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Photo: Kabul, Afghanistan. An Afghan soldier stands guard at the presidential palace on June 25th following a Taliban attack. Shah Merai/AFP/Getty

The Terror Diaspora

Horn of Africa missionThe U.S. Military and the Unraveling of Africa By Nick Turse

The Gulf of Guinea. He said it without a hint of irony or embarrassment. This was one of U.S. Africa Command’s big success stories. The Gulf… of Guinea.

Never mind that most Americans couldn’t find it on a map and haven’t heard of the nations on its shores like Gabon, Benin, and Togo. Never mind that just five days before I talked with AFRICOM’s chief spokesman, the Economist had asked if the Gulf of Guinea was on the verge of becoming “another Somalia,” because piracy there had jumped 41% from 2011 to 2012 and was on track to be even worse in 2013.

The Gulf of Guinea was one of the primary areas in Africa where “stability,” the command spokesman assured me, had “improved significantly,” and the U.S. military had played a major role in bringing it about. But what did that say about so many other areas of the continent that, since AFRICOM was set up, had been wracked by coups, insurgencies, violence, and volatility?

A careful examination of the security situation in Africa suggests that it is in the process of becoming Ground Zero for a veritable terror diaspora set in motion in the wake of 9/11 that has only accelerated in the Obama years. Recent history indicates that as U.S. “stability” operations in Africa have increased, militancy has spread, insurgent groups have proliferated, allies have faltered or committed abuses, terrorism has increased, the number of failed states has risen, and the continent has become more unsettled.

The signal event in this tsunami of blowback was the U.S. participation in a war to fell Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi that helped send neighboring Mali, a U.S.-supported bulwark against regional terrorism, into a downward spiral, prompting the intervention of the French military with U.S. backing. The situation could still worsen as the U.S. armed forces grow ever more involved. They are already expanding air operations across the continent, engaging in spy missions for the French military, and utilizing other previously undisclosed sites in Africa.

The Terror Diaspora

In 2000, a report prepared under the auspices of the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute examined the “African security environment.” While it touched on “internal separatist or rebel movements” in “weak states,” as well as non-state actors like militias and “warlord armies,” it made no mention of Islamic extremism or major transnational terrorist threats. In fact, prior to 2001, the United States did not recognize any terrorist organizations in sub-Saharan Africa.

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, a senior Pentagon official claimed that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan might drive “terrorists” out of that country and into African nations. “Terrorists associated with al Qaeda and indigenous terrorist groups have been and continue to be a presence in this region,” he said. “These terrorists will, of course, threaten U.S. personnel and facilities.”

When pressed about actual transnational dangers, the official pointed to Somali militants but eventually admitted that even the most extreme Islamists there “really have not engaged in acts of terrorism outside Somalia.” Similarly, when questioned about connections between Osama bin Laden’s core al-Qaeda group and African extremists, he offered only the most tenuous links, like bin Laden’s “salute” to Somali militants who killed U.S. troops during the infamous 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident.

Despite this, the U.S. dispatched personnel to Africa as part of Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in 2002. The next year, CJTF-HOA took up residence at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, where it resides to this day on the only officially avowed U.S. base in Africa.

As CJTF-HOA was starting up, the State Department launched a multi-million-dollar counterterrorism program, known as the Pan-Sahel Initiative, to bolster the militaries of Mali, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania. In 2004, for example, Special Forces training teams were sent to Mali as part of the effort. In 2005, the program expanded to include Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia and was renamed the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership.

Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Nicholas Schmidle noted that the program saw year-round deployments of Special Forces personnel “to train local armies at battling insurgencies and rebellions and to prevent bin Laden and his allies from expanding into the region.” The Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership and its Defense Department companion program, then known as Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans-Sahara, were, in turn, folded into U.S. Africa Command when it took over military responsibility for the continent in 2008.

As Schmidle noted, the effects of U.S. efforts in the region seemed at odds with AFRICOM’s stated goals. “Al Qaeda established sanctuaries in the Sahel, and in 2006 it acquired a North African franchise [Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb],” he wrote. “Terrorist attacks in the region increased in both number and lethality.”

In fact, a look at the official State Department list of terrorist organizations indicates a steady increase in Islamic radical groups in Africa alongside the growth of U.S. counterterrorism efforts there — with the addition of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in 2004, Somalia’s al-Shabaab in 2008, and Mali’s Ansar al-Dine in 2013. In 2012, General Carter Ham, then AFRICOM’s chief, added the Islamist militants of Boko Haram in Nigeria to his own list of extremist threats.

The overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya by an interventionist coalition including the U.S., France, and Britain similarly empowered a host of new militant Islamist groups such as the Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades, which have since carried out multiple attacks on Western interests, and the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia, whose fighters assaulted U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. In fact, just prior to that attack, according to the New York Times, the CIA was tracking “an array of armed militant groups in and around” that one city alone.

