SOFAC, Guns, and Money

🎵 Mamady was a warrior from the land of the midnight sun 🎵

First of all, the reviews are in! Thank you so much to everyone who filled out last week’s survey. Clearly (and perhaps unsurprisingly), satellite stories are the most popular, with honorable mentions to longform, technical, and environmental pieces. I’ll do my best to focus on these areas going forward (although there will be times I just can’t pass up a juicy, weird, but potentially less popular lead…much like today’s post).

If you haven’t filled out the survey yet and would like to do so, please feel free. I’ll keep periodically checking it over the next week or two. Anyway, on to the main event.

I’m a huge Warren Zevon fan. Always have been, probably always will be. If you know his hits, like Lawyers, Guns, and Money or Werewolves of London, you likely already know he’s a pretty strange guy. His tunes tell the stories of coups, Cold War derring-dos, gunfights, creeps, weirdos, and lots and lots of US meddling overseas1.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized his music lines up pretty darn well with what this blog is about. But more topically, his music lines up pretty darn well with a recent news story from West Africa: the coup in Guinea on September 5.

The coup has all the hallmarks of a Zevon song. A handsome, charismatic special forces colonel and his unit left their base in the hinterlands, drove to the capital, shot the presidential guards, sacked the palace, and arrested members of the old government. And, in final Zevon-ian twist, at least some of the mutineers were trained by US special forces.

The New York Times has an excellent article explaining some details of the training that US Green Berets delivered to the Guinean special forces/future coup plotters. But I wanted to know more. Fortunately, the good folks at Security Force Monitor and Security Assistance Monitor created a tool for precisely this purpose. They built a searchable database of all US State Department-approved training programs conducted by the US military worldwide, accessible through a SQL-like interface or dropdown queries. Would the training in Guinea appear in the database?

Since the Times article mentions the training took place at a base in Forecariah, Guinea, I simply searched the database for any courses where the training location included “Forecariah”. Lo and behold, the US military offered two courses in 2019 to Guinean special forces that seem awfully similar to the details in the Times article about the course taken by the putschists.

Could these be the courses offered by the Green Berets? As it turns out, they’re virtually a perfect match. The biggest caveat is that the State Department hasn’t released the 2021 data yet, and these courses took place in 2019, so we’ll have to wait for up-to-date data to confirm the match.

That said, everything else matches up perfectly. In addition to the Forecariah detail, the Times said the course included “about 100 soldiers” - the database shows that exactly 101 soldiers were trained in each course. The Times said the Green Berets had been in Guinea since mid-July - the database shows one of the courses began on July 29 and ran until September 15. The Times said the soldiers belonged to a “special forces unit led by Colonel Doumbouya” - the database shows the unit that received the training was the “GFS”, which is an acronym for the Groupement Des Forces Spéciales, led by none other than…Colonel Mamady Doumbouya.

Colonel Doumbouya meeting with US embassy and military representatives before leaving on a US-chartered flight for a 2020 training exercise in Mauritania. Credit: US Embassy Conakry.

However, there are a couple fascinating details in the database that aren’t included in the Times article. First, the cost of the training courses. The first course, offered from early June to mid-July 2019, cost exactly $1,119,282. The second course, from late July to mid-September 2019, came out to $1,712,455, meaning the US government likely spent well over $3 million (including the cost of this year’s course/s) training the future coup plotters.

Next, the training authority. The database shows the training was authorized under what’s known as Section 333. This authorization refers to any training delivered by the US military to “Partner Nations” to conduct one or more of seven activities, including counterterrorism, border security, military intelligence, etc. Manifestly not included in that list is how to launch a coup. Oops!

Finally, the US unit. The database shows that the US trainers belonged to “SOCAF - 808”. There’s painfully little clear information about what this unit could be, but there’s enough to make some educated guesses. SOCAF refers to US Special Operations Command Africa. A Sofrep article mentions that the men came from the 3rd Special Forces Group (which makes sense, since that unit is responsible for operations in Africa).

The Times article says that about 12 US Army Special Forces soldiers were in Forecariah at the time of the coup. Conveniently, that’s the exact size of a Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (SFODA) unit. Unfortunately, “808” probably doesn’t refer to an operational detachment because it doesn’t conform to SFODA numerical naming standards, which are all four digits long and usually begin with a 1, 2, 3, or 4. But my guess is that the trainers were part of a 3rd Special Forces Group operational detachment sent to Guinea for the training.

The last thing to note is that Stars and Stripes reported the training was a Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET). JCETs are small training courses offered to allied countries by small groups of US service members. However, nothing I’ve read precludes a training course from being both a JCET and included on the State Department list of approved military training programs2.

One open question is why the training, held in 2019 and 2021, was skipped in 2020. Was it because of Covid and risk aversion to sending soldiers overseas for training? Were there budget cuts that impacted funding allocated for this training? Or, in a more banal option, are these courses just scheduled every other year?

The final (and juiciest) question is what exactly the training entailed. The database shows the course was simply entitled “Special Operations Training”, although there’s virtually no information as to what that actually means. If you have any guesses or evidence, please reach out!

While Zevon himself is no longer alive, the training database and other open source information at least allow us to fill in some of the blanks around Guinea’s incredibly Zevon-ian coup, its plotters, and the Americans who trained them.

1

Plus, my car just broke down, so Zevon’s “Studebaker” is hitting just a little too close to home now.

2

Although if you have information to the contrary, feel free to correct me!