DAKAR, Senegal — 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, the Pentagon said Friday.
Col. Assimi Goita, who emerged Thursday as the head of the junta in power, worked for years with U.S. Special Operations forces focused on fighting extremism in West Africa. He spoke regularly with U.S. troops and attended U.S.-led training exercises, said officers from both countries, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Goita, who also received training from Germany and France, according to the officers, headed Mali’s special forces unit in the country’s restive central region, where fighters linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have established a stronghold that has alarmed global leaders.
“By making this intervention, we have put Mali first,” Goita said in a broadcast Thursday alongside top government officials. “Mali is in a sociopolitical and security crisis. There is no more room for mistakes.”
Goita participated in U.S. Africa Command training exercises in West Africa known as Flintlock and attended a Joint Special Operations University bilateral seminar at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, according to the Defense Department.
“The act of mutiny in Mali is strongly condemned and inconsistent with U.S. military training and education,” said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Anton T. Semelroth, a Pentagon spokesman.
The Malian military will receive no more support from the United States until further review, he added.
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 United States 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,” the U.S. training exercises, said Marc-André Boisvert, a former U.N. expert who has spent years researching Mali’s military.
Helping the nation’s troops fight rapidly spreading extremism is critical for regional stability, U.S. military officials said. Al-Qaeda 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,” Brig. Gen. Dagvin Anderson, head of the U.S. military’s Special Operations arm in Africa, told The Washington 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 President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta.
Video showed people cheering as mutinous soldiers stormed Bamako on Tuesday and took the 75-year-old Keïta, along with several of his top officers, into their custody.
The African Union, the United Nations and France swiftly lambasted 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 subregion,” Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari tweeted Thursday.
The protesters, led by an influential imam, Mahmoud Dicko, accused 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.
Goita, the junta’s leader, is a commander of the country’s Autonomous Special Forces Battalion, which is one of the first lines of defense against the extremists.
He had expressed frustration to colleagues about the rising violence in Mali, according to a former U.S. military officer who worked closely with him, sending out videos of torched villages on WhatsApp.
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 neighboring 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 in the search for extremists, according to Human Rights Watch.
The leader of Mali’s last coup in 2012 — Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo — also received military guidance from the United States, including professional military education and basic officer training.
Several soldiers involved in the current uprising are likely to have received training from the United States, said Peter Pham, the U.S. special envoy to Africa’s Sahel region.
“This is not surprising to anyone since we have had a long-standing partnership with Mali going back decades with their armed forces,” he said of the training history.
The United States has opened an investigation into the matter, Pham said, adding that until the review concludes, “let me categorically say there is no further training or support for the Malian armed forces — full stop.”