Richard Reeve and Zoë Pelter

5 August 2014

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A new report finds that the Sahel-Sahara is the new frontier in global counter-terrorism operations, prompting major transitions in US and French military positioning.  Launched today, the report coincides with the 2014 US-Africa Leaders Summit.

Commissioned by the Remote Control Project, Oxford Research Groups report, From New Frontier to New Normal: Counter -terrorism operations in the Sahel-Saharafinds that 2014 is a critical year for militarisation of the Sahel-Sahara and the entrenchment of foreign powers there.

Recurrent security crises since the 2011 Arab uprisings and NATO-assisted overthrow of Libyas Gaddafi regime have radically changed international perceptions of northwest Africa as a focal area of activities by jihadist groups.  It is now a priority area for French and US external counter-terrorism operations. 

The report reveals that both countries are implementing a pivot to Africa, which has seen French land, air and special forces move to a permanent posture at a string of bases across five or more Sahel states.  The US is increasing its presence and rolling out a crisis response concept known as the New Normal which could see US Marines establish bases across the continent with the capacity to deploy within hours anywhere where US citizens and interests are perceived to be threatened.

The report also finds that these operations are increasingly using remote-control methods, with a heavy reliance on special forces, drones and private military and security companies.  At least several hundred special forces are present in the region on undisclosed contingency operations. There is also an increase in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities with drones operating across the area from three bases.  Additionally, there is the contracting of private military and security companies by the US in a number of sensitive roles, including the running of these ISR operations. 

The report goes on to look at what outcomes these operations have had, raising concern over their effectiveness and their broader implications for the region.  The research finds that the French-led Operation Serval had severe strategic limitations, which have caused AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and its allies to displace into Libya, Niger and possibly Nigeria.  The report also finds that US special forces-led training programmes have failed dismally in Mali and Libya and, at best, have done nothing to counter the potential for mutinies, coups and political interventions by elements of allied militaries across the region.  There is also wider concern that these operations undermine governance and human rights: France relies heavily on Chads authoritarian government as well as undemocratic governments in Algeria and Mauritania.  Lastly, there is a worry of blowback as increased militarisation in the region will likely provide motivation for retaliatory attacks.

Richard Reeve, lead author of the report says,

With the drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan, 2014 is the year when the Global War on Terror really comes to northwest Africa. The remote Sahel-Sahara is the laboratory for experiments in 21st century counter-terrorism operations. These are defined by their open-ended length, light-touch approach - with limited boots on the ground and a reliance on special forces, drones and private military companies - and an increased capacity and willingness to intervene militarily to protect US interests.  As these operations increase, there is real concern, not just about their effectiveness in countering violent extremism, but the long-term impact these operations will have on the regions stability.

Caroline Donnellan, Manager of the Remote Control project says,

This report on the increasing use of remote-control methods in US and French led counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel-Sahara raises many important questions. The report reveals how, amongst other things, private contractors are involved in some of the most sensitive of counter-terrorism operations - including the operating of unarmed drones from Mali - as well as an increased reliance on special forces and drones. These emerging counter-terrorism methods raise broader concerns regarding the accountability and transparency of these operations.

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Editors Notes

The Remote Control project is a project of the Network for Social Change hosted by the London based think tank Oxford Research Group.  Remote Control examines changes in military engagement, in particular the use of drones, special forces, private military companies and cyber warfare. The project acts as a facilitator for the exchange of information and commissions and publicises work undertaken in the area, aiming to examine the long term effects of remote warfare.

Oxford Research Group (ORG) is a leading independent think-tank, non-governmental organisation and registered charity, based in London. ORG has been influential for thirty years in promoting the idea of sustainable approaches to global security as an alternative to violent confrontation, through original research, wide-ranging dialogue, and practical policy recommendations.

Richard Reeve is Director of the Sustainable Security Programme at Oxford Research Group. He has worked as an analyst of conflict and security issues in Africa since 2000, including for Janes Information Group, Chatham House, Kings College London and as Head of Research at International Alert. He has extensive experience of African conflict prevention, warning and management systems, having worked with ECOWAS, the African Union, the Arab League and many local organisations.

Zoë Pelter is the Research Officer of the Sustainable Security programme at Oxford Research Group. Previously, she worked with the International Security Research Department at Chatham House and the Associate Parliamentary Group for Sudan and South Sudan in UK Parliament. Zoë holds an honours degree in Social and Political Sciences from the University of Cambridge and has particular experience with a human security and development issues.