A war of new connections

The close links between American surveillance of Africa and military facilities in England are revealed by campaigners working for non-violent social change.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
24 December 2014

The kidnapping of nearly 300 schoolgirls in April 2014 by the Boko Haram movement in the town of Chibok, northeast Nigeria produced a strong reaction in the western media. Since that incident, and despite the lack of progress in recovering the girls, interest in their fate and the wider Boko Haram campaign has subsided. This withering of coverage, however, gives a misleading impression of the status of the Islamist movement.

The city of Maiduguri remains at the centre of an insurgency that has proved impossible to control, though there have been many violent and costly attempts by the Nigerian security forces to do so. On 19 December, another 185 people were kidnapped and thirty-five killed   This is but one incident that is spreading alarm among the security elites of the United States, France and Britain about the growth of Islamist paramilitaries both in northern Nigeria and the wider Sahel region. Across a range of countries - Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia and Kenya - Islamist movements are on the rise.

Even the rare glimmers of light amid a cloudy deteriorating security situation can be double-edged. The arrival of China’s nineteenth naval-escort task-force near the Gulf of Aden to join the international anti-piracy action is an example. China has played a role in the joint naval operations for more than a year, a welcome instance of state cooperation at a time when many anti-piracy forces are operated by private-maritime security companies (see "The gunship archipelago", 17 December 2014). Yet China’s contribution can also be seen as an opportunity to increase still further its own influence in sub-Saharan Africa, in a way that adds to the west's worries.

A persistent campaign

Both immediate threats (such as Islamist movements) and longer-term rivalries (such as with China) lead the United States's security agencies in particular to the same conclusion: the need to expand their military involvement in the continent. As a priority this means more wide-ranging and effective intelligence-gathering, with an emphasis on signals intelligence that can soak up immense amounts of data.

The revelations of Edward Snowden have drawn attention to the extraordinary level of surveillance possible right across civil society. The latest African developments reveal an extra twist, namely a very substantial increase in activity by US intelligence agencies in Britain. The main focus will not be the established base at RAF Menwith Hill in north Yorkshire, but - after a rapid expansion - RAF Croughton, close to the M40 motorway a few miles north of Oxford.

Menwith Hill first came to prominence in 1984 with the publication of Duncan Campbell’s The Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier.  More recently, a great deal of new information has emerged thanks to the remarkable persistence of a small group of peace campaigners in the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases. Note the title - this is primarily about accountability, a concern that stems from the profound secrecy that for so long surrounded the activities of Menwith Hill and other sites, some of which actually increased rather than diminished in size after the end of the cold war.

CAAB has proved to be a remarkably resilient movement. Its activities have been widely covered both in Peace News  and on Its own website, which is a real mine of information. Much of its persistence has been exemplified by Lindis Percy and, as long as her health allowed, Anni Rainbow; over more than twenty years their determination, along with others', has been exceptional. 

CAAB's work in non-violent social change is given its due in a marvellously revealing account by Margaret Nunnerley - Surveillance, Secrecy and Sovereignty. Its publisher notes that the book:

“explores the range of issues raised by the campaign, which are of particular relevance today. In particular it examines the use of the base for US military Intelligence gathering and the lack of effective parliamentary oversight of its functions, with the subsequent deficit in democratic accountability. It also examines in detail the important challenges through the courts employed by the campaigners, what they revealed about the methods used by police and courts in responding to peaceful, lawful protest, and the implications for civil liberties in Britain today.”

Since the book was published in spring 2014, much of CAAB’s concern has been with the developments at Croughton, long known to be linked to Menwith Hill but now in line for a building programme that could see it match the latter's size. In its present form it is clearly visible from the busy A43, with the usual radomes and assorted aerials, although far smaller than the more remote Menwith Hill base in the Yorkshire Dales.  

That is now set to change as Croughton benefits from a construction budget of over $181 million ($93 million in fiscal year 2015, already underway), and from the upgrading of a satellite station at RAF Barford St John. The latter, seven miles to the west of Croughton and currently marked on ordnance-survey maps as a “wireless station”, will see its many odd-shaped aerials (reported to be obsolete) replaced by state-of-the-art equipment.

A single field

There is real connection to Africa in these developments, in that the expansion of US intelligence facilities in Britain (much of it barely reported) is part of a process of upgrading capabilities to meet the perceived threat to western interests in Africa.  CAAB’s website currently shows this by providing a link to the US airforce’s "justification data" submitted to the US Congress earlier in 2014 in support of its military-construction programme for FY 2015,  

The data says, on page 107:

"This project is required to provide a purpose-built Joint Intelligence Analysis and Production Complex which recapitalizes and consolidates all RAF Molesworth (RAFM) Intelligence operations and missions in support of USEUCOM and US African Command (USAFRICOM)."

If the finance is not forthcoming, the justification data, on page 108, states:

"Severe facility shortfalls and dispersion will continue to constrain USEUCOM JAC and USAFRICOM J2-M ability to provide responsive and agile intelligence in support of their respective Combatant Commanders."

A rare report in the UK media says the current Croughton expansion will eventually cost well over $300 million. Many people will have little problem with this because of the perceived threat from terrorism, but the points that the CAAB campaigners constantly make are the lack of transparency and public accountability. Without the persistence of Lindis Percy and the small CAAB community, very little would have entered the public domain. The deaths and counter-effects from the use of armed drones, let alone the recent revelations over rendition and torture, show just how unhealthy and damaging secrecy can be.

This makes Margaret Nunnerley’s book so timely.  When it was published I wrote:

“Since CAAB was established twenty years ago we have seen...a remarkably increased capacity for those in authority to monitor the activities of civil society, not least of campaigners. At anytime this thoughtful and carefully researched book would have been a very valuable contribution but that last aspect makes it especially salient.”

The expansion now imminent at Croughton, and its relationship to one of the main new phases of the protracted war on terror, makes the point even more salient. The war is connecting dots across the world's map and bringing them closer to each other than ever before.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData