Brigadier General Rose Keravuori currently serves as the Deputy Director of Intelligence (J2) at U.S. Africa Command. Keravuori has spent over 20 years in the U.S. Army as an Active Duty and Reserve Officer. She led troops at the tactical and operational levels in Afghanistan and Iraq and deployed on several peacekeeping operations in the Balkans. She commanded the 259th Expeditionary Military Intelligence Brigade (Reserve). Before commanding a Brigade, she was a strategic war planner at CENTCOM and on the CENTOM Commander’s Action Group, advising the CENTCOM Commander. Between 2011 and 2021, she also served as chief executive officer of Rise Out in Support of Empowering Women (ROSE Women), LLC, a consulting firm whose mission includes empowering and enabling women in business and government internationally.
CTC: With the shift away from the traditional battlegrounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s been a popular refrain to label Africa as the new epicenter for global jihadi terrorism. Would you agree with that characterization? More broadly, how would you frame the current jihadi threat in Africa?
Keravuori: I would absolutely agree. For al-Qa`ida and ISIS, the most operationally active and financially lucrative affiliates are on the African continent. There are probably many reasons for this. Certainly the economic issues in some of these countries lend themselves to individuals being radicalized more easily, but also there are social as well as ethnic differences in [certain] countries that radicalize a sub-ethnic group, which allows, again, for their easier radicalization.
What we’re seeing on the African continent are IS and AQ affiliates metastasizing. In the west, ISIS-West Africa is a viable entity that has grown in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin. In Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, JNIM—an al-Qa`ida affiliate—is alive and well and has grown exponentially, so much so that the littoral countries of Ghana, Togo, and Benin view it as an existential threat. In the east, al-Shabaab continues to vie for space and competes with the Federal Government of Somalia to provide governance and be a viable alternative. Lastly, I would say ISIS-DRC and the ISIS cells that we see throughout several countries in central and southern Africa are looking to grow. These groups are alive and well.
CTC: Speaking of ISIS, as we’ve seen the number of affiliates expand over the last couple of years and spread geographically, a lot of these are based on historical, local groups with local objectives and grievances. How have you seen their transition to ISIS affiliates/provinces? Is there still a focus on that localized nature, or do they take on more of the regional or globalized outlook of ISIS writ large?
Keravuori: That’s an interesting question. I think the ISIS regional nodes and core have done a lot of marketing to build their franchise. And so what we’ve seen—whether it’s ISIS-Mozambique, ISIS-DRC, ISIS-Somalia—are locations that had their own problems and lent themselves, as I mentioned earlier, to radicalization of personnel that joined the group. But then the instruction, the money, the direction that they’re getting from the regional nodes means that they are moving towards the desires of ISIS Core. So we’re definitely seeing the hand of what I would call C2—command and control—of what these nodes are doing and really exploiting regional grievances by offering help. Unfortunately, they are having a lot of success with franchising.
CTC: There’s been some discussion and debate about the level of ISIS Core engagement with these localized franchises. It sounds like you’re characterizing it as a growing level of engagement. Would that be accurate? And do you think, from a command and control perspective, that ISIS will expand its level of control?
Keravuori: What I would say is, not necessarily ISIS Core but organizations that have engaged with ISIS Core since 2015, notably ISIS-West Africa and ISIS-Somalia, have taken on that role of really representing what ISIS Core needs and applying that to other networks in their respective regions. And then ensuring that each node has leadership, is well financed, has the direction of the Core. I think there was, at one point, a question in ISIS Core [about] the role of African leaders in the franchise, and what I think they’ve seen is the value of the African groups and then of the money that they’re able to raise. Whether through kidnap-for-ransom networks, or taxation and other means, they’re able to be financially stable, and we assume some of that money is getting back to Core. So they cannot be ignored. Though I would say ISIS Core probably originally wanted [them] to be more Arab-led, what you’re seeing in Africa are key nodes leading the expansion throughout Africa and then being that conduit for the C2 of what Core would like to do with the expansion in Africa.
CTC: How would you characterize the relationship between al-Qa`ida and ISIS on the continent today. Obviously, we’ve seen conflict between the two organizations globally. How is that playing out on the African continent? Is there more conflict in some places versus others? Do we see cooperation in certain locales?
Keravuori: It’s interesting, there is definitely conflict between the two. In the west right now [fall 2022], ISIS-Sahel and JNIM—the al-Qa`ida affiliate that is operating out of Mali and Burkina Faso and bits of Niger—are actively fighting. They [JNIM] have ongoing operations to limit ISIS-Sahel and the territory that it controls. And of course it goes back to where their financial base is. They are actively doing operations against each other in Mali. Of course, we’re happy about this, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will stem JNIM’s expansion.
