Category Archives: covert action

Favorite of the West: Niger as Police State

Niger Soluxe hotel

Niger, a poverty-stricken nation perched on the southern belt of the Sahara, is rapidly being transformed into one of the world’s most strategic security hubs….“This place is a nest of spies,” said one contractor … “Below the radar, it’s become a key country for the West.”  A surge in financial assistance from European nations seeking to stem the flow of African migrants has made Niger the world’s largest per capita recipient of European Union aid…Western military forces operate from at least nine bases in Niger, government officials said…. The U.S. is finishing a large air base in Agadez, while the Central Intelligence Agency has begun flying armed drones from an airstrip outside the northern town of Dirkou, Nigerien officials said.

U.S. and European policy makers praise the government as a good partner that has welcomed foreign military personnel and slashed the migrant flow by almost 90% from 2015 highs. …Locals, nongovernmental organizations and opposition activists say the government is using international backing to neutralize dissent and embezzle millions of dollars in aid, charges the government denies. The opposition—backed by rights group Amnesty International—says President Mahamadou Idriss Issoufou, in power since 2011, is arbitrarily jailing activists and spending Western aid on bolstering his elite Presidential Guard…

Swaths of the nation’s centuries-old transportation economy—the movement of people and goods from West Africa through the Sahara—has essentially been criminalized by the EU crackdown on migration.  Some of the desert-dwelling Tuareg people, who have transported goods for centuries, are now smuggling weapons, men and money for cash-rich jihadist insurgencies. Migrants are dying in the desert in failed attempts to find new routes.

“The West is pleased because Niger’s government is a willing partner,but as Niger’s security chief, Mohammed Bazoum, says “We have become a hinge country, a geostrategic hub, but it is a disaster for us. We are known as a land of terrorism and migrant traffic.”

Across Niger’s western border with Mali, jihadist groups including Islamic State and al Qaeda franchises control stretches of territory around the northern city of Gao. Along the southern frontier with Nigeria, a rejuvenated Boko Haram is mounting intensifying attacks against security forces, including around the city of Diffa, where the U.S. has dozens of troops stationed. To the north lies Libya, which has become a hotbed of instability, weapons and radicalization.

The European Development Fund last year awarded $1 billion to Niger through 2020, and unusually for a country governance watchdogs deem chronically corrupt, 75% is now infused directly into the Nigerien budget instead of through nongovernmental organizations.The money funds hundreds of off-road vehicles, motorcycles and satellite phones for Nigerien security forces as well as new infrastructure and technology along the borders and countrywide development programs.

In Niamey’s central Plateau district, tall black screens block the soaring new U.S. Embassy headquarters, which will be one of the largest in West Africa. Saudi Arabia has broken ground on its own huge mission, while buildings belonging to EU agencies occupy whole city blocks. Hotels and conference centers are rising in tandem, reconfiguring the economic and political landscape of a nation ranked the world’s second-poorest behind the Central African Republic.

The government says the building boom is creating jobs. Locals say it has stoked runaway inflation and priced them out of their neighborhoods. In the past year, the cost of a kilogram of rice has risen 29%, sending shock waves through homes where the average wage is $2.66 a day.

“The cost to live here rises with each new European coming,” lamented Abdulraham Mamoudou, repairing his motor scooter on a dusty corner near the expanding U.S. Embassy compound.

A similar pattern is playing out further north in the smuggling hub of Agadez, where the EU-coordinated migration crackdown has transformed a boomtown into a simmering bust.  The city’s jails are bursting with men who have been convicted of smuggling. Vast depots on the town’s outskirts house hundreds of trucks confiscated by authorities…“This place is now for the Americans and French,” said Sadiq, a former migrant smuggler who evaded arrest and is now unemployed. “They took our livelihood and don’t give us anything in return.”

Excerpts from ‘A Nest of Spies’: Niger’s Deserts Become Front Line of Fight Against Jihadis, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 12, 2018

A Sinkhole Sucking in Failed States: jihad in Africa

Collapse formed by rainwater leaking through pavement and carrying soil into a ruptured sewer pipe. Image from wikipedia

The number of violent incidents involving jihadist groups in Africa has increased by more than 300% between 2010 and 2017… Many Western officers are despondent. Without more troops “there is no question we will lose”, says a senior French officer.

