It’s not all as secret as you might think
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Since Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. presidential election, there has been much discussion about the various secretive conflicts and security programs the president-elect will eventually oversee. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, War Is Boring has a small snapshot of some of the Pentagon’s shadowy wars around the world.
It’s not all as secret as you might think.
In September 2014, War Is Boring submitted a FOIA request for a list of all named operations U.S. Special Operations Command was overseeing at the time. In February 2016, the Pentagon’s top commando headquarters turned over the official nicknames of 14 specific missions around the world.
“Subject matter experts conducted multiple searches,” Special Operations Command’s FOIA chief Keith Komosinski wrote in the final release letter. “It was determined that the following list of all named operations … is responsive to your request.”
Instead of the requested time frame, the command bumped up the “as of” date to Feb. 11, 2015. We have no way of determining if the list was complete for that particular moment in time.
Our request did not ask for anything beyond the monikers. We did not receive descriptions of the operations’ goals or any other narrative information.
Still, the collection of names provided an important look into largely unpublicized missions. While some were definitely secret, we found that information was readily available on half of the operations — many of which had simply slipped from the public eye.
First, it’s immediately obvious that American commandos were heavily focused on Africa in 2015. Some of the names linked to efforts stretching from Libya to Mali to Uganda.
As was widely known, elite troops were hunting terrorists and aiding local troops throughout North and West Africa. After the deadly attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya in September 2012, the Pentagon rushed both regular forces and commandos to the area as part of Operation Jukebox Lotus.
“The availability of Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy, and Naval Support Activity Souda Bay, Greece, enabled U.S. forces to be rapidly postured, employed, and sustained … over the course of the crisis response, designated Operation Jukebox Lotus,” U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, the Pentagon’s top officer in Europe, told members of Congress in 2013. “Operations could not have occurred without these bases and the direct support they provided.”
Ostensibly, the Pentagon’s job was to provide increased security for American diplomats and other personnel. The mission persisted for at least another two and a half years.
Farther south, in Mali, American commandos were apparently still coordinating a variety of support to French and other regional forces. Dubbed Juniper Micron, this operation centered on aiding United Nations-sponsored troops fighting a complex insurgency in the country’s restive north.
According to one unclassified U.S. Army document, the operation included sending aerial tankers to refuel warplanes attacking the militants, flying troops and gear to and from bases in the region and supplying intelligence information to friendly forces. After kicking off the mission to great fanfare in January 2013, the Pentagon steadily slowed the flow of information.
“We’re hoping to continue to see, obviously, the French success there and hopefully our mission will continue to slow down,” U.S. Air Force Maj. Nicholas Schindler, head of the 351st Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, told Stars and Stripes in January 2014. At that time, French troops were looking to withdraw from Mali.
“We will just have to see what the requirements looks like when the withdrawal happens,” Pentagon spokesman Maj. Robert Firman added at the time. U.S. officials insisted the mission would not “go on indefinitely.”
Moving on, in Nigeria, special operators were training local troops to fight the the terrorist group Boko Haram. In April 2014, the group had caused an international outrage when its fighters kidnapped more than 275 schoolgirls in the town of Chibok.
As the fighting grew, the violence spilled over into Cameroon. With commandos in the lead, the Pentagon reportedly named at least some portion of this advisory and assistance mission Operation Juniper Nimbus.
After apparent disputes over human rights issues, authorities in Abuja abruptly canned a series of practice sessions in December 2014. It appeared the larger operation might have come to a halt.
“We did not receive any specific reason as to why they wanted to cancel the training,” U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Cantwell, the acting defense attache in the Nigeria, explained to Voice of America. “But their notification was in response to a request that we had sent to them requesting their intention regarding moving forward with the third phase of training.”
As it turned out, the disagreement did not stop drones from looking for Boko Haram fighters from neighboring Chad and Cameroon. In February 2016, The Intercept found American troops still very active at Garoua International Airport in Cameroon.
Further east, the Pentagon’s elite forces to help hunt down Joseph Kony and the remnants of his Lord’s Resistance Army guerrilla group. In 2011, Pres. Barack Obama publicly announced the plan, which eventually became known as Operation Observant Compass.
Two years earlier, Obama had signed a bill increasing American commitments to stopping the group from terrorizing the region. From humble origins in the late 1980s, Kony’s band had become particularly well known for kidnapping children and forcing them to become soldiers and sex slaves.
From a base in Uganda, American troops and aviators plus contractors schlepped members of an African Union task force across the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan looking for Kony. In addition, as in Mali and Nigeria, the Pentagon’s task force shared important intelligence information and provided other support.
“We are at a point in time where we need to transition that mission,” U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the Pentagon’s top officer overseeing operations in Africa, told Stars and Stripes in November 2016. “The number of fighters in that whole [LRA] organization has gone way, way down to the point where it is almost [at] insignificant levels.”
But there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight just yet. The same can be said of the Pentagon’s formerly-named Global War on Terror — which it now officially refers to as Overseas Contingency Operations.
Starting some time in 2011, officials in Washington began quietly re-branding these operations, once covered under the broad moniker of Operation Enduring Freedom. The FOIA release from Special Operations Command listed the new names for the East and West African components, Operations Octave Shield and Juniper Shield respectively.
If you hadn’t noticed, “Juniper” appears to be the Pentagon’s common word for missions across West Africa.
The last of the readily identifiable operations on the list was Operation Objective Voice. This unique effort is a “white” propaganda mission.
This means the information is factually correct, but officials have specifically designed it to reinforce a particularly message — namely that locals should shun terrorist organizations. While every one of the Pentagon’s regional headquarters runs one of these “voice” operations, this one is focused on winning the proverbial “hearts and minds” of average people across Africa.
The operation “is closely coordinated with U.S. embassies, [Department of State] and [the U.S. Agency for International Development] and employs a variety of messaging platforms, such as the African Web Initiative, to challenge the views of terrorist groups and provide a forum for the expression of alternative points of view,” U.S. Army Gen. William Ward, then in charge of U.S. Africa Command, told American legislators in March 2010.
Until sometime in February 2015, psychological warfare troops from Special Operations Command helped run at least two news websites aimed at African audiences, Magharebia and Sabahi. The sites published Pentagon-approved articles that local reporters wrote in various languages, including English.
On top of that, the mission included picking apart social media profiles and posts and surveying locals to help improve the quality of the propaganda. At least as of February 2015, the specialized troops were still pushing the U.S.-government sponsored messages.
We could not identify the remaining seven operations on Special Operations Command’s list. However, those missions fall into two distinct categories.
Four of them begin with the word “Obsidian.” The other three end with “Hunter.”
The only official mention of any of the Obsidian missions is the title of an internal message the Pentagon released as part of a larger FOIA request. The still secret 2013 document is called “Use of Section 1208 Authority in Support of Operation Obsidian Mosaic.”
Section 1208 refers to a portion of the annual defense budget that covers funds for global counter-terrorism missions. It is likely that all of the Obsidian operations fall into this broad category.
It is easier to find references to Hunter efforts, but there are no obvious clues as to their actual purposes. War Is Boring obtained information about another similarly named mission from U.S. Central Command.
In total, Google searches turned up at least five Hunter operations. One began with the word “Yukon,” an apparent reference to terrorist-hunting missions in Yemen.
Of course, it’s still important to remember that this list — complete or not — represented active missions right at that one particular moment. The situation probably looks quite different right now.
In August 2016, War Is Boring requested an updated list from Special Operations Command. Maybe in another year and a half, we’ll have another brief window into where America’s elite troops are working around the world.