One of the first decisions John O. Brennan, America’s new CIA director, will have to make is whether the US should target leaders of Mali’s Islamist fighters with drone strikes — in much the same way as it has killed militants extensively in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere over the past decade.
Before being promoted head of the CIA, Brennan was President Barack Obama’s senior counter-terrorism adviser, responsible for the escalation of drone strikes in Pakistan and in Yemen.
As the militancy threat to the Sahel has grown over the past year, following the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Al Gaddafi, Obama and his security advisers are known to have debated whether to deploy armed drones in North Africa. Indeed, an American decision to deploy armed drones may already have been taken — triggered both by the war France launched this month against militants in Mali and by the reprisal raid which militants carried out against a major gas plant in south-eastern Algeria.
In today’s highly disturbed international environment, armed drones have become the supreme weapons of war. Pilotless machines, like the suitably-named Predator and Reaper, can stay airborne over hostile territory for more than 14 hours before striking unsuspecting targets with missiles travelling faster than the speed of sound.
The US is thought to have about 8,000 drones in service, of which a thousand are armed. Israel is also an active manufacturer of drones. According to SIPRI (the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) 41 per cent of drones exported between 2001 and 2011 were Israeli-built.
The raid against the Algerian gas plant at In Amenas is thought to have been planned by Mukhtar Belmokhtar, a former Al Qaida ‘emir’ who had formed his own militant group, the so-called ‘Signatories in blood’. Algerian Special Forces flushed them out in a number of operations beginning on January 16, killing most of them. But many Algerian and foreign hostages also perished.
Islamist internet sites have since hailed the attack on the Algerian gas plant as a great achievement and have called for assaults on French targets.
Responding to a call for help from the Malian government, France has made no secret of its intention to destroy the Islamist fighting groups in northern Mali and restore the rule of the Bamako government over the whole country. The groups it is targeting are AQIM (Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb), MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) and Ansar Al Deen.
These are the Islamist groups which routed Tawareq insurgents in northern Mali last year, seized major towns including Timbuktu, and then established their own, often violent, Islamic rule. In view of the vast seize of the arid country — Mali is about twice the size of France — it may prove a tough and long drawn-out assignment.
Both the US and Algeria were, for different reasons, reluctant to be sucked into the Mali conflict, but events may now have made it impossible for them to stay out. Under Obama, the US has been seeking to disengage from armed conflicts, such as the long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Algeria, too, was keen to stay out of the Mali conflict as it is still recovering from the wounds of its bitter civil war against Islamist fighters in the 1990s, which is thought to have claimed well over 150,000 lives.
The Islamists in Mali are, in many cases, veterans of Algeria’s civil war. The last thing Algiers wanted was to draw them back onto its own territory. But with the raid on the gas plant, this has now happened. Whether it likes it or not, Algeria is engaged in the conflict.
The French Mirage jets, which are bombing the militants in northern Mali, are said to be operating out of airfields in both Algeria and Chad. Will they now be joined by American armed drones?
Like the Mirages, drones require access to airfields and over-flight rights in neighbouring countries. Drones also need informers on the ground able to pinpoint potential targets, and convey this sensitive intelligence by electronic means to the drone controllers.
In Afghanistan, where the US has used drones extensively, informers have often been caught, tortured and executed by the Taliban, after having made forced video confessions of their espionage on behalf of the US. It remains to be seen whether the US can recruit networks of informers in northern Mali for this dangerous task.
Drone strikes are undoubtedly effective, but they are also highly controversial. As well as eliminating alleged terrorists, their victims are often innocent bystanders. Evidence presented in a joint report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and London’s Sunday Times showed that the CIA had deliberately targeted people who had gone to the aid of victims of a strike.
Wives of militants had also been struck as they were taking their husbands’ bodies for burial. In 2012, some 470 Pakistanis were killed by drone strikes, of which at least 68 were non-combatants. In a recent poll of Pakistanis, 74 per cent said they viewed the US as an enemy. Indeed, many experts believe that drone strikes create more terrorists than they kill.
In Yemen, US drone attacks against Al Qaida militants in the south of the country have also risen steeply in the past year. At least 185 people were killed by drone strikes in Yemen last year. But such lethal counter-terrorist operations have a political cost: they arouse fierce hostility not only against the US, but also against Yemen’s own leaders who allow US drones to operate on their territory. President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi (who replaced the long-serving Ali Abdullah Saleh last February) is thought to have asked for US help against Al Qaida.
In Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen counterterrorist operations alone, such as the US has favoured, have failed to bring peace. On the contrary, they have all too often made matters worse. To be effective, they need to be part of a wider policy of negotiation, compromise and the search for a political resolution of conflicts. Mali will provide the latest test. The error of the Bamako government was very probably not to have conceded a measure of autonomy to the Tawareq in the north of the country. Had they done so, the Islamist groups would have had no pretext to intervene.
In a report in the Daily Beast (an offshoot of Newsweek) of November 20, 2012, Cameron Munter, a former US ambassador to Pakistan, was quoted as saying: “The problem [with drone strikes] is the political fallout... Do you want to win a few battles and lose the war?’
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.