In response to a spate of coups by U.S.-trained military personnel in West Africa and the greater Sahel, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., has authored an amendment to the 2024 defense spending bill to collect information on trainees who overthrow their governments. It would require the Pentagon for the first time to inform Congress about U.S.-mentored mutineers, Gaetz told The Intercept in an exclusive interview.
“The Department of Defense, up until this point, has not kept data regarding the people they train who participate in coups to overthrow democratically elected — or any — governments,” said Gaetz. “And that’s why in this National Defense Authorization Act … I have legislation that demands a collection of that data and a report to Congress about those outcomes.” Congress is set to take up the 2024 NDAA when it returns from recess in September.
The Intercept has found that at least 15 officers who benefited from U.S. security assistance have been involved in 12 coups in West Africa and the greater Sahel during the war on terror. The list includes military personnel from Burkina Faso (2014, 2015, and twice in 2022); Chad (2021); Gambia (2014); Guinea (2021); Mali (2012, 2020, 2021); Mauritania (2008); and Niger (2023). At least five leaders of the Niger coup in late July received American training, according to a U.S. official. They, in turn, appointed five U.S.-trained members of the Nigerien security forces to serve as governors, according to the State Department.
While testifying before the House Armed Services Committee this spring, Gen. Michael Langley, the head of U.S. Africa Command, was grilled by Gaetz about the percentage of U.S.-trained troops who have conducted coups. When asked what datasets with this information were available, Langley responded, “Congressman, we may have that information. I don’t at this time.”
AFRICOM had already told The Intercept, however, that such records don’t exist. Spokesperson Kelly Cahalan said that AFRICOM maintains no database of U.S.-trained African mutineers nor even a count of how many times they have conducted coups. “AFRICOM does not actively track individuals who’ve received U.S. training after the training has been completed,” she told The Intercept in 2022. When The Intercept followed up recently to confirm that this is still the case, Lt. Cmdr. Timothy Pietrack, AFRICOM’s deputy chief of public affairs, replied, “We have nothing to provide at this time.”
Gaetz says that AFRICOM’s failure to track such data is evidence that the Pentagon considers its operations in Africa as an end unto themselves. “If the true desired end state was really to strengthen national borders and national capabilities, we would definitely follow who broke bad,” Gaetz told The Intercept. “But that isn’t the desired end state. Just being there is the desired end state — which is a betrayal of our national interest.”
The total number of U.S.-trained mutineers across Africa since 9/11 may be far higher than is known, but the State Department, which tracks data on U.S. trainees, is either unwilling or unable to provide it. The Intercept identified more than 70 other African military personnel involved in coups since 2001 who might have received U.S. training or assistance, but when provided with names, State Department spokespeople either failed to respond or replied, “We do not have the ability to provide records for these historical cases at this time.”
AFRICOM, for its part, has also been deceptive or clueless about past coups. In 2022, The Intercept inquired if Mahamat Idriss Déby from Chad — who was installed by the army in a dynastic coup after the death of his father in 2021 — had received “any U.S. training or assistance.” Cahalan told The Intercept only that “Mahamat Deby has never received any U.S. military training.” Cahalan failed to mention what the State Department admitted: Déby was part of a unit that received U.S. funding for a peacekeeping mission in Mali in 2013.
Gaetz’s proposed legislation — which was approved by the House Armed Services Committee in June — would require the defense secretary to submit a report listing “the number of partner countries whose military forces have participated in security cooperation training or equipping programs or received security assistance training or equipping,” according to a draft of the amendment shared with The Intercept. The amendment would also require the Pentagon to list every instance since January 1, 2000, in which members of a “foreign military force trained or equipped” by the United States “subsequently engaged in a coup, insurrection, or action to overthrow a democratically-elected government, or attempted any such action.”
The legislation was one of the relatively few survivors among hundreds of amendments to the defense bill under consideration, but it was largely ignored amid media focus on partisan battles earlier this summer over social policy provisions, including limits on abortions, diversity training, and transgender health care. Gaetz spoke with The Intercept ahead of an anticipated post-Labor Day push for a compromise bill that will satisfy the Democratic Senate and Republican House before fiscal year 2023 ends on September 30.
“It’s great to see renewed attention on a decadeslong problem of U.S. training soldiers who later lead coups and commit human rights violations,” Erik Sperling of Just Foreign Policy, an advocacy group critical of mainstream Washington foreign policy, told The Intercept. “For decades, faith-based groups and progressives have protested the ‘School of the Americas’ that trained countless officers involved in anti-democratic moves in Latin America. Recent events have proven that the problem is in no way limited to the Western hemisphere.”