The Russian Wagner Group mercenary organization has tried to enlist some of its units in Africa to fight for Russia in Ukraine, the top commander of U.S. military forces in Africa told VOA.
“We're seeing some efforts to recruit Wagner units for Ukraine,” Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command, said in an exclusive interview with VOA this week.
Townsend added those units would likely transfer primarily from Libya, where hundreds of Russian mercenaries are supporting eastern-based military commander Khalifa Haftar.
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Townsend said AFRICOM has transferred some resources to the U.S. European Command as Russia invaded Ukraine. He said his command had provided EUCOM about 30 personnel, “mostly intelligence analysts and planners,” along with some of the combatant command’s shared intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and aircraft.
“We've seen some impacts to things like airlift because we're reinforcing NATO,” Townsend said.
“We're also supplying aid to Ukraine, and so those flights have slowed down some things for AFRICOM, but I wouldn't say that they've had a significant impact on our operations,” he said.
In January, Townsend told VOA Russia’s military had helped deliver Russian troops to Mali.
There are now about 1,000 Russian mercenaries in Mali who have run a few operations, he said, but the group has seen less support in recent weeks from the Russian military, probably because of the invasion of Ukraine. Wagner mercenaries are also in the Central African Republic and, to a lesser extent, Sudan, he said.
Al-Shabab suspected to have power to strike outside Africa
Townsend also said he suspects the al-Shabab terror group in Somalia may now have the capability to strike Americans outside of Africa, including in the United States.
“I suspect that they do. That’s not widely accepted in Washington or in the intel community, but my instincts as a commander are that they do,” he told VOA.
As recently as last month, U.S. officials had said that while Somalia’s al-Qaida affiliate aspires to go after Western targets outside of Somalia, it lacks the capacity to attack the United States.
Townsend conceded the group’s exact capabilities were uncertain, calling their ability to launch attacks against the homeland “an open question.”
WATCH: VOA's interview with General Stephen Townsend
He said al-Shabab remains the “greatest threat” on the continent, and over the last year it had “enjoyed great freedom of movement throughout Somalia.”
“They have grown bigger, stronger and bolder,” he said.
In late 2020, then-President Donald Trump ordered most of the 800 U.S. troops out of Somalia in one of his last foreign policy moves in office. In the roughly 15 months since then, U.S. forces have continued to “commute to work,” flying in and out of Somalia for missions while leaving fewer than 100 troops in the war-torn country.
“I think it’s inefficient, it’s certainly less effective. We’re not there long enough to get momentum, and then we start over,” he told VOA, adding that it also increases the risk to U.S. troops who must reestablish security each time they move in and out.
Asked about the situation by Republican Senator Thom Tillis during Senate Armed Services Committee testimony Tuesday, Townsend said, “we are marching in place at best, we may be backsliding in the security in Somalia, the security situation.”
Townsend told VOA he believed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had provided his advice to the White House and was giving administration leaders the “time and space to make their decisions.”
No Chinese base plans for Equatorial Guinea
Townsend said in January that the United States believed China is trying to establish a base on Africa’s Atlantic Coast, with Equatorial Guinea as the place where the Chinese were receiving the most traction.
Last month, Molly Phee, the U.S. State Department’s top Africa official, led a delegation to Equatorial Guinea that included representatives from AFRICOM.
“The leaders there [in Equatorial Guinea] emphatically deny that they plan to have a Chinese base in their country. So, for now we’ll take them at their word, and we’ll watch what they do,” Townsend told VOA when asked about any reassurances the delegation had received.
“We’re not trying to tell them that they have to choose between the U.S. and the West and China,” he said. “They just have to respect what our concerns would be, our security concerns would be.”
China has its only overseas military base in the small East African nation of Djibouti.
Townsend said talks of a Chinese base in Tanzania had slowed with a change in Tanzania’s government, so China was now “soliciting for bases,” with all countries along the Mozambique Channel, to include the waterways’ small island nations. China has even discussed basing with the Somali government, which, in turn, had assured the United States it would not partner with the Chinese military, he added.
Plot to Kill Ambassador Disrupted in 2020
Townsend also said Iran had a hand in a 2020 plot “to kill the U.S. ambassador to South Africa,” following the U.S. airstrike that killed the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Quds Force leader, Qasem Soleimani.
“That plot was disrupted,” he said, adding that there have been no recent plot attacks by Iran against Americans in Africa.
He said that Iran’s interest level with Africa has increased since 2020, with the United States now seeing the emergence of Iranian drones on the continent as Tehran continues to offer equipment to African nations.