Mali coup leader was trained by US military, officials say

Coup came after months of protests which brought tens of thousands into streets

Danielle Paquette
Friday 21 August 2020 17:15 BST
Colonel Assimi Goita speaks to the press at the Malian Ministry of Defence in Bamako, Mali, on Wednesday
Colonel Assimi Goita speaks to the press at the Malian Ministry of Defence in Bamako, Mali, on Wednesday (AFP via Getty Images)

The military officer who declared himself in charge of Mali after leading a coup that ousted the West African nation’s president this week received training from the United States, according to military officers from both countries.

Colonel Assimi Goita, who emerged on Thursday as the head of the junta in power, worked for years with US Special Operations forces focused on fighting extremism in West Africa. He spoke regularly with US troops and attended US-led training exercises, said the officers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the matter publicly.

Mr Goita, who also received training from Germany and France, headed Mali’s special forces unit in the country’s restive central region, where fighters linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State have established a stronghold that has alarmed global leaders.

“By making this intervention, we have put Mali first,” Mr Goita said in a broadcast on Thursday alongside top government officials. “Mali is in a sociopolitical and security crisis. There is no more room for mistakes.”

The US Africa Command and the Defence Department did not immediately respond to questions about the nature of Mr Goita’s training and relationship with US troops.

“The United States strongly condemns the ongoing mutiny and any attempts at a military seizure of power,” Pentagon spokeswoman Nicole Kirschmann said in a statement.

It is not unusual for senior officers in the Malian military – a force of roughly 12,000 meant to protect a population of about 20 million – to receive training from the US and other foreign allies.

“Malian officers are usually involved in several foreign trainings – meaning they may leave for Russia, go to France and then end up part of Flintlock,” a US training exercise in West Africa, said Marc-André Boisvert, a former UN expert who has spent years researching Mali’s military.

Helping the nation’s troops fight rapidly spreading extremism is critical for regional stability, US military officials said. Al-Qaida and Islamic State loyalists have cooperated in West Africa in pushes to dominate the countryside in Mali, a country nearly twice the size of Texas.

“What we’ve seen is not just random acts of violence under a terrorist banner but a deliberate campaign that is trying to bring these various groups under a common cause,” brigadier general Dagvin Anderson, head of the US military’s Special Operations arm in Africa, told the Post in February. “That larger effort then poses a threat to the United States.”

The coup came after months of protests in the capital, Bamako, which brought tens of thousands of Malians into the streets to demand the resignation of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta.

Video showed people cheering as mutinous soldiers stormed Bamako on Tuesday and took Keïta, along with several of his top officers, into their custody.

The African Union, the United Nations, France and the United States swiftly condemned the rebellion, urging the coup leaders to release Keïta, whose term was due to end in 2023.

“A politically stable Mali is paramount and crucial to the stability of the sub-region,” Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari tweeted on Thursday.

The protesters, led by an influential imam, Mahmoud Dicko, accused the 75-year-old Keïta of corruption, mismanaging the crumbling economy and allowing extremists to spread in the countryside. The embattled leader resigned on state television Wednesday, saying he wanted to avoid more bloodshed.

Mali’s new rulers, who call themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, said they aim to build a civilian-led transition government and hold a new election.

Mr Goita, the junta’s leader, is a commander of the country’s Autonomous Special Forces Battalion, which is one of the first lines of defence against the extremists.

He had expressed frustration to colleagues about the rising violence in Mali, according to a former US military officer who worked closely with him, sending out videos of torched villages on WhatsApp.

Mr Goita, who is in his early 40s, spent most of his military career in the areas rife with extremists – the northern deserts and the central garrison towns. His spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The number of deaths from terrorism in the country, as well as in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, have skyrocketed in recent years, according to the United Nations, surpassing 4,000 in 2019.

Hundreds of Malian soldiers have died in the fight. They have also faced accusations of killing innocent villagers on the search for extremists, according to Human Rights Watch.

The leader of Mali’s last coup in 2012 – captain Amadou Haya Sanogo – also received military guidance from the US, including professional military education and basic officer training.

“The actions of the mutineers run contrary to everything that is taught in US military schools, where students are exposed to American concepts of the role of a military in a free society,” Hilary F Renner, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, said at the time.

The Washington Post

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