Mali: VOA Exclusive - US Africom Commander Says Russian Mercenaries in Mali

U.S. Africa Commander, Army Gen. Stephen Townsend at a reception in Stuttgart, September 24, 2019.

Pentagon — The U.S. has now confirmed reports that Russian mercenaries known as the Wagner Group have deployed in Mali and are supported by the Russian military.

"Wagner (Group) is in Mali. They are there, we think, numbering several hundred now," General Stephen Townsend, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, told VOA in an exclusive interview Thursday via Skype from his headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.

"Russian air force airplanes are delivering them. The world can see this happening, so it's a great concern to us," he added.

Townsend, who took over U.S. Africa Command in 2019, also said that China is the "most active" of America's global competitors in Africa and is "intent on building a military air base and/or naval facility in Equatorial Guinea."

"We're not asking them (Equitorial Guinea) to choose between China and us. What we're asking them to do is consider their other international partners and their concerns, because a Chinese military base in Equatorial Guinea is of great concern to the U.S. and all of their other partners," Townsend said.

In addition to Chinese military expansion, Townsend said he was also monitoring a less obvious threat to U.S. interests on the continent -- inroads from the "arm of the Iranian security apparatus that engages in malign activity in the Middle East," a not-so-veiled description of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

"I think their inroads are going to be very malign in nature. It's very nascent, but it's happening now, and we're watching," he said.

A U.S. official later confirmed to VOA that the IRGC had plotted assassination attempts on American diplomats in Africa and was still looking for revenge plot targets there. Iran has denied the plot accusations, calling them baseless.

The official said that due to concerns about increased threats from Iran, China and others over the past year, the U.S. military has brought in new and improved defense systems and anti-drone weapons to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, its only military base in Africa.

In Somalia, where local and international partners are battling the al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabab, U.S. forces have continued to "commute to work" while leaving fewer than 100 troops in the war-torn country. Donald Trump ordered most of the 800 U.S. troops out of Somalia in 2020 in one of his last foreign policy moves as American president.

"We are working hard to get our tasks done. I think that there's more effective and efficient ways to do that. We've provided those recommendations to the secretary of defense, and we're waiting for decisions there," Townsend said.

The U.S. is still training and building up Somalia's vanguard Danab forces, which came under review late last year; albeit that work has slowed a bit while the threat from al-Shabab continues to grow, according to Townsend.

"If increased pressure is not applied to al-Shabab, I'm concerned there's going to be a significant al-Shabab attack," he told VOA.

Below is a transcript of the interview, edited for brevity.

VOA: We just had the Global Posture Review completed at the end of the year. I'm a little confused though because the Pentagon summary for Africa used about 40 words in their summary that told me next to nothing. So what have you seen change in U.S. Africa Command?

U.S. AFRICOM COMMANDER GEN. STEPHEN TOWNSEND: Well, quite frankly, I think the Global Posture Review, this is our third review in about three years. Before the Global Posture Review we had the "blank slate" review and before that we had a review called "optimization." So we've been through a lot of reviews, and as a result, I think we are on pretty solid ground with what we're doing in Africa, the tasks that America expects of us, the department expects of us, but also the resources that we have to do those tasks. And so the global review has basically ratified what AFRICOM is doing and what we're doing.

VOA: OK, so just to get a little specifics, you mentioned still about 6,000 troops. You just told me that. What about the percent of Africa's intelligence reconnaissance surveillance? What would you say is the percentage of your needs this being met right now?

TOWNSEND: Well, so it's common knowledge, especially across the DOD enterprise and the government, that there's never enough intelligence surveillance reconnaissance (ISR) assets to go around. So we don't have all that I would like to have nor does any combatant commander. But we have what we must have. ... There's a DOD metric and it's called a validated requirement. We're probably at something like 25-30% of our validated requirement. But quite honestly, I think our validated requirement is probably a little inflated. And so I look at what my own assessment is of what we need and we have a much higher percentage.

VOA: OK, what about exercise funds? You had mentioned the need for more funds to exercise with partners. Did you get any more of that?

TOWNSEND: No. In fact, we've had a decrement in exercise funds. I know that the department is still reviewing the budget allocations for FY '22 and FY '23. But I think that we've suffered a significant reduction in exercise funds and we've made the case to the department that that should be reconsidered, and I think it will be.

VOA: VOA had pointed out in a report earlier this month that airstrikes have been significantly reduced by AFRICOM, also by CENTCOM, but AFRICOM went from 72 airstrikes in 2020 to just 10 in 2021, and most of those occurred during the Trump administration in the month of January. So, tell us why the strikes have been reduced?

TOWNSEND: Well, the new administration has come in and they've re-evaluated the conditions and why we're doing the strikes and how we're doing the strikes, and some of those decisions are still being considered by the current administration, and I think that's you got to let those decisions play out. I know this that right now we have the authorities we need to protect our American troops in Africa should that become necessary. And it's not been necessary over the last 10 or 11 months. But if it becomes necessary, we have the authorities we need. ... I'm expecting that what the administration is trying to do is get very comfortable and to be able to support what the president wants the U.S. military to do in the world. ... That's what I think is going on. And that's painstaking and deliberate work. But I wouldn't expect to see an elimination or an expansion, but I would think that we'll get clear guidance on how to proceed in the interim there are procedures that we can rely on.

VOA: The last time we spoke I asked you about the threat of al-Shabab in Somalia and you said that the threat was higher, the threat is higher. And you had said that that was the reason for the increase in strike activity that we were seeing at the time. So kind of run through what is the threat of al-Shabab today.

TOWNSEND: I believe that the threat of al-Shabab has increased over about the last eight to 12 months or so, the threat of al-Shabab has increased. I think COVID certainly had an effect, but emerging out of COVID, I think the threat has gone up. And as you know, the last administration had us reposition U.S. forces largely out of Somalia where we are now we still have the same tasks to do there, to disrupt al-Shabab, al-Qaida's largest, wealthiest and most kinetically active arm in the world, and they are a threat to the United States and the American people by their own aspiration. Their leadership charge their followers to attack Americans wherever they find them. So I think we ought to take that very seriously, and we are. I think that threat is growing because of the lack of counterterrorism pressure on al-Shabab over the last year That's coming from a lot of factors. One of them is inactivity from AMISOM. Another one is because of COVID and other things. Another one is political friction and dysfunction. As you know, their president's term expired. ... There's a lot of friction to try to get a new head of state elected. And so I think all of that is affecting the fight against al-Shabab, and our own our own posture is also calculates into that. So I think the threat of al-Shabab is growing. And if increased pressure is not applied to al-Shabab, I'm concerned that there's going to be a significant al-Shabab attack. We've seen just suicide bombs going off in Mogadishu over the last two weeks to include one fairly large vehicle-borne IED, so I think they're expanding and they're growing.

VOA: Do we still have a few dozen on the ground? I know it was fewer than a hundred as of this around this time last year. Has it stayed that way? Have you been able to increase the presence? Have you asked for more troops to match the growing threat?

TOWNSEND: So what I've advised the administration will stay between me and the administration's leaders right now because those decisions are still, we're still awaiting decisions on those recommendations. But what the last administration required us to do is reposition our troops. We had only about 800 to 850 troops in Somalia at that time, and we were directed to reposition them out of Somalia. They are in bases in the region and we commute to work. And so who's in Somalia every day is less than 100, and then our numbers go up as we commute to work at a couple of bases where we go in to work with our Somali and AMISOM partners. We have two of these engagements going on right now in Somalia. And so our numbers go up, and they stay that way for a while, and then they go down to again something less than 100 is sort of the steady state number.

VOA: How is that affecting the mission?

TOWNSEND: Well, I think that we are working hard to get our tasks done. I think that there's more effective and efficient ways to do that. We provide those recommendations to the secretary of defense and we're waiting for decisions there. But we're constantly looking for ways to improve what we're doing there.

VOA: The last question on Somalia. Questions arose with the Danab training back in October. Are U.S. forces still training the Danab? What was, basically, the result of that review on the training?

TOWNSEND: The elite force training, yeah, we still are training the Danab and for your audience, it may not know what the Danab is. Danab stands for Lightning Battalion, Danab Battalion, and it there are special light infantry formation Advanced Infantry Battalion, and we're training them and they're our counterterrorism partner there, and so they're sort of, I would hesitate to use the word elite, but they sort of are the vanguard of Somali national army operations. And we're still training them and we're still building the Danab. That has slowed a bit and we're looking for ways to accelerate that, but we're still working with the Danab ,and it's it's been a successful program. The Somali people hold the Danab in very high regard and they are probably doing probably something like approaching 50% of the Somalis operations that YNAB are involved in, and they're a very small force, only about 1,500 troops.

VOA: One quick question, last one on the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia, the U.N. has been warning for months about the intensifying conflict and they were concerned that this could you know if it gets to full blown civil war, it could threaten the entire stability of the Horn of Africa. Do you share those concerns? What do you see as concerns?

TOWNSEND: Yes, I do share those concerns with regards to Ethiopia. So Ethiopia has been, you know they're the second-largest country in Africa. They've been a powerhouse economically and security wise in East Africa for decades. And they're there what America has referred to as anchor state. However, the civil war has turned their focus inward, this war between the government and the Tigrayans. ... They're not an anchor state right now because they can't because their turned inward, so I think we very much want to see the Ethiopians work through these disagreements and come to a peaceful resolution. The situation has stabilized there over the last few weeks and has calmed a bit, a significant bit from what it was right before Christmas. So, yeah, we're worried about Ethiopia. Ethiopia is very important to the stability of the entire Horn of Africa, so we want to see Ethiopia work through this problem in a peaceful way.

VOA: Let's switch over to West Africa. You know you've talked about a lot of problems in West Africa. One of them that's in the middle of the media right now is Mali. Can you tell us, is the Wagner Group in Mali. What have you seen?

TOWNSEND: Mali has been in the news a lot. In less than probably the last nine to 12 months, as you know they've had two successive coups there, which are of great concern. So now there are military leaders leading that country. And then more recently, we've seen Mali's coup government reach out to Russia and specifically to the Wagner private military company. And you probably saw a press release from our Department of State sometime last month about this, and so the United States and the international community are very concerned and so are the African neighbors very concerned about the Russians, Russia's intervention into Mali. And I'll be more specific about it, Wagner is in Mali. They are there, we think, and numbering several hundred now. They're deploying there, supported by the Russian military, Russian Air Force airplanes are delivering them. The world can see this happening. So it's a great concern to us. And the reason it concerns me and it concerns the neighbors there is we have watched Wagner, this mercenary outfit, work on the African continent. We've watched them in the Central African Republic, Sudan, Libya. They don't follow anybody's rules but their own. They will exploit the country. They will create, they will break laws. They will do a gross violations of human rights. They will kill innocents and civilians. And then when the Malian people get tired of them, they won't leave. In fact, they'll probably bring in proxy fighters. We saw them do this in Libya where they brought in over 2,000 Syrian fighters. And those Wagner and Syrian fighters are still in Libya and the Libyans can't get them to go. And I predict, unfortunately, something very similar to that will likely happen in Mali. So if I were the neighbors of Mali and if I were the Malian people, I'd be very concerned about it. And if I were the neighbors, I'd be even more concerned about it.

VOA: What are they doing Are they training or are they protecting? Are they protecting, helping to protect the military? What's going on there?

TOWNSEND: Well, it's a little early in their deployment so we're not exactly sure what they're doing just yet. I know that they will do first, they will protect the regime there, which is a coup government, but they'll make sure that that government is protected, first and foremost. Then, we probably expect, they will train and they will conduct operations. We haven't seen that taking place just yet, but that's what we expect will happen. I just think there's going to be a lot of bad will intended.

