- Nick Tursefellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer at The Intercept. His latest book is Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan.
- "It's Not Just Niger—U.S. Military Activity is a 'Recruiting Tool' for Terror Groups Across West Africa" (The Intercept)
- "The U.S. Will Invade West Africa in 2023 After an Attack in New York—According to Pentagon War Game" (The Intercept)
- "The US is waging a massive shadow war in Africa" (Vice)
- "Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa"
- "Next Time They'll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan"
As U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley travels in Africa and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a classified briefing Thursday with Pentagon officials on the deadly ambush in Niger, where five Nigerien soldiers were killed along with four U.S. soldiers, we speak with reporter Nick Turse, who says U.S. military activity in Africa is a recruiting tool for terror groups.
AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a classified briefing with Pentagon officials on the deadly ambush in Niger earlier this month, when five Nigerien soldiers and four U.S. Special Forces were killed. Meanwhile, the Pentagon separately confirmed for the first time that a second U.S. military team was involved in the operation and was, quote, “involved in the same timeline.” The Associated Press reports the patrol that was ambushed had been asked to help a second team of commandos that had been hunting for a senior member of al-Qaeda. There are about 6,000 U.S. troops operating across Africa, with at least 800 in Niger.
Meanwhile, Somalia continues to recover after a massive bombing in Mogadishu that killed at least 358 people and wounded 400 more, and a roadside bomb exploded on Sunday killing 11 people. The explosions come after the Trump administration stepped up a U.S. campaign against al-Shabab in Somalia. In March, President Trump declared Somalia a so-called zone of active hostilities, giving wide latitude to military leaders to launch airstrikes and ground assaults. In May, that led to the first U.S. combat death in Somalia since 1993. In August, a raid by U.S. soldiers and Somali troops on a village outside Mogadishu left 10 civilians dead, including three children. The Guardian reports the suspected bomber in the Mogadishu massacre is from the specific community targeted by the raid last August, a village near the capital, Mogadishu. The Mogadishu massacre killed more than 300 people.
This week, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley became one of the highest-ranking officials in the Trump administration to visit the African continent. Haley traveled to Ethiopia, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she arrived after she was forced to evacuate while visiting a refugee camp in South Sudan, when a protest erupted against President Salva Kiir. During her visit, Haley said the U.S. relationship with South Sudan is, quote, “at a crossroads.”
NIKKI HALEY: We’re disappointed by what we’re seeing. This isn’t what we thought we were investing in. What we thought we were investing in is a free, fair society where people could be safe. And South Sudan is the opposite of that.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, to talk more about U.S. operations on the African continent, we’re joined by reporter Nick Turse. He’s a fellow at The Nation Institute, a contributing writer at The Intercept, where his latest stories are headlined “It’s Not Just Niger—U.S. Military Activity is a 'Recruiting Tool' for Terror Groups Across West Africa,” also his piece “The U.S. Will Invade West Africa in 2023 After an Attack in New York—According to Pentagon War Game,” and at Vice, his latest piece, “The U.S. is waging a massive shadow war in Africa.” He’s the author of the book Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa and his latest book, Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan.
Nick, welcome back to Democracy Now!
NICK TURSE: Thanks for having me on.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s begin in South Sudan. Why did Nikki Haley go there? Talk about the protest that occurred there.
NICK TURSE: Sure. Nikki Haley was dispatched there basically as a result of a speech last month that President Trump gave to African leaders at the United Nations. It was a very tone-deaf speech, where he, in fact, lauded the achievements of an African country that doesn’t exist—Nambia. But in the speech, he also mentioned that there were conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and especially South Sudan that needed tending to, that he was dispatching Haley to do something about it. What it was was never exactly clear. She was on something of a fact-finding mission.
She met with South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia. And then, as you mentioned, she went to one of these protection of civilian sites in South Sudan, where there have been, you know, internal—internally displaced people basically stranded there for years, since the civil war broke out in 2013. And things got heated, and she was escorted out of the camp.
AMY GOODMAN: So, explain the situation in South Sudan.
NICK TURSE: Sure. In December of 2013, the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, launched a ethnic cleansing campaign in the capital city, Juba.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s one of the newest countries in the world.
NICK TURSE: Yes, it’s the youngest nation on Earth. And this was, in many ways, a U.S. nation-building project. The United States spent somewhere around $11 billion bringing South Sudan into nationhood. The South Sudanese fought for and died for their independence, but the United States was really the backer of this project. And it all fell apart in 2013. The country has been in a state of civil war since then. And the government has been carrying out ethnic cleansing campaigns across the nation.
AMY GOODMAN: Against who?
