On Thursday, a lead story in the Washington Post called attention to a shadowy US military airborne surveillance effort covering much of West and East Africa. Is this a vast, secret expansion of US force projection into Africa, or is it more the sound and fury of a harmattan signalling, well, not all that much new? J BROOKS SPECTOR looks into the background of this story.
The lead story of the Washington Post on 14 June described a network of clandestine US military bases located across Africa, designed to carry out airborne surveillance of irregular armed groups in a wide swathe of lightly patrolled parts of the continent. The illustrious paper said there are now about a dozen of these pocket-sized bases in Burkina Faso, Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and the Seychelles.
According to this story, the objects of this growing attention are al-Qaeda-linked militant groups in Somalia, Yemen and across the Sahel countries, as well as the Lord’s Resistance Army in several East-central African nations. Recently, too, American officials have been pointing to Nigeria’s Boko Haram as growing threats to national and regional stability in Africa.
As the Post explains, “The nature and extent of the missions, as well as many of the bases being used, have not been previously reported but are partially documented in public Defense Department contracts. The operations have intensified in recent months, part of a growing shadow war against al-Qaeda affiliates and other militant groups.”
It shouldn’t have been too surprising, however. In recent testimony to Congress, General Carter Ham, the current head of Africom – the unified continental command for Africa – described American priorities in Africa, saying, “we've prioritised our efforts, focusing on the greatest threats to America, Americans and American interests.”
According to Africom’s website, the command’s top priorities are now: countering terrorism and violent extremist organisations, countering piracy and illicit trafficking, partnering to strengthen defence capabilities, and preparing for and responding to crises. In case it wasn’t totally clear, Ham added: “Countering the threats posed by al-Qaeda affiliates in East and Northwest Africa remains my number one priority.”
In carrying out these airborne missions in support of these goals, instead of flying the unmanned, remote-controlled drones used in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or over some of the Indian Ocean littoral - or the nifty, space-age stuff in films based on Tom Clancy novels - this surveillance uses the kind of single-engine, turbo-prop planes that might be found on the parking apron of a general aviation airfield.
These planes are flown by a single crew member - generally a civilian contractor for the military. The planes are unarmed, but they are kitted out with high-end electronics you probably wouldn’t easily find at your local electronics shop so as to record video imagery of ground activities, track the related infrared heat patterns and pull in radio and cellphone signals. The programme gets backup support from local host country troops in the African nations where it is operating.
For example, from a base in Burkina Faso, the planes fly for hundreds of kilometres into Mali, Mauritania and deeper on into the Sahara to search for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb fighters - the regional network that has been kidnapping Westerners for ransom. These flights have recently taken on added importance in the aftermath of the coup in Mali, a result of which has been to allow al-Qaeda sympathisers to declare an independent Islamist state in the northern part of Mali.
This airborne effort is the latest element in a larger redrawing of strategic doctrine for the US military in Africa that has been ongoing over the past decade and a half and has been a factor in the Barack Obama administration’s national security strategy as well.
A second element is the growing role of Special Operations forces on the ground, as with the small detachments of Special Forces working with East African militaries to deal with the Lord’s Resistance Army. While these lightly armed commando units train foreign security forces and perform aid missions, they also have teams whose tasks are to track down the irregular forces identified as terrorism suspects.
So far at least, not surprisingly, few African officials seem willing to acknowledge the full run of this small-plane surveillance programme openly. For example, Kenyan Defence Forces spokesman, Colonel Cyrus Oguna told the Voice of America once the Post story had been published: “As far as we are concerned, (the) US is not using any Kenyan air space or any bases from where they can be able to launch observation vessels. However, I know that we do have bilateral arrangements in terms of sharing information and intelligence to fight terror.”
Though American military sources would confirm to journalists that the US did work “closely with our African partners…to conduct missions or operations that support and further our mutual security goals,” they, in turn, offered no details.
Meanwhile, news organisations have reported that, throughout Thursday, Washington-based officials were not answering questions about “specific operational details” in the Post’s report and the American embassy in Pretoria, referred the Daily Maverick to Africom headquarters in Germany. By late Thursday evening, Africom had not responded to queries.
Of course, the impetus for this airborne surveillance and Special Forces activity goes back further than the Obama administration. The roots reach back to the reverberations from the 9/11 attacks as well as the earlier attack at the World Trade Center attack in 1993, the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 – in addition to the influence of the military’s Iraq and Afghan campaigns.
In conjunction with the growing concern about Islamic fundamentalist activity more generally, these events helped refocus the nature of American attention on Africa. Increasingly, Africa was seen as a potential site for terrorist acts as well as the site for the refuges and operational bases of those involved in this terror activity. As far back as the Bill Clinton administration, American foreign policymakers were already working out this new geopolitical vision of Africa following the Cold War.
