In the aftermath of Western intervention in 2011’s Arab Spring and the elimination of Osama bin Laden, both with consequences that have proved long-lasting, special operations forces (SOF) have become the surgical instrument of choice for the governments that possess the capability, but simultaneously espouse the foreign policy strategy known as “soft power.” A widely predicted al Qaeda backlash in retaliation for the raid that killed bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, failed to materialize, adding weight to the view that a significant corner had been turned in the global war against terrorism.
With coalition and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) component deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq – albeit mainly in training roles – being wound down, the focus of operations during 2012 was, somewhat unexpectedly, in East and West Africa. Characteristic of these unpublicized commitments was Creek Sand, the generic codename for a classified U.S. Army Special Forces (SF) operation conducted by U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), based at Kelley Barracks, Stuttgart, Germany. “Creek” is a geographical indication for West Africa and “Sand” is a designation commonly applied to technical intelligence collection.
AFRICOM’s objective was, and remains, the establishment of multilateral relationships that will enable local SOF to mount, or at least support, short counterinsurgency campaigns without the need for the long-term logistical investment associated with permanent bases and force protection requirements.
AFRICOM’s strategy, largely dependent on U.S. SF, was to forge links in the region through the supply of training cadres and participation in joint exercises to develop local elite units. The result has been a series of bonding initiatives, such as the African Lion exercise in Morocco, the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, based at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, and a presence at Cotonou in Benin, Douala in Cameroon, and Thiès, Senegal, on the west coast, where Exercise Western Accord was completed in July. Similarly, Saharan Express involved 12 countries, including Spain, Britain, Cape Verde, France, The Gambia, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mauritania, Morocco, Sierra Leone, Senegal, and the United States. The French, of course, as the former colonial power, retain considerable influence in the area, and the Brigade des Forces Spéciales Terre (BFST), usually garrisoned in Pau, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, has been engaged both in Operations Licorne (peacekeeping in Ivory Coast) and Héracles at Forward Operating Base Gwan in Afghanistan’s Kapisa province.
Obangame Express, designed as an antipiracy exercise in the Gulf of Guinea, was led by the guided-missile frigate USS Simpson (FFG 56), and encompassed Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Spain. AFRICOM’s objective was, and remains, the establishment of multilateral relationships that will enable local SOF to mount, or at least support, short counterinsurgency campaigns without the need for the long-term logistical investment associated with permanent bases and force protection requirements.
This emphasis on the continent’s west coast was followed by Exercise Cutlass Express in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden as a demonstration of maritime power and regional cooperation intended to challenge the Somali pirates, and by Southern Accord in Botswana.
Improved maritime surveillance and direct intervention, often by coordinated special operations forces from several jurisdictions, has had a dramatic impact on the number of recorded incidents. Although in two operations, the French were unable to free hostages, elements of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) SEAL Special Mission Unit based in Djibouti dropped by parachute near Adado, close to the border with Ethiopia, to free a pair of hostages, Jessica Buchanan and a Dane, Poul Hagen Thisted, who had been kidnapped three months earlier from Galkayo in Galmudug while working for a Danish mine-clearance charity. Both were rescued successfully and evacuated by helicopter to Camp Lemonnier; nine captors were killed.
Almost simultaneously, the British Special Boat Service, operating helicopters from the RFA Fort Victoria, flagship of Combined Task Force 151, seized a dhow and 13 suspected pirates after shots were fired across the target’s bows. For two weeks in May, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, which was later relieved by the RFA Wave Ruler, also accommodated U.S. Navy SH-60 Seahawks, effectively transforming the support vessel into a SOF command center for maritime combat operations.
During 2011 there were 151 attacks on ships, an increase on the statistics available for the previous year, yet in the whole of 2012, there were only 25 successful hijacks. By February 2012, the European Union Naval Force reported that around 1,000 pirates had been captured and prosecuted in 21 different countries. In July 2012, the European Union introduced EUCAP Nestor, a European Union Naval Force mission to secure the trade routes in the western Indian Ocean between the Seychelles and the Gulf of Aden. A month later Kenyan troops advanced into Somalia as part of an African Union mission to deny the pirates Somali ports as safe havens. Not entirely coincidentally, the pirate threat diminished, with a single ship attacked in the year’s third quarter, compared to 36 in the same period of the previous year.