News that U.S. Predator drones are being sent to monitor Mali should come as no surprise. Special Forces (Joint Special Operations Command) and the CIA routinely survey and strike targets in Somalia and Yemen from a nearby Djibouti base (Camp Lemonnier – see my previous post, The Jewel in the Crown of Washington’s Permanent War: Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti).
The geographic spread from the Horn of Africa to the North and West of Africa is underlined by the same processes: al-Qaeda has “metastasized” from its stronghold in Pakistan’s tribal areas to franchises in Africa – al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP, aligned with al-Shabab in Somalia) and now, increasingly, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in West Africa.
This techno-political solution, the new face of the Predator Empire, says nothing about the enduring legacies of colonialism that bind the Western countries to contemporary counter-terrorist operations (in Mali and beyond).
An old-new “Scramble for Africa” spearheaded by AFRICOM (Africa Command)?
For now at least, the drones sent to the region will be unarmed, although the officials cited by the New York Times did not shut down the possibility of Hellfires in the future. The new base in the Northwest of Africa will be part of a constellation of small airstrips that already dot the continent, with both drones and turboprop planes used for surveillance.
The most likely location would Niger. The plan still needs approval from the Pentagon and then White House. But Niger has agreed to a “status-of-forces” agreement, that grants legal immunity to American servicemen. The base could house as many as 300 U.S. military and contractor personnel.
The violence in Mali, a former French colony, is cited as the main impetus for Predator capabilities: “This is directly related to the Mali mission, but it could also give Africom a more enduring presence for I.S.R.,” said one American military official, referring to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
The hunt for al-Qaeda “affiliates” will likely take the U.S military and Special Forces across the globe, in an endless, geographically borderless program of targeted killings. For an academic spin on this, see my forthcoming paper “Predator Empire: The Geopolitics of Drone Warfare“.
Back in November 2012, Leon Panetta , the current U.S. Secretary of Defense, told influential Washington think tank ‘Center for a New American Security’ that the fight against al-Qaeda would take U.S. Special Forces and ever-more drones to geographically-dispersed regions of the planet that are “outside declared combat zones” and “in areas beyond the reach of effective security and governance”. This global campaign will likely focus on Boko Haram Islamic militants in Nigeria, extremists in northern Mali, and Libya — the latter a hub for “violent extremists and affiliates of al-Qaida”.
And as Nick Turse reported in July 2013 (see The U.S.’ secretive “scramble for Africa”)
The U.S. is now involved, directly and by proxy, in military and surveillance operations against an expanding list of regional enemies. They include al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in North Africa; the Islamist movement Boko Haram in Nigeria; possible al-Qaeda-linked militants in post-Qaddafi Libya; Joseph Kony’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the Central African Republic, Congo, and South Sudan; Mali’s Islamist Rebels of the Ansar Dine, al-Shabaab in Somalia; and guerrillas from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen.
Drones are rapidly becoming the de facto response to skirmishes and counter-terrorist operations across the globe. But their generation of “blowback” – from the territorial spill of militants across Africa, to the direct militant-ization of civilians injured and traumatized by a bombardments of Hellfires from the sky – will create untold geopolitical consequences for decades and centuries to come.
The cat is well and truly out of the bag.