NICK TURSE: It started out as campaigns against the Nuer, which is the largest of the ethnic minorities. This is carried out by, as I said, President Salva Kiir, who’s a member of the Dinka, who are the largest ethnic group in the country. Since then, the civil war has spread. And most recently, it’s been affecting the deep south of South Sudan, the Equatoria region, where there are somewhere around 10 to 20 ethnic minorities. They’ve been targeted, and they’ve been leaving the country in droves, mostly to Uganda, about a million refugees across the border since the late summer of 2016.
Now, Nikki Haley, when she was in South Sudan, said that President Kiir could not claim that his soldiers weren’t committing these atrocities. But, in fact, that’s what Kiir has been doing for months now. He’s been claiming that fake news and social media drove these people across the border. But I was there earlier this year. I talked to refugees who had left the country. I spoke to people who were displaced in the country. I saw the burned villages. These people ran because of a government-run ethnic cleansing campaign, massacres, murder, village burnings. All this was going on then and goes on today.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the U.S. interest now?
NICK TURSE: Well, yeah, the United States, I think, especially—it was a bipartisan effort, so there are a lot of people in Congress that believe that the United States has an ongoing role to play in South Sudan. What the White House thinks should be done there is very unclear. Before Ambassador Haley left, she was talking tough about cutting off U.S. aid as a way to leverage U.S. power against the government of South Sudan. But since she arrived there, saw the refugees, she said that she now understands that cutting off U.S. aid would hurt the most vulnerable South Sudanese. It’s really an intractable situation, and it’s difficult to figure out exactly what the United States can do and what Nikki Haley’s mandate is.
AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, visited Gambela in western Ethiopia, where nearly 350,000 refugees flooded across the border from South Sudan amidst the country’s civil war.
NIKKI HALEY: This is an international crisis. This is not just Ethiopia’s problem. This is an international crisis. And when you look at the thousands of people here and you see that they’re supposed to have one health clinic for 10,000 people, and there’s 86,000 people in one clinic, it’s wrong. I mean, they’re trying to make ends meet by, you know, working off of food shortages, but at some point you have to look and say, “No one deserves to live like this.”
AMY GOODMAN: Haley said the United States is considering how to pressure South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, into peace, but said withdrawing aid may not work. Nick Turse?
NICK TURSE: Yes. You know, this is the quandary the United States has been in. At one time, they were giving South Sudan millions and millions of dollars for their military, to train politicians there, technocrats. Now it’s been reduced basically to aid. And, you know, that’s the leverage the United States has. But cutting that off means that so many people in need will be without.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Nick Turse, who is the author of several books on Africa, Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa and his latest book, Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan. We’ll talk about the United States presence throughout Africa—6,000 U.S. troops, it’s believed—and what the U.S. was doing in Niger, where the U.S. special ops forces and as well as five Nigerien troops were killed. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Africa Dream Again” by Youssou N’Dour. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we talk about the U.S. presence in Africa. I want to turn to Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He spoke to reporters last week after a meeting with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who said the military is shifting its counterterrorism strategy to focus more on Africa.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: The counterterrorism rules under President Obama, I thought, were overly restrictive. They denied us the ability to basically engage the enemy effectively and aggressively. The war is morphing. You’re going to see more actions in Africa, not less. You’re going to see more aggression by the United States toward our enemies, not less. You’re going to have decisions being made not in the White House, but out in the field. And I support that entire construct.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we continue our conversation with Nick Turse. He’s the author of Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa; his latest book, Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan. Respond to what Lindsey Graham has said. Talk about what the U.S. is doing in Africa.
NICK TURSE: Well, the U.S. is doing a lot in Africa. He talked about restrictions during the Obama era, but this was an era of major expansion, which, this past year, has, I have to say, jumped to another level. U.S. troops are now conducting, according to the commander of U.S. Africa Command, 3,500 exercises, programs and engagements per year. So that’s nearly 10 missions per day on the African continent, something that I think that most Americans are completely unaware of. I think Lindsey Graham states that he was unaware of the extent of this activity. So it’s a massive increase of late. When AFRICOM began, it was running about 172 exercises and missions per year. So this is almost a 2,000 percent rise in U.S. military activity on the Africa continent.
And this runs counter to what AFRICOM was originally sold as to the American people and to the world at large, that it would be something like the Peace Corps in camouflage, that there would be humanitarian operations, building of orphanages and digging of wells, that sort of thing. But it’s a fully militarized U.S. geographic combatant command, where you have troops running missions that, you know, are often sold as training and advisory, and done in a training and advisory capacity, but really are indistinguishable from combat.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the discussion this week on Capitol Hill, we keep hearing many senators talking about giving more money to the U.S. military, that the death of the four Special Forces soldiers in Niger means the U.S. needs more money and that Africa is the place where, you know, the U.S. military action will be focused. Now, your story, one of them that you wrote, “It’s Not Just Niger—U.S. Military Activity is a 'Recruiting Tool' for Terror Groups Across West Africa,” explain.
