Months after the head of U.S. Africa Command announced that funding for Cameroon’s armed forces would be slashed due to human rights concerns, the Pentagon continued employing members of an elite Cameroonian military unit long known for committing atrocities — including extrajudicial killings — as proxies through a classified Special Operations counterterrorism program, The Intercept has learned.
Until late 2019, members of the unit — known as the Rapid Intervention Battalion or by its French acronym BIR — conducted the missions against groups U.S. officials designated as VEOs, or violent extremist organizations, to “degrade” their ability to “conduct terrorist acts against U.S. interests,” according to a formerly secret Pentagon document obtained through a public records request. At least some of the operations were “planned and coordinated … with input from U.S. counterparts,” the memorandum notes.
Those operations occurred under a program intended to carry out counterterrorism missions with minimum deployment of U.S. personnel. 127e programs are named after the budgetary authority that allows U.S. Special Operations forces including Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and Marine Raiders to use foreign military units as proxies. They differ from other forms of assistance, training, or equipping of foreign forces because they allow the U.S. to employ foreign troops to do its own bidding — often in countries where the U.S. is not officially at war and the American public does not know the military is operating. In some cases, U.S. troops even engage in combat.
The termination of the program came eight months after the U.S. announced a drastic cut to security assistance to Cameroon, and one of the operations mentioned in the document took place nearly a month after that announcement. Those cuts followed revelations by The Intercept and Amnesty International of torture and murder by the BIR at a military base frequented by American personnel, as well as a drumbeat of subsequent reports of human rights abuses, including the cold-blooded execution of women and children.
Following that reporting, “there were discussions about the unsustainability of the Americans’ military involvement in Cameroon,” said Arrey Ntui, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. It was “surprising,” he added, that U.S. assistance was not cut off for several months after evidence of those abuses became public. The BIR continues to receive support from the United States through other security assistance programs.
It’s unclear how many missions BIR forces operating under the aegis of the 127e program may have carried out in 2019 but that partnership was one of 20 active 127e programs that year, according to the document, which also reveals that partnerships were underway in Africa, the Middle East, and the Asia-Pacific region at the time. Previous reporting, including by The Intercept, documented the existence of 127e operations in multiple African countries, but the memo offers the first official confirmation that the authority was employed in the Indo-Pacific Command area of operations.
The White House, the Pentagon, and Africa Command would not comment on the classified program. The State Department declined to comment specifically on the use of the 127e authority in Cameroon, and the Cameroonian Embassy in the United States did not respond to requests for comment.
U.S assistance to Cameroon’s military was intended to support its fight against the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, and later the Islamic State’s West Africa affiliate, in the far north of the country. But in recent years, Cameroon’s government has also fought its own war against Anglophone separatists in the northwest and southwest regions. Some Cameroonian troops previously operating in the north have redeployed to the Anglophone regions, raising questions about the indirect U.S. involvement in a conflict well outside the scope of its stated objectives.
The revelations about the 127e program in Cameroon come as pressure mounts on the U.S. to cut ties with its longtime ally. In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, shared exclusively with The Intercept, Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.; Sara Jacobs, D-Calif.; and Karen Bass, D-Calif., this week asked both officials to clarify the status of U.S. support for the BIR.
“We are particularly concerned about whether U.S. security assistance may be contributing to serious human rights abuses,” the legislators wrote. “We are particularly concerned in U.S. support for the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), some elements of which have been accused by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others, as having been directly implicated in atrocities in the Anglophone region. As you are aware, the State Department has reprogrammed some security assistance since 2019, but our understanding is that other assistance — including to the BIR — continues.”
The 127e authority, “127-echo” in military parlance, is exempt from a safeguard required of other U.S. programs supporting foreign forces known as the “Leahy law”: the scrutiny of recipients’ human rights records named after Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. A legislative effort to close that loophole by requiring 127e partners to undergo human rights vetting made it into the House version of the annual defense bill last year but was cut during negotiations with the Senate.
Critics of the 127e authority warn that it allows the Defense Department to essentially bypass oversight. Stephen Semler, co-founder of the Security Policy Reform Institute, a grassroots-funded U.S. foreign policy think tank, described 127e as an effort by the Pentagon to find “a different way to wage war.” Brian Finucane, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group and former legal adviser to the State Department, echoed that sentiment. “The concern is that the executive branch may be sliding into war,” he said, “without adequate consideration by Congress and the public about whether use of military force is justified and adequate.”
U.S. officials have touted 127e as crucial to conducting missions in areas otherwise inaccessible to U.S. troops. “These are hand-selected partner forces. We train them and we equip them. They specifically go after high-value counterterrorism targets. And they are used to support U.S. objectives and achieve U.S. aims,” retired Army Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, who served at U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, and led Special Operations Command Africa, or SOCAFRICA, told The Intercept in an interview.
Codenamed “Obsidian Cobra,” according to Bolduc, the 127e program in Cameroon was approved by then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in September 2014 and ran alongside a series of efforts to assist Cameroon’s fight against Boko Haram and the local Islamic State affiliate. Some 300 U.S. military personnel were also deployed to Cameroon, where they remained until early 2020.
U.S. support for the Cameroonian military faced growing scrutiny in recent years as graphic evidence of atrocities committed by the BIR and other units came to light in a series of reports by human rights groups and journalists. The U.S. State Department has also mentioned allegations of BIR abuses, including arbitrary arrests, torture, or extrajudicial killings in every annual report on Cameroon since 2010.
The Defense Department made a concerted effort to continue funding Cameroonian forces but the reports of their abuses became impossible to ignore, according to a U.S. official familiar with the deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press. While he did not specifically address the 127e program, the official said that the battle had less to do with abuses by specific units receiving U.S. funding and more with the overall relationship with Cameroon. “The bigger fight was on the broader policy issue,” he told The Intercept. “As a legal matter, AFRICOM was saying that they were in the clear. But as a policy matter the Cameroonian government was allowing these abuses to happen, so how could we keep working with them?”
In early 2019, when the U.S. announced that it would withhold $17 million in planned security assistance to Cameroon, AFRICOM chief Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser told Congress the Cameroonians “have been a good partner with us counterterrorism-wise” but conceded that U.S. officials couldn’t “neglect the fact that … there are alleged atrocities in what’s gone on there.”
Since then, the House and Senate have passed separate resolutions on atrocities in Cameroon. In 2020, the Senate called on U.S. officials to ensure that U.S. training and equipment was not being used to facilitate human rights abuses in the Anglophone regions.
But U.S. tax dollars continue to support the BIR. A State Department spokesperson confirmed that since 2019, the U.S. has aided the unit through the maintenance and operation of “command-and-control equipment,” training in the coordination of air and ground operations, and assistance to maintain and operate drones. The spokesperson said that “subunits within the BIR” that have received funding since 2019 “were formally vetted before receiving assistance to ensure they are not credibly implicated in a gross violation of human rights.”
Meanwhile, new reports of atrocities committed by the Cameroonian military in the Anglophone regions continue to emerge. Last December, BIR troops conducted house-to-house searches in Chomba village, accusing residents of harboring separatists and threatening to kill them, according to Human Rights Watch. The soldiers disappeared four residents who were later found dead, with gunshot wounds to the head. The same month, Cameroonian soldiers killed a 3-year-old girl and injured a 17-year-old girl in the town of Bamenda. Members of the BIR have also been accused of rape and the looting and burning of homes.
“They kill randomly, they arrest randomly, they arrest children, they open fire on the civilian population,” Emma Osong, an Southern Cameroonian-American human rights advocate and founder of Women for Permanent Peace and Justice, a victims-based organization, said of the BIR. “The crimes are piling up. … And they are being done by a military whose funding partly comes from America.”
Partnerships with abusive foreign forces like the BIR underscore the need for the U.S. to evaluate every unit it works with, said Jacobs, the California representative who led last year’s effort to extend human rights vetting to 127e recipients. In addition to the moral imperative, such evaluations would further the Pentagon’s stated counterterrorism objectives, she emphasized, as abuses by security forces against their own citizens are “one of the drivers of violent extremism.” Vetting “needs to be combined with sustained congressional oversight,” she added.
Defense officials sometimes vet 127e recipients even though they are not required to by law, Jacobs told The Intercept. “The problem is that as of now, the decision to do this vetting is completely up to DOD,” she said, referring to Department of Defense. “It should not be up to any federal agency to hold itself or its partners accountable.”
The official with knowledge of internal deliberations around support to Cameroon said he believed the units that received U.S. assistance had “cleared vetting” but that it took sustained public pressure to get officials to take a closer look. “The vetting process is completely a function of how hard they’re looking,” he said. “Once they started looking harder, you saw the restrictions kick in.”
Vetting also has its limitations, said a former defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified operations. “There’s always the risk that something awful will happen, that one of the people that we’ve supported, one of these foreign individuals who are participating in our operation, does something either immoral or illegal,” the official said.
The document obtained by The Intercept mentions two 127e operations by date: February 6 and March 6, 2019.
On February 6, 2019, BIR forces attacked a market in the southwest region of Cameroon — one of the hot spots of the Anglophone conflict — and killed up to 10 men, according to a Human Rights Watch investigation. There is no indication that the killings were committed by BIR troops associated with the 127e program, but the timing raises questions about U.S. responsibility for the actions of members of a unit it was actively engaged with.
