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International SOF Partnerships Pay Off

Anyone imagining that the very public drawdown of coalition troops from Iraq and Afghanistan would have relieved the pressure on international special operations forces (SOF) during 2013 would have been mistaken. According to SOCOM Commander Adm. William H. McRaven, U.S. special operations forces were set to rise to 71,100 troops in 2014 (with a continued expansion by around 7.5 percent into 2015) from 66,100 civilian and military personnel in 2011, and were present in just over 100 countries. In cash terms, funding for SOCOM was $6.9 billion, a figure that increases to $10.4 billion if supplemental funding is included. Even so, it was probably unimaginable that the fulcrum of activity would shift to Africa; during the year major engagements were fought by SOCOM and its anti-terrorist component, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), against Islamic jihadists in Mali, Mauritania, Somalia, and Nigeria.

The campaign in Mali, which involved mainly French but also some Canadian, Danish, and British special operations forces, began in 2012 when insurgents acquired Libyan weapons to occupy the north of the country and seize Diabaly, a small town in the Segou region, 250 miles north of the capital, Bamako. French commandos recaptured Diabaly in January 2013. The insurgents – al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – had been responsible for the recent abduction of five European tourists and the murder of a sixth. French troops flew into Sévaré in January 2013 in Opération Serval, and advanced toward rebel positions at Gao.

Op Serval french international SOF

A French special operations forces soldier during the opening days of Operation Serval, Mali, Jan. 29, 2013. The campaign in Mali saw the deployment of special operators from France and Canada. Ministère de la Défense photo

“This is exactly the place we should be in terms of trying to develop a counterterrorism capacity in the Sahel and in North Africa,” said then-Gen. Denis Thompson, commander of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) in December 2011 in Ottawa, which had deployed one team of half a dozen men to northern Mali to mentor local troops, and another to the capital to provide counterterrorism and officer training. CANSOFCOM was created in 2006 to help support Joint Task Force Two, an Ottawa-based counterterrorism unit, and subsequently saw action in Afghanistan.

The Canadian commitment in Mali came after Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were held by AQIM in December 2008 and released 130 days later in an exchange for four AQIM detainees.

In September, following a long hiatus in operations, the Somali National Army, supported by African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) troops, took the provincial town of Mahadeey from al Shabaab, which withdrew from the area but then claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, an atrocity that cost at least 67 lives and more than 120 injured.

Having suppressed AQIM in northern Mali, the estimated 1,200 French and 800 Chadian troops involved prepared for a delayed withdrawal from the Adrar des Ifoghas, close to the mountainous Algerian border, benefiting from reconnaissance by a U.S. MQ-1 Predator and two French MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) flying from Niamey in Niger. However, the French retained a small counterterrorism force, mainly to train the local army and support a UN-mandated African rapid-response force of up to 10,000 troops to ward off any resurgent Islamist threat. The unarmed French Reapers, from the 1/33 Belfort Squadron at Base 709 in Cognac-Châteaubernard, are the successors to a French UAV program, equipped with Harfangs, which saw service in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

While the French were fully committed in their former colonial territories, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) was concentrating on conducting intensive exercises in pursuit of a political strategy to promote self-reliance and eliminate potential safe havens for al Qaeda and its myriad affiliates. Thus in February and March 2013, Exercise Flintlock, the annual AFRICOM training exercise held each year since 2006, involved about 15 CANSOFCOM members in Mauritania, who were paired with Malian troops, supported by contributions from 16 countries, among them Spain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Nigeria, and Senegal.

International SOF CANSOFCOM

Special operations jumpers from the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, Green Berets of 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and Pararescue Airmen from the Air Force Special Operations Command begin exiting a British C-130 from the Royal Air Force during a high altitude low opening parachute jump (HALO) Hurlburt Field, Fl., April. 25, 2013. Special operations members from coalition forces participated in HALO jumps during Exercise Emerald Warrior. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Steven Young

Flintlock ran in parallel with Central Accord 13 in February 2013, during which the 10th Special Forces Group and Italian SF troops at the U.S. Army base at Kaiserslautern, and Italian SF troops at Caserna Ederle at Vicenza linked to exercises conducted in Angola; Douala, Cameroon; and Mauritania. Some 750 soldiers, mostly from Cameroon, took part in the exercise, which was watched by observers from five neighboring countries and the Economic Community of Central African States, as well as others from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of Congo, São Tomé e Príncipe, and Gabon.

This high-profile activity reflects AFRICOM’s commitment to a policy of mentoring and participation in large, complex joint exercises, both with conventional NATO partners and local defense forces, with the objective of raising the level and capability of legitimate governments to defend themselves, and to encourage regional security arrangements in the hope of avoiding the need for external intervention.

AFRICOM’s Special Operations Command Africa at Kelley Barracks, Stuttgart, underwent a change of leadership in June when Gen. James B. Linder, formerly AFRICOM’s deputy J-3, took over from Rear Adm. Brian L. Losey, who left to take over Naval Special Warfare Command in Coronado, Calif., from Rear Adm. Sean Pybus. In East Africa, various SOF units operate from Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, including AFRICOM, commanded by Gen. David Rodriguez, who complained to the Senate Armed Services Committee that “AFRICOM has a significantly under-serviced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance requirement.” However, in spite of that stated deficiency, JSOC was praised widely for the raid undertaken in January 2012 that freed the American aid worker Jessica Buchanan and her Danish colleague Poul Thisted, who had been held hostage by Somali pirates for four months.

JSOC’s role in Somalia, over a long period, served to greatly improve the local security environment and return a lawless territory to a semblance of peace. Allied special operations forces were especially active off the Somali coast, combating the threat from piracy, and on land, where al Qaeda’s local affiliate al Shabaab killed one French commando and captured another during a failed helicopter-borne attempt to rescue Denis Allex and Marc Aubriere, two Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE) officers who had been abducted in July 2009 at a hotel in Mogadishu. Both men had been operating under journalistic cover. Aubriere escaped from Bula-Marer after a ransom allegedly had been paid. During the raid, 17 al Shabaab militants were reported killed.

In September, following a long hiatus in operations, the Somali National Army, supported by African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) troops, took the provincial town of Mahadeey from al Shabaab, which withdrew from the area but then claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, an atrocity that cost at least 67 lives and more than 120 injured.

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Nigel West is considered the dean of intelligence writers. He often speaks at intelligence seminars...