NICK TURSE: Yes. This is something that a number of experts told me, that, you know, the United States has been pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into counterterror programs since just after 9/11 in West Africa—Niger, Mali, Mauritania, this entire region. The idea was to make this region a bulwark against terrorism. The thinking just after 9/11 was that weak states, fragile governments, ungoverned spaces, these were places that terror groups could proliferate.
But at the time, the United States didn’t recognize any transnational terror groups in the region. After all this U.S. activity, after running one special ops mission after another, year after year, now there are a proliferation of terror groups all across that region—depending on how you count them, maybe six to 10, including the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, which is the group that reportedly conducted this ambush that killed the four American Green Berets.
AMY GOODMAN: Not all of them were Green Berets, but they were Special Forces. On that issue of these Special Forces, 800 soldiers in Niger? What is the drone base? Why was it being built there?
NICK TURSE: Well, in 2013, the United States began drone operations there, a hundred U.S. personnel dispatched to Niamey, the capital of Niger. And the base was designed for providing what they call ISR—intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance—over the Niger and the greater West Africa region. Since then, the United States struck a deal with Niger to build a much larger base in the town of Agadez. U.S. Africa Command says that this is—they call it something like a temporary contingency location, which sounds like an airstrip with a couple tents around it. But declassified secret documents that I obtained show that this is a $100 million drone base that they’re building.
They chose Niger, these documents say, because the government there was open to them bringing in MQ-9 Reaper drones, which are the larger, newer variant of the Predator drone, a potentially much more lethal drone package. Originally, these were supposed to be carrying out, again, ISR missions, reconnaissance, surveillance. But now, in the wake of this attack, there’s a major push on to arm these drones and have them fly over the region. And this was something else that I also saw in the documents. Niger was the only country in the region that was open to having armed drones based there.
AMY GOODMAN: And both the U.S. and France are active there.
NICK TURSE: Yes. This is because of the collapse of Niger’s neighbor, one of its neighbors, Mali. In fact, a U.S.-trained officer, one of these—one of the officers trained in the U.S. counterterror programs after 9/11, overthrew the government of Mali, because there was an insurgency in northern Mali that this officer didn’t think that the government was taking on in the correct way. He proved incompetent at taking on the insurgency, as well. Islamists pushed his army back towards the capital. And there was a real fear that Mali would be overtaken by Islamist rebels. So France intervened, with the backing of the United States. And now France has been stuck in a counterinsurgency there, that seems that it’s also interminable and that the French cannot find a way to extricate themselves from.
AMY GOODMAN: Where else does the U.S. have drone bases across Africa?
NICK TURSE: Well, there are drone bases that pop up all across the continent, and the U.S. builds them and shuts them down depending on need. In the past, they’ve had drone bases in Ethiopia, in Chad, also in Kenya. I think the drone base that—of recent vintage, that’s been most important to the U.S., is in the tiny, sun-baked nation of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. There’s a major U.S. base there called Camp Lemonnier, but the drone base is a satellite facility. It’s called Chabelley Airfield. And the United States has run missions there that target the African continent. Also they run drone missions that fly to Yemen. And then it was used for engagements against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well. It’s a very important, centrally located drone base.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you have 6,000 U.S. troops. Do you think that’s the correct number?
NICK TURSE: I think, on any given day, there’s somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 U.S. troops on the continent, depending on the missions that are going on at the time, because troops cycle in and out. But 6,000 is a reasonable number.
AMY GOODMAN: In some, what, 50 countries in Africa.
NICK TURSE: Yeah. The United States is in somewhere around 49 or so African countries, at least over the last couple years. They’re conducting training missions, exercises and, in some cases, you know, commando raids and drone strikes.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Professor Horace Campbell, currently spending a year in West Africa as the Kwame Nkrumah chair at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, a peace and justice scholar and professor of African American studies and political science at Syracuse University. He spoke on Democracy Now! earlier this week about forces—about U.S. forces in Africa.
HORACE CAMPBELL: So what we must be clear about to the progressive forces in the United States of America, that neither France nor the United States can have any political legitimacy in Africa, when on the streets of the United States of America fascists are walking around with Nazi flags and police are killing black people. I want to go back to the point that we made at the beginning. United States has no legitimacy for fighting terrorism in Africa, because you cannot fight to defend black lives in Africa when black lives are not important in the United States of America.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Professor Horace Campbell. Your response to what he says, Nick Turse?