“Anytime the U.S. works in tandem with forces known to commit abuses, as is the case for the BIR in Cameroon, it risks complicity in those abuses,” Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Central Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Intercept. “If the 127e program has allowed the U.S. to exercise control over the BIR during abusive operations, then the U.S. is also liable for those abuses.”
U.S. forces have also taken part in combat in Cameroon under the 127e authority. In 2017, Navy SEALs accompanied Cameroonian soldiers to the outskirts of a compound flying an ISIS flag and called on the occupants to come out, according to an account, attributed to “U.S. officials,” in the footnotes of a 2021 report by the International Crisis Group. When a man emerged carrying an AK-47, a Cameroonian soldier attempted to fire on him, but his weapon jammed. A SEAL observing from a distance opened fire and killed the man.
Bolduc, the SOCAFRICA commander until June 2017, said that the mission was run as part of the 127e program. He defended the killing on the grounds that it constituted “collective self-defense of a partner force” — the same justification AFRICOM frequently uses to justify airstrikes in Somalia.
The episode is indicative of the close involvement of U.S. personnel in some 127e operations. The 127e authority first faced significant scrutiny after four U.S. soldiers were killed by Islamic State militants during a 2017 ambush in Niger. U.S. troops have also died on other 127e missions, the former senior defense official said.
The U.S. is often deeply involved in all aspects of 127e operations’ planning and sometimes execution, said a former senior intelligence official, who also requested anonymity because the program is classified. “There is intelligence sharing, there is continuous advising on how to mission plan. In some places, we are embedding with them. We are actually going on the missions, we are essentially in their ear.”
Testifying before Congress in 2019, Gen. Richard D. Clarke, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, said that 127e programs “directly resulted in the capture or killing of thousands of terrorists, disrupted terrorist networks and activities, and denied terrorists operating space across a wide range of operating environments, at a fraction of the cost of other programs.”
The basis for Clarke’s statement is unclear, however. Ken McGraw, a Special Operations Command spokesperson, told The Intercept that the command does not have figures on those captured or killed during 127e missions and declined to clarify Clarke’s statement, citing the classified nature of 127e. It is not known how many foreign forces and civilians have been killed in these operations.
U.S. officials maintain that they have not knowingly supported members of the unit who have committed atrocities. “At the time that the United States provided BIR units with assistance, the United States was not aware of credible information implicating those units in a gross violation of human rights,” the State Department spokesperson told The Intercept. “The agreements also provide, consistent with our statutory authorities, that any defense articles provided to Cameroon must be returned to the United States when they are no longer needed for the purposes for which they were furnished.”
But at least some weapons and equipment provided by the U.S. to support the Cameroonian military in counterterrorism operations have been employed in the Anglophone conflict, according to Christopher Fomunyoh, regional director for Central and West Africa at the National Democratic Institute, who testified before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee in 2020. “That’s extremely worrying because we’re beginning to see some of the tactics and gross violations of human rights in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon that had been recorded in incidents happening in the extreme north,” Fumonyoh said.
Members of the BIR who had been stationed in the north, where the U.S. conducted training, were also redeployed to the northwest when the Cameroonian military opened a regional command there. While that fight is against separatist groups, the Cameroonian government began to refer to them as “terrorists,” as it did with Boko Haram and the Islamic State.
Ntui, the International Crisis Group analyst, said that the Cameroonian government’s movement of troops to the Anglophone regions is what ultimately pushed the U.S. to reduce its assistance. “The risk of Cameroon using equipment and training that had been provided for counterinsurgency in the far north was getting increasingly high.” The U.S. had asked its Cameroonian counterparts for guarantees that the assistance wouldn’t be used outside its intended scope, Ntui added. “But that is simply impractical.”
Asked about this very issue in 2018, an AFRICOM spokesperson said that “Cameroon is a sovereign nation and can transfer personnel between units.”
Christopher Roberts, a political science instructor at Canada’s University of Calgary who tracks foreign assistance to the Cameroonian military, said he “would be shocked if the Americans ever did any planning for any operations in the Anglophone region, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the Cameroonian government used both, obviously, the training, but also some of the material support that they were given to fight Boko Haram and redirected it.”
Roberts found that the sale of U.S.-made helicopters to Cameroon continued after U.S. assistance was scaled back and that aircraft supplied to the Cameroonian government as part of its fight against Boko Haram were being used in the Anglophone region instead. Armored vehicles, munitions, small arms, and surveillance drones originally intended for the north of the country were redeployed there, Roberts and Cameroon researcher Billy Burton previously pointed out.
According to the document obtained by The Intercept, the weapons and gear the U.S. had provided to the BIR were “recovered” and placed in storage or transferred to other 127e programs. At least some of the equipment provided to Cameroon through a different partnership program, however, was unaccounted for, according to a 2020 report by the State Department’s inspector general. Officials in charge of the partnership, the report noted, “were also not able to confirm if the equipment was being used as intended.”