Quiet legacies and long shadows: the Obama era of counterterrorism in the Sahel-Sahara

Despite the crumbling facade of its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, America is  preparing for a new century of 'light footprint' warfare, using Africa as its laboratory. 

Richard Reeve Zoë Pelter
7 August 2014

"Stack and rack": US Marines watch as Senegalese commandos fire their weapons during force engagement training in Thies, Senegal. Flickr/Marines. Some rights reserved. 

This week, Africa’s leaders have congregated in Washington, D.C. for the first US-Africa Leaders Summit, with talks on trade, investment and security aimed at establishing stronger ties between the US and countries across the continent. President Obama has been widely criticised for the late timing of this summit, 14 years after China started holding its regular Africa summits, and his failure to prioritise the continent earlier in his presidency. In the eyes of many commentators, this is Obama’s attempt to etch out a legacy in Africa.

But, as African leaders sit down to discuss peace and stability, the Obama administration need not fear a lack of a legacy. Indeed, as a recent report from Oxford Research Group and the Remote Control project shows, for all the talk of the US lacking engagement with Africa, military forces under the new US Africa Command (AFRICOM, a legacy of the late Bush administration) have been pursuing a quiet but sustained “pivot to Africa” under the Obama administration. In the wake of recurrent security crises in the region this decade, the remote Sahel-Sahara region of northwest Africa has become the laboratory for experiments that will define counter-terrorism operations in the 21st century.

The global "war on terror" has come to the Sahel, but not with the lengthy, embedded military campaigns we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, AFRICOM and its allies are testing an open-ended, “light-touch” approach, with few boots-on-the-ground and a reliance on special forces, drones and private military companies.  This emphasis on covert and deniable operations makes it inherently difficult to gauge the full extent of the war in the Sahel-Sahara. It also raises many questions about its effectiveness in countering violent extremism and what the long-term impact will be on regional stability.

The quiet pivot to Africa

The evolving importance of the Sahel-Sahara in the counter-terrorism strategies of the US, France and other western states cannot be overstated. Following the 2011 Arab uprisings, NATO-assisted overthrow of Libya’s Gaddafi regime and 2012-13 Mali crisis, the Sahel-Sahara has become the “new frontier” in global counter-terrorism operations. With three main active jihadist groups–Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram and Ansar al-Shari’a–it has risen high in US priorities.

September 11 is the key date for US engagement in the Sahel-Sahara, but 2012 not 2001. This was the date that jihadist militants stormed US diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, Libya, killing the US Ambassador and three other citizens. The result of Benghazi has been a battle over blame in the US Congress and a profound rethinking of crisis response capabilities in remoter, high threat parts of the world. Called the “New Normal”, the new US concept calls for heavily armed air-mobile Marines to be able to deploy anywhere within hours to respond to threats to US citizens and interests.

US Marines already operate out of bases in Spain, Italy and Djibouti but, since Africa is a vast continent with scores of “high risk” US facilities, more bases will be needed to support the “New Normal”. Recent visits by Marines in their MV-22 Osprey vertical landing aircraft to Senegal and Ghana were part of this base-scouting process.

The US is also likely to seek more facilities to operate its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) drones in the Sahel-Sahara, both to track terrorists and to support the “New Normal”. Its one drone base in Niamey, Niger can cover most of West Africa–and North Africa is covered by drones operating from Sicily–but there are gaps, notably around Senegal and Chad. Responding to the humanitarian outcry over Boko Haram’s kidnapping of schoolgirls from Chibok, Nigeria, has already seen US drones deployed from Chad. A web of drone bases in and off the Horn of Africa already surrounds Somalia.

Covert operations

These are the kind of current and future operations that we can broadly expect to know about because their bases and impacts are highly visible. The “New Normal” has already been tested in embassy evacuations in South Sudan (December 2013) and Libya (late July). But there is much more happening beneath the radar. Covert operations using Special Operations Forces appear to be an increasing feature of the US approach in the Sahel-Sahara. Several hundred are believed to be present in the region on undisclosed “contingency operations”.  

Increased ISR capabilities have also depended on use of private military and security contractors (PMSCs), who have run key elements of AFRICOM’s covert counter-terrorism operations in the region. Using unmarked, civilian-registered aircraft, they provide ISR operations, transport special operations forces, and provide medical evacuation and search and rescue capacities.

Partnerships and alliances

Finally, US influence on counter-terrorism in the region extends to training regional security forces under AFRICOM’s Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) and is likely to be expanded significantly under the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, announced by Obama in May, and as more Special Operations Forces are released from duty in Afghanistan. The EU, Canada and a number of more controversial US allies like Israel, Colombia and Morocco are also increasingly involved in counter-terrorism training programmes in the Sahel.

But it is France–the old colonial power, Saharan gendarme or legionnaire–that has most at stake in the Sahel-Sahara and on which the US so-far depends. Last week, France formally redeployed its military forces under Opération Barkhane, which sees French land, air and special forces establish an indefinite regional presence at eight bases and several other forward operating locations across five or more Sahel states. US forces and aircraft have a presence at least three of these bases (Niamey, N’Djamena and Ouagadougou) and probably use several others for “contingencies”.

Barkhane and the recently renewed mandate of the UN Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) entrench the presence of over 9,000 external security forces in the Sahel-Sahara with mission and mandate to combat terrorist groups. Remarkably, Dutch special forces and intelligence agents are embedded in MINUSMA with responsibility to track jihadist groups. UN-mandated French forces have carte blanche to seek and destroy whomever they decide is a threat to security in Mali. Not surprisingly, AQIM and its allies rarely distinguish in their targets between France and the UN.


Just as there is little mention of this rapidly expanding presence, so too is there little discussion of the effectiveness of this new approach to counterterrorism and the impact it will have on stability, governance, and accountability in a fragile region.

The 2013 French and African intervention in Mali stopped the southwards advance of jihadist groups and returned control of much of the north to the Malian government. However, this displaced AQIM and its allies into Libya, Niger and possibly Nigeria, threatening wider regional stability. Moreover, the intervention has done little to address the political and social nature of Mali’s northern rebellion and French and African forces have limited ability to protect civilians against a terrorist rather than insurgent threat. The heightened visibility of US and French forces in the Sahel-Sahara and the strengthening of Islamist militia during the Libyan civil war have significantly increased the profile and activity of jihadist groups. As the foreign militarisation of the region continues, the motivation for retaliatory attacks is likely to increase.

While AFRICOM and Washington have established a regular military presence in all regional countries through its TSCTP, there is little recognition of the often toxic nature of these partnerships. The US has made sure this week not to be seen to engage with selected authoritarian African regimes, withholding invitations to Sudan’s ICC indicted Omar el Bashir, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Eritrea’s Somalia-meddling Isaias Afewerki. Yet, in a nod to similarly uncritical alliances of the Cold War era, its expanding military engagement across Africa has depended on relationships with similarly dubious governments. Djibouti, Uganda and Ethiopia, the increasingly undemocratic pillars of US campaigns against Somalia’s al-Qaida franchise, are the most blatant examples.

In the Sahel-Sahara, the US and, to a larger extent, France rely hugely on Chad’s authoritarian government for basing and combat support. Military-based governments in Algeria and Mauritania have also been able to normalise their international relations, including arms imports, as crucial partners in Saharan counter-terrorism operations. To be fair, the US is choosier than France where it locates its overt bases–Niger and, potentially, Senegal and Ghana are among the best ruled West African states–but its covert operations and military-to-military partnerships span every country in the region.

Perceived international protection may discourage some regional governments from seeking internal political settlements. The elected Malian government seems to have interpreted its post-2013 French and UN guarantees of security enforcement as reason not to pursue a peace process with northern separatists. Similarly, Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara has shown no urgency in seeking reconciliation with supporters of the former regime since French and UN troops helped him to power in 2011. Governance, human rights and non-military solutions to existing conflict are thus considerably undermined by the securitisation of policy in the Sahel-Sahara.

A lasting legacy

With all of this in mind, US outreach efforts at this week’s summit seem readily undermined by the lack of ability to monitor–and thus hold accountable–its military expansion across Africa. While President Obama has stated that partnership with Africa must be "grounded in mutual responsibility and mutual respect", his willingness to leave a legacy of low accountability and low-key military support for undemocratic regimes suggests that this responsibility and respect is not intended for the people of Africa.

Outside of the limits of this week’s summit, the trend towards covert or “plausibly deniable” counter-terrorism–PMSCs, drones, rapid reaction special forces–and barely restrained mandates to wage war is indicative of the real and increasing power over Africa policy exercised by Defense departments in both Washington and Paris. In turn, securitisation of approaches to the region will undermine non-military approaches to insecurity and conflict resolution, moving regional autocrats further from domestic accountability and buoying the extremist ideology it seeks to discredit. For all the west may seek to tread lightly, there is a large footprint in the sands of the Sahara–one which will not be erased any time soon. 

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