U.S.-Trained Officers Have Led Numerous Coups in Africa

U.S. involvement in recent years has only further destabilized the continent.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept; Photos: Getty Images, U.S. Africa Command

U.S.-trained officers have led seven coups and coup attempts in Africa over the last year and a half. This week on Intercepted: Investigative reporter Nick Turse details the U.S. involvement on the African continent. U.S.-trained officers have attempted coups in five West African countries alone: three times in Burkina Faso, three times in Mali, and once each in Guinea, Mauritania, and Gambia. Turse offers the stories behind the coups, details about clandestine training efforts, and a look at the sordid history of the U.S. military’s involvement on the continent. He examines why most Americans have no idea what their tax dollars have wrought in Africa and the broader implications of failed U.S. counterterrorism policies being implemented repeatedly, in country after country.


[Solemn, low music.]

[Sounds of a young officer reading a statement about the government coup in Burkina Faso.]

Nick Turse: Fourteen men sit or stand behind the television anchor’s desk. One young officer, reading aloud in French, begins to tell the country of Burkina Faso that their constitution is suspended. Borders have been closed. And the entire government has been dissolved.

A coup had taken place.

[Military officer continues reading statement.]

NB: Another man, to his right, wearing a red beret sat proudly – looking straight at the camera. The young officer introduced him:

Officer [in French]: Lieutenant-colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba.

NT: Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, Burkina Faso’s new leader.

Damiba took power on January 24, after deposing the democratically-elected president. He was sworn in as the new president just last week.

Burkina Faso is all too familiar with coups. Since its independence from France in 1960, coups and coup attempts have taken place again and again.

While many have watched these events unfold in West Africa, few actually recognize where some of these coup leaders come from.

Many, it turns out, are trained by the U.S. government.

[Intercepted theme music.]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

NT: I’m Nick Turse, an investigative journalist, author, and contributing writer at The Intercept. For 11 years, I’ve been reporting on Africa. From the U.S. drone war in Somalia, to civil war in Libya, conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and ethnic cleansing in South Sudan, I’ve traveled across the continent to report on atrocities, civil wars, and crises. But my main beat is reporting on U.S. military operations in Africa.

In the past year and a half, there have been seven coups and coup attempts in Africa. But what many people haven’t focused on is how the U.S. government has direct links to many of them.

I recently reported at The Intercept that since 2008 U.S.-trained officers have attempted at least nine coups, and succeeded in at least eight in five West African countries alone: Three times in Burkina Faso; three times in Mali; and once each in Guinea, Mauritania, and the Gambia.

U.S. training and support to the region flows through the State Department and Africa Command, an arm of the Department of Defense, in charge of military operations across the continent. 

Over the years, I’ve revealed the existence of low-profile military bases, secret eavesdropping operations, and clandestine missions, exposing just how far the U.S. government’s tentacles spread across the continent — much farther than one might think.

[Low, contemplative music.]

NT: The coup in Burkina Faso was only the latest in a string of coups. Pointing to the worsening security situation in the country, Damiba – the most recent coup leader – led elements of the military to take control of the country ousting former President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. As shots rang out in the streets and on military bases in late January, the United Nations spoke out against the violence:

Stephen Dujarric: The Secretary General is following developments in Burkina Faso with deep concern. He’s particularly worried about the whereabouts and safety of President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, as well as the worsening security situation following the coup carried out on January 23 by sections of the Armed Forces. The Secretary General strongly condemns any attempted takeover of government by the force of arms. He calls on the coup leaders to lay down their arms and to ensure the protection of the physical integrity of the president and of the institutions of Burkina Faso.

[Sounds from Damiba’s swearing-in ceremony: a drum line and music procession.] 

NT: Damiba seized power and was later sworn in as interim president of the nation. Damiba assured the country that security and peace would return. But there’s been precious little of it in Burkina Faso of late. In the past few years, extremist Islamist groups have made headway in the country, and the violence has only worsened.

DW News: Security Forces have clashed with protesters in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou. Tensions have been rising over the government’s failure to rein in terrorist groups. Militants linked to Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State have killed thousands of people.

France 24 English: Between 2016 and 2018, the jihadists mainly hit Ouagadougou, the capital. On January 15, 2016, a double attack targeted a restaurant and a hotel. It left 30 dead and dozens injured.

NT: Damiba led a small, relatively-unknown group called the “Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration” to overthrow the democratically-elected Kaboré. Damiba is also a highly-trained soldier, and much of his training came from the U.S. government.

Damiba participated in at least half a dozen U.S. training exercises, according to U.S. Africa Command.

In 2010 and 2020, he participated in an annual special operations training program known as the Flintlock exercise. In 2013, Damiba was accepted into an Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance course, a State Department-funded training program. In 2013 and 2014, he attended a U.S.-sponsored Military Intelligence training engagement for African officers. And in 2018 and 2019, he participated in engagements with a U.S. Defense Department Civil Military Support Element in Burkina Faso.

And he’s hardly alone.

[Sounds of revolution: car alarms, the indistinct murmurs of a huge crowd shouting, an explosion.]

NT: Back in 2014, a revolution took hold of Burkina Faso.

France 24 English: After 27 years in power, President Blaise Compaoré resigns as president of Burkina Faso. His attempt to amend the Constitution allowing him to run for a fifth consecutive term sparked a massive popular uprising; over 1,000 demonstrators broke into parliament and national television offices demanding the president’s resignation, and it was later dubbed the black spring of Burkina Faso.

Al Jazeera English: Protesters fell like flies when soldiers started shooting at them. The day after the protest, Compaoré fled to neighboring Ivory Coast, ending his 27-year rule. 

Newscaster: Now, the head of the National Assembly should take over and announce elections in the next 30 to 60 days.

NT: A U.S.-trained officer, Lt. Col. Yacouba Isaac Zida seized power, and established a transitional government. Just two years earlier, he had attended a counterterrorism training course at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, sponsored by the U.S. Joint Special Operations University. He also attended a military intelligence course in Botswana, financed by the U.S. government. The next year, in 2015, another coup overthrew Zida’s transitional government.

France 24 English: On Wednesday, RSP forces stormed the presidential palace taking Michel Kafando and two other ministers hostage. The next day, Lt. Col. Mamadou Bamba declared the end of the transition regime.

Al Jazeera English: The United Nations has strongly condemned the coup and the African Union is giving coup leaders until Tuesday to restore the transitional government or face travel bans and asset freezes.

NT: General Gilbert Diendéré led that coup. He had not only taken part in a U.S.-led counterterrorism exercise, but also served as a literal advertisement for it. Diendéré appeared in an official U.S. Africa Command photo addressing Burkinabè soldiers before their deployment to Mali, in support of the 2010 Flintlock exercise.

[Light, quick guitar music.]

NT: Since 2005, the U.S. has pumped billions of dollars in security assistance to promote quote-unquote “stability” in West Africa. And since the 2000s, the United States has regularly deployed small teams of commandos to advise, assist, and accompany local forces — even into battle. The U.S. has provided weapons, equipment, and aircraft; it offers many forms of training, advising, and assistance via Special Operations Command Africa, which focuses on enhancing the counterterrorism capabilities of West African nations.

At the very same time, coups by U.S.-trained officers have become an increasingly common occurrence in West Africa. Last summer, for example, American Green Berets arrived in Guinea to train a special forces unit led by Col. Mamady Doumbouya, a young officer who had also served in the French Foreign Legion.

In September, members of Doumbouya’s unit took a break from their training with U.S. commandos, stormed the presidential palace, and deposed the country’s 83-year-old president, Alpha Condé.

France 24 English: Unknown to his compatriots when he first appeared on national television, Mamady Doumbouya is described as discreet. Since 2018, the lieutenant colonel has headed Guinea’s Special Forces, an elite unit that leads the fight against terrorism. It was created by the president he deposed, Alpha Condé. 

NT: Doumbouya soon declared himself Guinea’s new leader. 

Officially, the U.S. military is operating in Africa to — and this is a quote — “help negate the drivers of conflict and extremism.” 

Basically, after 9/11, the US scoured the globe for so-called weak states and ungoverned spaces, places where violent extremism could take root. But the problem was completely theoretical. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the United States didn’t even recognize any terrorist organizations before 2001. 

But that didn’t stop America. Special Operations Forces were dispatched to Somalia in 2002, followed by security assistance, more troops, contractors, helicopters and drones, and it never stopped. By the late 2010s, the U.S. had almost 30 military bases scattered across the continent. U.S. commandos had seen combat in at least 13 African countries, and the number of terrorist and militant groups had grown from zero to nearly 50. 

U.S. operations are designed to promote stability, and tamp down conflict and extremism. For more than 20 years, this has been the rationale of pouring money into countries like Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali, in the Sahel region and beyond. 

The Africa Center for Strategic Studies, the premier Pentagon research institution devoted to African security, recently issued a report. In it they said, there had been a 70 percent increase in violent events linked to militant Islamist groups in the Sahel and that this propelled a new record of extremist violence in Africa in 2021. That’s directly from the Pentagon. 

They went on to say: “this continuous and uninterrupted escalation of violence involving militant Islamist groups in the region since 2015.” 

It’s really hard to imagine a more dismal assessment. I think it’s in everyone’s interest to promote peace and stability in Africa. But the U.S. military hasn’t shown any ability to achieve these aims through its policies. 

For the last 20 years, the U.S. has engaged in a version of counterterrorism Whac-A-Mole through airstrikes, commando raids, and the export of U.S. counterterrorism strategies to partners and allies all across Africa. Now, correlation doesn’t equal causation, but the metrics are bleak in the places where the U.S. has made its most concerted and well-funded efforts. 

Terrorist groups, terrorist attacks, civilian fatalities, they’ve all spiked in the Sahel. Coups by U.S.-trained officers are rampant across West Africa; a two-decade-old quasi-war in Somalia is, at best, a stalemate, while Libya is, more than a decade after U.S. intervention, still a nearly failed state. 

[Light, contemplative wind instruments play.]

NT: When I was reporting in Burkina Faso in 2020, I wanted to better understand the government that U.S. taxpayers, like myself, were supporting there. So I spoke with people who had watched their family members marched away by Burkinabè soldiers, only to later find their loved ones lying in fields or on roadsides, with their hands bound, shot through the back of the head.

These were civilians who were executed on the suspicion that they were aiding terrorists, often only because they belong to the quote-unquote, “wrong ethnic group.” 

I also spoke with Simon Compaoré, who had previously overseen key components of the Burkinabè security forces as interior minister and was, at that time, the president of the People’s Movement for Progress, which was then the ruling political party, the government supported by the United States. His job was akin to the head of the Democratic National Committee in the United States. 

I hit him with some hard questions about reports of these extra-judicial killings. I expected typical denials. Instead, I got a fairly frank admission that some of the reports were true. And what he said after really stunned me: 

“We have to do everything to make sure we keep the morale up,” he said, of the soldiers who are carrying out those targeted killings. “We’re doing this, but we’re not shouting it from the rooftops.”

He was telling me very bluntly, that murder was a morale booster, but they just wanted to keep it under wraps. You don’t often get this kind of honesty from politicians about atrocities by their own soldiers, nor clear evidence of just who U.S. tax dollars are supporting and what those troops are doing.

[Music with low, steady drum beats.] 

NT: Back in 2015, I reported on how the U.S. had deployed Special Operations Forces across the continent, where nearly 50 terrorist groups were operating. But the Pentagon refused to name more than just a handful of the groups they were fighting. 

One of those countries where terrorist groups were operating was Mali. It’s also a country where U.S.-trained officers have repeatedly overthrown the governments they were sworn to serve. And like in Burkina Faso, there have been three coups in Mali by U.S.-trained officers just the last decade, and it all began with another U.S. military mission gone awry. In 2011, a U.S.-backed uprising Libya toppled longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Al Jazeera English: The Eastern city of Benghazi calls for Muammar Gaddafi to be brought to justice.

ABC News: It has been 10 days since Mr. Obama ordered U.S. forces into combat in Libya. Nearly 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched more than 1,600 airstrikes.

NT: As his government, Tuareg fighters serving Gaddafi looted the Libyan regime’s weapons depots, traveled to their native Mali, and began to take over the northern part of that country.

Al Jazeera English: The Tuareg rebel group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, has declared an independent state in northern Mali. They’re calling it Azawad. In a statement on their website, the group said the decision was irreversible.

NT: The government in Mali was hapless. So Amadou Sanogo, an officer who learned English in Texas, received intelligence training in Arizona, and underwent infantry officer basic training in the State of Georgia, took matters into his own hands. He overthrew his government’s democratically elected government.

Al Jazeera English: Captain Sanogo is reaching out to politicians and religious leaders to gather support for his military coup against President Amadou Toumani Touré.

NT: After his coup, Sanogo even offered America credit for his success.

“America is a great country with a fantastic army,” he said afterward. “I tried to put all the things I learned there into practice here.” 

Sanogo was later accused of torturing and killing soldiers who opposed him, and he was eventually arrested after the coup. He was never convicted. 

More recently, in 2020, Col. Assimi Goïta headed the junta that overthrew the Malian government. Goïta had worked with the U.S. Special Operations Forces for years, participating in training exercises, and attending a Joint Special Operations University seminar at Florida’s MacDill Air Force Base.

DW News: Leaders of a military coup in the West African nation of Mali say that they will enact political transition and fresh elections within a reasonable time. This, after Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta announced his resignation just hours after being detained by armed soldiers. 

BBC News: The United Nations Security Council has condemned yesterday’s coup. They’re urging the soldiers involved to return to their barracks without delay.

NT: U.S. officials disavowed their former protégé and condemned the coup. After overthrowing the government, Goïta stepped down and took the job of Vice President in a transitional government tasked with returning Mali to civilian rule. But nine months later, just last year, in fact, he seized power again in a second coup.

[Austere piano music.]

NT: For 20 years, the U.S. military has waged quasi-wars as part of the War on Terror, all across the African continent. And there’s been a tremendous human impact.

As I’ve said, correlation doesn’t equal causation. But the metrics are exceptionally dismal. As the U.S. has sent in commandos, built up military bases, trained African soldiers, and pumped in countless hundreds of millions of dollars, every indicator has gone in the wrong direction: The number of terrorist attacks, terrorist groups, coups, and overall instability has all risen.

And then there’s the human costs. The Pentagon’s Africa Center just reported 4,800-plus fatalities stemming from terrorist attacks on the Sahel in 2021. That’s 17 percent higher than the year before. And this followed a 57 percent increase in 2020. There are now more fatalities linked to militant Islamist groups in the Sahel than any other region in Africa. 

On top of this, there are now 3.5 million people displaced by violence in the Sahel, 2.5 million of them in Burkina Faso alone. This is all to say that suffering is immense. And worse, it’s increasing. There are now roughly 18 active militant Islamist groups operating on the continent, up from just five in 2010. 

According to the Pentagon’s Africa Center, the number of violent events across the continent has jumped more than 1,800 percent from 288 in 2009 to 5,500 last year, according to the Africa Center’s analysis. 

From my experience, I’d wager that most people in Africa have no idea what the U.S. military is doing on the continent, or in their countries. In many nations, the U.S. maintains an exceptionally low profile, and keeps their missions under wraps.

For example, I spoke with some well-connected military officials in Burkina Faso about what American forces were doing in their country, and they were shocked — so much is unknown. So the question that needs to be asked is: Do ordinary people across Africa have the right to know what the U.S. military is doing in their country? Do they have a right to this information so they can evaluate the results and hold their own governments accountable? Until now, most haven’t been given that opportunity.

U.S. government shadow wars in Africa continue. Two weeks ago, the world watched in horror as Russia invaded Ukraine. And U.S. government officials wasted no time denouncing the violence.

President Joseph R. Biden: Within moments — moments — missile strikes began to fall on historic cities across Ukraine. Then came the air raids, followed by tanks and troops rolling in.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken: This is shameful. The numbers of civilians killed and wounded. The humanitarian consequences will only grow in the days ahead.

NT: But just two days earlier, the U.S. carried out its own military intervention, not in the neighboring country, but halfway across the globe. It was an airstrike in Somalia.

This was the first U.S. airstrike in Somalia in 2022. But one of more than 200 since 2007. And although President Biden has placed limits on drone strikes outside of war zones, U.S. Africa Command still had the authority to carry out the strike. Africa Command, also known as AFRICOM, claims that three terrorists were killed as a result of the strike. Is it true? It could be. But I’ve learned to take what AFRICOM says with a grain of salt. 

I’ve heard that three times that number of people died in the fight that day. Were they all terrorists? It’s hard to know the truth. When these wars are mainly fought in the shadows. The U.S. makes its own rules when it comes to war. It’s been that way for more than 150 years, when some other countries do what we do, it’s aggressive and illegitimate. It violates international norms. When we do it, it’s sound policy conducted with the utmost care and discretion. This, of course, is the very definition of American exceptionalism.

The CIA has a term called blowback, the unintended and unwanted side effects of its operations. These are the implications of having such widespread military involvement by the U.S. government.

A 2011 war in Libya, for instance, looked like an easy win. It helped to oust a cruel dictator, it cost no American lives, and it was heralded as a model for American warfare in the 21st century. But 11 years later, Libya is still a failed state, with so many dead and far more displaced due to constant conflict and crisis there. 

That war, in turn, destabilized Mali, and Niger, and then Burkina Faso, upending millions of lives with no end in sight. And now, that violence is creeping further south into previously peaceful places like Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo. 

Most Americans have no idea what their tax dollars have wrought in these far-off places, the chaos they’ve generated, the suffering that’s resulted. Those are the implications of failed U.S. counterterrorism policies being implemented again and again in country after country. These policies mean millions of people’s lives are upended, ended, or wrecked. And all of it? Courtesy of the U.S. government.

[End credits music.]

NT: And that’s it for this episode of Intercepted. Follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast.

Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. José Olivares is lead producer. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. And Rick Kwan mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

And I’m Nick Turse.

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Until next time.

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