On the evening of September 20, 2001, then-President George W. Bush addressed the American public and laid the political, military and ideological groundwork for the “war on terror,” a global campaign of allied security forces to end domestic and international terrorism, a term so loosely defined that it soon became a container for anyone from al-Qaeda militants to teenage school shooters to January 6 rioters to leftists and human rights activists. In the same way that the world eventually realized the catastrophic failure of the “war on drugs,” more and more people are realizing that the war on terror is also an unwinnable war against a constantly shifting enemy.
In this address, Bush promised what followed would not be an age of terror, but “an age of liberty, here and across the world.” Twenty-one years after September 11, this “age of liberty” has ushered in an expanded surveillance apparatus, bloated defense budgets, military invasions and occupations, and the death and displacement of millions of people from Iraq to Somalia. The Middle East is often viewed as the center of the war against terror. However, the African continent is one of the most brutally pounded frontiers of this war.
In 2007, in a post-9/11 political and psychological landscape, President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense, launched U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which oversees all Department of Defense military operations on the continent in order to “monitor and disrupt violent extremist organizations and protect U.S. interests” because of the continent’s growing strategic importance. AFRICOM was initially based in Stuttgart, Germany. It was formed without the involvement or support of any African leaders. Many decried the formation of AFRICOM and described it as an attempt by the U.S. to establish more military bases on the continent. In response, U.S. officials said AFRICOM was meant to provide humanitarian assistance and support peace and stability because “a safe, stable, and prosperous Africa is an enduring American interest.” But critics pointed out that Iraq and Afghanistan, twin targets of the war on terror, serve as clear examples of the disastrous consequences of the U.S.’s militarized “humanitarian” efforts.
AFRICOM It has not created the “safety and stability” invoked by U.S. leaders, but it has expanded the U.S. military’s footprint. AFRICOM rapidly expanded its reach and influence in Africa during the Obama administration. It did this through military to-military trainings and joint counterterrorism operation. Other surreptitious methods made it dependent on AFRICOM for defense needs of African states. Despite the fact that the U.S. does not have a war against any African country, there is a total of 46 U.S. military outposts and bases across the continent. The largest concentration is in the Horn of Africa. Camp Lemonnier is the U.S. base at Djibouti. This small East African nation has a poverty rate around 79 percent and serves as the home for AFRICOM. In 2014, the U.S. government leased a 20 year lease for $63,000,000 per annum.
As AFRICOM’s presence across the continent grows, so does the terrorism it is meant to curb. The 2006 U.S.-backed upthrow of the Union of Islamic Courts (Somalia) opened the way for al-Shabab, a more militant group to grow in rank, and reach. This is just one example showing how U.S. military intervention can create power vacuums that increase the political will and strength terrorist groups.
In October 2017, the one of deadliest terror attacks in Somalia’sA truck bombing in Mogadishu in August 2022 left over 500 people dead and injured, and it is now part of history. Numerous people were killed in a 30-hour standoff between Somali security forces and al-Shabab militants at Hotel Hayat in the city’s center. These attacks point to the country’s fragile security apparatus despite persistent counterterrorism offensives and $243,309,000 in security assistance from the United States in 2022 alone. The U.S.’s decades-long presence has not led to a decrease in terrorist activity but has only caused increased instability in the region and enabled such violence to flourish.
A 2019 report released by the Africa Center for Strategic StudiesTerrorist activity has increased by twice between 2012 and 2018, while the number of countries that were attacked increased by 960%. In 2018, there was a tenfold rise in violent events, jumping up from 288 incidents in 2009, to 3,050 in 2018. From Boko Haram’s growth in Nigeria, to al-Shabab’s territorial advancements across Somalia, to Daesh’s reappearance in Libya, by all metrics, the war on terror has been an abysmal failure in Africa. The burden of this failed war falls on the African people caught up in the nexus between terrorist violence and counterterrorism efforts.
Although AFRICOM training has not assisted African security forces in fighting terrorism, it has allowed them to repress civilian protests against reactionary African leaders aligned with U.S. interests. This was evident by the Nigerian crackdown on #EndSARS protesters in 2020. SARS, also known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), is a notoriously-trained unit within the Nigerian Police. has a documented history of human rights abuses.The war against terror not only created conditions for the U.S., its allies, and unrestricted collaboration on security and surveillance via shared counterinsurgency strategies, but also the development and use of a common language. The U.S. imperial project and any of its puppet regimes are frequently challenged by terrorists, from Lagos to Minneapolis. President Joe Biden’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic TerrorismThis is an example of how the government has used the war against terror to criminalize and punish protesters and activists.
AFRICOM has been a remarkable success in boosting corporate profits from the lucrative counterterrorism industry made possible by the war on terror. A 2021 report from Brown University’s Cost of War Project revealed that one-third to one-half of all Pentagon contracts since 9/11 have gone to five transnational weapons corporations: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman. These five companies made $2.1 trillion on Pentagon contracts between 2001-2020. Terrorism is a manufactured crisis. The solution is sold by global weapons manufacturers, which is not surprising.
On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, George W. Bush lauded the courage and resilience of the American people and said if they ever needed hope or inspiration in the aftermath of the attack, they should “look to the skies” for a reminder of all they have overcome. Bush had just delivered his speech at the Flight 93 memorial ceremony a year earlier. On a sunny day in southern Somalia, the air was filled with drones from the United States. Kusow Omar Abukar (a man whose family was eating dinner) was struck from the sky. His daughter, Nurto, died. His family’s life was changed forever. The U.S. military claimed that there were no civilian casualties and called the strike successful. The U.S. public is encouraged by the sky to find refuge and comfort, but the children around the world are afraid of what the U.S. might unleash up there. “I no longer love blue skies,” 13-year-old Zubair of North Waziristan told Congress in 2012. “In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey.”
In his first address to the nation on the evening of 9/11, a solemn Bush asked the American people to pray “for all those who grieve, for those children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose sense of safety and security have been threatened.”
Twenty years later, in an interview with Al-Jazeera, Kusow Abukar looked to the sky and made a different kind of prayer: “Only God can stop America,” he said. “We have no other powers but prayers.”