Drone Operations in Current US Counterterrorism Strategy in Africa

JURIST Guest Columnist Kevin Govern of the Ave Maria School of Law says says the US must pursue a full spectrum of "smart power" capabilities in Africa, to include but not be limited to the use of drones for surveillance or targeted killing strikes...

The ongoing crises in Algeria and Mali have been commented about in recent Senate confirmation hearings for Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director nominee John Brennan and Department of Defense (DOD) Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, as well as former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's congressional testimony. Both crises have involved unmanned drones in the war against terror. Also known as "unmanned aerial vehicles" or "unmanned combat air vehicles," drones are but one weapon of choice where host-nation, regional or UN authority exists to employ use of force by ground, sea or air to counter terrorist threats. The US conducted unarmed drone surveillance of the Algerian In Amenas gas plant where Algerian forces led an operation to free European and American hostages, and to hunt for Mokhtar Belmokhtar, Algeria's link to al Qaeda, who has claimed responsibility for the crisis. Both the US and France used drone surveillance for airstrikes in Mali — and possibly launched drone strikes against al Qaeda-backed insurgents. Neither the administrations of US Presidents George Bush or Barack Obama received blanket permission to transit Algerian airspace — owing to strained relations over counterterrorism — but may, at best, have received case-by-case authorization with advance notice to the Algerian government for surveillance of potential terrorist targets. The Mali operation, at the request of the host-nation government, aimed ostensibly at restoring "the sovereignty of Mali on its territory" and prevent northern Mali from becoming a "terrorist sanctuary in the heart of Africa."

Both Algeria and Mali are beset by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) terrorist threats. Algeria is the birthplace of AQIM, which is al-Qaeda's affiliate in North Africa. It has produced most of AQIM's leadership and allies and is the nucleus from which terrorism has orbited beyond Algeria to Mali, Mauritania and Niger. African officials estimate AQIM consists of 2,500 - 3,000 Islamist fighters coming from Africa, Europe and Asia, while US officials estimate there are between 800 - 1,200 Islamist fighters. Regardless of their composition and strength, the conflict has forced 400,000 Malians to flee their homes, and wrought terror in North Africa's Sahara and Sahel, with the potential to expand well beyond those regions as a global threat.

Currently, the US has about 7,000 aerial drones of various nomenclature and capability compared with fewer than 50 a decade ago. That number is set to expand further under the administration's 2012 budget request [PDF] of $4.8 billion for drones. Drone strikes are legal according to Obama administration lawyers under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which gives the president authority to capture or kill anyone suspected of having planned, executed or assisted in the attacks of September 11, 2001. Since 2008 alone, more than 300 drone strikes deliberately killed 2,500 or more people in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere around the globe as part of CIA and military targeted killing operations. The Obama administration accelerated work in the weeks before the 2012 election on explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones. This policy-making process comes in the wake of an international investigation, reportage on a leaked 2010 Department of Justice targeted killing legal opinion "white paper," and continued domestic criticism and litigation regarding the US targeted killing process. These yet-to-be identified or disclosed policy standards and procedures will pertain to "personality strikes" against named terrorists, and "signature strikes" against groups of suspected, unknown militants.

Where are the US drones operating from in Africa? A former French Foreign Legion post referred to as Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti is reportedly the center of a "constellation of hush-hush [US] drone, commando or intelligence facilities in East Africa [including] Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and the island nation of the Seychelles." The DOD will neither confirm nor deny those locations, , but Niger's ambassador to the US, Maman Sidikou, told CNN that his government has agreed to let US drones operate from its territory, a largely desert nation on the eastern border of Mali. Included among the 3,200 or so troops at Lemonnier are approximately 300 Special Operations personnel working on organizing raids and strategizing the drone strikes of eight or more Predator drones "flown" by pilots from thousands of miles away and eight F-15E fighter-bombers for other strike operations.

The US can and does operate more than drones as counterterrorism tools in Africa in the pursuit of a so-called "smart power" strategy: employing the "soft power" tools of diplomacy, economic assistance and communications to supplement or augment the traditional "hard power" capabilities of the military to defend and advance [PDF] US interests in Africa. The US and Algeria have concluded numerous treaties and bilateral agreements to increase near and long-term military, political and economic cooperation. Both nations reportedly consult closely on key international and regional issues such as law enforcement cooperation, have a customs mutual assistance agreement and signed a mutual legal assistance treaty. Both have conducted bilateral military exercises — as well as frequent military exchanges — and the US hosted an Algerian port visit for the first time in 2012. Algerians have granted overflight permission to French fighter jets, and perhaps also to US drone overflights as well. Algeria sealed their southern border with Mali, cutting off essential fuel supplies to the terrorists in northern Mali, but Algeria may be reluctant to support the fight against AQIM outside its borders. At present there is no unclassified US troop presence in Algeria to combat AQIM. Drone flights over Algeria, based from other African nations, and Special Operations support, keeps the US profile low in the ongoing "smart power" approach to combating AQIM in Algeria.

As a result of the March 2012 military coup, the US terminated all assistance to the government of Mali and suspended all assistance to Mali with the exception of humanitarian assistance, food security, health and elections support, on a case-by-case basis. The US has looked to act unilaterally, and in conjunction with other nations to intervene in Mali under the auspices of UN Security Council Resolution 2056, cosponsored by the US, which supports a comprehensive approach to overlapping governance, security and humanitarian crises affecting Mali.

In January 2013, the DOD started airlifting French equipment into Mali in support of 700 - 800 African Union (AU) troops from Benin, Nigeria, Togo, Burkina Faso and in anticipation of Senegalese troops en route. The US also encouraged the Economic Community Of West African States member nations to support a peace enforcement mission in Mali consistent with Chapter VII of the UN Charter, albeit in advance of UN authorization of offensive operations in Mali.

Another key regional player in the North African counterterrorism operations is the AU. The US has a strong partnership with the AU in areas of mutual interest spanning a variety of sectors, formalized in August 2010 by a $5.8 million assistance agreement that supports AU projects in peace and security, democracy and governance, agriculture, health, trade and other fields, as well as general capacity-building. The US Department of State established the US Mission to the African Union (USAU) in 2006, the US dedicated significant resources to supporting the AU's peace and security programs, building capability for the AU to fulfill its aspirational defense goals under the 2009 AU Non-Aggression and Common Defence Pact [PDF].

The US assists the African Standby Force — a pan-African military corps — not just for counterterrorism but full-spectrum operational capability. Towards those ends, the US has provided training and equipment to develop and enhance the AU's Peace Support Operations Division, strategic communications, conflict monitoring and analysis and military planning capabilities which are critical to on-going and future AU peace support operations.

The newest regional unified combatant command formed by the DOD, US Africa Command (AFRICOM), leads this combined and interagency "smart power" promotion of US and African interests. Established under 10 USC § 161 and operating on a continent that has changed much since the independence movement, AFRICOM works closely with the AU, other regional African institutions and individual nations to "provide unique 'value-added' capabilities enhancing existing U.S. and international programs." On repercussions of troops with "boots on the ground," AFRICOM Senior Strategy Adviser J. Peter Pham said: "Drone strikes or airstrikes will not restore Mali's territorial integrity or defeat the Islamists, but they may be the least bad option." In hindsight, the outgoing deputy commander for military operations, retired Vice Admiral Robert Moeller, reflected on the challenges of civil-military operations in Africa and AFRICOM's "lessons learned" on the US approach to ongoing and future civil-military operations in Africa:

  • Lesson 1: AFRICOM does not create policy.
  • Lesson 2: AFRICOM must work hand in hand with the diplomatic corps.
  • Lesson 3: Keep our footprint in Africa limited.
  • Lesson 4: AFRICOM is most effective when it listens to the concerns of its African partners.
  • Lesson 5: Don't expect instant results.

As military and diplomatic initiatives challenge AQIM and other threats to internal and regional security in North Africa and beyond, the US must pursue a full spectrum of "smart power" capabilities, to include but not be limited to the use of drones for surveillance or targeted killing strikes. In every possible instance, the US should partner with African host nations and allied forces. In that manner, the US can fulfill ambitious policy goals to "add value" while advancing US and African economic, security and development policies.

Professor Govern began his legal career as an Army Judge Advocate, serving 20 years at every echelon during peacetime and war in worldwide assignments involving every legal discipline. In addition to currently teaching at Ave Maria School of Law, he is an Advisory Board Member and Affiliated Faculty for the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, has also served as an Assistant Professor of Law at the United States Military Academy, and teaches for California University of Pennsylvania. Unless otherwise attributed, the conclusions and opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the US Government, Department of Defense or Ave Maria School of Law.

Suggested citation: Kevin Govern, Drone Operations in Current US Counterterrorism Strategy, JURIST - Forum, Feb. 11, 2012, http://jurist.org/forum/2013/02/kevin-govern-drones-counterterrorism.php


This article was prepared for publication by Caleb Pittman, head of JURIST's academic commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at academiccommentaåry@jurist.org

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