VOA: OK, I have one more question on the Sahel and then I'll go as long as you want to, I want to talk about China. So as long as you have the time, we'll keep talking about China. But the last question on the Sahel, under your leadership, rankly combined joint task force, Operation Inherent Resolve was able to take down Islamic State in Libya, Syria, Iraq simultaneously. And now we're seeing these violent extremists in Africa. So, you know frankly what do you need to help partners do it again? Because obviously the videos, the violent extremists, the attacks are increasing.

TOWNSEND: In the Sahel region, which is sort of local shorthand for a middle band across Africa, it's between the Sahara Desert and the jungles in Central Africa, that region is called the Sahel. In the Sahel region, there are a number of violent extremist groups, three of which are of the greatest concern. The first one is a group called JNIM (Jamaat Nasrat al-Islam wal Muslimin) and they are the West Africa arm of al-Qaida, the Sahel arm of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. So they are part of corporate al-Qaida. They're probably the strongest VEO (violent extremist organization) group right now in the Sahel region, and they are spreading from Mali into Burkina Faso, southwestern Niger and working towards the coastal states. And so we're starting to see attacks emerge in the coastal states of West Africa, in the northern tiers of those states. Then the other groups that concern me are two ISIS groups There's a group called ISIS Greater Sahara. They are sort of in the same battle space as JNIM and in competition with JNIM. And then further to the east, on the other side of Nigeria, the east side in the Lake Chad basin area, we see this group called ISIS West Africa, this group is large, powerful and growing. And recently they have competed with a group that your audience may be familiar with from a few years ago, Boko Haram, and Boko Haram has been largely overtaken by ISIS West Africa. So these groups are there. I can't say that any of them are threats directly to the United States today. I don't assess that they are they are definitely a threat to American interests in that part of the world. And they are now starting to threaten countries that the world should be even more concerned about as they move out of Mali into Burkina Faso and into the northern coastal states like Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Benin, Togo. All those states are now coming under threat of these violent extremist groups. So our role is mostly to support our African partners and our international partners. And the lead international partner has been France. And they've put their boots on the ground and we've been helping them and also helping all of those African partners in that region. So the United States is not leading there by any means, but we're trying to support our partners while the African partners and European and other international partners help the Africans more directly dealing with this problem. Our contributions are pretty small, some training, some equipping, helping with some logistics, helping with some intelligence and some ISR (intelligence surveillance reconnaissance) that you mentioned earlier. That's what we're doing there to help our partners. The U.S. is not in the lead in West Africa.

VOA: OK, understood. Lastly, let's turn to China. China's had a lot of interest in Africa. So what specifically are you seeing China do on the Atlantic seaboard right now?

TOWNSEND: As I mentioned earlier, global competitors are very active in Africa, probably the one that's the most active is China. China considers Africa to be their second continent. I've even heard the term fifth Island chain, those phrases ought to tell you what you need to know. China requires huge amounts of natural resources for their economy and their population, and they're looking to Africa to get many of those resources, arable land, fishing, strategic minerals, etc., energy concerns, are all in Africa. And so China's very actively competing there, economically primarily, but also militarily.

VOA: Do you think they're trying to build a naval base in Gulf of Guinea still?

TOWNSEND: Yes, I think that China definitely has a plan, they would aspire to have a militarily useful base on the Atlantic coast of Africa. They've laid down bets from as far south as Namibia and all the way up to Mauritania, where we think they have the most traction today is Equatorial Guinea, which is on the Gulf of Guinea. And we think they are intent on building a base there, and there was a recent article in The Wall Street Journal about a month ago that talked about this. And I think that I think The Wall Street Journal got it about right China is intent on building a military, air base and/or naval facility in Equatorial Guinea.

VOA: When you say exhibits what do you mean by that? What specifically tangible things are they doing?

TOWNSEND: Yeah, no I think I said "placing bets." So what they're doing is they're putting chips down in all of these countries on the Atlantic Coast. They know that they won't get a yes in many cases from many of those countries, but by asking and trying to get a base in all these countries, one or two of them may say yes. And we think that the place that they've got traction right now is Equatorial Guinea. And I know that their African neighbors are very concerned about that. Our government has spoken to the Equatoguinean government about this. We're not asking them to choose between China and us. What we're asking them to do is consider their other international partners and their concerns, because a Chinese military base in Equatorial Guinea is of great concern to the U.S. and all of their other partners. And I would point out that the Equatoguinean economy is primarily fueled by oil investments. A lot of those are from the United States.

