A careful examination of the security situation in Africa suggests that it is in the process of becoming Ground Zero for a veritable terror diaspora.
As US President Barack Obama undertakes his second official trip to Africa, although it is the first solely to the continent (South Africa, Senegal and Tanzania are on his itinerary), the extent to which he has been the US’s first "African" president is in question. His administration has poured millions of tax dollars into ‘stability’ and counterterror operations in Africa and has dramatically increased its military presence on the continent. So why have terror attacks "increased in number and lethality"?
"The Gulf of Guinea." He said it without a hint of irony or embarrassment. It was one of the United States Africa Command's (Africom) big success stories, according to its chief spokesperson.
The Gulf of Guinea! Never mind that most Americans couldn't find it on a map and haven't heard of the nations on its shores, such as Gabon, Benin and Togo.
Never mind that just five days before I talked to the chief spokesperson, the Economist had asked whether the Gulf of Guinea was on the verge of becoming "another Somalia", because piracy there had jumped 41% from 2011 to 2012 and was on track to be even worse in 2013.
The Gulf of Guinea was one of the primary areas in Africa where "stability" had "improved significantly", the command spokesperson assured me, and the US military had played a major role in bringing it about.
But what did that say about so many other areas of the continent that, since Africom was set up, had been racked by coups, insurgencies, violence and volatility?
A careful examination of the security situation in Africa suggests that it is in the process of becoming Ground Zero for a veritable terror diaspora set in motion in the wake of 9/11 that has only accelerated in the Barack Obama years.
Recent history indicates that as US "stability" operations in Africa have increased, militancy has spread, insurgent groups have proliferated, allies have faltered or committed abuses, terrorism has increased, the number of failed states has risen and the continent has become more unsettled.
The signal event in this tsunami of blowback (this is, according to The Nation, "a metaphor for the unintended consequences of the US government's international activities that have been kept secret from the American people") was the US participation in a war to fell Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi that helped to send neighbouring Mali, a US-supported bulwark against regional terrorism, into a downward spiral, prompting the intervention of the French military with US backing.
The situation could still worsen as the US armed forces grow ever more involved. They are already expanding air operations across the continent, engaging in spy missions for the French military and utilising other previously undisclosed sites in Africa.
In 2000, a report prepared under the auspices of the US Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute examined the "African security environment". Although it touched on "internal separatist or rebel movements" in "weak states", as well as non-state actors such as militias and "warlord armies", it made no mention of Islamic extremism or major transnational terrorist threats. In fact, prior to 2001, the US did not recognise any terror organisations in sub-Saharan Africa.
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, a senior Pentagon official claimed that the US invasion of Afghanistan might drive "terrorists" out of that country and into African nations.
"Terrorists associated with al-Qaeda and indigenous terrorist groups have been and continue to be a presence in this region," he said. "These terrorists will, of course, threaten US personnel and facilities."
When pressed about transnational dangers, the official pointed to Somali militants but eventually admitted that even the most extreme Islamists there "really have not engaged in acts of terrorism outside Somalia".
Similarly, when questioned about connections between Osama bin Laden's core al-Qaeda group and African extremists, he offered only the most tenuous links, such as Bin Laden's "salute" to Somali militants who killed US troops during the infamous 1993 "Black Hawk Down" incident.
Despite this, the US dispatched personnel to Africa as part of the Combined Joint Task Force — Horn of Africa in 2002.
The next year, the task force took up residence at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, where it resides to this day — the only officially avowed US base in Africa.
As the task force was being started up, the state department launched a multimillion-dollar counterterrorism programme, known as the Pan-Sahel Initiative, to bolster the militaries of Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania. In 2004, for example, special forces training teams were sent to Mali as part of the effort. In 2005, the programme was expanded to include Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and was renamed the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership.
Writing in the New York Times Magazine, journalist Nicholas Schmidle noted that the programme saw year-round deployments of special forces personnel "to train local armies at battling insurgencies and rebellions and to prevent Bin Laden and his allies from expanding into the region".
The partnership and its defence department companion programme, then known as Operation Enduring Freedom — Trans-Sahara, were, in turn, folded into Africom when it took over military responsibility for the continent in 2008.
As Schmidle noted, the effects of US efforts in the region seemed at odds with Africom's stated goals.
"Al-Qaeda established sanctuaries in the Sahel and, in 2006, it acquired a North African franchise [al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb]," he wrote. "Terrorist attacks in the region increased in both number and lethality."
In fact, a look at the official state department list of terror organisations indicates a steady increase in Islamic radical groups in Africa alongside the growth of US counterterrorism efforts there, with the addition of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in 2004, Somalia's al-Shabaab in 2008 and Mali's Ansar al-Dine in 2013. In 2012, General Carter Ham, then Africom's chief, added the Islamist militants of Boko Haram in Nigeria to his own list of extremist threats.
The overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya by an interventionist coalition including the US, France and the United Kingdom similarly empowered a host of new militant Islamist groups such as the Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades, which have since carried out attacks on Western interests, and the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar-al-Sharia, whose fighters attacked US facilities in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11 2012, killing US ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
According to Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert on Libya, that country is now "fertile ground" for militants arriving from the Arabian Peninsula and other places in the Middle East as well as elsewhere in Africa to recruit fighters, receive training and recuperate. "It's really become a new hub," he told me.
Obama's scramble for Africa
The US-backed war in Libya and the CIA's efforts in its aftermath are just two of the many operations that have proliferated on the continent under Obama. These include:
- A multipronged military and CIA campaign against militants in Somalia, consisting of intelligence operations, a secret prison, helicopter attacks, drone strikes and US commando raids;
- A special ops expeditionary force (bolstered by state department experts) dispatched to capture or kill Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony and his top commanders in the jungles of the Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC);
- A massive influx of funding for counterterrorism operations in East Africa; and
- In just the past four years, hundreds of millions of dollars spent arming and training West African troops to serve as American proxies on the continent. From 2010 to 2012, Africom itself burned up $836-million as it expanded its reach across the region, primarily through programmes to mentor, advise and tutor African militaries.
In recent years, the US has trained and outfitted soldiers from Uganda, Burundi and Kenya, among other nations, for missions such as the hunt for Kony. They have also served as a proxy force for the US in Somalia, part of the African Union Mission (Amisom) protecting the US-supported government in that country's capital, Mogadishu.
Since 2007, the state department has given about $650-million in logistics support, equipment and training for Amisom troops. The Pentagon has given an extra $100-million since 2011.
The US also continues to fund African armies through the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership and its Pentagon analogue, now known as Operation Juniper Shield, with increased support flowing to Mauritania and Niger in the wake of Mali's collapse. In 2012, the state department and the US Agency for International Development poured approximately $52-million into the programmes and the Pentagon chipped in another $46-million.
In the Obama years, US Africa Command has also built a sophisticated logistics system, officially known as the Africom Surface Distribution Network, but colloquially referred to as "the new spice route". Its central nodes are in Manda Bay, Garissa and Mombasa in Kenya; Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda; Bangui and Djema in the CAR; Nzara in South Sudan; Dire Dawa in Ethiopia; and the Pentagon's showpiece African base, Camp Lemonnier.
In addition, the Pentagon has run a regional air campaign using drones and manned aircraft out of airports and bases around the continent including Camp Lemonnier, Arba Minch airport in Ethiopia, Niamey in Niger and the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, while private contractor-operated surveillance aircraft have flown missions out of Entebbe. Recently, Foreign Policy reported on the existence of a possible drone base in Lamu, Kenya.
Another critical location is Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, home to a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment and the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support Initiative that, according to military documents, supports "high-risk activities" carried out by elite forces from Joint Special Operations Task Force — Trans-Sahara.
Lieutenant Colonel Scott Rawlinson, a spokesperson for Special Operations Command Africa, told me that the initiative provides "emergency casualty evacuation support to small team engagements with partner nations throughout the Sahel", although official documents note that such actions have historically accounted for just 10% of monthly flight hours.
Although Rawlinson was reluctant to discuss the scope of the programme, citing operational security concerns, military documents indicate that it is expanding rapidly. Between March and December of last year, for example, the trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support initiative flew 233 sorties. In just the first three months of this year, it carried out 193.
Africom spokesperson Benjamin Benson has confirmed that US air operations conducted from Niamey, the capital of Niger, were providing "support for intelligence collection with French forces conducting operations in Mali and with other partners in the region".
Refusing to go into detail about mission specifics for reasons of "operational security", Benson added that, "in partnership with Niger and other countries in the region, we are committed to supporting our allies … this decision allows for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations within the region".
All told, the US military now has agreements to use 29 international airports in Africa as refuelling centres.
It's no secret that US air assets over Africa and its coastal waters include Predator, Global Hawk and Scan Eagle drones, MQ-8 unmanned helicopters, EP-3 Orion aircraft, Pilatus planes and E-8 Joint Stars aircraft.
Last year, in its ever-expanding operations, Africom planned 14 major joint-training exercises on the continent, including in Morocco, Uganda, Botswana, Lesotho, Senegal and Nigeria. One of them, an annual event known as Atlas Accord, saw members of the US Special Forces travel to Mali to conduct training with local forces. "The participants were very attentive, and we were able to show them our tactics and see theirs as well," said Captain Bob Luther, a team leader with the 19th Special Forces Group.
Collapse of Mali
As the US-backed war in Libya was taking down Gaddafi, nomadic Tuareg fighters in his service looted the regime's extensive weapons caches, crossed the border into their native Mali and began to take over the northern part of that country. Anger within the country's armed forces over the democratically elected government's ineffective response to the rebellion resulted in a military coup.
It was led by Amadou Sanogo, an officer who had received extensive training in the US between 2004 and 2010 as part of the Pan-Sahel Initiative. Having overthrown Malian democracy, he and his fellow officers proved even less effective in dealing with events in the north.
With the country in turmoil, the Tuareg fighters declared an independent state. Soon, however, heavily armed Islamist rebels from homegrown Anwar al-Dine as well as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Libya's Ansar al-Sharia, and Nigeria's Boko Haram, among others, pushed out the Tuaregs, took over much of the north, instituted a harsh brand of sharia law and created a humanitarian crisis that caused widespread suffering, sending refugees streaming from their homes.
These developments raised serious questions about the efficacy of US counterterrorism efforts. "This spectacular failure reveals that the US probably underestimated the complex sociocultural peculiarities of the region and misread the realities of the terrain," Berney Sèbe, an expert on North and West Africa at the University of Birmingham in the UK, told me. "This led them to being grossly manipulated by local interests over which they had, in the end, very limited control."
Following a further series of Islamist victories and widespread atrocities, the French military intervened at the head of a coalition of Chadian, Nigerian and other African troops, with support from the US and the British. The foreign-led forces beat back the Islamists, who then shifted from conventional to guerrilla tactics, including suicide bombings.
In April, after such an attack killed three Chadian soldiers, that country's president, Idriss Déby announced that his forces, long supported by the US through the Pan-Sahel Initiative, would withdraw from Mali.
"Chad's army has no ability to face the kind of guerrilla fighting that is emerging," Déby said.
All photographs by AFP
Meanwhile, the remnants of the US-backed Malian military fighting alongside the French were cited for gross human rights violations in their bid to retake control of their country.
After the French intervention in January, then-secretary of defence Leon Panetta said: "There is no consideration of putting any American boots on the ground at this time."
Not long after, 10 US military personnel were deployed to assist French and African forces, and 12 others were assigned to the embassy in the Malian capital, Bamako.