According to Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert on Libya, that country is now “fertile ground” for militants arriving from the Arabian Peninsula and other places in the Middle East as well as elsewhere in Africa to recruit fighters, receive training, and recuperate. “It’s really become a new hub,” he told me.

Obama’s Scramble for Africa

The U.S.-backed war in Libya and the CIA’s efforts in its aftermath are just two of the many operations that have proliferated across the continent under President Obama. These include a multi-pronged military and CIA campaign against militants in Somalia, consisting of intelligence operations, a secret prison, helicopter attacks, drone strikes, and U.S. commando raids; a special ops expeditionary force (bolstered by State Department experts) dispatched to help capture or kill Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony and his top commanders in the jungles of the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo; a massive influx of funding for counterterrorism operations across East Africa; and, in just the last four years, hundreds of millions of dollars spent arming and training West African troops to serve as American proxies on the continent. From 2010-2012, AFRICOM itself burned through $836 million as it expanded its reach across the region, primarily via programs to mentor, advise, and tutor African militaries.

In recent years, the U.S. has trained and outfitted soldiers from Uganda, Burundi, and Kenya, among other nations, for missions like the hunt for Kony. They have also served as a proxy force for the U.S. in Somalia, part of the African Union Mission (AMISOM) protecting the U.S.-supported government in that country’s capital, Mogadishu. Since 2007, the State Department has anted up about $650 million in logistics support, equipment, and training for AMISOM troops. The Pentagon has kicked in an extra $100 million since 2011.

The U.S. also continues funding African armies through the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership and its Pentagon analog, now known as Operation Juniper Shield, with increased support flowing to Mauritania and Niger in the wake of Mali’s collapse. In 2012, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development poured approximately $52 million into the programs, while the Pentagon chipped in another $46 million.

In the Obama years, U.S. Africa Command has also built a sophisticated logistics system officially known as the AFRICOM Surface Distribution Network, but colloquially referred to as the “new spice route.” Its central nodes are in Manda Bay, Garissa, and Mombasa in Kenya; Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda; Bangui and Djema in Central African Republic; Nzara in South Sudan; Dire Dawa in Ethiopia; and the Pentagon’s showpiece African base, Camp Lemonnier.

In addition, the Pentagon has run a regional air campaign using drones and manned aircraft out of airports and bases across the continent including Camp Lemonnier, Arba Minch airport in Ethiopia, Niamey in Niger, and the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, while private contractor-operated surveillance aircraft have flown missions out of Entebbe, Uganda. Recently, Foreign Policy reported on the existence of a possible drone base in Lamu, Kenya.

Another critical location is Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, home to a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment and the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support initiative that, according to military documents, supports “high risk activities” carried out by elite forces from Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara. Lieutenant Colonel Scott Rawlinson, a spokesman for Special Operations Command Africa, told me that the initiative provides “emergency casualty evacuation support to small team engagements with partner nations throughout the Sahel,” although official documents note that such actions have historically accounted for just 10% of monthly flight hours.

While Rawlinson demurred from discussing the scope of the program, citing operational security concerns, military documents indicate that it is expanding rapidly. Between March and December of last year, for example, the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support initiative flew 233 sorties. In just the first three months of this year, it carried out 193.

AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson has confirmed to TomDispatch that U.S. air operations conducted from Base Aerienne 101 in Niamey, the capital of Niger, were providing “support for intelligence collection with French forces conducting operations in Mali and with other partners in the region.” Refusing to go into detail about mission specifics for reasons of “operational security,” he added that, “in partnership with Niger and other countries in the region, we are committed to supporting our allies… this decision allows for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations within the region.”

Benson also confirmed that the U.S. military has used Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport in Senegal for refueling stops as well as the “transportation of teams participating in security cooperation activities” like training missions. He confirmed a similar deal for the use of Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia. All told, the U.S. military now has agreements to use 29 international airports in Africa as refueling centers.

Benson was more tight-lipped about air operations from Nzara Landing Zone in the Republic of South Sudan, the site of one of several shadowy forward operating posts (including another in Djema in the Central Africa Republic and a third in Dungu in the Democratic Republic of Congo) that have been used by U.S. Special Operations forces. “We don’t want Kony and his folks to know… what kind of planes to look out for,” he said. It’s no secret, however, that U.S. air assets over Africa and its coastal waters include Predator, Global Hawk and Scan Eagle drones, MQ-8 unmanned helicopters, EP-3 Orion aircraft, Pilatus planes, and E-8 Joint Stars aircraft.

Last year, in its ever-expanding operations, AFRICOM planned 14 major joint-training exercises on the continent, including in Morocco, Uganda, Botswana, Lesotho, Senegal, and Nigeria. One of them, an annual event known as Atlas Accord, saw members of the U.S. Special Forces travel to Mali to conduct training with local forces. “The participants were very attentive, and we were able to show them our tactics and see theirs as well,” said Captain Bob Luther, a team leader with the 19th Special Forces Group.

The Collapse of Mali

As the U.S.-backed war in Libya was taking down Qaddafi, nomadic Tuareg fighters in his service looted the regime’s extensive weapons caches, crossed the border into their native Mali, and began to take over the northern part of that country. Anger within the country’s armed forces over the democratically elected government’s ineffective response to the rebellion resulted in a military coup. It was led by Amadou Sanogo, an officer who had received extensive training in the U.S. between 2004 and 2010 as part of the Pan-Sahel Initiative. Having overthrown Malian democracy, he and his fellow officers proved even less effective in dealing with events in the north.

With the country in turmoil, the Tuareg fighters declared an independent state. Soon, however, heavily-armed Islamist rebels from homegrown Ansar al-Dine as well as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Libya’s Ansar al-Sharia, and Nigeria’s Boko Haram, among others, pushed out the Tuaregs, took over much of the north, instituted a harsh brand of Shariah law, and created a humanitarian crisis that caused widespread suffering, sending refugees streaming from their homes.

These developments raised serious questions about the efficacy of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. “This spectacular failure reveals that the U.S. probably underestimated the complex socio-cultural peculiarities of the region, and misread the realities of the terrain,” Berny Sèbe, an expert on North and West Africa at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, told me. “This led them to being grossly manipulated by local interests over which they had, in the end, very limited control.”

Following a further series of Islamist victories and widespread atrocities, the French military intervened at the head of a coalition of Chadian, Nigerian, and other African troops, with support from the U.S. and the British. The foreign-led forces beat back the Islamists, who then shifted from conventional to guerrilla tactics, including suicide bombings.

In April, after such an attack killed three Chadian soldiers, that country’s president announced that his forces, long supported by the U.S. through the Pan-Sahel Initiative, would withdraw from Mali. “Chad’s army has no ability to face the kind of guerrilla fighting that is emerging,” he said. In the meantime, the remnants of the U.S.-backed Malian military fighting alongside the French were cited for gross human rights violations in their bid to retake control of their country.

After the French intervention in January, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, “There is no consideration of putting any American boots on the ground at this time.” Not long after, 10 U.S. military personnel were deployed to assist French and African forces, while 12 others were assigned to the embassy in the Malian capital, Bamako.

While he’s quick to point out that Mali’s downward spiral had much to do with its corrupt government, weak military, and rising levels of ethnic discontent, the Carnegie Endowment’s Wehrey notes that the war in Libya was “a seismic event for the Sahel and the Sahara.” Just back from a fact-finding trip to Libya, he added that the effects of the revolution are already rippling far beyond the porous borders of Mali.

Wehrey cited recent findings by the United Nations Security Council’s Group of Experts, which monitors an arms embargo imposed on Libya in 2011. “In the past 12 months,” the panel reported, “the proliferation of weapons from Libya has continued at a worrying rate and has spread into new territory: West Africa, the Levant [the Eastern Mediterranean region], and potentially even the Horn of Africa. Illicit flows [of arms] from the country are fueling existing conflicts in Africa and the Levant and enriching the arsenals of a range of non-state actors, including terrorist groups.”

Growing Instability

The collapse of Mali after a coup by an American-trained officer and Chad’s flight from the fight in that country are just two indicators of how post-9/11 U.S. military efforts in Africa have fared. “In two of the three other Sahelian states involved in the Pentagon’s pan-Sahelian initiative, Mauritania and Niger, armies trained by the U.S., have also taken power in the past eight years,” observed journalist William Wallis in the Financial Times. “In the third, Chad, they came close in a 2006 attempt.” Still another coup plot involving members of the Chadian military was reportedly uncovered earlier this spring.

In March, Major General Patrick Donahue, the commander of U.S. Army Africa, told interviewer Gail McCabe that northwestern Africa was now becoming increasingly “problematic.” Al-Qaeda, he said, was at work destabilizing Algeria and Tunisia. Last September, in fact, hundreds of Islamist protesters attacked the U.S. embassy compound in Tunisia, setting it on fire. More recently, Camille Tawil in the CTC Sentinel, the official publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, wrote that in Tunisia “jihadis are openly recruiting young militants and sending them to training camps in the mountains, especially along Algeria’s borders.”

The U.S.-backed French intervention in Mali also led to a January revenge terror attack on the Amenas gas plant in Algeria. Carried out by the al-Mulathameen brigade, one of various new al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb-linked militant groups emerging in the region, it led to the deaths of close to 40 hostages, including three Americans. Planned by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran of the U.S.-backed war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it was only the first in a series of blowback responses to U.S. and Western interventions in Northern Africa that may have far-reaching implications.

Last month, Belmokhtar’s forces also teamed up with fighters from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa — yet another Islamist militant group of recent vintage — to carry out coordinated attacks on a French-run uranium mine and a nearby military base in Agadez, Niger, that killed at least 25 people. A recent attack on the French embassy in Libya by local militants is also seen as a reprisal for the French war in Mali.

According to the Carnegie Endowment’s Wehrey, the French military’s push there has had the additional effect of reversing the flow of militants, sending many back into Libya to recuperate and seek additional training. Nigerian Islamist fighters driven from Mali have returned to their native land with fresh training and innovative tactics as well as heavy weapons from Libya. Increasingly battle-hardened, extremist Islamist insurgents from two Nigerian groups, Boko Haram and the newer, even more radical Ansaru, have escalated a long simmering conflict in that West African oil giant.

For years, Nigerian forces have been trained and supported by the U.S. through the Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance program. The country has also been a beneficiary of U.S. Foreign Military Financing, which provides grants and loans to purchase U.S.-produced weaponry and equipment and funds military training. In recent years, however, brutal responses by Nigerian forces to what had been a fringe Islamist sect have transformed Boko Haram into a regional terrorist force.

The situation has grown so serious that President Goodluck Jonathan recently declared a state of emergency in northern Nigeria. Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke out about “credible allegations that Nigerian security forces are committing gross human rights violations, which, in turn, only escalate the violence and fuel extremism.” After a Boko Haram militant killed a soldier in the town of Baga, for example, Nigerian troops attacked the town, destroying more than 2,000 homes and killing an estimated 183 people.

Similarly, according to a recent United Nations report, the Congolese army’s 391st Commando Battalion, formed with U.S. support and trained for eight months by U.S. Special Operations forces, later took part in mass rapes and other atrocities. Fleeing the advance of a recently formed, brutal (non-Islamic) rebel group known as M23, its troops joined with other Congolese soldiers in raping close to 100 women and more than 30 girls in November 2012.

“This magnificent battalion will set a new mark in this nation’s continuing transformation of an army dedicated and committed to professionalism, accountability, sustainability, and meaningful security,” said Brigadier General Christopher Haas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa at the time of the battalion’s graduation from training in 2010.

Earlier this year, incoming AFRICOM commander General David Rodriguez told the Senate Armed Services Committee that a review of the unit found its “officers and enlisted soldiers appear motivated, organized, and trained in small unit maneuver and tactics” even if there were “limited metrics to measure the battalion’s combat effectiveness and performance in protecting civilians.” The U.N. report tells a different story. For example, it describes “a 14 year old boy… shot dead on 25 November 2012 in the village of Kalungu, Kalehe territory, by a soldier of the 391 Battalion. The boy was returning from the fields when two soldiers tried to steal his goat. As he tried to resist and flee, one of the soldiers shot him.”

Despite years of U.S. military aid to the Democratic Republic of Congo, M23 has dealt its army heavy blows and, according to AFRICOM’s Rodriguez, is now destabilizing the region. But they haven’t done it alone. According to Rodriguez, M23 “would not be the threat it is today without external support including evidence of support from the Rwandan government.”

For years, the U.S. aided Rwanda through various programs, including the International Military Education and Training initiative and Foreign Military Financing. Last year, the U.S. cut $200,000 in military assistance to Rwanda — a signal of its disapproval of that government’s support for M23. Still, as AFRICOM’s Rodriguez admitted to the Senate earlier this year, the U.S. continues to “support Rwanda’s participation in United Nations peacekeeping missions in Africa.”

After years of U.S. assistance, including support from Special Operations forces advisors, the Central African Republic’s military was recently defeated and the country’s president ousted by another newly formed (non-Islamist) rebel group known as Seleka. In short order, that country’s army chiefs pledged their allegiance to the leader of the coup, while hostility on the part of the rebels forced the U.S. and its allies to suspend their hunt for Joseph Kony.

A strategic partner and bulwark of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, Kenya receives around $1 billion in U.S. aid annually and elements of its military have been trained by U.S. Special Operations forces. But last September, Foreign Policy’s Jonathan Horowitz reported on allegations of “Kenyan counterterrorism death squads… killing and disappearing people.” Later, Human Rights Watch drew attention to the Kenyan military’s response to a November attack by an unknown gunman that killed three soldiers in the northern town of Garissa. The “Kenyan army surrounded the town, preventing anyone from leaving or entering, and started attacking residents and traders,” the group reported. “The witnesses said that the military shot at people, raped women, and assaulted anyone in sight.”

Another longtime recipient of U.S. support, the Ethiopian military, was also involved in abuses last year, following an attack by gunmen on a commercial farm. In response, according to Human Rights Watch, members of Ethiopia’s army raped, arbitrarily arrested, and assaulted local villagers.

The Ugandan military has been the primary U.S. proxy when it comes to policing Somalia. Its members were, however, implicated in the beating and even killing of citizens during domestic unrest in 2011. Burundi has also received significant U.S. military support and high-ranking officers in its army have recently been linked to the illegal mineral trade, according to a report by the environmental watchdog group Global Witness. Despite years of cooperation with the U.S. military, Senegal now appears more vulnerable to extremism and increasingly unstable, according to a report by the Institute of Security Studies.

And so it goes across the continent.

Success Stories

In addition to the Gulf of Guinea, AFRICOM’s chief spokesman pointed to Somalia as another major U.S. success story on the continent. And it’s true that Somalia is more stable now than it has been in years, even if a weakened al-Shabaab continues to carry out attacks. The spokesman even pointed to a recent CNN report about a trickle of tourists entering the war-torn country and the construction of a luxury beach resort in the capital, Mogadishu.

I asked for other AFRICOM success stories, but only those two came to his mind — and no one should be surprised by that.

After all, in 2006, before AFRICOM came into existence, 11 African nations were among the top 20 in the Fund for Peace’s annual Failed States Index. Last year, that number had risen to 15 (or 16 if you count the new nation of South Sudan).

In 2001, according to the Global Terrorism Database from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, there were 119 terrorist incidents in sub-Saharan Africa. By 2011, the last year for which numbers are available, there were close to 500. A recent report from the International Center for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies counted 21 terrorist attacks in the Maghreb and Sahel regions of northern Africa in 2001. During the Obama years, the figures have fluctuated between 144 and 204 annually.

Similarly, an analysis of 65,000 individual incidents of political violence in Africa from 1997 to 2012, assembled by researchers affiliated with the International Peace Research Institute, found that “violent Islamist activity has increased significantly in the past 15 years, with a particular[ly] sharp increase witnessed from 2010 onwards.” Additionally, according to researcher Caitriona Dowd, “there is also evidence for the geographic spread of violent Islamist activity both south- and east-ward on the continent.”

In fact, the trends appear stark and eerily mirror statements from AFRICOM’s leaders.

In March 2009, after years of training indigenous forces and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on counterterrorism activities, General William Ward, the first leader of U.S. Africa Command, gave its inaugural status report to the Senate Armed Services Committee. It was bleak. “Al-Qaeda,” he said, “increased its influence dramatically across north and east Africa over the past three years with the growth of East Africa Al-Qaeda, al Shabaab, and al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).”

This February, after four more years of military engagement, security assistance, training of indigenous armies, and hundreds of millions of dollars more in funding, AFRICOM’s incoming commander General David Rodriguez explained the current situation to the Senate in more ominous terms. “The command’s number one priority is East Africa with particular focus on al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda networks. This is followed by violent extremist [movements] and al-Qaeda in North and West Africa and the Islamic Maghreb. AFRICOM’s third priority is Counter-LRA [Lord’s Resistance Army] operations.”

Rodriguez warned that, “with the increasing threat of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, I see a greater risk of regional instability if we do not engage aggressively.” In addition to that group, he declared al-Shabaab and Boko Haram major menaces. He also mentioned the problems posed by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa and Ansar al-Dine. Libya, he told them, was threatened by “hundreds of disparate militias,” while M23 was “destabilizing the entire Great Lakes region [of Central Africa].”

In West Africa, he admitted, there was also a major narcotics trafficking problem. Similarly, East Africa was “experiencing an increase in heroin trafficking across the Indian Ocean from Afghanistan and Pakistan.” In addition, “in the Sahel region of North Africa, cocaine and hashish trafficking is being facilitated by, and directly benefitting, organizations like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb leading to increased regional instability.”

In other words, 10 years after Washington began pouring taxpayer dollars into counterterrorism and stability efforts across Africa and its forces first began operating from Camp Lemonnier, the continent has experienced profound changes, just not those the U.S. sought. The University of Birmingham’s Berny Sèbe ticks off post-revolutionary Libya, the collapse of Mali, the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria, the coup in the Central African Republic, and violence in Africa’s Great Lakes region as evidence of increasing volatility. “The continent is certainly more unstable today than it was in the early 2000s, when the U.S. started to intervene more directly,” he told me.

As the war in Afghanistan — a conflict born of blowback — winds down, there will be greater incentive and opportunity to project U.S. military power in Africa. However, even a cursory reading of recent history suggests that this impulse is unlikely to achieve U.S. goals. While correlation doesn’t equal causation, there is ample evidence to suggest the United States has facilitated a terror diaspora, imperiling nations and endangering peoples across Africa. In the wake of 9/11, Pentagon officials were hard-pressed to show evidence of a major African terror threat. Today, the continent is thick with militant groups that are increasingly crossing borders, sowing insecurity, and throwing the limits of U.S. power into broad relief. After 10 years of U.S. operations to promote stability by military means, the results have been the opposite. Africa has become blowback central.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of and a fellow at the Nation Institute. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Times bestseller Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books). You can catch his conversation with Bill Moyers about that book by clicking here. His website is You can follow him on Tumblr and on Facebook.

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Copyright 2013 Nick Turse

Photo: A US Solider with Site Security Team/Joint Combat Search and Rescue, 2nd Battalion, 137th Infantry Regiment, guards a C-130 Hercules aircraft while pararecuesmen with the 82nd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron evacuate onto it with a simulated patient in Djibouti, Djibouti. The Site Security Team/Joint Combat Search and Rescue and the 82nd ERQS are deployed in support of the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa mission. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christine Clark)

Alex Gibney Talks Wikileaks, Manning and More with the ACLU

Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney speaks with the ACLU’s Ben Wizner about We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks. They discuss how The New York Times among other publications have been treated differently than Wikileaks by the government, the dangers of over-classification, the role of journalists in a national security situation, and the connection between Wikileaks and the Arab Spring.

Tom Dispatch: The Making of a Global Security State

SateliteThe Five Uncontrollable Urges of a Secrecy-Surveillance World By Tom Engelhardt

As happens with so much news these days, the Edward Snowden revelations about National Security Agency (NSA) spying and just how far we’ve come in the building of a surveillance state have swept over us 24/7 — waves of leaks, videos, charges, claims, counterclaims, skullduggery, and government threats. When a flood sweeps you away, it’s always hard to find a little dry land to survey the extent and nature of the damage. Here’s my attempt to look beyond the daily drumbeat of this developing story (which, it is promised, will go on for weeks, if not months) and identify five urges essential to understanding the world Edward Snowden has helped us glimpse.

1. The Urge to be Global

Corporately speaking, globalization has been ballyhooed since at least the 1990s, but in governmental terms only in the twenty-first century has that globalizing urge fully infected the workings of the American state itself. It’s become common since 9/11 to speak of a “national security state.” But if a week of ongoing revelations about NSA surveillance practices has revealed anything, it’s that the term is already grossly outdated. Based on what we now know, we should be talking about an American global security state.

Much attention has, understandably enough, been lavished on the phone and other metadata about American citizens that the NSA is now sweeping up and about the ways in which such activities may be abrogating the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Far less attention has been paid to the ways in which the NSA (and other U.S. intelligence outfits) are sweeping up global data in part via the just-revealed Prism and other surveillance programs.

Sometimes, naming practices are revealing in themselves, and the National Security Agency’s key data mining tool, capable in March 2013 of gathering “97 billion pieces of intelligence from computer networks worldwide,” has been named “boundless informant.” If you want a sense of where the U.S. Intelligence Community imagines itself going, you couldn’t ask for a better hint than that word “boundless.” It seems that for our spooks, there are, conceptually speaking, no limits left on this planet.

Today, that “community” seeks to put not just the U.S., but the world fully under its penetrating gaze. By now, the first “heat map” has been published showing where such information is being sucked up from monthly: Iran tops the list (14 billion pieces of intelligence); then come Pakistan (13.5 billion), Jordan (12.7 billion), Egypt (7.6 billion), and India (6.3 billion). Whether you realize this or not, even for a superpower that has unprecedented numbers of military bases scattered across the planet and has divided the world into six military commands, this represents something new under the sun. The only question is what?

The twentieth century was the century of “totalitarianisms.” We don’t yet have a name, a term, for the surveillance structures Washington is building in this century, but there can be no question that, whatever the present constraints on the system, “total” has something to do with it and that we are being ushered into a new world. Despite the recent leaks, we still undoubtedly have a very limited picture of just what the present American surveillance world really looks like and what it plans for our future. One thing is clear, however: the ambitions behind it are staggering and global.

In the classic totalitarian regimes of the previous century, a secret police/surveillance force attempted, via every imaginable method, including informers, wire tappers, torture techniques, imprisonment, and so on to take total control of a national environment, to turn every citizen’s life into the equivalent of an open book, or more accurately a closed, secret file lodged somewhere in that police system. The most impressive of these efforts, the most global, was the Soviet one simply because the USSR was an imperial power with a set of disparate almost-states — those SSRs of the Caucasus and Central Asia — within its borders, and a series of Eastern European satellite states under its control as well. None of the twentieth-century totalitarian regimes, however, ever imagined doing the same thing on a genuinely global basis. There was no way to do so.

Washington’s urge to take control of the global communications environment, lock, stock, and chat room, to gather its “data” — billions and billions of pieces of it — and via inconceivably powerful computer systems, mine and arrange it, find patterns in it, and so turn the world into a secret set of connections, represents a remarkable development. For the first time, a great power wants to know, up close and personal, not just what its own citizens are doing, but those of distant lands as well: who they are communicating with, and how, and why, and what they are buying, and where they are travelling, and who they are bumping into (online and over the phone).

Until recently, once you left the environs of science fiction, that was simply beyond imagining. You could certainly find precursors for such a development in, for instance, the Cold War intelligence community’s urge to create a global satellite system that would bring every inch of the planet under a new kind of surveillance regime, that would map it thoroughly and identify what was being mapped down to the square inch, but nothing so globally up close and personal.

The next two urges are intertwined in such a way that they might be thought as a single category: your codes and theirs.

2. The Urge to Make You Transparent

The urge to possess you, or everything that can be known about you, has clearly taken possession of our global security state. With this, it’s become increasingly apparent, go other disturbing trends. Take something seemingly unrelated: the recent Supreme Court decision that allows the police to take a DNA swab from an arrestee (if the crime he or she is charged with is “serious”). Theoretically, this is being done for “identification” purposes, but in fact it’s already being put to other uses entirely, especially in the solving of separate crimes.

If you stop to think about it, this development, in turn, represents a remarkable new level of state intrusion on private life, on your self. It means that, for the first time, in a sure-to-widen set of circumstances, the state increasingly has access not just — as with NSA surveillance — to your Internet codes and modes of communication, but to your most basic code of all, your DNA. As Justice Antonin Scalia put it in his dissent in the case, “Make no mistake about it: As an entirely predictable consequence of today’s decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national DNA database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason.” Can global DNA databases be far behind?

If your DNA becomes the possession of the state, then you are a transparent human being at the most basic level imaginable. At every level, however, the pattern, the trend, the direction is the same (and it’s the same whether you’re talking about the government or giant corporations). Increasingly, access to you, your codes, your communications, your purchases, your credit card transactions, your location, your travels, your exchanges with friends, your tastes, your likes and dislikes is what’s wanted — for what’s called your “safety” in the case of government and your business in the case of corporations.

Both want access to everything that can be known about you, because who knows until later what may prove the crucial piece of information to uncover a terrorist network or lure in a new network of customers. They want everything, at least, that can be run through a system of massive computers and sorted into patterns of various potentially useful kinds. You are to be, in this sense, the transparent man or transparent woman. Your acts, your life patterns, your rights, your codes are to be an open book to them — and increasingly a closed book to you. You are to be their secret and that “you” is an ever more global one.

3. The Urge to Make Themselves Opaque

With this goes another reality. They are to become ever less accessible, ever more impenetrable, ever less knowable to you (except in the forms in which they would prefer you to know them). None of their codes or secrets are to be accessed by you on pain of imprisonment. Everything in the government — which once was thought to be “your” government — is increasingly disappearing into a professional universe of secrecy. In 2011, the last year for which figures are available, the government classified 92 million documents. And they did so on the same principle that they use in collecting seemingly meaningless or harmless information from you: that only in retrospect can anyone know whether a benign-looking document might prove anything but. Better to deny access to everything.

In the process, they are finding new ways of imposing silence on you, even when it comes to yourself. Since 2001, for instance, it has become possible for the FBI to present you with a National Security Letter which forces you to turn over information to them, but far more strikingly gags you from ever mentioning publicly that you got such a letter. Those who have received such letters (and 15,000 of them were issued in 2012) are legally enjoined from discussing or even acknowledging what’s happening to them; their lives, that is, are no longer theirs to discuss. If that isn’t Orwellian, what is?

President Obama offered this reassurance in the wake of the Snowden leaks: the National Security Agency, he insisted, is operating under the supervision of all three branches of the government. In fact, the opposite could be said to be true. All three branches, especially in their oversight roles, have been brought within the penumbra of secrecy of the global security state and so effectively coopted or muzzled. This is obviously true with our ex-professor of Constitutional law and the executive branch he presides over, which has in recent years been ramping up its own secret operations.

When it comes to Congress, the people’s representatives who are to perform oversight on the secret world have been presented with the equivalent of National Security Letters; that is, when let in on some of the secrets of that world, they find they can’t discuss them, can’t tell the American people about them, can’t openly debate them in Congress. In public sessions with Congress, we now know that those who run our most secret outfits, if pushed to the wall by difficult questions, will as a concession respond in the “least untruthful manner” possible, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper put it last week.

Given the secret world’s control over Congress, representatives who are horrified by what they’ve learned about our government’s secrecy and surveillance practices, like Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, can only hint at their worries and fears. They can, in essence, wink at you, signal to you in obscure ways that something is out of whack, but they can’t tell you directly. Secrecy, after all.

Similarly, the judiciary, that third branch of government and other body of oversight, has, in the twenty-first century, been fully welcomed into the global security state’s atmosphere of total secrecy. So when the surveillance crews go to the judiciary for permission to listen in on the world, they go to a secret court, a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court, locked within that secret world. It, in turn, notoriously rubberstamps whatever it is they want to do, evidently offering no resistance whatsoever to their desires. (Of the 6,556 electronic surveillance requests submitted to the court in Obama’s first term in office, for instance, only one was denied.) In addition, unlike any other court in America, we, the American people, the transparent and ignorant public, can know next to nothing about it. And you know perfectly well why: the overriding needs of secrecy.

What, though, is the point of “oversight” if you can’t do anything other than what that secret world wants you to do?

We are, in other words, increasingly open to them and they are increasingly closed to us.

4. The Urge to Expand

As we’ve known at least since Dana Priest and William Arkin published their stunning series, “Top Secret America,” in the Washington Post in 2010, the U.S. Intelligence Community has expanded post-9/11 to levels unimaginable even in the Cold War era. Then, of course, it faced another superpower, not a small set of jihadis largely located in the backlands of the planet. It now exists on, as Arkin says, an “industrial scale.” And its urge to continue growing, to build yet more structures for surveillance, including a vast $2 billion NSA repository in Bluffdale, Utah, that will be capable of holding an almost unimaginable yottabyte of data, is increasingly written into its DNA.

For this vast, restless, endless expansion of surveillance of every sort and at every level, for the nearly half-million or possibly far more private contractors, aka “digital Blackwater,” now in the government surveillance business — about 70% of the national intelligence budget reportedly goes to the private sector these days — and the nearly five million Americans with security clearances (1.4 million with top security clearances, more than a third of them private contractors), the official explanation is “terrorism.” It matters little that terrorism as a phenomenon is one of the lesser dangers Americans face in their daily lives and that, for some of the larger ones, ranging from food-borne illnesses to cars, guns, and what’s now called “extreme weather,” no one would think about building vast bureaucratic structures shrouded in secrecy, funded to the hilt, and offering Americans promises of ultimate safety.

Terrorism certainly rears its ugly head from time to time and there’s no question that the fear of some operation getting through the vast U.S. security net drives the employees of our global security state. As an explanation for the phenomenal growth of that state, however, it simply doesn’t hold water. In truth, compared to the previous century, U.S. enemies are remarkably scarce on this planet. So forget the official explanation and imagine our global-security-state-in-the-making in the grips of a kind of compulsive disorder in which the urge to go global, make the most private information of the citizen everywhere the property of the American state, and expand surveillance endlessly simply trumps any other way of doing things.

In other words, they can’t help themselves. The process, the phenomenon, has them by the throat, so much so that they can imagine no other way of being. In this mood, they are paving the way for a new global security — or rather insecurity — world. They are, for instance, hiking spending on “cybersecurity,” have already secretly launched the planet’s first cyberwar, are planning for more of them, intend to dominate the future cyber-landscape in a staggering fashion, continue to gather global data of every sort on a massive scale, and more generally are acting in ways that they would consider criminal if other countries engaged in them.

5. The Urge to Leak

The massive leaks of documents by Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have few precedents in American history. Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers leak is their only obvious predecessor. They are not, however, happenstances of our moment. They are signs of what’s to come. If, in surveillance terms, the urge to go global and impose ultimate secrecy on both the state’s secrets and yours, to prosecute whistleblowers to the maximum (at this point usually via the Espionage Act or, in the case of Manning, via the charge of “aiding the enemy,” and with calls of “treason” already in the air when it comes to Snowden), it’s natural that the urge to leak will rise as well.

If the surveillance state has reached an industrial level of operations, and ever more secrets are being brought into computer systems, then vast troves of secrets exist to be revealed, already cached, organized, and ready for the plucking. If the security state itself goes global, then the urge to leak will go global, too.

In fact, it already has. It’s easy to forget that WikiLeaks was originally created not just for American secrets but any secrets. Similarly, Manning uploaded his vast trove of secrets from Iraq, and Snowden, who had already traveled the world in the service of secrecy, leaked to an American columnist living in Brazil and writing for a British newspaper. His flight to Hong Kong and dream of Icelandic citizenship could be considered another version of the globalizing impulse.

Rest assured, they will not be the last. An all-enveloping atmosphere of secrecy is not a natural state of being. Just look at us individually. We love to tell stories about each other. Gossiping is one of the most basic of human activities. Revealing what others don’t know is an essential urge. The urge, that is, to open it all up is at least as powerful as the urge to shut it all down.

So in our age, considering the gigantism of the U.S. surveillance and intelligence apparatus and the secrets it holds, it’s a given that the leak, too, will become more gigantic, that leaked documents will multiply in droves, and that resistance to regimes of secrecy and the invasion of private life that goes with them will also become more global. It’s hard from within the U.S. to imagine the shock in Pakistan, or Germany, or India, on discovering that your private life may now be the property of the U.S. government. (Imagine for a second the reaction here if Snowden had revealed that the Pakistani or Iranian or Chinese government was gathering and storing vast quantities of private emails, texts, phone calls, and credit card transactions from American citizens. The uproar would have been staggering.)

As a result of all this, we face a strangely contradictory future in which ever more draconian regimes of secrecy will confront the urge for ever greater transparency. President Obama came into office promising a “sunshine” administration that would open the workings of the government to the American people. He didn’t deliver, but Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and other leakers have, and no matter how difficult the government makes it to leak or how hard it cracks down on leakers, the urge is almost as unstoppable as the urge not to be your government’s property.

You may have secrets, but you are not a secret — and you know it.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (just published in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute’s His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt

Guerrilla Blog Dispatches – June 17, 2013

Hercs in a Row

House Passes Sweeping $638 Billion Defense Bill

Afghans Poised to Take Security Lead From the US and NATO

Pentagon Project Wants To Decrease Human Control Of Drones

NSA Swears Its Spy Programs Are No Big Deal in PRISM Spin War

Suit Filed Against NSA, Administration Over Surveillance Program