America’s War on Terror in Africa

The growth of America's Global War on Terror has raised a number of questions for the African continent. Including the scope of American involvement and the impact that it has, and is likely to have, on counter-terror efforts in Africa. Rafael Friedman explores these in this brief.


As the American military has wound down operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have increasingly focussed their attention onto other parts of the world. This has led to a build-up in Asia, largely in response to Chinese military and territorial expansion in that region. It has also led to an increased focus on Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as other parts of the world. In recent history, American involvement south of the Sahel had largely been defined by Cold-War era proxy wars, but since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the USA has redefined its mission in light of the growth of terrorism.  The report that followed the September 11th attacks specifically pointed to the risk that Africa would become a staging ground and safe haven for terrorists.  This has played a large role in the increase in American military focus on the region in the past two decades, both in the West and East of the continent.  This reflects a shift in US foreign policy away from material interests as it becomes increasingly concerned about global terror. However, aspects of American military policy in Africa raises serious concerns about support for human rights, effective counter-terrorism policy and the scope of American presence on the continent. 

Current status

America’s military presence on the African continent has expanded rapidly since the beginning of the Global War on Terror. In 2001, the US established Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti in East Africa. The base remains the sole permanent American military base on the continent, operating out of Djibouti City’s International Airport. A specialist geographic command –the United States Africa Command (Africom) - has also been set up to specifically focus on American security operations on the continent.  Africom began operations in 2007 and is based at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany. As opposed to the large scale deployments seen in other regions, the American military portrays its role in Africa as largely training and cooperation based. Mostly, US troops act as military trainers that work with domestic militaries and build internal military capacity. Not all American military deployments in Sub-Saharan Africa are counter-terrorism operations (there is also a focus on anti-piracy operations), but the vast majority are. 
Africom is very insistent that the American military has a very small footprint on the continent and it stresses how most operations involve “a small number of personnel who conduct short-term deployments”.  Africom officials point out that this is a deliberate tactic to ensure that, given Africa’s troubled history, the US is not perceived as a new colonising power on the continent. However, this leads to the scale of America’s presence being concealed and often misrepresented. While Camp Lemonnier is the only official permanent base on the continent, the US has a number of “non-permanent bases”.  In Niger, the US has authorised a $100 million upgrade to their base in Agadez. The base is technically operated by the Niger Air Force, but is used as the main base for American Reaper drones carrying out surveillance operations over North and West Africa.  These drones and other American military planes contribute to much of the air traffic that the airport sees. The base is classified by Africom as a “semi-permanent base like facility”. This base, which blends in with its harsh, lifeless surroundings, stands as a striking example of two of the most contentious parts of American security policy in Africa: the growth of America’s military presence on the continent as well as the increasing prevalence of unmanned drones in America’s counter-terror operations in Africa.
America has drone bases in at least eight African countries, which it utilises for counter-terror and intelligence gathering. Information on drone operations in Africa is limited but armed drones have operated out of Ethiopia and have already been used in the fight against Al Shabab, most prominently in a raid that killed 150 combatants from the group in Somalia. It is likely that most American drone operations in Africa are unarmed and used for surveillance purposes.  However, their use for unmanned attacks poses troubling questions for the continent and the future of its counter-terror efforts. If this strategy becomes more prominent many of the adverse effects of American drone programmes in the Middle East may emerge on this continent. A high rate of collateral civilian casualties, and numerous cases of mistaken identity would likely aid terrorist organisations in their radicalisation and recruitment efforts. 
The scale of the American military’s deployment on the continent is also mostly secret. Africom refuses to give exact details of their troop deployments. There are currently US servicemen in 12 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. All but the base in Djibouti are temporary facilities, but the extent and scope of these facilities and the nature of the deployments is unclear. This makes it possible that, despite the limited presence that Africom claims to have, there is a far more substantial or more permanent American military presence on the continent.  
America’s involvement on the continent also raises another challenge, the human rights records and actions of their partners. According to the 2011 Leahy Law, the US is not allowed to assist foreign security forces who are guilty of gross human rights abuses. However, this seems to have been largely ignored as the US military builds relationships with African counterparts, despite claims to the contrary by Africom. The US has funded the South Sudanese military despite evidence of their use of child soldiers, while US trained and funded Kenyan security officials have been accused of practicing torture and extra- judicial killings. Additionally, Nigeria continues to receive American money to combat Boko Haram despite findings by the US State Department that their security forces have engaged in rape and torture and have carried out extra- judicial killings. 


America’s military growth in Africa is a sign of American foreign and security policy and the shift that it has undergone since the September 11th attacks and the beginning of the War on Terror. Africa is seen as an increasingly important battleground as domestic terror grows on the continent and raises concerns that it might be exported globally. This has led to much greater emphasis being placed on assisting African countries to combat terror threats.  Concerns for Africa include both the use of drones and the gross human rights violations committed by US funded allies, while the secretive nature of US military activities raises anxieties about the extent of their presence and influence. 
Rafael Friedman