America’s Covert War in East Africa reveals the terrible violence of US military operations in Africa, and the complicity of the UK in this dangerous policy, finds Sean Ledwith

Clara Usiskin, America’s Covert War in East Africa: Surveillance, Rendition, Assassination (Hurst 2019), xi, 282pp.

In 2017, the American public were surprised to learn of the death in combat of four of their soldiers in the African state of Niger. The officers had been ambushed by an ISIS offshoot while on a covert counter-insurgency operation. The incident brought to light for the first time the shadowy operations of the US military on the African continent.

In the minds of many people, the so-called War on Terror initiated by the US state in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks has been a sequence of calamitous interventions centred in the Middle East. The value of Clara Usiskin’s new study lies in turning the spotlight on the equally disruptive, but lesser known, impact of the policy on Africa, and in particular, on the region around the Horn of Africa that incorporates Kenya, Uganda and Somalia. Usiskin skilfully combines eye-witness accounts, personal testimony and excerpts from official documentation to construct a chilling portrayal of a sinister apparatus of illegality and terror that the US military and its political masters have developed in the region to enforce the long-term objectives of the world’s hegemonic imperialist power. 

Few today (apart from Tony Blair) have any illusions that the War on Terror was anything other than a pretext for the US to tighten its grip on strategic locations within the global system. The nomenclature itself was quietly dropped by the Obama administration as part of its attempted rebranding of the American Leviathan. Anyone who reads this book will conclude that the era is probably better defined as the ‘War by Terror’. In the author’s words: 

‘What I have learned in the process of the work recounted in this book is that in the national security zone, dominated by the divisions of the War on Terror, there is essentially no third category beyond friend or foe, no protected space for justice and human rights’ (p.2).

Rendition and torture

The first chapter is a nightmarish account of the abduction by US Special Forces of Suleiman Abdallah, an ordinary Tanzanian who was living in Mogadishu and who just happened to have a tangential acquaintance with one of the men convicted of the 1998 Al Qaeda attacks on the US embassies in the region. In 2003, Suleiman was driving through the city when he pulled over to help another car which appeared to have broken down. In fact, it was a cynical trap arranged by US proxy forces who violently bundled him into their vehicle and drove him to the nearest airport under duress, and from there flew him to Kenya. After a week of solitary confinement at Nairobi Airport, he was taken on board a plane bound for Djibouti, the regional hub for American regional operations, by masked men who dressed him in a diaper, tracksuit and ear defenders.

On the flight, Suleiman was chained to the floor and repeatedly beaten by the masked men. At the secret base on Djibouti, he was sadistically forced to listen to pop music that his captors told him would remind him of the wife he would never see again. Ominously  nicknamed ‘The Darkness’ by those who have survived a visit to this hellhole, the base serves as one of the US state’s black rendition sites and operates on the basis of  ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques such as the constant playing of angry thrash-metal music, sleep deprivation and waterboarding. Versions of tortures devised by the Spanish Inquisition were inflicted on Suleiman as his tormentors interrogated him in English, a language he did not understand at the time.

After a few weeks, he was transferred to Bagram air base in Afghanistan, another site of Washington’s notorious global network of torture. Five years after his abduction, Suleiman was released without charge and without explanation. Thankfully, he is now back in Tanzania, but he is unsurprisingly plagued by nightmares, panic attacks and has been offered no support services by the US authorities who put him through a personal hell on the slenderest of pretexts. A Kenyan medic who examined Suleiman observed that:

‘never, in all her hundreds of evaluations of victims of East African torture, had she met a victim who had been so thoroughly mentally unravelled in the course of his mistreatment’ (p.33).

Africom and imperial power

The escalation of America’s focus on this region – and the wider continent – can be traced back to the creation of Africom or US African Command in 2007. This initiative represented the intention to coordinate and consolidate the American military’s ability to project its power around this sector of the global chessboard of power politics. Beneath the rhetorical bluster about counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, the true purpose of Africom is to secure Washington’s air and land supremacy in an oil-and-mineral rich arc of territory stretching from the Horn of Africa to the more central regions that contain the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The twenty-first century will witness an increasingly ferocious battle between the great powers for the world’s remaining natural resources and the US is determined to ensure that it comes out on top in that existential struggle.

Individuals like Suleiman Abdullah, as far as the US is concerned, are just flotsam and jetsam who get in the way and need to be erased from history if necessary. The manner in which the US and its allies are enforcing this emerging neo-colonial order, the author compellingly argues, is corroding the very values the West is supposedly defending:

‘Counterterrorism cooperation in practice and the prolific spread of a global counterterrorism lexicon – wherein words such as terrorist and terror suspect are used instrumentally, shifting their meanings and value according to political context and power relations – increasingly works to undermine the function of civil society and to further restrict the space within which dissent and criticism of governments can operate’ (p.142).

The collusion and culpability of Kenyan and Ugandan regimes with this Washington-inspired reign of terror is one of the themes frequently explored by Usiskin. These two governments have bought into the myth of the War on Terror in exchange for no-questions-asked funding from their sponsor in Washington and because it gives them a tailor-made pretext to repress domestic opposition. As she puts it, such a

‘blatant exceptionalist approach to international human rights and humanitarian law gives a political carte blanche to partner states, in particular those with an already weak rule of law and longstanding human rights concerns, to effectively carry out their own versions of US counterterrorism tactics and operations’ (p.110).

