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US Mil Mali Remote Control
A U.S. navy Seal advisor watches a Malian special operations vehicle unit run through immediate action drills for counter-terrorism missions during training February 26, 2010, near Gao, Mali. Photo by Max R. Blumenfeld, Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara“, (US Mil).

New Remote Control Report: A New Frontier of Counter-terrorism in the Sahel-Sahara
5 August 2014

The Sahel-Sahara is the ‘new frontier’ in global counter-terrorism operations, new report finds.

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 Group’s report, From New Frontier to New Normal: Counter -terrorism operations in the Sahel-Sahara finds 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 Libya’s 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 Chad’s 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 region’s 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.http://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/publications/briefing_papers_and_reports/sahel_counterterrorism_new_normal (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Remote Control Sahel New Normal Exec Summ
Remote Control Sahel New Normal Exec Summ, p. 2
http://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/sites/default/files/New%20Frontier%20to%20New%20Normal%20-%20Executive%20Summary%20Aug%202014.pdf (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
Entire report here: http://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/sites/default/files/From%20New%20Frontier%20to%20New%20Normal%20-%20Counter-terrorism%20operations%20in%20the%20Sahel-Sahara.pdf