Page 1 of 2 THE TERROR DIASPORA US spreads blowback nightmare
By Nick Turse
The Gulf of Guinea. He said it without a hint of irony or embarrassment. This was one of US Africa Command's big success stories. 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 like Gabon, Benin, and Togo. Never mind that just five days before I talked with AFRICOM's chief spokesman, the Economist had asked if 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," the command spokesman assured me, had "improved significantly," 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 wracked 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 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 was the US. participation in a war to fell Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi that helped send neighboring 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 utilizing other previously undisclosed sites in Africa.
The terror diaspora
In 2000, a report prepared under the auspices of the US Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute examined the "African security environment". While it touched on "internal separatist or rebel movements" in "weak states", as well as non-state actors like militias and "warlord armies", it made no mention of Islamic extremism or major transnational terrorist threats. In fact, prior to 2001, the United States did not recognize any terrorist organizations 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 actual 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, like 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 Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in 2002. The next year, CJTF-HOA took up residence at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, where it resides to this day on the only officially avowed US base in Africa.
As CJTF-HOA was starting up, the State Department launched a multi-million-dollar counterterrorism program, 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 program expanded to include Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia and was renamed the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership.
Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Nicholas Schmidle noted that the program 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 Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership and its Defense Department companion program, then known as Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans-Sahara, were, in turn, folded into US Africa Command 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 terrorist organizations 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 Britain similarly empowered a host of new militant Islamist groups such as the Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades, which have since carried out multiple attacks on Western interests, and the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia, whose fighters assaulted US facilities in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. In fact, just prior to that attack, according to the New York Times, the CIA was tracking "an array of armed militant groups in and around" that one city alone.
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 across the continent under President Obama. These include a multi-pronged 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 help capture or kill Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony and his top commanders in the jungles of the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo; a massive influx of funding for counterterrorism operations across East Africa; and, in just the last four years, hundreds of millions of dollars spent arming and training West African troops to serve as American proxies on the continent.
From 2010-2012, AFRICOM itself burned through US$836 million as it expanded its reach across the region, primarily via programs 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 like 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 anted up about $650 million in logistics support, equipment, and training for AMISOM troops. The Pentagon has kicked in an extra $100 million since 2011.
The US also continues funding African armies through the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership and its Pentagon analog, 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 programs, while 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 Central African Republic; 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 across 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, Uganda. 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 spokesman 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.
While Rawlinson demurred from discussing the scope of the program, 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 spokesman Benjamin Benson has confirmed to TomDispatch that US air operations conducted from Base Aerienne 101 in 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", he 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".
Benson also confirmed that the US military has used Leopold Sedar Senghor International Airport in Senegal for refueling stops as well as the "transportation of teams participating in security cooperation activities" like training missions. He confirmed a similar deal for the use of Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia. All told, the US military now has agreements to use 29 international airports in Africa as refueling centers.
Benson was more tight-lipped about air operations from Nzara Landing Zone in the Republic of South Sudan, the site of one of several shadowy forward operating posts (including another in Djema in the Central Africa Republic and a third in Dungu in the Democratic Republic of Congo) that have been used by US Special Operations forces. "We don't want Kony and his folks to know... what kind of planes to look out for," he said. It's no secret, however, 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.
The 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 Ansar 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 Shariah 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 socio-cultural peculiarities of the region, and misread the realities of the terrain," Berny Sebe, an expert on North and West Africa at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, 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 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," he said. In the meantime, 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.