Collusion of British imperialism

Our own government’s shameful collusion with this web of duplicity is also forensically analysed by the author. In particular, she looks at the appalling treatment of the people of Diego Garcia, the small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean that has acquired geostrategic significance for the Western powers, especially for monitoring events in East Africa. As one of the last colonies of the British Empire, the island has not been granted self-rule, as its value as a communications and operations hub for the Royal Navy makes it too valuable to give up.

Two thousand Chagossians, the native inhabitants, were forcibly removed in the 1960s to ensure that its status as a lynchpin of Anglo-American security would not be jeopardised. Usiskin notes that the current cost to the British taxpayer for compensating the Chagossians runs at £40 million (p.39). On numerous occasions, most recently 2016, the UN has voted that the conduct of the British government regarding the island’s sovereignty has breached international law. Even worse, the author recounts how successive British governments have turned a blind eye to the integration of Diego Garcia into the CIA’s regional network of illegal rendition and torture. Usiskin cites a UN special report on torture in 2008 that indicated the island was being used by the US to hold terrorist suspects from around the world. More recently, a senior official in the US State Department confirmed in 2015 that the location was a key transit point for detainees on their way to Guantanamo Bay. 

David Miliband, former UK foreign secretary and lost leader of the Blairite wing of the Labour Party, confirmed in 2001 that the CIA was using Diego Garcia as a prison. The following year, a Foreign Office representative noted that information regarding the nature of flights to and from the island was unavailable due to ‘water damage’. Usiskin assiduously checked the weather data for the appropriate period and discovered there had been twelve millimetres of rain or a ‘light sprinkle’ in the area. Subsequent enquiries to the FO about the rendition flights produced the laughable response that the water damage was, on further consideration, due to a ‘leaky roof’! (p.50). Documents obtained by the Al Jazeera news network have confirmed that the ‘black site arrangement at Diego Garcia was made with the full cooperation of the British government’ (p.60).

Usiskin also draws attention to how drone attacks – increasingly a core component of the hardware of the US security state – have been used against British citizens without even a hint of disquiet by the British government. Bilal Berjawi and Mohamed Sakr were the targets of extrajudicial execution at the hands of a drone strike in Somalia in 2012. The decision-making process of the CIA that led to their deaths is totally classified and not available for any form of scrutiny. There is a horrifying suggestion that Berjawi was targeted as a consequence of a phone call he made to his wife shortly after she gave birth in a London hospital (p.103). Britain’s appalling complicity with the machinations of the US state over recent decades inevitably receives negligible coverage in the mainstream media and underlines what we will probably lose when Jeremy Corbyn steps down as Labour Leader. He has been unique as a prominent party leader in the UK willing to call out the dark side of the so-called special relationship between the two states.

Domestic blowback

Some misguided readers may reflect on Usiskin’s account and feel that the horrors she relates are shocking but at least do not directly impact on citizens in the UK itself. However, one of the most insidious aspects of the War on Terror discussed here is the use of digital intrusion techniques by British-owned software companies. Gamma International is a corporation that manufactures surveillance equipment with branches in this country and Germany. Owned by a British businessman, William Nelson, Usiskin explains how the company has created the FinFisher programme as part of a new generation of so-called Trojan systems that can remotely spy on a victim’s computer by pretending to be a routine software update. The author describes how the programme has been deployed by intelligence agencies in Bahrain and Ethiopia to monitor covertly the activities of activists perceived to be a threat to Pax Americana.

She recounts the case of an American citizen living in Maryland who ‘sued the Ethiopian state for infecting his computer with secret spyware, wiretapping his private Skype calls and monitoring his entire family’s use of the computer for a period of months’ (p.179). It does not require a great leap of the imagination to conceive how this devious form of technology could be used in a dystopian future not only to surveil the activities of a hardcore of political opponents of the state, but also on a wider scale to spy on the daily routines of employees in ordinary workplaces. 

Usiskin is to be commended for producing a sobering and much needed reminder of the reality that the US remains the most powerful and dangerous imperialist state in the twenty-first century, and that most of the global turbulence we are faced with can be laid at its door. The only feature lacking in her account is a contextualization of the War on Terror in East Africa as part of the developing rivalry within the wider world system of imperialism. Although the US presents its activities in the region as primarily concerned with containing the Islamist threat of Boko Haram and Al Shabaab, the long-term target of Africom is the growing Chinese presence in the continent.

Washington’s paranoia about the rising economic and political influence of Beijing as an alternative source of investment for developing African states is the real driver of the rendition sites, drone attacks and counter-insurgency operations of the US and its Western allies. The ultimate danger of the tension in Africa between the big two powers of this century is that just as the First World War was rooted in the original scramble for Africa, a third such conflagration might be as well. On a more positive note, the possibility for the continent to act as a beacon of global resistance to the neoliberal order has been highlighted by last year’s massive uprisings in Algeria and Sudan. Further eruptions of popular protest such as these are the most effective means of fighting off the imperial predators that continue to prey on Africa.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters