Senior US general warns of violent extremism in West Africa

The U.S. top general for Africa warned of “violent extremism” and the threat of Russian mercenaries in the Sahel region, referring to war games or military exercises ending in Morocco.

“We are seeing an increase in violent extremism in West Africa, predominantly in the Sahel region,” said General Stephen J. Townsend, commander of the US Africa Command (Africom).

The Sahel region is a vast area that extends into the southern African Sahara Desert and includes countries such as Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

“We are seeing the arrival of malevolent actors, and in particular, I am referring to Russian mercenaries from Wagner,” Townsend told AFP in the North African country on Thursday after the conclusion of the four-week African Lion international military exercise.

“This training does not specifically address these issues, but it will help all of our armed forces if we are called upon to deal with such issues in the future,” Townsend said.

Once eroded in power in the Sahel, IS-linked jihadists have recently expanded their influence with an unprecedented series of massacres of civilians.

Mali, a former French colony, has been particularly hard hit, where the strategic landscape has changed dramatically following two coups in August 2020 and May 2021. Bamako has forged closer ties with Moscow, bringing in the military, who France says are mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner group.

Africom, based in the German city of Stuttgart, is responsible for US military operations in Africa. More than 7,500 military personnel from a dozen countries took part in the African Lion exercise, which took place from June 6 to 30 in Morocco, Ghana, Senegal and Tunisia. In addition to American soldiers and officers from the host countries, they were attended by soldiers from Brazil, Great Britain, Chad, France, Italy and the Netherlands.

The Moroccan leg of the games was attended by military observers from NATO, the African Union and nearly 30 “partner countries”, including, for the first time, Israel. The exercises included ground, air and sea maneuvers, preparations for nuclear biological and chemical decontamination, as well as the provision of medical and humanitarian assistance.

On Thursday at Cap Draa in the dusty deserts of southern Morocco, about 700 kilometers south of Rabat, troops feigned a combined ground and air attack on enemy columns in a live fire exercise.

F-16s and Apache attack helicopters roared through the sky. M1 Abrams tanks and AMX-10 RC wheeled armored reconnaissance vehicles plied the dunes, escorted by salvo launchers of Himars multiple launch rocket systems.

Columns of smoke rose high from artillery shelling, and dust was raised by fierce winds from the Atlantic Ocean. But Townsend was keen to emphasize that the operations were “hypothetical” war games, “totally made up exercise scenarios” and were not targeted at any one country.

The exercise comes amid rising tensions between Rabat and Algeria over the disputed Western Sahara. Former US President Donald Trump recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory in 2020 in exchange for Rabat reestablishing ties with Israel, and Algeria responded months later by severing ties with Morocco.

The exercise took place near the border with the refugee camps of Western Sahara and the Sahara, where the Algerian-backed independence movement of the Polisario Front is based. Townsend said the exercise was “not focused at all on Algeria” but on “boosting our skills as armies” to work together.

“What we are seeing today in NATO and Ukraine shows the value of strong allies and partners working together to protect our common interests,” he added.

The conflict in Ukraine dominated the NATO summit in Madrid this week.