In July of this year, France launched Operation Barkhane, an ambitious counterterrorism initiative spread across five countries in Africa's Sahel and Sahara regions. The mission seeks to build upon the success of the French military intervention that drove al Qaeda-linked jihadi militants from northern Mali in 2013, and comes at a time when the US is expanding its own counterterrorism operations on the continent, setting the stage for what some analysts consider a burgeoning Franco-American alliance in Africa.
"This is a new chapter in French-American relations," Michael Shurkin, a former CIA analyst who is now a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, told VICE News. "There is an unprecedented level of cooperation going on."
In an August 11 memo to US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama, citing an "unforeseen emergency," authorized the transfer of up to $10 million "to assist France in its efforts to secure Mali, Niger, and Chad from terrorists and violent extremism." The move hints at a division of labor in which the US foots the bill for a cash-strapped French military that is both logistically and politically better placed than the US to engage in combat operations in the Sahel.
An even more striking example of US-French counterterror cooperation in Africa may have taken place earlier this month, when US airstrikes in Somalia killed Ahmed Godane, co-founder of the al Shabaab Islamist group. Subsequent reporting by French magazine Le Point suggests that the actionable intelligence leading to Godane's death came from the French, an indication that the two nations already have mechanisms in place for tight cooperation at a highly sensitive level.
All of this comes as part of what analysts have dubbed the US military's "pivot to Africa." Although the US has engaged in counterterrorism activities in Africa since 2002, military operations have grown rapidly under the Obama administration. Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti remains the only official, permanent US base in Africa, but over the last decade, a constellation of sites, including "intermediate staging bases," and "cooperative security locations," have spread across the continent. A near-constant rotation of US military personnel, intelligence operatives, and private military contractors who engage in humanitarian missions, civil affairs activities, bilateral training exercises, and covert operations is now underway in almost every country in Africa.
Two recent reports published as part of Remote Control, a project under the auspices of the UK-based Oxford Research Group, offer insight into the depth, breadth, and scope of the US expansion. The first, From New Frontier to New Normal: Counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel-Sahara, outlines the extent to which the Sahel-Sahara has become a new theater for the global war on terror. The shift is defined by the open-ended, light-footprint approach taken by the US that relies heavily on special forces, drones, and private military companies to meet security objectives in the region.
In an interview with VICE News, the report's lead author, Richard Reeve, said the most striking component of the recent US buildup is the operationalization in Africa of a strategic concept known as the "new normal," which comes in the wake of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Under this approach, the US aims to build the capacity to intervene militarily anywhere on the continent to protect US interests.
"You could call it a fourth front in the war on terror, and it is not very much talked about," Reeve said.
"There is a clandestine nature to the US operations in the Sahel-Sahara, which is not substantially different from the way in which the US conducts operations in Yemen or Somalia," he added. "But it's the sort of clandestine nature to it that is perhaps spreading from that US core."
According to Reeve, the US, France, and, to a lesser extent, the UK and Canada are all active in a number of countries in the Sahel-Sahara, including Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania, as well as Libya and Nigeria, "often in combat operations and on a permanent basis."
"There is a clandestine nature to the US operations in the Sahel-Sahara, which is not substantially different from the way in which the US conducts operations in Yemen or Somalia."
The second, more recent report, US Special Operations Command Contracting: Data-Mining the Public Record, delves into the shadowy world of US Special Operations Command contracts, analyzing $13 billion worth of transactions from 2009 to 2013. The report highlights the extent to which a small group of private corporations are "integrated into some of the most sensitive counter-terrorism activities," ranging from "flying drones and overseeing target acquisition," to propaganda campaigns.
The author of the report, Crofton Black, who investigates abuses in counterterrorism for the UK-based advocacy group Reprieve, told VICE News that by aggregating over 47,000 transactions from two publicly available federal government databases, he was able to "paint a picture" of the top companies implementing these contracts and what types of contracts they are being awarded.
One such transaction resulted in the Magharebia "web initiative." A $19 million dollar contract awarded to General Dynamics Corporation in fiscal year 2010 established a website to offer "balanced and forward-looking coverage of developments" in the parts of North Africa commonly known as "the Maghreb."
The Magharebia website, which publishes in English, French, and Arabic six days a week, covers an array of subjects, and states its affiliation with US Africa Command on its "About" page. The ways in which Magharebia subtly inserts bias into its coverage, however, means that, while an individual article may seem innocuous, the website taken as a whole constitutes something closer to propaganda.
"What is striking when you look at Magharebia is the extent to which day-to-day news about things like football [soccer] teams is intermingled with a very heavy preponderance of counterterrorism-related business," Black said. "Even though the terms of the contract stipulate that it should not be biased in its coverage, the spread of articles that they offer gives you a very particular view of that part of the continent, which is very much a view that reflects US military policy."
One African journalist who is a regular contributor to Magharebia spoke to VICE News on condition of anonymity. He said that the stories he submits to Magharebia are regularly slanted by editorial staff to have a pro-government stance through subtle changes in terminology. "They use the term 'terrorist' more than I prefer," he told VICE News.
Follow Peter Tinti on Twitter: @petertinti
Topics: counterterrorism, africa, sahara, sahel, france, mali, mauritania, burkina faso, nigeria, niger, chad, war & conflict, al shabaab, libya, benghazi, operation barkhane, magharebia, general dynamics corporation, remote control, oxford research group, reprieve, camp lemonnier, john kerry, chuck hagel, barack obama, us special operations command