In the east, ISIS-Somalia and al-Shabaab have clashed at certain points as al-Shabaab has tried to take on territorial control of more of Somalia going from the south to the central region. They both look to expand in the areas that they own, but the conflict isn’t as active as in West Africa because ISIS-Somalia and al-Shabaab generally do not operate in overlapping areas.
CTC: To dive deeper into some specific countries and regions, we saw [in late November 2022] al-Shabaab carry out yet another attack in Mogadishu, specifically a hotel.1 What has been the source of al-Shabaab’s resilience, and why have the Somali government, A.U. forces, and the U.S. not managed to significantly diminish that threat there?
Keravuori: First, let me make a comment about why you’re going to see more attacks and why you have seen more attacks recently. It’s because al-Shabaab feels backed into a corner. There is an offensive by the Federal Government of Somalia—with SNA troops and ATMIS [African Union Transition Mission in Somalia] troops in support—that is really pressuring al-Shabaab right now. Typically, you’ve seen the international support for offensives in the Lower Juba River Valley. What you’re seeing now is an offensive in the central region of Somalia, particularly the Hiraan region. And more importantly, a clan uprising that is organic to the area and which is actually trying to get rid of the al-Shabaab yoke in the Hiraan region. We haven’t seen something like this in the last decade in Somalia, and so because of these operations, you’re seeing al-Shabaab react and lash out.
When it comes to the success of al-Shabaab, the Federal Government of Somalia has not been able to successfully unite the federal states to provide essential services and governance, but al-Shabaab does. So it goes back to the basic needs of the people. And [al-Shabaab] has been able to sell that to certain regions; they’ve been able to talk to clan leaders; and they’ve been able to buy their way, or if not, kill their way, into what they want as a de facto government in Somalia. Al-Shabaab is now killing clan leaders that they had previous agreements with, because those clan leaders are part of the uprising. So what they can’t achieve by saying ‘we’re going to provide governance and a justice system,’ they’re going to do by singular attacks in order to force different areas to submit to their governance.
CTC: The United States has been engaged in Somalia for quite some time. We’ve had various ups and downs in terms of our level of engagement and the types of activities we’ve conducted. We’ve seen airstrikes and, recently, the redeployment of forces into Somalia under the current U.S. administration. How effective has this approach been? Are targeted strikes effective? Relatedly, how important is the on-the-ground presence of U.S. forces in Somalia in terms of maintaining pressure on the group?
Keravuori: [Regarding] airstrikes and ground presence, the effectiveness of those two [is] based on what else is happening. At this particular time, ground presence is effective because of the context: one, we have a confirmed ambassador who is helping direct U.S. policy. Two, the new president of Somalia happens to be someone who wasn’t in the diaspora but living in Somalia and he has the respect of the Somali people right now. Third, the president of Somalia has opened ties with the presidents of the Federal Member States. These elements all combine to make it an effective time for a persistent ground presence. But again, we have to remind everyone, we are not doing offensive actions. We’re there to advise and assist, whether it’s the Somali National Army or Special Forces troops that we have trained.
In terms of airstrikes, it depends. Certainly collective self-defense is what we are doing now. We need to differentiate that [from] offensive airstrikes. When the forces we support are being attacked, we will conduct airstrikes for collective self-defense. That is clearly there to support them, to show them we are here to support their operations. And that is absolutely necessary. The jury is out, I would say, on how effective offensive airstrikes would be. I think our main concern remains CIVCAS [civilian casualties]. You can’t just indiscriminately conduct offensive airstrikes. We need to make sure that the Somali population is protected, and that’s one of our highest concerns. In some of these locations, it’s just something you can’t necessarily achieve.
CTC: What is your assessment of the terrorism threat landscape in Mali? With the French having pulled out, what are the risks that the actors in Mali would be emboldened, gather in increasing formations, and grow as a threat?
