US President Barack Obama views Africa as the future continent for the 21st century. But this future is increasingly threatened by Islamist terrorists. This also worries the US - and Obama wants to be prepared.
It was an important date for Barack Obama. The 12th AGOA summit in Washington DC is the meeting place for politicians and leading business representatives from the US and African nations. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is the US development scheme for economic growth in Africa.
Many guests came to this event in the US capital in mid-June with great expectations. After all, when Obama was elected, Africans considered him their hope - someone who is interested in and committed to their interests. But since his election, Obama has only visited the continent once. He spent one day in Ghana in 2009.
The AGOA summit was a good opportunity for Obama to unveil the new US Africa strategy. It includes advancing trade, strengthening peace and security, as well as good governance and reinforcing democratic institutions in Africa. These are ambitious goals.
Increased US intelligence efforts
But a story published in the newspaper Washington Post drew more attention. The report revealed that the US military would expand its air bases in Africa. In addition to the existing facilities in Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and the Seychelles, the military planned to open a base in South Sudan.
US intelligence operations in Africa are nothing new, said Bronwyn Bruton, an African expert and deputy director of the think tank Atlantic Council in Washington. The US military has been present there since 2007. But spying operations and the number of air bases had increased because of the concern that Africa might be the next sanctuary for terrorists.
"I think that there's a fairly widespread perception among security analysts that Africa is going to be the next front in the global war on terrorism," Bruton said. "But I think that people are generally feeling that al Qaeda is being pushed toward Yemen. When they're pushed out of Yemen, they'll be pushed across the Gulf. They're [al Qaeda] already in Somalia and there's fear they're interacting with Boko Haram. It's obviously not an unrealistic worry."
Bruton said she believed the US wants to focus on military prevention, together with several African countries. While the air bases in Burkina Faso and Mauritania served the surveillance of al Qaeda groups in the Islamic Maghreb, bases in Uganda were being used to hunt the Lord's Resistance Army and its leader Joseph Kony. On the other hand, US aircraft from Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and the Seychelles were being deployed to spy on Somalia's al-Shabab militia.
No rise in ground troops
According to David Shinn, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University and a former US ambassador to Ethiopia, this US operation in Africa is different than the US strategy in the Middle East.
"I would point out that all of these operations - except for the one in Djibouti - are very small and most of them virtually all of them are surveillance efforts rather than missile strike capacity as you have in Yemen," Shinn said. "So, yes, the intelligence activity has clearly stepped up, but it's a very different kind of activity so far than what we've seen in the Middle East."
Bruton said US activities in Africa were evidence that Washington wanted less presence on the ground in the future. Not only was there a fear of triggering a backlash by an active presence of ground troops, but also because it is expensive. So the same "no boots on the ground" strategy holds true for the US African mission, she said.
"The preference for the Obama administration and for the US Africa Command is that whenever possible they are going to be assisting the local military," Bruton said. "I don't think there's any desire to militarize African policy or to have a big American military presence in Africa. This is something that should be perceived really as a defensive move by the United States."
The African take
Bruton said she believed the information collected in surveillance operations would be used to help African governments better control their territory. The question remained, however, how these heightened operations would be perceived by African governments and the population. Shinn said he believed the governments would react positively if it served their own interests, for example in terms of defeating their own potential enemies or developing a strong relationship with the US. However the people of those countries might have a different take on it.
"I think you have to make something of a distinction between how governments see these activities and how the African street sees it," Shinn said. "My guess is that there's probably a lot of suspicion about it and a certain amount of hostility."
In a written response to DW, the spokeswoman for the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) Nicole Dalrymple stated that the United States routinely worked with its African partner nations to counter those who would threaten regional security and stability in Africa. And just how important this cooperation is for African nations became evident with the arrest of a German terror suspect in Tanzania in mid-June, as well as the growing brutality of Islamist extremists in West Africa.
Author: Abebe Feleke / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge