What's the U.S. military doing in Africa? It's an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, straight-jacketed in secrecy, and hogtied by red tape. Or at least it would be if it were up to the Pentagon.
Ten years ago, I embarked on a quest to answer that question at TomDispatch, chronicling a growing American military presence on that continent, a build-up of both logistical capabilities and outposts, and the possibility that far more was occurring out of sight. "Keep your eye on Africa," I concluded. "The U.S. military is going to make news there for years to come."
I knew I had a story when U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) failed to answer basic questions honestly. And the command's reaction to the article told me that I also had a new beat.
Not long after publication, AFRICOM wrote a letter of complaint to my editor, Tom Engelhardt, attempting to discredit my investigation. (I responded point by point in a follow-up piece.) The command claimed the U.S. was doing little on that continent, had one measly base there, and was transparent about its operations. "I would encourage you and those who have interest in what we do to review our Website, www.AFRICOM.mil, and a new Defense Department Special Web Report on U.S. Africa Command at this link http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2012/0712_AFRICOM/," wrote its director of public affairs Colonel Tom Davis.
A decade later, the link is dead; Davis is a functionary at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona; and I'm still keeping an eye on AFRICOM.
A few months ago, in fact, I revealed the existence of a previously unknown AFRICOM investigation of an airstrike in Nigeria that killed more than 160 civilians. A formerly secret 2017 Africa Command document I obtained called for an inquiry into that "U.S.-Nigerian" operation that was never disclosed to Congress, much less the public.
Since then, AFRICOM has steadfastly refused to offer a substantive comment on the strike or the investigation that followed and won't even say if it will release relevant documents to members of Congress. Last month, citing my reporting, a group of lawmakers from the newly formed Protection of Civilians in Conflict Caucus called on Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to turn over the files on, and answer key questions about, the attack. The Pentagon has so far kept mum.
Has AFRICOM then, as Davis contended so long ago, been transparent? Is its website the go-to spot for information about U.S. military missions on that continent? Did its operations there remain few and innocuous? Or was I onto something?
A Kinder, Gentler Combatant Command
From its inception, according to its first commander, General William Ward, AFRICOM was intended "to be a different kind of command": less hardcore, more Peace Corps. "AFRICOM's focus is on war prevention," Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Theresa Whelan said in 2007, "rather than warfighting."
In 2012, Ward's successor, General Carter Ham, told the House Armed Services Committee that "small teams" of American personnel were conducting "a wide range of engagements in support of U.S. security interests." Years later, retired Army Brigadier General Don Bolduc, who served at AFRICOM from 2013 to 2015 and headed Special Operations Command Africa until 2017, would offer some clarity about those "engagements." Between 2013 and 2017, he explained, American commandos saw combat in at least 13 African countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia, South Sudan, and Tunisia. U.S. troops, he added, were killed or wounded in action in at least six of them.
Between 2015 and 2017, there were at least 10 unreported attacks on American troops in West Africa alone. A month after that January 2017 Nigerian air strike, in fact, U.S. Marines fought al-Qaeda militants in a battle that AFRICOM still won't admit took place in Tunisia. That April, a U.S. commando reportedly killed a member of warlord Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army in the Central African Republic. The next month, during an advise, assist, and accompany mission, 38-year-old Navy SEAL Kyle Milliken was killed and two other Americans were wounded in a raid on a militant camp in Somalia. That same year, a Navy SEAL reportedly shot and killed a man outside a compound flying an Islamic State (ISIS) flag in Cameroon. And that October, AFRICOM was finally forced to abandon the fiction that U.S. troops weren't at war on the continent after ISIS militants ambushed American troops in Niger, killing four and wounding two more. "We don't know exactly where we're at in the world, militarily, and what we're doing," said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, then a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, after meeting with Pentagon officials about the attack.
In the 2010s, I would, in fact, help reveal that the U.S. had conducted at least 36 named operations and activities in Africa — more than anywhere else on earth, including the Middle East. Among them were eight 127e programs, named for the budgetary authority that allows Special Operations forces to use foreign military units as surrogates in counterterrorism missions. More recently, I would report on 11 of those proxy programs employed in Africa, including one in Tunisia, code-named Obsidian Tower and never acknowledged by the Pentagon, and another with a notoriously abusive Cameroonian military unit connected to mass atrocities.
Five of those 127e programs were conducted in Somalia by U.S. commandos training, equipping, and directing troops from Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Uganda as part of the fight against the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab. In 2018, 26-year-old Alex Conrad of the Army's Special Forces was killed in an attack on a small U.S. military outpost in Somalia.
Such outposts have long been a point of contention between AFRICOM and me. "The U.S. maintains a surprising number of bases in Africa," I wrote in that initial TomDispatch article in July 2012. Colonel Davis denied it. "Other than our base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti," he claimed, "we do not have military bases in Africa." I had, he insisted, filed that article before AFRICOM could get me further outpost material. "If he had waited, we would have provided the information requested, which could have better informed his story."
I had begun requesting information that May, called in additional questions in June and July, and then (as requested) put them in writing. I followed up on the 9th, mentioning my looming deadline and was told that AFRICOM headquarters might have some answers for me on the 10th. That day came and went, as did the 11th. TomDispatch finally published the piece on July 12th. "I respectfully submit that a vigorous free press cannot be held hostage, waiting for information that might never arrive," I wrote Davis.
When I later followed up, Davis turned out to be on leave, but AFRICOM spokesperson Eric Elliott emailed in August to say: "Let me see what I can give you in response to your request for a complete list of facilities."
Then, for weeks, AFRICOM went dark. A follow-up email in late October went unanswered. Another in early November elicited a response from spokesperson Dave Hecht, who said that he was handling the request and would provide an update by week's end. I'm sure you won't be shocked to learn that he didn't. So, I followed up yet again. On November 16th, he finally responded: "All questions now have answers. I just need the boss to review before I can release. I hope to have them to you by mid next week." Did I get them? What do you think?
In December, Hecht finally replied: "All questions have been answered but are still being reviewed for release. Hopefully this week I can send everything your way." Did he? Hah!
In January 2013, I received answers to some questions of mine, but nothing about those bases. By then, Hecht, too, had disappeared and I was left dealing with AFRICOM's Chief of Media Engagement, Benjamin Benson. When asked about my questions, he replied that public affairs couldn't provide answers and I should instead file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
To recap, six months later, Benson recommended I start again. And in good faith, I did. In 2016, three and a half years later, I finally received a partial response to that FOIA request: one page of partially redacted — not to mention useless — information about (yep!) Camp Lemonnier and nothing else.
I would spend years investigating the bases Davis claimed didn't exist. Using leaked secret documents, I shed light on a network of African drone bases integral to U.S. assassination programs on the continent as well as the existence of a secret network of National Security Agency eavesdropping outposts in Ethiopia. Using formerly secret documents, I revealed an even larger network of U.S. bases across Africa, again and again. I used little-noticed open-source information to highlight activities at those facilities, while helping expose murder and torture by local forces at a drone base in Cameroon built-up and frequented by Americans. I also spotlighted the construction of a $100 million drone base in Niger; a previously unreported outpost in Mali apparently overrun by militants after a 2012 coup there by a U.S.-trained officer; the expansion of a shadowy drone base in the Horn of Africa and its role in lethal strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; hundreds of drone strikes from Libya to Somalia and the resulting civilian casualties; and the flailing, failing U.S. war on terror all across Africa.
Not surprisingly, AFRICOM's website never had much to say about such reporting, nor could you go there to find articles like:
"The AFRICOM Files: Pentagon Undercounts and Ignores Military Sexual Assault in Africa"
"Pentagon Document Shows U.S. Knew of 'Credible' Reports of Civilian Casualties After Its Attacks in Somalia"
"New Data Shows the U.S. Military Is Severely Undercounting Civilian Casualties in Somalia"
"Pentagon Stands by Cameroon — Despite Forensic Analysis Showing Its Soldiers Executed Women and Children"
"U.S. Troops in Africa Might be in Danger. Why Is the Military Trying to Hide It?"
You Know You're on Target When You're Getting a Lot of Flak(s)
In the years since, a parade of AFRICOM press officials came and went, replying in a by-then-familiar fashion. "Nick, we're not going to respond to any of your questions," Lieutenant Commander Anthony Falvo, head of its public affairs branch, told me in October 2017. Did he, I asked, believe AFRICOM needn't address questions from the press in general or only from me. "No, just you," he replied. "We don't consider you a legitimate journalist, really." Then he hung up.
That same month, I was inadvertently ushered behind the closed doors of the AFRICOM public affairs office. While attempting to hang up on me, a member of the staff accidentally put me on speakerphone and suddenly I found myself listening in to the goings on, from banal banter to shrieking outbursts. And, believe me, it wasn't pretty. While the command regularly claimed its personnel had the utmost respect for their local counterparts, I discovered, for example, that at least certain press officers appeared to have a remarkably low opinion of some of their African partners. At one point, Falvo asked if there was any "new intelligence" regarding military operations in Niger after the 2017 ambush that killed those four American soldiers. "You can't put Nigeriens and intelligence in the same sentence," replied someone in the office. Laughter followed and I published the sordid details. That very month, Anthony Falvo shipped off (literally ending up in the public affairs office of the USS Gerald Ford).
Today, a new coterie of AFRICOM public affairs personnel field questions, but Falvo's successor, Deputy Director of Public Affairs John Manley, a genuine professional, seems to be on call whenever my questions are especially problematic. He swears this isn't true, but I'm sure you won't be shocked to learn that he fielded my queries for this article.
After Col. Tom Davis — who left AFRICOM to join Special Operations Command (where, in a private email, he called me a "turkey") — failed to respond to my interview requests, I asked AFRICOM if his defer-and-deny system was the best way to inform the American public. "We are not going to comment on processes and procedures in place a decade ago or provide opinions on personnel who worked in the office at that time," said Manley.
"Our responsibility is to provide timely, accurate, and transparent responses to queries received from all members of the media," Manley told me. Yes, me, the reporter who's been waiting since 2012 for answers about those U.S. bases. And by AFRICOM standards, maybe that's not really so long, given its endless failures in quelling terrorism and promoting stability in places like Burkina Faso, Libya, and Somalia.
Still, I give Manley a lot of credit. He isn't thin-skinned or afraid to talk and he does offer answers, although sometimes they seem so far-fetched that I can't believe he uttered them with a straight face. Though he agreed to discuss his replies further, I doubted that badgering him would get either of us anywhere, so I'll just let his last one stand as a digital monument to my 10-year relationship with AFRICOM. When I asked if the public affairs office had always been as forthcoming, forthright, and helpful with my queries as possible, he unleashed the perfect capstone to my decade-long dance with U.S. Africa Command by offering up just one lone word: "Yes."