Keravuori: Terrorist actors being emboldened is a huge concern. Despite Wagner CT operations with the FAMA [Malian Armed Forces] in Mali, we don’t necessarily see that it’s had a positive impact on limiting JNIM. We see JNIM’s expansion in Burkina Faso, and Burkina Faso [has been] struggling, unfortunately, to stem the growth over the [past] several years. We clearly see JNIM’s expansion into the littorals of Ivory Coast, Togo, and Benin, with increased attacks in Benin and Togo in particular. So we are very concerned about how much it has grown. [There has been a] lack of effectiveness in the localized African partner response and international response. Whether it’s MINUSMAa or ECOWAS,b I think we could come together and do more in terms of working with our African partners, through intel-sharing or helping drive effective operations that will allow them to strike JNIM. But again, this goes hand-in-hand with, why are people being radicalized? People are being radicalized because there is either a real or perceived lack of governance and a lack of essential services. Typically, who’s in the government isn’t necessarily the same ethnic background [as] those who are being radicalized. So the interests of those individuals who have been radicalized aren’t really represented in the government. It’s easy to see why individuals are being radicalized in the west of Africa. I think this is where we, the U.S. and the West, need to focus a bit more. Certainly Europe is concerned. The diaspora of these countries have ties back to West Africa. So I think what we’re seeing is France and Europe more concerned about the growing extremist threat in the west of Africa.
CTC: We also have an expansion of ISIS’ presence in the southerly direction: activity in DRC, in Mozambique, even down in South Africa. Can you offer some comments on that region and the growing threat that we see there?
Keravuori: ISIS-Mozambique has been interesting because it was so localized through the Cabo Delgado region, and we saw the Rwanda Defense Forces actually have effective CT operations against the group. Now we’ve got SAMIM [SADC Mission in Mozambique] in there and SADC [Southern African Development Community] forces supplying the holding forces, but unfortunately, holding and clearing are very different. Though the Rwandans have effectively cleared the militants from the Cabo Delgado region, it is difficult without essential services and governance and everything we just talked about to hold a region. What we’ve seen is ISIS go to other regions where SAMIM isn’t necessarily located and then come back. So the threat there is not completely gone.
ISIS-DRC is one to watch. I think it has also grown. They’re taking advantage of the situation that is now coming to a head between [rebel group] M23, Rwanda, and the DRC. So they are certainly taking advantage of the eyes being [on] the North Kivu region rather than the Ituri region where they’re operating. Again, it goes back to being able to raise money, and then operating the facilitation lines that we are seeing them help traffic money [and] people all the way down to South Africa. I think what ISIS is doing in this region is really focused on facilitation and growing nodes. Thankfully, for now, I would say they’re small. But it is definitely one to watch.
CTC: Pulling back a bit, one of the challenges that the U.S. has always had when it’s looked at the global jihadi threat is where to engage and where U.S. national security interests really, truly are at risk. Looking at the African continent, what are those U.S. strategic interests that require engagement and how is that decision made from an AFRICOM perspective of where to engage? And secondly, regarding the threat to the homeland, what do we see coming out of Africa?
Keravuori: Let me start with the second question first. We are not seeing a threat to the homeland yet. The al-Qa`ida and ISIS affiliates are focused on their regions, but it does not take long—as you can see from JNIM’s expansion in just several years—[to get to the point] where the African capitals may be at risk, maybe European capitals next, and where any group would like to do a sensational attack in the U.S. It is possible. Not likely, but again, they may get there. For now, we’re operating on no threat to the homeland.
[On U.S. strategic interests], what I would say is with the NSC’s [National Security Council’s] current focus on Africa and with the sub-Saharan and the Sahel strategies that have recently come out, the focus is really [on] developing better relationships with African partners. And that’s where we need to focus. When we talk about integrated deterrence and competition, meeting the African partner where they need to be met, which is their security concerns, means that we are being the best partner for them. I think the rhetoric on Western nations exploiting Africa—[given the] history of that—I think we need to be very careful because that’s not what we’re doing now nor what we want to do. Our national security interests should be tied to what our African partners need right now. And again, a lot of it comes to the security concerns and ensuring that their countries, their people are secure from extremist threats.
CTC: How does that tie into the renewed U.S. focus on strategic competition? Some of our competitors—Russia, China—are actively engaged in the continent. You talked about how we want to focus on our partners in the region, but to what extent is this part of our broader refocus on strategic competition?
Keravuori: I think strategic competition is alive and well in Africa. But here’s the thing, our African partners want options. And they are owed options. They, as sovereign nations, would like to partner with whoever provides them [with] what they need, whether it’s a port, a railroad, a hospital, funding, and if they’re not getting it from the IMF or World Bank, they will get it from somewhere else. Let’s take each on its own here: If we’re looking at Russia, really it’s Russia’s strategy of limited actions, which is primarily Kremlin-backed PMCs [private military companies]. And it’s the use of Wagner for Russian policy really without the check and balance that a government provides. What we’re seeing Wagner do is exploit, for profit of a company—gold, diamonds, and other minerals—for payment for questionable CT operations. But again, we very much know CT operations aren’t just about clearing, which is what Wagner does. It’s also about holding, and then it’s about providing the services which will stem the radicalization of individuals in that region: again, the special services, governance, justice. And that’s not what Wagner enables. Wagner has had success because they provide clearing forces, but also because they drive huge IO [information operations] campaigns that allow them to build support and profit from that.
In terms of China, 53 African countries are One Belt, One Road2 signatories. So, they view China as a viable partner who provides economic resources, commerce, ports, and things that they need. So when we talk competition, we need to be very aware that China is a strong partner to many African nations. If we want to compete, we need to help African countries where they’re looking to be helped. There’s a youth bulge, there are climate issues, there are security issues as we’ve mentioned. There are visions for more African nations to be spacefaring nations. Those are the topics that I think we need to engage Africa on in order to be able to compete with China, because that’s where China has already taken it over the last 20 years and developed those relationships.
I want to reiterate that African partners want to be seen as sovereign nations with their own choice and that they could choose all partners. We have to respect that.
CTC: So as we are building and reinforcing those relationships, getting back to the CT context, obviously security force assistance is one of the key tools. How do you see the future of that playing out? Is that our ‘best’ tool to help empower African countries to combat these threats? Where does it fit in?
Keravuori: The Western footprint should be limited. I think it needs to be focused on building partner capacity, whether it’s equipment that African nations need, whether it’s training … and as an intel professional, there is something to be said about an MI [military intelligence] core that takes intel, knows how to PED [Processing, Exploitation, and Dissemination] it, knows how to operationalize that intel for military operations, and I think that’s where we need to be focused. How can we help train and build their own capacity? Because if I look at West Africa in particular, the West African nations want their own solutions to the JNIM expansion, not a Western solution. And that’s what it should be. I think that’s what the French were having issues with. I think they weren’t necessarily listening to African partners or putting African partners first and foremost, and that’s what we need to do. I think AFRICOM’s approach is very much not ‘boots on the ground,’ but how do we enable African partners, specifically the littorals and Burkina Faso at this point, to clear and to then hold terrain. Not only are we trying to do better intel-sharing and develop our partners’ capabilities, but USAID has gone in with, specific to the Gulf of Guinea countries, more development aid money [to] really give them what they need so those radicalized populations feel governed, feel like they’re getting the services they need. That’s really what’s going to stop the deteriorating security issue in the west of Africa.
CTC: I’m glad you mentioned USAID because I was going to ask about that—more broadly, USAID, State Department, and the broader diplomatic efforts. In other places, sometimes we’ve seen challenges where we had disjointed efforts. From an AFRICOM perspective, when you look at your strategy in the region, how coordinated is it with State, with USAID, etc.? Because, as you said, the role of development is critical in terms of challenging some of these radicalization drivers. So how do we make these things work together?
Keravuori: One thing I was surprised about when I first got to AFRICOM about a year and a half ago was the 3D [diplomacy, development, and defense] approach, more so than I’ve seen at other combatant commands. We do have a USAID senior rep that sits at AFRICOM headquarters, plus other USAID reps integrated within the staff. And the same with diplomatic reps. We have an ambassador who is the Deputy to the Commander for Civil-Military Engagement at AFRICOM, one of two deputy commanders. He really lends [his] State Department [experience] and policy guidance as we look at strategies, plans, and our Africa campaign plan. I haven’t seen this approach in other combatant commands. I think it’s an essential approach.
As we’re looking at West Africa, we have stood up a combined joint interagency coordinating group, which is exactly that: How do we use our convening power to really synchronize the 3Ds? Because that is what’s going to win and really fix the security issue in the west of Africa. So it’s not just about the military operations, but it’s about how do we time it and sequence it with the aid development and of course our diplomatic efforts and our allies and partners in the region so that we can actually achieve an effect. So, I would say AFRICOM approaches regional problems through the 3D lens, and that’s the first step.
CTC: You mentioned climate and environmental issues earlier. How do you think climate change might impact extremism in Africa? Obviously, it’s a very large continent with different challenges in different places. But are there certain theaters where you think climate change could be a greater concern than others, and what can the U.S. military and its partners do to counter those effects in the near and medium term?
Keravuori: First, I absolutely see climate change exacerbating the problems with VEOs. And AFRICOM needs to lead discussions, whether it’s at CHOD [Chiefs of Defense] conferences or with our partners, to continue to put climate challenges upfront, because it’s going to take the problems we see now and exacerbate the underlying issues of why these problems are happening and why certain individuals are becoming radicalized. If you take the Lake Chad Basin as an example, where you have ISIS-West Africa and Boko Haram operating, Lake Chad is decreasing in size, while flooding of the rivers is happening in Chad. When villages are inundated, villagers want government essential services that will help cover their livelihood. It’s an issue when the government can’t even go into the region because ISIS-West Africa holds this terrain.
