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Shadow armies: how the West wages war but keeps its soldiers at home

ISIS is enjoying a renaissance and the West is fighting back with a shadow war, free of public debate or political scrutiny.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
3 September 2020
Others do the dirty work
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Olivier Douliery/DPA/PA Images

In the run-up to November’s US election, a sub-plot of the Trump campaign will be his claimed success at “bringing our boys back”. And indeed there will have been substantial troop withdrawals from Afghanistan as well as a more modest drawdown in Iraq, although that will still involve a reduction from 5,200 to 3,500.

Some of the Iraqi changes are redeployments to neighbouring states but there has certainly been an overall decrease in Afghanistan, even if few figures are available about the thousands of private security personnel operating under various government contracts.

Although it will attract little attention in the strident and unstable weeks before the election, an awkward report to the UN Security Council coincides with Trump’s talk of success. According to a report in Military Times, the UN counter-terrorism chief Vladimir Voronkov told the Security Council that more than 10,000 ISIS paramilitaries remain active in Syria and Iraq “in small cells between the countries”, with others across the Sahel zone of Africa.

Restrictions on movement imposed in some parts of the Syria-Iraq region due to the COVID-19 pandemic may have helped to reduce the threat from ISIS. However, Voronkov also said: “There is a continued trend of attacks by individuals inspired online and acting alone or in small groups, which could be fuelled by ISIL’s opportunistic propaganda efforts during the COVID-19 crisis.”

He added that ISIS and other groups are seeking “to export the far-reaching disruption and negative socioeconomic and political impacts of the pandemic”.

In addition to Iraq and Syria, ISIS has expanded its network of supporters across the Sahel, where they now number around 3,500, especially in the tri-border area of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Its activities extend further south in Africa, too: Voronkov referred to “worrying attacks by the Islamic State Central Africa Province in Congo and Mozambique, ‘including complex attacks and brief takeovers of villages’”.

Shadow wars

At first sight it makes little political sense from a Western security perspective to withdraw US troops just as ISIS and other radical paramilitary groups are enjoying a renaissance. What is forgotten, though, is that the so-called war on terror has, over the past two decades, moved progressively from open counterinsurgency, with many tens of thousands of troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, towards a series of shadow wars. These are scarcely reported and almost never subject to political transparency and parliamentary accountability. Even now, MPs asking questions about the UK’s SAS get short shrift.

By coincidence, a report just published by the investigative group Declassified UK throws light on one example of how this works. Back in August 1998, as al-Qaida was developing its strength, US diplomatic missions in Kenya and Tanzania were attacked with devastating effect. In Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, the US embassy was blown up in a massive blast that collapsed an adjacent tower block housing a language school and killing over a hundred Kenyans. For the US this was a wake-up call made more urgent by the instability in neighbouring Somalia; the following years saw the rise of the Shabaab movement, which pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2012.

One of the key responses was a substantial multi-year CIA project to help the Kenyan government to establish a low-profile counter-insurgency force. This is the Rapid Response Team of the Kenyan police, established back in 2004, one of its key initial aims being to help the US to ‘rendition’ Islamist suspects.

At that time, Kenyan foreign policy was about maintaining neutrality in regional conflicts, but the CIA concern was with potential instability from radical Islamists within the country. According to Declassified UK, the Kenyan National Intelligence Service, with its close links with the UK’s MI6, was keen to develop counter-terrorism collaboration and:

The unit that would later become the Rapid Response Team (RRT) was a product of this outreach. Part of a secret CIA programme to train and manage local paramilitaries in numerous hotspots around the globe, from Afghanistan to Georgia, the team began with just 18 officers – dubbed ‘Team 18’ – who were selected by Kenyan police and intelligence to receive elite training in the United States.

The RRT is formally part of, if largely separate from, Kenya’s substantial paramilitary police force, the General Service Unit, with a base at Ruiru, just over 20 kilometres north-east of Nairobi. Its links with the CIA are remarkably close: many of its personnel have trained in the US, reportedly at the Naval Academy at Annapolis and possibly at the CIA’s own facility, ‘The Farm’, at the Department of Defense’s Camp Peary near Williamsburg.

Since its establishment the RRT has become a key link in US security operations in East Africa. Moving on from its early roles in intelligence-gathering and rendition, it now serves a much wider set of functions, many of them rarely seeing the light of day.

Its wider significance in the context of Trump’s much-vaunted troop withdrawals is that it speaks to just one element in the changing face of warfare, along with armed drones, special forces, privatised military corporations, local militias and others.

So if we ask whether the US and its allies are unwisely letting their guard down by withdrawing their uniformed troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, we can rest assured that the wars will continue, whether in those countries, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Nigeria or elsewhere. It’s just that we really don’t need to know about how this is done, and we should instead be content that our governments will keep us safe.

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