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. While the Middle East is seen as the locus of the war on terror, one of the most ruthlessly pummeled frontiers of this war is the African continent.
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. Initially based in Stuttgart, Germany, AFRICOM was formed without the input or support of any African leaders, many of whom decried its formation and described it as an attempt to establish more U.S. 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 has not created the “safety and stability” invoked by U.S. leaders, but it has expanded the U.S. military’s footprint. During the Obama administration, AFRICOM quickly expanded its reach and influence on the continent through military-to-military trainings, joint counterterrorism operations, foreign aid, and other surreptitious methods that created dependence on AFRICOM for the defense needs of African states. Despite the fact that the U.S. is not at war with any African country, there are 46 U.S. military bases and outposts spanning the continent, with the greatest concentration in the Horn of Africa. Camp Lemonnier, the U.S. base in Djibouti, a small East African nation with a poverty rate of 79 percent, serves as the current home to AFRICOM in the Horn. In 2014 the U.S. government secured a 20-year lease for $63,000,000 a year.
As AFRICOM’s presence across the continent grows, so does the terrorism it is meant to curb. The 2006 U.S.-backed overthrow of the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia paved the way for a more militant group, al-Shabab, to grow in rank and reach. This is just one example of how power vacuums caused by U.S. military intervention fortify the political will and strength of terrorist groups.
In October 2017, in the one of the deadliest terror attacks in Somalia’s history, a truck bombing in Mogadishu killed over 500 civilians, injuring several hundred more. In August 2022, a deadly siege and 30-hour standoff between al-Shabab militants and the Somali security forces at Hotel Hayat in the city center left dozens dead. 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 Studies found terrorist activity doubled from 2012 to 2018, and the number of countries experiencing attacks increased by 960 percent during that time period. Moreover, there was a ten-fold increase in violent events, jumping 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 African people, caught in the nexus of the catastrophic violence of terrorism and ensuing counterterrorism efforts, bear the weight of this failed war.
While AFRICOM training has not helped African security forces curb terrorism, it has enabled them to repress civilian protests against reactionary African leaders who align with U.S. interests, as evidenced by the crackdown on #EndSARS protesters in Nigeria in 2020. SARS, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a notorious western-trained unit of the Nigerian Police, has a documented history of human rights abuses. The war on terror not only created the conditions that enabled the U.S. and its allies unfettered collaboration on security and surveillance through shared counterinsurgency tactics, but the development of a shared language and logic. From Lagos to Minneapolis, the designation of terrorist is frequently deployed against individuals or group that challenge the U.S. imperial project or any of its puppet regimes. President Joe Biden’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism is a domestic example of how the state has used the war on terror to criminalize and prosecute protesters and activists.
The one thing AFRICOM has dramatically succeeded at is boosting corporate profits associated with the lucrative counterterrorism industry that the war on terror has made possible. 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. From 2001 to 2020, these five companies earned $2.1 trillion from Pentagon contracts. Terrorism is a manufactured political crisis. Unsurprisingly, it is global weapons manufacturers that are tasked with selling the solution.
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. Meanwhile, a year before Bush delivered this speech at the Flight 93 memorial service, thousands of miles away in southern Somalia, on a clear and sunny day, the air hummed with the sound of U.S. drones flying overhead. A man named Kusow Omar Abukar was eating dinner with his family when they were attacked from the sky. His daughter, Nurto, died. His family’s life was changed forever. The U.S. military claimed there were no civilian causalities and called the strike a success. But even as the U.S. public is encouraged to find comfort and salvation in the heavens, the children of the world live in fear of what the U.S. might unleash from up above. “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.”