NICK TURSE: Well, he makes a strong point there. And, you know, I might add that—and this is something in my recent pieces—that the United States’s counterterror activities in Africa have seemed to have the opposite effect, in many ways, that, you know, the U.S. was supposed to be building up counterterror capabilities, but we’ve just seen a proliferation of terror groups all across the continent. So, you know, the legitimacy is lacking, and then also the execution of this. It’s really gone counter to what the United States’ aims have been.
AMY GOODMAN: In your piece in The Intercept, the headline is “The U.S. Will Invade West Africa in 2023 After an Attack in New York—According to Pentagon War Game.” What is this war game?
NICK TURSE: It was a war game that was carried out over several weeks last year. The acronym of it was JLASS-SP. And this was conducted by students at the U.S. military’s war colleges. These aren’t, I should say, West Point cadets or something like this. These are generally colonels in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, some of the best up-and-coming strategic thinkers in the U.S. military, people that will be generals running the wars in the coming years. They ran a very intricate war game, and this was one part of it—but a pivotal part.
The war game posits that there will be a terror attack in New York targeting the Lincoln Tunnel. It will be the largest terror attack since 9/11, the most casualties since then. And it will be carried out by a West African terror group, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, one of these groups that’s cropped up in the region since 9/11. Because of this attack, the United States decides to invade West Africa, starting in Mauritania. And, you know—and it won’t be a surprise to anyone that’s watched U.S. wars since 9/11 that this quickly becomes a quagmire, that the United States goes in thinking that it’s going to be a short campaign, that we can eliminate the terrorists there and withdraw quickly, but it soon turns into an intractable conflict where the United States has to surge in forces just to maintain its occupation, and there seems to be no way to get out of it.
AMY GOODMAN: And what’s the significance of a Pentagon war game?
NICK TURSE: Well, I mean, this is—it’s not an intelligence estimate, but this is something that shows what the United States is thinking about, where it sees threats coming from, what it sees as the “reasonable,” quote-unquote, U.S. response to it. And this generally is the U.S. response. I could certainly see something like this happening. And the results are chilling, especially given what we’re seeing now—talk coming out of Congress about, you know, increasing U.S. military operations in Africa. It’s a sobering account of what this might mean for all of us, here in America and especially in Africa.
AMY GOODMAN: What about Somalia? So the timeline was what? October 4th, that was the time of the Niger killings, of the ambush of the U.S. and Nigerien forces. Ten days later, October 14, though a lot of people learned about what happened in Niger, and Trump did not reveal what happened in Niger until after Somalia, but 10 days later, this double bombing in the capital, what they’re calling the Mogadishu massacre, over 350 people killed, 400 people wounded. And The Guardian reports that the suspected bomber is from the specific community targeted by a U.S. raid last August in a village near Mogadishu that killed some 10 people, among them children. Can you talk about what’s happening in Somalia and the U.S. presence there?
NICK TURSE: Well, the U.S. has had a long-standing presence in Somalia. This has been one of the places where U.S. counterterror efforts have been at their largest in Africa. You know, it’s cited by some in the government as a success story. Al-Shabab has, in many ways, been pushed back. But, you know, there’s a continuing terror campaign from al-Shabab that doesn’t seem to be able to be solved through military means. But this is—this is the way the United States has chosen to deal with it and chosen to deal with what it considers threats all over the continent, that it’s a sort of a counterterror whack-a-mole exercise.
AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean that Trump called it a so-called zone of active hostilities?
NICK TURSE: Yeah, this allowed for a loosening of bonds on U.S. military activity there. It allows the U.S. to pursue a more vigorous military campaign. And because of that, there’s a much greater chance of civilian casualties and a chance of just continuing the cycle. This is something that experts have told me again and again, that U.S. operations on the continent are, in many ways, fueling terrorism, that these U.S. military operations are causing discontent, and by killing, you know, innocent civilians, that you’re just breeding more terrorists, country after country.
AMY GOODMAN: During a news conference last month, President Trump congratulated African leaders for helping make his friends rich.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Africa has tremendous business potential. I have so many friends going to your countries, trying to get rich. I congratulate you. They’re spending a lot of money.
AMY GOODMAN: “They’re spending a lot of money,” President Trump said. Nick Turse, as we begin to wrap up?
NICK TURSE: Yeah, I think Trump has viewed Africa maybe in two ways, that it’s some sort of transactional economic zone, where the United States can extract and make money, and then, you know, as a theater of war. And, you know, that speech was exceptionally tone-deaf. And it was the first time he had really addressed what his Africa strategy might be. And as you might expect, after those words, it became more and more muddled. It’s very difficult to understand exactly what the Trump administration sees for the future of Africa, and they really haven’t even staffed up with experts on it within the administration, at the State Department. So, it seems to be an ad hoc policy. I think you’ll see a lot more military engagement, especially after Niger. And, you know, I’m not sure about the economic empowerment that Trump’s talking about.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the shadow war in Africa. What do you mean?
NICK TURSE: Well, I mean, these campaigns have been going on in Africa for years, but it’s largely unknown to the American people. And when you ask AFRICOM, as I have, about what’s happening on the continent, they’re always talking about training missions, about advisory missions. Well, this is exactly what the mission in Niger was billed as. This was working with local forces in an advisory capacity. But we see that, you know, an advisory or training mission can quickly become combat. And I think that the more U.S. engagement you see, the greater the chance that we’ll have more and more catastrophes like this.
AMY GOODMAN: Is there anything else you want to add that you think people in the United States—certainly, the corporate media hardly focuses on Africa. I mean, when you have, for example, the attack, what they call the Mogadishu massacre, of 358 people dead, almost no attention. Of course, right away, there is a mention of it. But in the aftermath, the devastation, the loss of life. What should people understand across Africa right now and be looking for?
NICK TURSE: Well, you know, I think it’s important to keep an eye on places like South Sudan, which we talked of earlier, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic. These are places where the United States had a more robust diplomatic effort before, but has—the United States has pulled back, in many ways. And these are places where the United States—the United Nations has warned of potential genocide, of ethnic cleansing campaigns. I think these are stories that are completely under-, and sometimes un-, covered in the United States, but I think they’re places that will be making the news in the future, for all the wrong reasons.
AMY GOODMAN: As President Trump expresses, to say the least, a tremendous bellicose intent in various areas, are you concerned what that will mean as he focuses on Africa?
NICK TURSE: I am. You know, I think that this is the primary U.S. bent on the continent, that, you know, while a country like China has promoted economic engagement, the United States has really seen Africa as a counterterrorism problem. And the way to deal with that, in U.S. thinking, is to deploy more military forces, build more bases, deploy more troops.
AMY GOODMAN: And last question, and this goes to a piece you wrote just a few months ago, looking at what’s happened in Cameroon, “Cameroonian Troops Tortured and Killed Prisoners at Base Used for U.S. Drone [Surveillance].” And this was a report that came out by Amnesty International.
NICK TURSE: Yes, I worked with The Intercept, Amnesty International and a group called Forensic Architecture. And what we found was that there’s a small—one of several small U.S. bases in Cameroon, or a Cameroonian base where the United States has an intermittent military presence and U.S. contractors are flying drones. On the same base, Cameroonian forces were torturing and sometimes even killing prisoners, people that were suspected of supporting Boko Haram but, in most cases, were completely innocent and had no ties to the group. This is—you know, one, it’s illegal. Two, it’s building discontent in Cameroon. And it’s just—
AMY GOODMAN: This is at a U.S. base for drone surveillance—I said “strikes” before, but surveillance?
NICK TURSE: Surveillance. It was a—there are U.S. contractors who are flying drones out of this base, and then U.S. special operations forces that cycle in and out to work with—as this is another training mission for U.S. troops. But, you know, our allies are committing gross atrocities on a large scale. And this doesn’t go unnoticed by people in Cameroon. People in the United States don’t know about it, but we might know about the backlash to it in the coming years.
AMY GOODMAN: And this just happened today: Three U.N. peacekeepers from Chad were killed, and two others injured, when their logistics convoy was attacked in northern Mali, this according to the United Nations. The U.N. Security Council condemned the attack on the road. The 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali has become the most dangerous in the world, as Islamic militants routinely attack U.N. convoys across the north. Mali, of course, a neighbor of Niger.
NICK TURSE: Yes. You know, this is what I was talking about. After the U.S.-trained officer, Captain Sanogo, overthrew the government in Mali, it really destabilized the entire country. And because of that, in the north and even in the central part of the country, there have been militant groups operating ever since. They’ve really carved out strongholds. So, you have French and African forces, backed by the United States, conducting counterterror campaigns. But this is an ongoing insurgency, and it shows no sign of slowing.
AMY GOODMAN: Nick Turse, I want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to link to all of your pieces with different news organizations. Nick Turse is fellow at The Nation Institute, author of Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa. His latest book, Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan. Nick Turse is also a contributing writer at The Intercept.
This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute with Carl Hart. We’ll talk about the national health emergency that President Trump has declared around opioids. Stay with us.