Under the terms of the United States Constitution, congress is the only branch of government with the power to declare war – a power it has not exercised since 1941, the year the United States entered World War II. Still, the U.S. has engaged directly in large-scale military conflicts around the globe in the decades since.
Without congressional approval, American military action in the 21st century and second half of the 20th century has been authorized by executive branch under a range of often-dubious legal justifications.
President Harry Truman, for example, committed American troops to Korea in the 1950s, at the request of the U.N. Security Council. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson sent troops into Vietnam following the passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which greatly expanded presidential authority in military matters. In the 1980s, President George H.W. Bush invaded Panama, citing America’s right to self-defense under a provision of the U.N. charter
In the years since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, more checks and balances on military deployment have been stripped away. In the ongoing War on Terror, Congress has authorized the Department of Defense to train and equip military forces anywhere in the world and to provide backing to foreign forces supporting counterterrorism operations. Under these provisions, known as Section 333 and Section 127e, the U.S. military is involved in over a dozen shadow wars around the world.
Unlike the Korean War or the Vietnam War, which pitted the U.S. against nations with clearly defined borders, America’s military campaigns of today are generally small-scale operations that target diffuse militant groups that operate across broad regions.
Using data from the 2022 Brennan Center for Justice report, “Secret War: How the U.S. Uses Partnerships and Proxy Forces to Wage War Under the Radar,” 24/7 Wall St. identified the 15 countries where the U.S. government is engaging in secret wars. Each of the countries on this list is verified to have active programs covered under Section 333 and Section 127e.
It is important to note that this list of countries is not necessarily exhaustive and is instead based on publicly available information. Many of these countries, located exclusively in the Middle East and Africa, are home to branches of terrorist groups like al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State.
The degree to which the U.S. is involved in these countries varies. In some, such as Iraq, thousands of American troops are deployed. In others, such as Yemen and Libya, American military intervention is limited to airstrikes or supplying partner nations with weapons to use in combat. (These are the most expensive drones used by the U.S. military.)
Since these clandestine military operations have become public, they have drawn public criticism. In addition to a lack of transparency, there have been reported instances in which American-backed forces have been accused of egregious human rights abuses, including torture and summary executions. And though American service men and women are in many of these countries to ostensibly support and train local fighters, U.S. troops have, at times, directly engaged in combat, sometimes incurring casualties. (Here is a look at the countries where the most U.S. troops are stationed.)
> Recent & ongoing U.S. military operations & conflicts: War on Terror
> Known terrorist organizations in country: Multiple, including ISIS and al-Qaeda
Over a year has passed since the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan, ending the longest war in American history. Still, the CIA continues to operate in the Taliban-controlled country out of bases in Pakistan.
This past summer, President Joe Biden announced that a U.S. drone strike in Kabul killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaeda and a perpetrator of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. U.S. intelligence shows the Taliban knowingly harbored al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan.
> Recent & ongoing U.S. military operations & conflicts: Juniper Shield, Nimble Shield, Objective Voice
> Known terrorist organization in country: Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa
American special forces are conducting multiple clandestine operations in the Central African nation of Cameroon in the ongoing War on Terror. U.S. military activity in Cameroon falls under the umbrellas of Operation Juniper Shield, which spans 11 African nations, including Cameroon, and the lower profile Operation Nimble Shield. Both are counterterrorism campaigns targeting groups like ISIS-West Africa and Boko Haram. The U.S. is also reportedly conducting an information campaign out of a base in Cameroon.
Anti-terrorism efforts in Cameroon were escalated in 2015, when the Obama administration deployed 300 troops in the country, more than tripling the number of American personnel already there – though those troops were later withdrawn under the Trump administration.
Though U.S. special forces in the country are employing the use of local military units as proxies, in 2017, American troops stationed 300 meters behind allied forces fired on enemy combatants, killing one.
More recently, the Pentagon cut military funding to partner forces in Cameroon in light of human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial executions of women and children. Additionally, a 2020 report from the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General identified $77.5 million of potential wasteful U.S. spending in Cameroon due to mismanagement and lack of oversight.
> Recent & ongoing U.S. military operations & conflicts: Enigma Hunter
> Known terrorist organization in country: Army of Islam, ISIS, and al-Qaeda
The United States has long had a military presence in Egypt, leading the Multinational Force & Observers peacekeeping group on the Sinai Peninsula, tasked with ensuring compliance of the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace for the last four decades. Egypt has also relied on billions of dollars in American military aid for decades.
Less publicized, however, are U.S. special forces operations in Egypt to disrupt and downgrade terrorist threats. Partnering with the Egyptian military in an operation code-named Enigma Hunter, American forces are deeply involved in targeting ISIS militants in the region. However, it is important to note that unlike clandestine operations in many other African countries, U.S. troops do not typically engage directly in combat in Egypt.
American special operations in Egypt are the subject of criticism, both due to the lack of congressional oversight and alleged human rights abuses carried out by the Egyptian military, including torture and extrajudicial killings.
> Recent & ongoing U.S. military operations & conflicts: Inherent Resolve
> Known terrorist organization in country: Multiple, including Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, ISIS, and Hezbollah
Though the Iraq War ended over a decade ago, the subsequent rise of the Islamic State militant group in the region resulted in the return of American military personnel to the country in 2014. Though ISIS has been decimated in Iraq, the U.S. has maintained a small military presence in the country since 2017 to train, advise, and support local forces in counterterrorism operations. By some estimates published in mid-2022, more than 2,500 American troops remain in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government to help prevent an ISIS resurgence.
In recent years, U.S. forces in Iraq have been the target of attacks from Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups in the form of suicide drones, rockets, and roadside bombs. As of mid-2022, the White House has confirmed four retaliatory airstrikes, one under President Joe Biden and three under President Donald Trump.
American military presence in Iraq will likely continue for the foreseeable future on a limited basis. Public acknowledgement, however, has been limited, likely due to political sensitivities.
> Recent & ongoing U.S. military operations & conflicts: Jupiter Garret, Justified Seamount, Kodiak Hunter, Oblique Pillar
> Known terrorist organization in country: Al-Shabaab and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
Camp Simba in Manda Bay, Kenya, is home to a U.S. special forces military contingent known as the Task Force Red Dragon. The task force’s mission in the country is to partner with Kenyan forces to suppress the threat from the al-Shabaab terrorist group. Through multiple additional operations in the country, including Jupiter Garret, Justified Seamount, Kodiak Hunter, and Oblique Pillar, American troops are coordinating with Kenyan forces to combat piracy and conduct counterterrorism missions in neighboring Somalia.
Al-Shabaab, an insurgent group seeking to establish an Islamic state in Somalia, has destabilized the Horn of Africa since its formation in the early 2000s. The group was responsible for a 2015 bombing at a university in Kenya that left over 148 dead and a 2017 bombing in the Somali capital Mogadishu that left an estimated 600 dead. More recently, in 2020, al-Shabaab carried out an attack on an airfield at Camp Simba that left an Army Specialist and two civilian contractors dead.
> Recent & ongoing U.S. military operations & conflicts: Lion Hunter
> Known terrorist organization in country: Multiple, including Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
The Lebanese military – specifically the elite G2 Strike Force unit – has been a key U.S. partner in targeting terrorist leaders affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIS inside of Lebanon. In an operation code-named Lion Hunter, American special forces coordinate with the Lebanese GSSF in counterterrorism operations.
The U.S. is also funding the Lebanese Armed Forces to maintain stability in the country. In fiscal 2021, the State Department and Department of Defense provided over $230 million in military grant assistance to the country. The Pentagon has also sold Lebanon nearly $2 billion worth of military equipment, including Hellfire surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank missiles, Huey helicopters, and Humvees.
> Recent & ongoing U.S. military operations & conflicts: Jukebox Lotus, Junction Serpent, New Normal, Obsidian Lotus, Odyssey Lightning, Odyssey Resolve,
> Known terrorist organization in country: ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb
Since the killing of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has been a country in chaos – and a focal point of special U.S. military operations. Operation Jukebox Lotus was launched following the attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi in September 2012 that left a U.S. Ambassador and three other Americans dead. The mission, which included U.S. commandos and regular forces, was to provide increased security for American diplomats. Similarly, Operation New Normal was a continent-wide crisis response capability mission in the wake of the embassy attack.
The U.S. has also been involved in several counterterrorism campaigns in Libya, including operations Odyssey Lightning and Odyssey Resolve that consisted of airstrikes against Islamic State group targets within the country.
