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The U.S. Military and the Unraveling of Africa

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Posted on Jun 19, 2013
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By Nick Turse, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

The Gulf of Guinea. He said it without a hint of irony or embarrassment. This was one of U.S. 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 U.S. 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? 

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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 U.S. “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 U.S. participation in a war to fell Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi that helped send neighboring Mali, a U.S.-supported bulwark against regional terrorism, into a downward spiral, prompting the intervention of the French military with U.S. backing.  The situation could still worsen as the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. troops during the infamous 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident.

Despite this, the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Africa Command when it took over military responsibility for the continent in 2008. 

As Schmidle noted, the effects of U.S. 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 U.S. 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 Qaddafi in Libya by an interventionist coalition including the U.S., 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 U.S. 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.


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