapid Support Forces, in his struggle there with General Burhan and the Sudanese military. So I think that the Russians see an opportunity in Sudan to increase their influence through Wagner. I think they see an opportunity in Niger, at the expense of France, at the expense of the United States and several other European allies. They see an opportunity to expand their influence there, and I think that they will. I think that’s the reason why earlier I said we should try to stay engaged in Niger. We should try to stay engaged in Niger, not for the benefit of the coup junta there, [but] for U.S. national interests.

CTC: While AFRICOM commander, you drew attention to Iran’s increased activities in Africa. How concerned are you that Tehran is continuing to make inroads on the continent? The president of Iran recently made a rare visit to Africa.9 He was the first Iranian leader to do so since 2013. What do you see as the impact of this increased engagement?

Townsend: When I first got to AFRICOM in 2019, I saw little evidence of Iranian activity on the continent. There were a couple of instances of low-level Quds Force activity that we saw going on, but [it] really didn’t amount to much. After the targeted killing of Soleimani, we detected a significant spike in Iranian interest in Africa. In fact, there were targeting efforts there—and I’m not exposing this; this has been in open source, it’s been in the media—[there was] at least one assassination plot targeting U.S. diplomats in Africa by the Iranians as potential revenge strikes after the death of Soleimani.b Since then, we’ve seen steadily creeping increase in Iranian interest in Africa. So it did not surprise me to see the recent visit to Africa. The impact of this engagement is probably ‘to be determined.’ It’s too early to know. I’m not greatly concerned about what the Iranians are doing there, but I think it bears watching.

I do know this: When I asked an African leader once, why would he reach for the hand of Russian PMC [private military company] Wagner, he said: ‘A drowning man will reach for any hand.’ So there may be African leaders who feel like they’re not getting the support they need from the West, or maybe even from Russia or China, and they might reach towards Iran. I think Iran can wield enough financial influence that they will find some traction somewhere in Africa. It’s a big place, [there’s] a lot of interest, and they will find some traction. We have to watch it.

CTC: Speaking of an even broader potential threat, you’ve highlighted in some of your past testimony the threat of climate change in Africa.10 Could you talk about that a little bit more specifically as it pertains to the violent extremist threat on the continent? How do you think that climate change may ultimately impact the rise or evolution of extremism on the continent? What can we do as the United States to mitigate some of these concerns?

Townsend: Drought, famine, locust plagues, desertification, deforestation, all of these things were problems even before climate change in Africa. Now with climate change, we see these phenomena moving around the globe. But in Africa, what you see is a quickening of that phenomenon. So, because of that, the challenge for the governments is even increasing. Just trying to feed the population and keep up with the water demands of some African countries was challenging enough. But with climate change, the problem is magnified.

How does that affect terrorism? Well, these become issues of governance, right? And they demonstrate the government’s inability or challenge in delivering basic services like clean water to the people and agrarian societies see their livelihood vanish in front of them because of drought, because of desertification, deforestation, etc. So the governments come under increasing scrutiny; they couldn’t handle the problem before, and now they are even less able to handle the problem. And so now that gives the jihadists, the terrorists, a foothold. They use this issue of ‘the government can’t even get you clean water, the government can’t even ensure you have adequate food. We can do that.’ Now, it doesn’t matter if they can do it or not. They point out that the government can’t do it, and then they make a strategic drop of water or food, or hand out some cash here and there, and people start believing in this mirage of ‘the terrorist is a better source of support and services than my government.’ And in some cases in local and rural areas beyond the reach of the capital, they’re right. In some cases, al-Shabaab can provide them more help than Mogadishu can. In some cases, JNIM can provide more support than perhaps Niamey can out in the countryside. So it’s not just a mirage. I think that long term, ultimately, it’s a mirage. But in the short term, they can actually make it appear that way and gain support of the people. So climate change, in my view, just makes it harder to carry out effective governance.

On that point, by 2050, one-fourth of the world’s population will be in Africa.11 The bottom line is population growth is really expanding in Africa, so this is a real problem. Africa is a continent that some in our United States government would prefer to lessen our resources and others, I think, would prefer to ignore altogether, but we’re not going to be able to. The problems there are going to manifest themselves and they’re going to manifest beyond that continent.

CTC: Oftentimes these conversations about counterterrorism tend to focus on kinetic solutions, whereas it’s fairly well accepted at this point that we have to think more broadly about the range of potential options we have to help address some of these challenges. Using climate change as a starting-off point, you mentioned some of the broader systemic challenges these governments face. As we think about CT, how do we need to balance kinetic and non-kinetic solutions to the underlying systemic governance issues that we see in the continent. We interviewed an African Union official in the past who talked about the need to listen more to the African countries’ needs and not impose our own approach on what we think they need.c So how do we address the range of kinetic to non-kinetic solutions, but also empowering African countries to combat these threats themselves?

Townsend: You just basically outlined AFRICOM’s daily approach to the African continent every day, to the security challenges there in Africa. I agree completely with the AU official you mentioned. That is exactly what AFRICOM tries to do, and as a result, AFRICOM and the U.S. have a pretty good reputation on the African continent. I think we’re viewed at least as honest brokers. I don’t think people expect a whole lot from the U.S. because the U.S. has not really demonstrated a willingness to invest a whole lot. But I don’t think we have to. I think we have to choose where we want U.S. influence to be successful there, and we have to invest in those countries. But the United States’ approach to Africa is a whole-of-government approach. It’s in our DNA at AFRICOM, the three Ds: diplomacy, development, defense. Even the defense part of that approach doesn’t have to be very kinetic. In fact, we’re not very kinetic anywhere in Africa. We almost never fire a shot in West Africa, and we rarely fire shots even in the Horn of Africa, where we have the authorities to do so. When you say defense efforts, kinetic is actually our last means of approach in Africa, even in Somalia. So training, advice, equipping, assistance, and only as a last resort do we go to kinetic means.

We listen to our African partners. We don’t try to impose upon them our own approach. There is a negotiation about the types of assistance. We see that even in Ukraine today. The Ukrainians have been asking, for example, for tanks for a long time and they got them in time. They’ve been asking for F-16s for a long time, and it looks like they may be getting them soon. So there’s a negotiation between the requester and the provider about ‘I know you want that. I’m not sure you need that. I’m not sure I’m willing to give that to you. If I am, I’m not sure I’m willing to give it to you now, but maybe later.’ So there’s going to be this back and forth. It’s not like we just listen purely to the needs of our partners, whether they be in Africa or Ukraine, and their requests and inputs. We take those on, we balance them against our own national interest and capacities, and then we try to meet them somewhere in the middle.

So, I do agree with the point that we should listen more, not just in Africa but globally, and we should give greater weight to their inputs. But in the end, it’s our assistance. It’s our help. It’s our taxpayers’ money. It’s our service members and diplomats in harm’s way. Our interests have to come first. I think we can meet the needs of U.S. national interest and meet the needs of our African partners at the same time. They’re not mutually exclusive.

CTC: You discussed how CT can and should be coupled with security force assistance efforts. I was just wondering if you have anything else to add there in terms of specifically how we think about security force assistance and how we think about the objectives of that assistance. Is it for CT purposes? Is it focused on strategic competition? Or is it both?

Townsend: I think it’s both. Security force assistance in some countries, it’s purely equipping. In other countries, it’s equipping and training or it’s this plus advice or it’s this plus advice and assistance, to include CT work. We are not doing CT work in all countries. For example, in a fairly advanced country like Morocco, there we provide equipment that they buy mostly with their own funds, and we provide training on that equipment and then we train beside them as partners. It’s not so much security. It’s not so much advising. There, we’re training beside one another, learning and exchanging as equal partners. In other countries, like Somalia for example, primarily our assistance is CT-related because that is the problem that they need help with. In other countries, we do some equipping and training that’s focused on U.N. missions. So country X wants to provide troops for a U.N. mission or an African Union mission, we support that. And so we’re willing to kick in some equipment and some training so that that force can go do the A.U. or U.N. mission. So I think security force assistance in Africa is very broad and it looks very different depending on which of the countries you’re in. I mentioned 54 countries earlier. Egypt falls under CENTCOM, so the other 53 fall under AFRICOM, but from north to south, east to west, that security force assistance looks very different. I think it’s part and parcel of global power competition. Again, the outcome you’re looking for, the purpose of GPC, is to have U.S. access and influence so that when a choice has to be made, [governments] side with the U.S. and the West. They vote in the U.N. in support of the U.S. and the West, and they don’t support, when push comes to shove, Russia or China. That’s kind of what global power competition is all about.

How do we get there? Around the world, we get there by supporting our partners with the challenges they have. That gets back to the question you mentioned earlier, the African Union official saying that we should listen more to our African partners. Absolutely, we should listen to our African partners and understand what they think their problems are and what they want to help solve that problem. We ought to try to meet them in that resolution because that will pay off in U.S. access and influence. That means we’re winning the global power competition.

CTC: What do you think is the most common misconception about counterterrorism in Africa. What should the U.S., the general public writ large, know about those efforts and their importance?

Townsend: Probably the most common misconception about Africa from the American public, first of all, is, are we even there? Yes, U.S. forces are there. You go back to the disastrous ambush at Tongo Tongo, Niger, several years ago and probably most Americans got up that morning and saw the news and said, ‘Where the heck is Niger? Do we have troops there now?’ That’s probably the first misconception, that the U.S. is not in Africa. We are in Africa; the U.S. military is in Africa.

Probably the other misconception, though, [once they understand our military is there] is that there are a lot of troops there fighting, [but actually] there really aren’t any troops there fighting. Across the entire continent, unless we’re having a big exercise like African Lion or something like that, there are less than 5,000 [U.S.] troops on the continent of Africa on a given day. So that probably is also a misconception that most Americans have. So [that’s] only 5,000 U.S. troops sprinkled across a continent three and a half times the size of the United States.

So, there are very low numbers of U.S. troops doing a very targeted task in very specific areas in Africa. It’s very low visibility by design; it’s low-resourcing requirements by design; and it’s relatively low risk for U.S. forces. Every now and then, a troop will get harmed. They’re in harm’s way in Somalia. They’re in harm’s way in Niger and a few other places.

In most countries, U.S. troops are not in harm’s way any more than they are training in the continental United States. In a few places, that’s not the case, but it’s relatively low risk. It’s not Afghanistan, by any stretch of the imagination. So this low investment of U.S. military resources, troops, money, and equipment in Africa is very affordable by the United States and, I think, is well in our interest. A few troops and a few dollars goes a long way in Africa.

CTC: More specific to your personal experience, I was wondering if you might be willing to reflect on what the most challenging mission or task was during your time as the commander of AFRICOM?

Townsend: Probably a little bit tongue in cheek, but a little not: I would say my most challenging mission as the AFRICOM commander was maintaining an appreciation and a focus on AFRICOM issues and resources in Washington, D.C. That was probably my number one challenge. Once, a senior diplomat in Washington was in a meeting that I was in, and they said, ‘You know, General Townsend, there seems to be great interest and support for all things Africa in Washington, D.C. Everywhere except in your department, the Department of Defense.’ And this diplomat hit the target exactly in the center.

As we shifted in our NDS [National Defense Strategy] focus from counterterrorism to global power competition, and preparation for fighting near peer adversaries and major large-scale combat operations, as that became our shift and our focus, all things counterterrorism were deemphasized. And so there was a constant look to Africa Command to give up resources. I just mentioned, on any given day, less than 5,000 troops: You could take every dollar and every troop out of AFRICOM, and if you plopped them down in the Indo Pacific region, China wouldn’t even notice. But those same resources in Africa have outsized impact. So really making that case over and over [was necessary]. Now, I have to credit my leaders in Washington for listening, because the truth is we maintained what small levels of resourcing AFRICOM had. Eventually the facts bore out, and we were able to maintain those resources because our leaders saw the value in keeping them there.

Probably the next greatest challenge in my command tenure was the exfiltration from Somalia. We got ordered to do that in late November 2020, and we had to have it complete by the 15th of January 2021. And so that was a very short notice for a cold start there. We had not been planning this for months. We hadn’t seen it coming, and we got told to do it bolt-out-of-the-blue style, and we executed that and made that withdrawal while under pressure from al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab’s leaders became aware of it through a bunch of feeds, to include open source, the media, and they desperately wanted to try to interdict that and get an image of a burning American airplane or base or something on the way out so they could claim to have driven us out. They were not successful. We prevented them from doing that, but that effort over Thanksgiving and Christmas to get out our troops and equipment safely and rapidly, without any significant loss of equipment or personnel, was probably the biggest, most challenging few months of my tenure at AFRICOM. I’m proud that we pulled it off, and I’m equally proud that we were able to prevail on the next administration to put those troops back there so they could do the task more efficiently, more effectively, and more safely.

CTC: As a final question, what do you see as the greatest remaining challenge facing the U.S. in Africa today and what is our greatest opportunity? From a CT perspective, how would you define success in Africa in terms of the U.S. CT mission?

Townsend: I think probably the greatest challenge facing the United States is convincing Africans we actually care about them. That’s the greatest challenge. The threats there from terrorism, the threats from China, the threats from Russia all kind of boil down to ‘do the Africans believe that we care’ and convincing them of that. It has to be more than just about U.S. national interests of the moment. Do they believe that we see them as valued partners? I think that the United States was able to, by and large, ignore Africa for much of the last century. I don’t think that’s true for the last couple of decades, and I don’t think it’s going to be true in the future because of the population growth, because of climate change, because of its geostrategic place on the globe, and because of strategic minerals, for example. Africa is going to grow increasingly important to the U.S., to the West, our economy, and our security. And so the sooner we start investing in Africa like that is the case, the better off we’ll be and the more likely you will convince Africans that we actually do care about them. We care about them for us, but we also care about them for them.

What does success look like in our CT efforts there? In the short term, I’d say [it means] no successful attacks on U.S. interests emanate from African terrorist groups. That’s probably the short-term view of success. The longer-term measure is U.S. access and influence. Does the United States maintain its access and influence in Africa that we enjoy today? Does it grow or does it wane? I think that’s the longer-term view of our success.

I’ll just close with this: A conversation I used to have with the Department’s leaders in Washington is that the National Defense Strategy says that we are an economy of force effort. The term these days in vogue is a ‘posture-limited theater.’ That is true. That’s actually how AFRICOM was born, envisioned as an economy of force command theater from birth. And I’m not arguing that AFRICOM should be a main effort or even main supporting effort. I think an economy of force effort is about right for AFRICOM. However, even your economy of force effort must be resourced to accomplish its mission. So if you’re a battlefield commander and you’re focused on taking or seizing your main objective, you’re usually worried about what might be happening on an exposed flank. And so you put an element over there to cover that exposed flank to let you know, to sense what’s happening over there, and to take care of it within their capacity. You have to resource that covering force to do that task, so that you can focus on your primary objective. The National Defense Strategy calls for strategic discipline, that we have to have a strategic discipline to focus on our primary concerns and not be distracted by secondary concerns or tertiary concerns. So my point to our leaders in Washington is that’s exactly what AFRICOM is doing: We’re preventing strategic distraction. If you’re really focused on China and you’re primarily focused on China in the Indo-Pacific region, what you don’t want to be distracted by is some crisis that’s foreseeable or preventable occurring in Africa that takes you off that primary focus. So preventing strategic distraction from the priorities of the National Defense Strategy is one of the things that AFRICOM does every day and they need a little bit of resourcing and attention for that.     CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] Editor’s Note: AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) was replaced in April 2022 by the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS).

[b] Editor’s Note: In September 2020, Politico reported that “the Iranian government is weighing an assassination attempt against the American ambassador to South Africa, U.S. intelligence reports say, according to a U.S. government official familiar with the issue and another official who has seen the intelligence.” Nahal Toosi and Natasha Bertrand, “Exclusive: Officials: Iran weighing plot to kill U.S. ambassador to South Africa,” Politico, September 13, 2020.

[c] In an interview with CTC Sentinel in June 2021, Idriss Mounir Lallali, the deputy director of the African Union’s African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism, stated that “our partners need to listen more to African countries’ needs, not try to impose on them their own approach or own assistance that they think they need.” Jason Warner, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Idriss Mounir Lallali, Deputy Director, African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism (ACSRT),” CTC Sentinel 14:5 (2021).

[1] See, for example, Tricia Bacon and Jason Warner, “Twenty Years After 9/11: The Threat in Africa—The New Epicenter of Global Jihadi Terror,” CTC Sentinel 14:7 (2021).

[2] Editor’s Note: For more on these dynamics, see Héni Nsaibia and Caleb Weiss, “The End of the Sahelian Anomaly: How the Global Conflict between the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida Finally Came to West Africa,” CTC Sentinel 13:7 (2020).

[3] “Thirty-second report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2610 (2021) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, July 25, 2023, p. 3.

[4] “Investing in America’s Security in Africa: A Continent of Growing Strategic Importance, Statement of General Stephen J. Townsend, United States Army, Commander, United States Africa Command, Before the Senate Armed Forces Committee,” March 15, 2022.

[5] Editor’s Note: For coverage of this, see Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt, “Biden Approves Plan to Redeploy Several Hundred Ground Forces Into Somalia,” New York Times, May 16, 2022.

[6] Jim Garamone, “Langley Succeeds Townsend as Africa Command Commander,” U.S. Department of Defense, August 9, 2022.

[7] Editor’s Note: Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper, “Senior ISIS Leader in Somalia Killed in U.S. Special Operations Raid,” New York Times, January 26, 2023.

[8] Editor’s Note: For more on Diriye, see “Abu Ubaidah (Diriye),” Rewards for Justice, n.d.

[9] “Raisi begins rare Africa visit ‘to promote economic diplomacy,’” Arab News, July 13, 2023.

[10] See, for example, “AFRICOM commander wraps-up posture testimony,” United States Africa Command, April 23, 2021.

[11] Editor’s Note: Edward Paice, “By 2050, a quarter of the world’s people will be African – this will shape our future,” Guardian, January 20, 2022.

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