Perhaps most controversially, American commandos armed and trained Libyan special forces under Operation Lotus. Ultimately, one of the units they equipped ended up serving under the command of warlord Khalifa Haftar, who waged a civil war against Libya’s internationally recognized government from 2014 to 2020.
> Recent & ongoing U.S. military operations & conflicts: Juniper Shield, Exercise Flintlock, Obsidian Mosaic, Odyssey Resolve, Juniper Micron, Objective Voice
> Known terrorist organization in country: ISIS in the Greater Sahara and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslim
Mali has been a key U.S. ally in its efforts to combat terrorist threats in Africa. Mali is one of several nations the U.S. has supplied with military training and equipment to promote stability and build reliable partnerships to confont terrorist groups operating in the region, including al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram. Under Operation Juniper Micron, the U.S. provided transportation, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support to French troops fighting Islamist militants in Mali.
Mali is also one of several African nations where the U.S. has a base from which it conducts Operation Juniper Shield, an expansive counterterrorism mission in northwest Africa. The U.S. is also reportedly conducting an information campaign to counter extremist propaganda known as Operation Objective Voice, out of a base in Mali, along with another counterterrorism mission known as Obsidian Mosaic.
> Recent & ongoing U.S. military operations & conflicts: Juniper Shield, Objective Voice, Exercise Flintlock
> Known terrorist organization in country: Al-Qaeda
Mauritania is one of 11 African countries in which the U.S. is conducting Operation Juniper Shield, a counterterrorism effort targeting ISIS-West Africa, Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda. U.S. special forces are also conducting the information campaign Operation Objective Voice partly out of a base in the country to counter extremist propaganda.
Mauritanian forces also participate in Exercise Flintlock, an annual military training operation conducted in Africa with partner nations on the continent and U.S., Canadian, and some European forces. Flintlock is focused on improving regional security and was most recently hosted by Cote d’Ivoire in February 2022.
> Recent & ongoing U.S. military operations & conflicts: Juniper Shield, Jukebox Lotus, Juniper Micron, Juniper Nimbus, Nimble Shield, Objective Voice, Obsidian Nomad I & II, Odyssey Resolve
> Known terrorist organization in country: Multiple, including Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa
Clandestine American military operations abroad came under intense scrutiny after Islamic State militants killed four U.S. troops stationed in Niger in 2017. At the time, high-ranking U.S. lawmakers thought the U.S. had about 1,000 troops in Africa, but the Pentagon confirmed the actual number topped 6,000, including 800 in NIger. The four American servicemen killed were a part of a team working on Operation Juniper Shield, a counterterrorism effort that spans northwest Africa.
Additional counterterrorism efforts involving the U.S. military in Niger include Operation Juniper Nimbus, which specifically targets Boko Haram; Operation Nimble Shield, a low-profile mission aimed at reducing threats from Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa; and Obsidian Nomad I and II, which emerged in the wake of the deadly 2017 ISIS ambush.
Niger also is home to several bases used by American troops for operations in Mali and Libya, as well as a base used for the counter extremist propaganda information campaign, Operation Objective Voice.
> Recent & ongoing U.S. military operations & conflicts: Objective Voice, Juniper Shield
> Known terrorist organization in country: Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa
As recently as 2019, Nigeria was one of 22 African countries home to U.S. special operations forces. Operation Juniper Shield – a sweeping counterterrorism campaign targeting ISIS-West Africa, Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda – accounts for much of the American military activity in the country. The U.S. is also reportedly operating an information campaign known as Objective Voice out of a base in Nigeria to combat extremist propaganda.
The most populous country in Africa, as well as the continent’s largest economy and top oil producer, Nigeria has been a strategic ally of the United States for over five decades. Along with joint military exercises combating terrorism, the U.S. obligated $6 million for military education and training from fiscal 2016 to fiscal 2020. In 2022, the U.S. sold the Nigerian military 12 AH-1Z Attack Helicopters for $997 million and provided $25 million for institutional and technical assistance, which included money to better ensure the nation’s military complies with humanitarian laws in conflict scenarios.