When you look at the Sahel, the farmer-herder conflict has been around for decades. As climate change affects the amount of arable land, you see farmers trying to increase the areas where they can farm, and it abuts against the Fulani herdsmen grazing territory. So what you’re seeing, again, are localized conflicts being aggravated by climate. Those are just two examples throughout a continent of many examples of either deforestation, bad practices in mineral extraction, flooding, or desertification that exacerbate the problems that the governments don’t necessarily have the capacity to deal with.
CTC: One final threat question: We do a lot of work here looking at innovation in terrorist networks and their use of technology. How concerned are you about the transnational reach and evolving technological capabilities of terrorist actors and networks based in Africa? Are there specific areas or specific networks where your concern is the greatest in terms of their adoption and adaptation of technology?
Keravuori: When you look at the money streams that come from some of these groups, they’re able to buy new technologies. They’re able to buy even the manpower that knows how [to use this technology]—scientists, for example—or train those in order to be future innovators and developers. So they are absolutely innovating and developing. I think UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] are a huge concern simply because we have seen their ubiquitous use. We are also concerned about the potential to arm UAS. I think what would be interesting is to see how they’re innovating their messaging. So not just hardware, which we talked about, which we know is coming, [but] how they innovate in other spheres like social media, their messaging campaigns to be able to recruit better, how they innovate in what we call the DOTMLPF. How do they innovate their training, their funding lines, their recruiting lines, their messaging? They have really slick media campaigns, so it really comes down to that. How are they evolving that [aspect] to meet the youth bulge that many African countries are having? They’re innovating at a quicker pace than some of the governments in order to recruit from the youth bulge, youth looking simply to have jobs. So they’re meeting that demand and meeting that need. I think it’s something that we need to be on the lookout for.
CTC: The messaging and recruitment piece is really interesting. How well do you think we—both our partners in the region and the U.S.—are doing in terms of counter-messaging? What do we need to be doing better in the information operations domain to combat these efforts?
Keravuori: We could be more effective. When I look at Wagner, they have a pretty successful IO campaign. [And] it ties in to the VEO security issue because they have been able to get Western nations essentially disliked by local populations. Again, these are Western countries that have deployed soldiers to MINUSMA in Mali, for example, to U.N. missions for the greater good of the country, but now the country thinks that they are arming the jihadists, which is unfathomable to think but that’s how successful these IO campaigns have been. We need to better counter those messages.
CTC: What is the most common misconception about counterterrorism in Africa? What should the general public know about the importance of CT efforts on the continent?
Keravuori: I think we need to look at terrorism through each country’s lens and the historical reasons for why, whether it’s ISIS or al-Qa`ida affiliates, [these VEOs] have gotten a hold in some countries. I think we need to take a different tack than what we did in Syria or Iraq and just say, ‘OK, how do we now help this knowing that we should not be taking the lead?’ It’s hard. You’re looking at a problem that you want to quickly ‘solutionize,’ which is what we do in the military, and say, ‘OK, it is much more nuanced than we know, and it’s a solution that will take years for the government to build, but it needs to start at some point.’ I think that’s what we need to think about: How do we help that government start the solution now? And where do we need to best invest and what are we seeing? How do we help them see something differently? So it’s that nuanced approach. In the west, Mali and Burkina Faso are going to have very different approaches. Same with the littorals. Same with the east: Kenya and Somalia will approach the issues with al-Shabaab differently. So our approach needs to be localized, and it needs to be nuanced, and it needs to come in, as I mentioned, with the 3D approach of defense, diplomacy, and development simultaneously. Otherwise, we’re never going to really win in improving the security situation here.
CTC: What does success look like? In other geographic regions, we’ve struggled with this. We’re not going to fix every problem in Africa, just like we couldn’t in other regions where we’ve combated these threats. So what does success from a CT perspective look like?
Keravuori: I would say, success would be where governments are able to go into territories they are not able to even walk in now and are able to provide governance and essential services. So if we could help limit the threats—I wouldn’t say even eliminate—but if we could limit the threat so much so that the people have a choice and don’t necessarily have to go with the governance imposed upon them by some of the VEOs, then that is a step in the right direction and that could be considered success. CTC
[a] Editor’s Note: United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali
[b] Editor’s Note: Economic Community of West African States