Don’t worry, Africa. America’s got you covered, as Thursday’s edition of the Washington Post explains. “US expands secret intelligence operations in Africa” runs the headline, and the story connects the dots between anti-terrorist operations in Mali, Nigeria, Uganda and Somalia to create a picture of a continent-wide spying campaign.
“US officials said the African surveillance operations are necessary to track terrorist groups that have taken root in failed states on the continent and threaten to destabilise neighbouring countries,” writes Craig Whitlock in the venerable newspaper, which has a long track record of breaking both Pulitzer Prize-winning stories and White House press releases.
This particular story is an interesting one, regardless of where it came from. It details the creation of a dozen small airstrips scattered across Africa, from which a fleet of small, unarmed turboprop aircraft conduct their reconnaissance missions: taking pictures and video, tracking infrared patterns, and listening in on radio and mobile phone signals.
It’s a different approach to America’s usual tactic in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, where unmanned drones are used to perform the same function, with the added advantage – at least as far as the Americans are concerned – of being armed with precision-guided munitions.
“Most of the spy flights in Africa, however, take off the old-fashioned way — with pilots in the cockpit,” writes Whitlock. “The conventional aircraft hold two big advantages over drones: They are cheaper to operate and far less likely to draw attention because they are so similar to the planes used throughout Africa,” he argues, apparently implying that drones merge seamlessly into the Afghan landscape and confirming that even in the War on Terror, Africa is considered backward enough to render cutting-edge technology unnecessary. It’s the military-industrial-complex equivalent of donating your old Windows 95 computer to those poor kids in Ghana.
And make no mistake, this is all about the War on Terror. The Washington Post spread is effectively a declaration that the war has made it on to African soil. Not that this comes as any surprise to those of us actually in Africa, who have watched carefully as the US has steadily expanded its presence on the continent.
As I wrote in the Daily Maverickin October last year:“The US army, through its Africa Command, keeps making links between Al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram in Nigeria, painting a picture of some kind of African terrorist supergroup. It’s worried about al-Qaeda getting a foothold in Africa, and in response is trying to pre-emptively establish its own foothold in Africa.”
It’s a dangerous game the USA is playing. Never known for its subtlety – renowned, in fact, for the lack of it – the appearance of the War on Terror rhetoric in Africa risks turning inherently local problems into something larger, and even more serious.
Boko Haram, for instance, are undeniably bad guys, responsible for a wave of violence in northern Nigeria that has killed hundreds of people. And yes, they are Muslims. But they don’t have all that much in common with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, because they are fighting for local, Nigerian issues: the imposition of Sharia law in the country and the end of an admittedly corrupt government. Their support comes not from some devotion to a pan-Islamic terrorist jihad, but from identifiable societal problems like poverty and unemployment.
Al-Shabaab is similar. Although there’s undeniably a faction within the Somali militant group that idenitifies with the global jihadist movement, it has a few more pressing concerns at the moment, such as a full-scale assault from an African Union force which has diminished its influence. And the larger faction of the group is, again, fighting for local issues: access to resources, land and power. The much-hyped alliance with al-Qaeda is just a marketing move and, as I explained here, it had more to do with Al-Shabaab’s internal politics than an ideological shift.
Then there’s al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), which has the most obvious links to al-Qaeda proper. Again, it’s simplistic and easy to describe them as just a branch of al-Qaeda in north Africa. Aqim has its roots in an Algerian fundamentalist group, and it is Algeria that remains most terrified of its continued existence. Some analysts argue that the group’s name change, which came in 2006, was little more than a mutually beneficial branding exercise which offered al-Qaeda a North African presence that they didn’t have before, and gave Aqim a fearsome international reputation of which they were largely undeserving.
Though there may be some co-operation between the two entities, the idea that al-Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is pulling Aqim’s strings is very difficult to believe. Instead, like Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, Aqim are fighting local wars and are deeply entrenched in local issues, be it implementing Sharia law in Algeria or facilitating drug smuggling through the Sahel.
All three groups pose serious threats to the countries and regions in which they operate, there’s no doubt about that. American involvement, however, is almost certain to increase rather than diminish this threat. Take a look at Afghanistan, where after more than a decade of direct American involvement, the Taliban remains largely intact, al-Qaeda proper is still a going concern, and nuclear-armed Pakistan has been drawn into the fray. Hardly a glowing record of achievement as far as the US is concerned.
The danger in Africa is similar, especially given the continent’s arbitrary borders and poverty levels – often the real cause of militant behaviour – that local conflicts could quickly spiral out of control, with devastating consequences.
I’m not the only one who thinks so. “Some State Department officials have expressed reservations about the militarisation of US foreign policy on the continent,” explains Whitlock in his article. “They have argued that most terrorist cells in Africa are pursuing local aims, not global ones, and do not present a direct threat to the United States. The potential for creating a popular backlash can be seen across the Red Sea, where an escalating campaign of US drone strikes in Yemen is angering tribesmen and generating sympathy for an al-Qaeda franchise there.”
Well, at least someone in the American government knows what is going on. Unfortunately, they’re not the people calling the shots – figuratively or literally. The ones that are making the decisions and pulling the triggers are well aware that whatever the cost of the War on Terror on those countries most affected by it, and the potential cost of more operations to come, there hasn’t been a single major terrorist attack on US soil since it began. DM