VOA: Can we just get a broad understanding of Chinese interest? How would you say the Chinese military interest is? Has it been a steady increase in Africa? Are you seeing exponential changes, would you consider them more active than ever right now? How would you characterize it?

TOWNSEND: Well as I said earlier, I think China's primary mode of competition in Africa has been economic. They've invested a lot in economic concerns, and they've invested a lot in infrastructure. They're doing that to a slightly lesser degree now. As far as their military investments go, I would say, I would not characterize them as exponential. I would characterize them as slow, steady, creeping strategic progress. That's how I would characterize it. So they've got their first international base in Djibouti, they built that some years ago now, about seven years ago they built that base and they're seeking other bases in Africa. We know that they would like to have multiple other bases in Africa. And so they're just slowly chipping away at that and doing it in a way that doesn't draw a lot of international attention.

VOA: You mentioned Djibouti, they basically used the playbook, it started off with antipiracy assistance and then they needed infrastructure to help with that antipiracy assistance to get the base in Djibouti. Are you seeing the same playbook, same tactics over in Guinea, where they're starting to be more involved in the antipiracy? Are they trying to use the same playbook you think?

TOWNSEND: Yes I do. In fact, in the Gulf of Guinea, there is an illegal fishing problem there. There is a piracy problem there. The Chinese discuss those problems as a reason for a naval task force, a maritime task force in that region. And then of course, there's a base that has to support that task force. I think that the West and African partners are starting to respond to a more coherent approach to the counter piracy, counter illegal fishing problem in the Gulf of Guinea. I would also point out that the No. 1 purveyor of the illegal fishing in the Gulf of Guinea are Chinese fishing.

VOA: And you mentioned the economic interest but would you have you seen China start to militarize its Belt and Road Initiatives? Are you seeing direct associations with the Chinese military on how they're trying to expand upon those economic initiatives?

TOWNSEND: I think the Belt and Road Initiative and their military expansion plans are all linked, because I mean this is a state-controlled, party-controlled government and a state-controlled economy, so it's all linked. That said, I can't say that I'm seeing them, their first foot in the door is a Belt and Road and their second foot in the door is a military initiative, we don't see that playing out. What we've seen them do a lot of belt and road activity across the African continent, much of which can be to the benefit of African partners, right. The recipients of those initiatives can also be a problem for them with, you know you've heard about debt-trap diplomacy and other things like that, but the military progress that we're seeing is more strategic and patient, I think.

VOA: And thank you so much for speaking with Voice of America on a wide range of topics about what you're dealing with in the African continent. My final question to you would be, since we've talked about China's influence, Russia's. Influence, the U.S., France, Europe has influence there, but are there any other state actors that are trying to make inroads in Africa that you've seen that we should be aware of?

TOWNSEND: Well, there are a number of countries that are active on the African continent, and in many ways these activities are very supportive of Africa and the African people. The only other country that I'm keeping my eye on right now in a negative way, negative thing is Iran. So Iran hasn't had a lot of presence in Africa for a number of years, but we are starting to see them express increasing interest in Africa and starting to make some inroads there. I think their inroads are going to be malign in nature, and so we're just keeping an eye on it. It's very nascent. But it's happening now and we're watching.

VOA: Can you give us any examples?

TOWNSEND: I think I'd rather not, because these examples. Well, I'll just say that they are intelligence related and the arm of the Iranian security apparatus that engages in malign activity in the Middle East is the same arm that's now engaged on the African continent, so I won't be more specific than that, but it's not helpful to any African partner.

VOA: Thank you, General Townsend, the head of U.S. Africa Command, thank you so much for speaking with Voice of America.

TOWNSEND: Thanks, Carla, I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to your audience today.

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