> Recent & ongoing U.S. military operations & conflicts: Exile Hunter, Jupiter Garret, Mongoose Hunter, Oblique Pillar, Paladin Hunter, Ultimate Hunter, Kodiak Hunter, Justified Seamount, Octave Shield, Octave Soundstage, Octave Stingray, Octave Summit
> Known terrorist organization in country: Al-Shabaab and ISIS-Somalia
Over the past decade and a half, the U.S. military has repeatedly targeted militant group al-Shabaab with airstrikes in Somalia. American special forces have also been directly involved in combat raids in the country, and in 2017, a Navy SEAL was killed fighting alongside Somali security forces against al-Shabaab militants about 40 miles outside of Mogadishu.
Since Trump withdrew American troops from Somalia in the final weeks of his presidency, al-Shabaab strengthened its foothold in the country. However, under the Biden administration, U.S. troops returned to Somalia in May 2022 and are still struggling to re-attain the stability they had achieved prior to their withdrawal.
Previous and ongoing joint American-Somali counterterrorism operations in the country include Exile Hunter, Jupiter Garret, Mongoose Hunter, Oblique Pillar, and Paladin Hunter. The U.S. is also working with Kenyan and Ugandan troops to fight in Somalia under operations Ultimate Hunter and Kodiak Hunter. Justified Seamount is a counterpiracy campaign run by U.S. special operators in Mogadishu, and psychological and intelligence operations in the country include Octave Shield, Octave Soundstage, Octave Stingray, and Octave Summit.
> Recent & ongoing U.S. military operations & conflicts: Inherent Resolve
> Known terrorist organization in country: Multiple, including Hezbollah, ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
Beginning with nationwide anti-government protests during the Arab Spring of 2011, Syria has descended into civil war and become a safe haven for ISIS militants. To destabilize the terrorist group, the U.S. and coalition forces carried out 11,235 airstrikes in Syria between 2014 and mid-2017 alone, and as of mid-2022, there were an estimated 900 American troops in northeastern Syria.
The American forces deployed in Syria assist the Syrian Democratic Forces fight Islamic State militants by providing air support, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and military advice. Experts warn the SDF’s efforts would collapse without U.S. support. According to U.N. estimates, over 10,000 Islamic State fighters were active in Iraq and Syria as of August 2020.
To date, over 100 American troops have been killed in fighting ISIS in Operation Inherent Resolve, which spans several countries, including Syria.
> Recent & ongoing U.S. military operations & conflicts: Juniper Shield, Odyssey Resolve
> Known terrorist organization in country: ISIS and al-Qaeda
In February 2017, an American Marine was wounded in a battle with al-Qaeda militants in Tunisia near the Algerian border, even though the Tunisian Ministry of Defense claimed U.S. troops were only in the country for training purposes. According to a retired Army Brigadier General, Tunisia is one of several African countries in which American forces engaged directly in combat between 2013 and 2017.
The extent of American military involvement in Tunisia is shrouded in secrecy amid fears that publicity could incite further extremist violence. What is known is that U.S. military activity in Tunisia falls under the umbrellas of Operation Juniper Shield, a far reaching counterterrorism campaign, and Operation Odyssey Resolve, which used a base in the country to launch airstrikes and reconnaissance missions against the Islamic State group in Libya.
> Recent & ongoing U.S. military operations & conflicts: War on Terror, Yemeni Civil War
> Known terrorist organization in country: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
Yemen has been roiled by civil war since 2015. The U.S. is backing the Yemen government, and a small number of American military personnel are deployed in the country to conduct operations against al-Qaeda and ISIS fighters operating in the region. In June 2015, a U.S. drone strike killed the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. U.S. airstrikes in Yemen continued to degrade al-Qaeda through 2018 but strikes have fallen sharply since 2019, totalling only two in 2021.
The U.S. is also providing military advice and intelligence to a Saudi-led coalition, and until recently, was supplying the Saudis with arms to use against rebel forces in Yemen. American involvement in the Yemeni civil war, though indirect, has been subject to criticism. Some prominent legislators claim the U.S. has no legal authority to act there without congressional approval, as anti-government rebel fighters in the country are not affiliated with terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.
Sponsored: Find a Qualified Financial Advisor
Finding a qualified financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to 3 fiduciary financial advisors in your area in 5 minutes. Each advisor has been vetted by SmartAsset and is held to a fiduciary standard to act in your best interests. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors that can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us?
Contact the 24/7 Wall St. editorial team.