Menu Close

Civilian deaths from terrorism in Africa spike 101,300 percent during ‘War on Terrorism’

Share This Article:

Picture: Mohamed Abdiwahab / AFP / Taken in Somali capital Mogadishu on August 25, 2016 – The wreckage of a car bomb outside a beach restaurant after an attack by alleged Al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab rebels. Most Americans, including members of Congress, are unaware of the extent of War on Terror operations on the Continent — or how little they have done to protect African lives, the writer says.

By Nick Turse

Deaths from terrorism in Africa have skyrocketed more than 100,000 percent during the US war on terror according to a new study by Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, a Pentagon research institution. These findings contradict claims by US Africa Command, or Africom, that it is thwarting terrorist threats on the Continent and promoting security and stability.

Throughout all of Africa, the State Department counted a total of just nine terrorist attacks in 2002 and 2003, resulting in a combined 23 casualties. At that time, the US was just beginning a decades-long effort to provide billions of dollars in security assistance, train many thousands of African military personnel, set up dozens of outposts, dispatch its own commandos on a wide range of missions, create proxy forces, launch drone strikes, and even engage in ground combat with militants in Africa.

Most Americans, including members of Congress, are unaware of the extent of these operations — or how little they have done to protect African lives.

At least 15 officers who benefited from US security assistance have been involved in 12 coups in West Africa and the greater Sahel during the war on terror.

Last year, fatalities from militant Islamist violence in Africa rose by 20 percent — from 19,412 in 2022 to 23,322 — reaching “a record level of lethal violence”, according to the Africa Centre. This represents almost a doubling in deaths since 2021 and a 101,300 percent jump since 2002-2003.

For decades, US counter-terrorism efforts in Africa have been centred on two main fronts: Somalia and the West African Sahel. Each saw significant spikes in terrorism last year.

US Special Operations forces were first dispatched to Somalia in 2002, followed by military aid, advisers, and private contractors. More than 20 years later, US troops are still conducting counter-terrorism operations there, primarily against the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab. To this end, Washington has provided billions of dollars in counter-terrorism assistance, according to a 2023 report by the Costs of War Project at Brown University. Americans have also conducted more than 280 air strikes and commando raids there and created numerous proxy forces to conduct low-profile military operations.

Somalia saw, according to the Africa Centre, “a 22 percent increase in fatalities in 2023 — reaching a record high of 7,643 deaths”. This represents a tripling of fatalities since 2020.

The findings are even more damning for the Sahel. In 2002 and 2003, the State Department counted a total of just nine terrorist attacks in Africa. Today, the nations of the West African Sahel are plagued by terrorist groups that have grown, evolved, splintered, and reconstituted themselves. Under the black banners of jihadist militancy, men on motorcycles — wearing sunglasses and turbans and armed with AK-47s — rumble into villages to impose their harsh brand of Sharia law and terrorise, assault, and kill civilians. Relentless attacks by these jihadists have destabilised Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.

“Fatalities in the Sahel represent a near threefold increase from the levels seen in 2020,” according to the Africa Centre report. “Fatalities in the Sahel amounted to 50 percent of all militant Islamist-linked fatalities reported on the Continent in 2023.”

At least 15 officers who benefited from US security assistance have been involved in 12 coups in West Africa and the greater Sahel during the war on terror. The list includes officers from Burkina Faso (2014, 2015, and twice in 2022); Chad (2021); Gambia (2014); Guinea (2021); Mali (2012, 2020, and 2021); Mauritania (2008); and Niger (2023). At least five leaders of the Nigerien junta, for example, received American assistance, according to a US official. They, in turn, appointed five US-trained members of the Nigerien security forces to serve as that country’s governors.

Such military coups have undermined American aims of providing stability and security to Africans, yet the United States has been hesitant to cut ties with these rogue regimes. Despite the Nigerien coup, for example, the United States continues to garrison troops at, and conduct missions from, its large drone base there.

Juntas have also amped up atrocities. Take Colonel Assimi Goïta, who worked with US Special Operations forces, participated in US training exercises, and attended the Joint Special Operations University in Florida before overthrowing Mali’s government in 2020. Goïta then took the job of vice president in a transitional government officially charged with returning the country to civilian rule, only to seize power again in 2021.

That same year, Goita’s junta reportedly authorised the deployment of Russia-linked Wagner mercenary forces to fight Islamist militants after close to two decades of failed Western-backed counter-terrorism efforts. Wagner — a paramilitary group founded by the late Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former hot-dog vendor turned warlord — went on to be implicated in hundreds of human rights abuses alongside the longtime US-backed Malian military, including a 2022 massacre that killed 500 civilians.

US law generally restricts countries from receiving military aid following military coups, but the US has continued to provide assistance to Sahelian juntas. While Goïta’s 2020 and 2021 coups triggered prohibitions on some forms of US security assistance, American tax dollars have continued to fund his forces. According to the State Department, the US provided more than $16 million in security aid to Mali in 2020 and almost $5 million in 2021.

As of July 2023, the department’s Bureau of Counter-terrorism was waiting on congressional approval to transfer an additional $2 million to Mali. (The State Department did not reply to Responsible Statecraft’s request for an update on the status of that funding).

Similarly, Burkina Faso’s military killed scores of civilians in drone strikes last year, according to a recent report released by Human Rights Watch. The attacks, targeting Islamist militants in crowded marketplaces and at a funeral, left at least 60 civilians dead and dozens more injured.

For more than a decade, the US poured tens of millions of dollars into security aid to Burkina Faso. US Africa Command or Africom is, according to spokesperson Kelly Cahalan, “not currently providing assistance to Burkina Faso”. But she did not respond to questions clarifying what, exactly, that means.

Last year, in fact, Africom commander General Michael Langley admitted that the US has continued to provide military training to Burkinabè forces. Those troops, for example, took part in Flintlock 2023, an annual training exercise sponsored by US Special Operations Command Africa. Still, Burkina Faso suffered 67 percent of the militant Islamist-related fatalities in the Sahel (7,762) in 2023, according to the Africa Centre.

US Africa Command touts that it “counters transnational threats and malign actors” and promotes “regional security, stability, and prosperity” helping its African partners to ensure the “security and safety” of their people. The fact that civilian deaths from militant Islamist violence have reached record levels, according to the Africa Centre, and spiked 101,300 percent during the war on terror demonstrates the opposite.

Africom directed queries on the findings of the Africa Centre’s new report to the Office of the Secretary of Defence. The Pentagon did not respond to the questions prior to publication.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of and a fellow at the Type Media Centre. His latest book is ‘Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan’ (2016). He is the author/editor of several other books, including: ‘Tomorrow’s Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa’ (2015). Turse was a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute.

This article was published on Common Dreams