In contrast to Cold War thinking, Africa was no longer to be the site for proxy warfare with the Russians. Instead, African states might well be locations where state collapse would make the region a preferred base for terrorism or terrorists – to be combated vigorously. Much of this thinking drew on the impact of essays like Robert Kaplan’s “The Coming Anarchy” or some increasingly ominous Global Trends reports issued by the CIA.
These writings described a world – and most especially an Africa – increasingly afflicted by global pandemics, cyber-crime activities, trans-national terrorism, relentless climate change and resulting forced population migrations. Within the foreign policy and military bureaucracy, these forecasts encouraged an appreciation for the linkages between economic growth, government effectiveness and relatively low levels of corruption as key requisites for African stability. This sensibility gave support for new efforts like the African Growth and Opportunity Act and the Millennium Challenge Corporation aid programme, as well as the Pepfar programme. That is, the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief.
All of these efforts would in turn be co-ordinated with a broader military engagement with Africa, grouping military training and support programmess under that new unified regional military command – Africom – as a complement for these civilian initiatives. Not surprisingly, given the climate of the times in which Africom was proposed, this new command structure generated considerable controversy in Africa.
Africom was initially to be headquartered in a friendly African nation so as to build relationships and secure long-term working ties with the continent’s military and security elites. However, such was the suspicion about the motives behind Africom that it remains based in Germany, save for a small command, logistics and communications base in Djibouti at Camp Lemonnier – and now all these little bases across the continent’s midriff.
The official view now, as General Ham told Congress several months ago, is: “In Africa, I would say a light footprint is consistent with what we need and consistent with the defence guidance.” Nonetheless, Ham did allude vaguely to the new, small surveillance bases in his testimony when he added that while not wanting to describe specific locations, the US military hoped to expand its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance on the continent.
Threading between this expressed desire to keep the footprint light even as it hoped to improve information gathering, a few years ago, dozens of military personnel and contractors were already on station in Burkina Faso.
Predictably, this influx of military personnel sometimes gave the US embassy a kind of bureaucratic dyspepsia, according to cables released through WikiLeaks. Moreover, this bigger footprint in Africa has led to State Department disquiet about the growing military presence. The argument is that most terrorist cells in Africa are pursuing local aims, not global ones, and thus do not present a direct threat to the United States. In short, this argument goes, the US needs to pick its spots carefully to minimise the possibility of generating sympathy for the very groups it is trying to squeeze. Critics point to Yemen, where the drone strikes seem to be increasing sympathy for the local al-Qaeda franchise that is in business there.
Longtime Africa-watcher at the Wilson Center in Washington, Steve McDonald, predicts warily “Whatever the justification for military purposes - like chasing the LRA, which we all find laudable - the perception among Africans will be very negative, just as when Africom was announced by Bush in September 2007. I am sure there will have been clearances with governments, like Burkina Faso, Liberia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and others who would welcome this presence’s economic spin-offs, but the revelation will cause widespread popular discontent…or staunch the perception of a militarisation of our policy, that started with Africom.”
Not all observers are as concerned about the negatives, however. Scott Firsing, a US-Africa military relations and terrorism expert based in South Africa calls the efforts depicted in the Post story a welcome development. Firsing says: “Surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations are always a welcome and necessary first move, and I am glad to learn this has been taking place for some time now. Nevertheless, once that threat is understood, the next logical step is to eliminate it by the US supporting African militaries on the ground or in the air.”
Of course, one may also wonder about the reasons for the precise timing of this story. Somewhere along the chain of command, officials must have discussed aspects of this with the Post’s reporters. Was this, therefore, meant to be a particularly subtle message to troublesome actors, in, say, Syria or Iran, that Americans are increasingly capable of tracking the movements of irregulars in even distant spaces like these? Or, is there even some kind of coded message in this as a demonstration by the current administration of its steadfastness of purpose in pursuing its enemies?
After all, an election is just around the corner. DM
- Report: US Expands Air Surveillance Across Africa at the VOA
- Report: US expands secret 'shadow war' in Africa at MSNBC
- U.S. expands secret intelligence operations in Africa at the Washington Post
- Africom Will Maintain 'Light Footprint' in Africa at the Africom homepage
- Priorities Set US Africa Command's Agenda at the Africom homepage
- About the United States African Command at the Africom homepage
- Should Boko Haram be designated a foreign terrorist organization at International Policy Digest (by Scott Firsing)
- US Strategy in Africa: Africom, terrorism and security challenges (J. Brooks Spector) at the South African Journal of International Affairs
- The United States and Africa in the Obama Era: New wine in old bottles, old bottles for a new beverage – Or a new label on an old brew? Centre for Policy Studies, a policy brief by the author