Although he's quick to point out that Mali's downward spiral had much to do with its corrupt government, weak military and rising levels of ethnic discontent, Wehrey noted that the war in Libya was "a seismic event for the Sahel and the Sahara".
Just back from a fact-finding trip to Libya, he added that the effects of the revolution are already rippling far beyond the porous borders of Mali.
Wehrey cited recent findings by the UN Security Council's Group of Experts, which monitors an arms embargo imposed on Libya in 2011.
"In the past 12 months," the panel reported, "the proliferation of weapons from Libya has continued at a worrying rate and has spread into new territory: West Africa, the Levant [the Eastern Mediterranean region] and potentially even the Horn of Africa. Illicit flows [of arms] from the country are fuelling existing conflicts in Africa and the Levant and enriching the arsenals of a range of non-state actors, including terrorist groups."
The collapse of Mali after a coup by an American-trained officer and Chad's flight from the fight in that country are just two indicators of how post-9/11 US military efforts in Africa have fared.
"In two of the three other Sahelian states involved in the Pentagon's pan-Sahelian initiative, Mauritania and Niger, armies trained by the US have also taken power in the past eight years," observed journalist William Wallis in the Financial Times. "In the third, Chad, they came close in a 2006 attempt."
Still another coup plot involving members of the Chadian military was reportedly uncovered earlier this year.
In March, Major General Patrick Donahue, the commander of US Army Africa, told interviewer Gail McCabe that northwestern Africa was now becoming increasingly "problematic". Al-Qaeda, he said, was at work destabilising Algeria and Tunisia.
Last September, in fact, hundreds of Islamist protesters attacked the US embassy compound in Tunisia, setting it on fire. More recently, Camille Tawil in the CTC Sentinel, the official publication of the Combating Terrorism Centre at the US Military Academy at West Point, wrote that in Tunisia "jihadis are openly recruiting young militants and sending them to training camps in the mountains, especially along Algeria's borders".
The US-backed French intervention in Mali also led to a January revenge terror attack on the Amenas gas plant in Algeria. Carried out by the al-Mulathameen brigade, one of various new al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb-linked militant groups emerging in the region, it led to the deaths of close to 40 hostages, including three Americans.
Planned by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran of the US-backed war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it was only the first in a series of blowback responses to US and Western interventions in Northern Africa that may have far-reaching implications.
Attacks on a uranium mine
Last month, Belmokhtar's forces also teamed up with fighters from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa — yet another Islamist militant group of recent vintage — to carry out co-ordinated attacks on a French-run uranium mine and a nearby military base in Agadez, Niger, that killed at least 25 people. A recent attack on the French embassy in Libya by local militants is also seen as a reprisal for the French war in Mali.
According to Wehrey, the French military's push there has had the additional effect of reversing the flow of militants, sending many back into Libya to recuperate and seek additional training. Nigerian Islamist fighters driven from Mali have returned to their native land with fresh training and innovative tactics as well as heavy weapons from Libya.
Increasingly battle-hardened, extremist Islamist insurgents from two Nigerian groups, Boko Haram and the newer, even more radical Ansaru, have escalated a long-simmering conflict in that West African oil giant.
For years, Nigerian forces have been trained and supported by the US through the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance Programme. The country has also been a beneficiary of US Foreign Military Financing, which provides grants and loans to purchase US-produced weaponry and equipment and funds military training.
Brutal responses by Nigerian forces
In recent years, however, brutal responses by Nigerian forces to what had been a fringe Islamist sect have transformed Boko Haram into a regional terror force.
The situation has grown so serious that President Goodluck Jonathan recently declared a state of emergency in northern Nigeria.
Last month, US secretary of state John Kerry spoke out about "credible allegations that Nigerian security forces are committing gross human rights violations, which, in turn, only escalate the violence and fuel extremism".
After a Boko Haram militant killed a soldier in the town of Baga, for example, Nigerian troops attacked the town, destroying more than 2 000 homes and killing an estimated 183 people.
Similarly, according to a recent United Nations report, the Congolese army's 391st Commando Battalion, formed with US support and trained for eight months by US Special Operations forces, later took part in mass rapes and other atrocities.
Fleeing the advance of a recently formed, brutal (non-Islamic) rebel group known as M23, its troops joined with other Congolese soldiers in raping close to 100 women and more than 30 girls in November 2012.
"This magnificent battalion will set a new mark in this nation's continuing transformation of an army dedicated and committed to professionalism, accountability, sustainability and meaningful security," said Brigadier General Christopher Haas, the head of US Special Operations Command Africa at the time of the battalion's graduation from training in 2010.
Earlier this year, incoming Africom commander General David Rodriguez told the US Senate's armed services committee that a review of the unit found its "officers and enlisted soldiers appear motivated, organised and trained in small unit manoeuvre and tactics" even if there were "limited metrics to measure the battalion's combat effectiveness and performance in protecting civilians".
Report tells a different story
The UN report tells a different story. For example, it describes "a 14-year-old boy … shot dead on November 25 2012 in the village of Kalungu, Kalehe territory, by a soldier of the 391 Battalion. The boy was returning from the fields when two soldiers tried to steal his goat. As he tried to resist and flee, one of the soldiers shot him."
Despite years of US military aid to the DRC, M23 has dealt its army heavy blows and, according to Rodriguez, is now destabilising the region. But they haven't done it alone. According to Rodriguez, M23 "would not be the threat it is today without external support including evidence of support from the Rwandan government".
For years, the US aided Rwanda through various programmes, including the International Military Education and Training initiative and Foreign Military Financing. Last year, the US cut $200 000 in military assistance to Rwanda, a signal of its disapproval of that government's support for M23.
Still, as Rodriguez admitted to the Senate earlier this year, the US continues to "support Rwanda's participation in UNpeacekeeping missions in Africa".
After years of US assistance, including support from Special Operations forces advisers, the CAR's military was recently defeated and the country's president ousted by another newly formed (non-Islamist) rebel group known as Seleka.
In short order, that country's army chiefs pledged their allegiance to the leader of the coup, and hostility on the part of the rebels forced the US and its allies to suspend their hunt for Kony.
A strategic partner and bulwark of US counterterrorism efforts, Kenya receives about $1-billion in US aid annually and elements of its military have been trained by US Special Operations forces. But last September, Foreign Policy's Jonathan Horowitz reported on allegations of "Kenyan counterterrorism death squads … killing and disappearing people".
Later, Human Rights Watch drew attention to the Kenyan military's response to a November attack by an unknown gunman who killed three soldiers in the northern town of Garissa. The group reported that "witnesses said the military shot at people, raped women and assaulted anyone in sight".
Another long-time recipient of US support, the Ethiopian military, was also involved in abuses last year, following an attack by gunmen on a commercial farm. In response, according to Human Rights Watch, members of Ethiopia's army raped, arbitrarily arrested and assaulted local villagers.
The Ugandan military has been the primary US proxy when it comes to policing Somalia. However, its members were implicated in the beating and even killing of citizens during domestic unrest in 2011. Burundi has also received significant US military support and high-ranking officers in its army have recently been linked to the illegal mineral trade, according to a report by the environmental watchdog group, Global Witness.
Despite years of co-operation with the US military, Senegal now appears more vulnerable to extremism and increasingly unstable, according to a report by the Institute of Security Studies.
And so it goes across the continent.
In addition to the Gulf of Guinea, Africom's chief spokesperson pointed to Somalia as another major US success story on the continent. And it's true that Somalia is more stable now than it has been in years, even if a weakened al-Shabaab continues to carry out attacks. The spokesperson even pointed to a recent CNN report about a trickle of tourists entering the war-torn country and the construction of a luxury beach resort in the capital, Mogadishu.
I asked for other Africom success stories but only those two came to his mind — and no one should be surprised by that. After all, in 2006, before Africom came into existence, 11 African nations were among the top 20 in the Fund for Peace's annual failed states index.
Last year, that number had risen to 15 (or 16 if you count the new nation of South Sudan).
In 2001, according to the global terrorism database of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, there were 119 terror incidents in sub-Saharan Africa. By 2011, the last year for which numbers are available, there were close to 500.
A recent report from the International Centre for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies counted 21 terrorist attacks in the Maghreb and Sahel regions of northern Africa in 2001. During the Obama years, the figures have fluctuated between 144 and 204 annually.
Similarly, an analysis of 65 000 individual incidents of political violence in Africa from 1997 to 2012, assembled by researchers affiliated to the International Peace Research Institute, found that "violent Islamist activity has increased significantly in the past 15 years, with a particular[ly] sharp increase witnessed from 2010 onwards".
Additionally, according to researcher Caitriona Dowd, "there is also evidence for the geographic spread of violent Islamist activity both south- and eastward on the continent".
In fact, the trends appear stark and eerily mirror statements from Africom's leaders.
In March 2009, after years of training indigenous forces and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on counterterrorism activities, General William Ward, the first leader of US Africa Command, gave its inaugural status report to the Senate armed services committee. It was bleak.
"Al-Qaeda," he said, "increased its influence dramatically across North and East Africa over the past three years with the growth of East Africa al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, and al-Qaeda in the lands of the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim)."
This February, after four more years of military engagement, security assistance, training of indigenous armies and hundreds of millions of dollars more in funding, Rodriguez explained the current situation to the Senate in more ominous terms.
"The command's number one priority is East Africa, with particular focus on al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda networks. This is followed by violent extremist [movements] and al-Qaeda in North and West Africa and the Islamic Maghreb. Africom's third priority is counter-LRA [Lord's Resistance Army] operations."
Rodriguez warned that, "with the increasing threat of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, I see a greater risk of regional instability if we do not engage aggressively". In addition to that group, he declared al-Shabaab and Boko Haram major menaces. He also mentioned the problems posed by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa and Ansar al-Dine.
Libya, he told them, was threatened by "hundreds of disparate militias", and M23 was "destabilising the entire Great Lakes region [of Central Africa]".
In West Africa, he admitted, there was also a major narcotics trafficking problem. Similarly, East Africa was "experiencing an increase in heroin trafficking across the Indian Ocean from Afghanistan and Pakistan".
In addition, "in the Sahel region of North Africa, cocaine and hashish trafficking is being facilitated by, and directly benefiting, organisations like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, leading to increased regional instability".
In other words, 10 years after Washington began pouring taxpayer dollars into counterterrorism and stability efforts in Africa and its forces first began operating from Camp Lemonnier, the continent has experienced profound changes, just not those the US sought.
Sèbe ticks off post-revolutionary Libya, the collapse of Mali, the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria, the coup in the CAR and violence in Africa's Great Lakes region as evidence of increasing volatility.
"The continent is certainly more unstable today than it was in the early 2000s, when the US started to intervene more directly," he told me.
As the war in Afghanistan, a conflict born of blowback, winds down, there will be greater incentive and opportunity to project US military power in Africa. However, even a cursory reading of recent history suggests that this impulse is unlikely to achieve US goals.
Although correlation doesn't equal causation, there is ample evidence to suggest the US has facilitated a terror diaspora, imperilling nations and endangering peoples across Africa.
In the wake of 9/11, Pentagon officials were hard-pressed to show evidence of a major African terror threat. Today, the continent is thick with militant groups that are increasingly crossing borders, sowing insecurity and throwing the limits of US power into broad relief.
After 10 years of US operations to promote stability by military means, the results have been the opposite.
Africa has become blowback central. – © TomDispatch.com
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute