Drone strikes (or unmanned aerial vehicle strikes) have attracted significant media attention for their roles in the American-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in Pakistan. What has received less attention is the increasing frequency with which drone strikes have been carried out in Africa.
Africa has seemingly always endured a higher burden of conflict than other parts of the globe, and while drone strikes might be seen as a way to alleviate that, there is growing evidence to the contrary. As Western interests, led by the United States (US), increase their role in counter-terrorism efforts from Libya to Nigeria, leaders across Africa must question the wisdom of allowing weaponised drones on their sovereign territory.
In October 2015, The Intercept published a feature titled The Drone Papers, which provided a comprehensive assessment of the US programme. It also contained a section detailing the surprising scope and scale of US drone activity across Africa. Drawing on reporting from the New York Times, Foreign Policy, Washington Post and leaked Pentagon documents, the feature calls attention to the 14 African locations that are currently used to house and operate these sophisticated but nevertheless blunt instruments of warfare.
The US strategy in Africa revolves around a ‘spoke-and-hub’ approach, with the hub being Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. Camp Lemonnier is no flash in the pan for the US Department of Defense. It is the headquarters of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, which General Ham, the former commanding officer of the US Africa Command, described as an ‘essential regional power projection base that enables the operation of multiple combatant commands'.
Since 2012, nearly US$1.2 billion has been approved for expansion of the base, and the number of personnel at Camp Lemonnier has increased by roughly 450% since 2002. Furthermore, the US signed a US$70 million annual lease agreement with the government of Djibouti to continue operations through to 2044. Clearly the Pentagon has long-term plans for Camp Lemonnier, which it views as ‘as a key location for national security and power projection’.
Arguments in favour of increased drone strikes are relatively straightforward. Drone attacks eliminate dangerous terrorists without the need for a heavy US footprint and, more importantly, without putting actual troops or pilots in the line of fire. Because drones are operated remotely, soldiers are kept out of harm’s way, which helps minimise casualties.
A popular concern about drone strikes, which is highlighted and explained in The Drone Papers, is that roughly 50% of strikes rely only on signals intelligence (SIGINT). SIGINT relies almost exclusively on communication received from computers and mobile phones to locate presumed terrorists, often without human assessment of the integrity of the interceptions. In these cases, there is very little understanding about who is killed, or the context in which the attack is taking place.
The Obama administration has consistently touted drone strikes as an effective method of eliminating dangerous terrorists without putting civilians or soldiers in harm’s way. However, investigations from Amnesty International (2013), Human Rights Watch (2013) and The Intercept (2015) have shown that the US targeted killing programme occasionally strikes unintended targets, including civilians. According to the New America Foundation (2011), the rate of civilian casualties could be as high as 20%.
In the long term, this presents a lose-lose outlook for US counter-terrorism efforts. The effects of this less-than-discriminant killing of civilians are unknowable, and overly aggressive responses could have the unintended consequence of fuelling radicalisation.
Studies conducted by Anneli Botha, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, showed that in Kenya, for example, heavy-handed counter-terrorism responses could in fact drive people to join organisations such as al-Shabaab. ‘Affected communities might see the need to defend themselves, thus driving individuals to extremism,’ Botha explains.
If African leaders are to allow, or encourage, more targeted killing programmes, they should insist on more cooperation in intelligence-gathering, greater transparency with regard to targeting, and independent inquiries in the event of civilian causalities.
In a September 2015 study, Max Abrahms of Northeastern University and Jochen Mierau of the University of Groningen examined the effects of targeted killings on militant group tactics. Along with their own research, Abrahms and Mierau also took into account the findings of a 2006 study by Asaf Zussman from Cornell University and Noam Zussman from the Bank of Israel, which looked at the results of Israeli targeted killing of Palestinian terrorist leaders. Broadly speaking, both studies found that the elimination of high-level terrorists creates a leadership void, which is likely to be filled by younger and less methodical group members.
Their research showed that terrorist attacks on civilian targets often increase after ‘decap strikes’ or strikes that successfully target leaders. Abrahms’ says: ‘There is an inverse relationship between one’s position within the organisational hierarchy and one’s incentives for harming civilians’. Put another way, junior members of terrorist organisations have an incentive to inflict harm on civilians to attract notoriety, while senior members have an interest in striking more tactical targets to enhance the legitimacy of the organisation, thereby aiding recruitment.
Allowing the US to conduct military operations from bases in developing countries has always had questionable consequences for the host state. While Africa must address threats from terrorism and extremists, leaders should exercise prudence before allowing foreign powers to conduct targeted killing on their own soil. The long-term costs are simply unknowable at this stage.
Likewise, scrutiny must be cast onto cases where Western interests consider pursuing targeted killing programmes in states with dubious human rights records. Lucrative contracts for bases and the promise of a quick fix to terrorist attacks may be an attractive option, but policymakers must first prioritise adherence to international norms and human rights standards.
Zachary Donnenfeld, Researcher, African Futures and Innovation Section, ISS Pretoria