Whereas formerly the continent of Africa was merely a tactical jumping-off point for access to the Middle East, now it is fast becoming a battlefield in its own right. The name of the strategy? Counter terrorism. The secrecy of US militarism in Africa is no secret at all. Africans are aware of the new reality: AFRICOM has been flooding the Sahel and Central Africa with drones and other surveillance tools. These aircraft are supported by a network of small military bases across Africa.

The flying machines over Africa are a mixture. One subcategory consists of drones (a catch-all phrase for planes without human pilots, aka remotely piloted aircraft, whether weaponized or not). The other is made up of small prop planes flown by contractors. The mixture is blanketing Africa’s skies to keep track of al-Shabab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaeda in the Horn, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and Boko Haram.

Pursuant to this goal additional military installations have popped up, including spots in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Nouakchott, Mauritania, and Nzara, South Sudan. The Washington Post reports: “About a dozen air bases have been established in Africa since 2007, according to a former senior U.S. commander involved in setting up the network. Most are small operations run out of secluded hangars at African military bases or civilian airports.” From these small bases AFRICOM coordinates missions to target the three “most dangerous” groups, according to AFRICOM commander General Carter Ham: Boko Haram, AQIM, and al-Shabab.

Known bases Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti and in Victoria, Seychelles Island, fly drones over Somalia to target members of al-Shabab. Drone strikes in Somalia are not reported, but do result in death. Al-Shabab in Somalia has quickly become in vogue as a terrorist threat, flying ahead of al-Qaeda in Iraq and Mesopotamia in terms of importance when the latter has killed hundreds of US citizens and the former zero. Information on Ahmed Abdi Aw-Mohamed, founder and commander of al- Shabab, is worth $7 million to State Department, whereas Abu Yahya al-Libi, described as al-Qaeda’s second in command, was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan with a paltry $1 million dollar bounty on his head. This apportionment of monies, especially for a cash-strapped State Department, highlights the new importance of counter-terror measures in Somalia.

Currently there is also a push to designate the group Boko Haram from Nigeria as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Boko Haram has killed hundreds of people in church bombings, and no one denies the horror of these acts–but Boko Haram is home-grown, pursues local aims, and presents no threat to the US. Extending our official treatment of terrorists to Boko Haram would just militarize bilateral relations in the name of ending a threat that was never there. This is what happened when President Bush sent troops to Iraq.

US military involvement in long-standing political situations (Nigeria, Somalia/Ethiopia, Sudan, LRA -affected states) does not tend to stop or slow down. Local involvement leads to the training and arming of local forces to carry out counter insurgency goals, as in Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria. It also leads to more casual military engagement in the field, like special forces which have been working with local law enforcement in the Sahara, Somalia and Yemen. Intelligence gathering extends beyond simple operations and into the realm of long-term political mapping, which requires a sustained network of observation. Michael Brenner of the University of Pittsburgh says this mission creep delegates the State Department to “a support role that involves local public relations and serving up the diplomatic refreshments.”

Further use of armed drones into the operations of AFRICOM, specifically in the hunt for Joseph Kony (the leader of the LRA) and in Somalia would be a mistake. Individual drone strikes can easily be wrong since it often relies on paid locals on the ground to provide location intelligence. And when it does go wrong there is no justice or recourse for the families or communities, because “it” never really happened. The use of drones in Africa is largely undocumented, and sets a terrible precedent while China, Russia, and Israel watch.

Moral and legal qualms aside, drones are really only useful in the fight against terrorism, and even then they’re not very effective. Any organized army is not so vulnerable to individual strikes and would be able to shoot down incoming drones. The use of drones for years in Pakistan accomplishes a general sense of unease, but hasn’t stopped the Taliban from physically holding territory or being in control of the area. How would drones do much better in the failed state of Somalia?

The blanket justification for the expansion of AFRICOM and use of drones is that all these different terrorist groups are plotting against the US and destabilizing African countries. Whether true or not, expanding this shadow network isn’t the way to safely increase security, and it doesn’t set a democratic example for burgeoning African countries.

AFRICOM and the myriad contractors it hires are encroaching on civilian territory: army special operations are replacing CIA intelligence gathering; the State Department is being edged out of developing long-term political strategy, and development work is being take away from the US Agency for International Development (USAID). All this with a classified budget, questionable use of drones, zero transparency for the American people, and zero accountability for the affected peoples across Africa who may look up and see American drones over their heads.

From Around Africa, by Melaura Homan-Smith