In the potpourri of jihadist groups, many pledge their loyalties to al-Qaeda or IS. They include al-Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram and its factions in Nigeria, and Jama’a Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin in Mali. In each country, conflict may be fuelled largely by local grievances. But the insurgents share some ideological traits. Many have been strengthened by the breakdown of Libya after the downfall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in 2011. Weapons spilled out of Libya’s armouries, and smuggling networks for everything from people to drugs developed across the Sahara. There are signs that the jihadists are learning from one another and sucking money and support from militant groups in the Middle East

The most important of the battles is Nigeria’s campaign against Boko Haram. ..A retired general who once held a senior post at AFRICOM, America’s military command for Africa, puts it thus: “If Nigeria goes down it would make a giant sinkhole that would suck in six or seven other countries.” Nigeria’s difficulties, moreover, offer sobering lessons to many other African countries, and their Western allies.

Maiduguri (Nigeria) was the birthplace of Boko Haram, whose factions make up the world’s deadliest terrorist group. It is so extreme that it sickens even IS and al-Qaeda. The group was founded by the followers of a charismatic Islamic preacher, Mohammed Yusuf, who had started a religious school and mosque in Maiduguri in 2002… Among his demands was a ban on secular schooling (the group’s name, Boko Haram, means “Western education is a sin” in Hausa).

The Nigerian police arrested and then killed Yusuf in front of a crowd outside the police headquarters in Maiduguri (the government insisted he was shot while trying to escape). Yusuf’s followers went into hiding before emerging under the command of Abubakar Shekau. In 2011 they blew up the headquarters of the Nigerian police and a UN building in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. By the end of 2014 they had overrun large parts of three states in north-eastern Nigeria, gained international notoriety after kidnapping almost 300 schoolgirls from Chibok and were fighting their way into Maiduguri. Nigeria’s army, hollowed out by corruption, was in disarray. Units were filled by ghost soldiers whose pay was being pocketed by their commanders. One Western officer recalls how a company that should have had 100-150 soldiers consisted of just 20 men.

Boko Haram did not at first try to govern…. It preferred chaos. It bombed mosques and markets, massacred villagers and abducted women and children. Some girls were enslaved and sold. Others were pressed into being human bombs. A study by the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point, a military academy, found that more than half of 434 such human bombs the group used between April 2011 and June 2017 were female.UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, says that last year Boko Haram strapped bombs to at least 135 children.

Mr Shekau’s brutality proved too much even for IS, to which he had sworn allegiance in 2015, changing Boko Haram’s name to Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). In 2016 IS named Abu Musab al-Barnawi the leader of ISWAP, splintering the group into two factions.  Meanwhile, thousands of villagers and residents of Maiduguri took up machetes or handmade muskets and joined a self-defence militia, the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), that held the gates of the city. The new president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, a northerner and former military dictator, ordered his generals to move their headquarters to Maiduguri. Neighbouring states such as Chad, Niger and Cameroon contributed troops to a multinational force. Within months the army had recaptured most big towns, pushing the insurgents into forests or Lake Chad, a mass of swamps where the borders of four countries meet.

Since then, though, stalemate has set in…The ISWAP has learned how to make roadside bombs and has become more skilled in conducting attacks.  …It levies “taxes” on locals and erects roadblocks to extort money from passing traffic… It is building a proto-caliphate. 

Nigeria’s generals talk about “winning hearts and minds” but they are doing the opposite. The army has systematically cleared people from the countryside, burning their villages and packing them into squalid camps in Maiduguri and other “garrison towns”. In all, some 2.4m people have been displaced by the fighting in Nigeria and neighbouring countries. T  Most observers think that indiscriminate killings by the army and the forcing of people into garrison towns are fuelling the insurgency. There are almost no jobs in the camps. Access is through checkpoints manned by the army and CJTF, who demand bribes. Amnesty International, a human-rights group, says many women and girls have been raped in the camps and that hundreds if not thousands of people confined in them have died of starvation or a lack of medical care. … “It is like a factory for jihadis.”

The Nigerian state’s failure extends far beyond the camps. In  In effect, Nigeria’s north-east is a failed state within a dysfunctional one.

Excerpts from Jihad’s Next Battleground,  Economist, July 14, 2018, at 41

Slyly Conquering East Africa

The rulers of United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of whose components, Dubai, own a majority stake in DP World, one of the world’s largest maritime firms with perations in 40 countries.It is one of several Gulf states trying to gain a strategic foothold in east Africa through ports. Controlling these offers commercial and military advantages but risks exacerbating tensions in the region…

DP World thinks the region from Sudan to Somalia needs 10-12 ports. It has just half that. The firm’s first foray was on Djibouti’s coast. When DP World won its first concessions there in the 1990s, the Emiratis were among the few investors interested in the small and poor former French colony. DP World built and operated a new container terminal, Doraleh,and helped finance roads and other infrastructure. Doraleh is now the country’s largest employer and the government’s biggest source of revenue. It runs at nearly full capacity, handling 800,000 containers a year. Much of its cargo travels along a Chinese-built railway from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.

Djibouti’s profile rose further after the terrorist attacks on America of September 11th, 2001, when America opened a military base there. France and China also have bases; other navies patrol off its coast to deter Somali pirates. But when the Emiratis wanted to open their own naval base they were rebuffed, partly because of their close ties to Djibouti’s rival, Eritrea (the two states had a bloody border dispute in 2008). In 2015 the UAE started building a naval base in Assab, in southern Eritrea. The base has been used in the Saudi-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen….In 2016 DP World won a 30-year concession to operate the port of Berbera in Somaliland, which declared independence in 1991 (though no foreign government recognises it). Critics said the deal would hasten the break-up of Somalia.

The Horn ports all sit near the Bab al-Mandab strait, a vital choke-point at the mouth of the Red Sea: 4.8m barrels of oil passed through it every day in 2016. Competition is getting fierce, though. Qatar and its ally, Turkey, are building ports in Sudan. Saudi Arabia is in talks to set up a naval base in Djibouti. All three Gulf states are trying to snap up farmland in east Africa, part of a broader effort to secure food supplies for their arid countries. Emirati-built ports could one day export crops from Emirati-owned farms…

Gulf states could also find themselves in competition with China…In February 2018 Djibouti seized the Doraleh port, a concession to the UAE… Shippers believe it took Doraleh as a sop to China, to which it is heavily indebted. In July 2018, Djibouti opened the first phase of a new $3.5bn free-trade zone, set to be the largest in Africa when it is finished. Built mostly by state-owned Chinese firms, it sits next to Doraleh. DP World says the project violates the terms of its concession and is threatening to sue.

Excerpts from Red Sea Scamble: Ports on the Horn, Economist, July 21, 2018, at 33

How to Navigate the Rubble: DARPA

Rescue robot

Imagine a natural disaster scenario, such as an earthquake, that inflicts widespread damage to buildings and structures, critical utilities and infrastructure, and threatens human safety. Having the ability to navigate the rubble and enter highly unstable areas could prove invaluable to saving lives or detecting additional hazards among the wreckage.

Dr. Ronald Polcawich, a DARPA program manager in the Microsystems Technology Office (MTO):”There are a number of environments that are inaccessible for larger robotic platforms. Smaller robotics systems could provide significant aide, but shrinking down these platforms requires significant advancement of the underlying technology.”

Technological advances in microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), additive manufacturing, piezoelectric actuators, and low-power sensors have allowed researchers to expand into the realm of micro-to-milli robotics. However, due to the technical obstacles experienced as the technology shrinks, these platforms lack the power, navigation, and control to accomplish complex tasks proficiently

To help overcome the challenges of creating extremely [Size, Weight and Power] SWaP-constrained microrobotics, DARPA is launching a new program called SHort-Range Independent Microrobotic Platforms (SHRIMP). The goal of SHRIMP is to develop and demonstrate multi-functional micro-to-milli robotic platforms for use in natural and critical disaster scenarios. To achieve this mission, SHRIMP will explore fundamental research in actuator materials and mechanisms as well as power storage components, both of which are necessary to create the strength, dexterity, and independence of functional microrobotics platforms.

“The strength-to-weight ratio of an actuator influences both the load-bearing capability and endurance of a micro-robotic platform, while the maximum work density characterizes the capability of an actuator mechanism to perform high intensity tasks or operate over a desired duration,” said Polcawich. “

Excerpts from Developing Microrobotics for Disaster Recovery and High-Risk Environments: SHRIMP program seeks to advance the state-of-the art in micro-to-milli robotics platforms and underlying technology, OUTREACH@DARPA.MIL, July 17, 2018

The Underground War

the sewer of las vegas, Image from http://florianbuettner.com/tunnelpeople

U.S. Army leaders say the next war will be fought in mega-cities..In 2017, the Army launched an accelerated effort that funnels some $572 million into training and equipping 26 of its 31 active combat brigades to fight in large-scale subterranean facilities that exist beneath dense urban areas around the world….For this new type of warfare, infantry units will need to know how to effectively navigate, communicate, breach heavy obstacles and attack enemy forces in underground mazes ranging from confined corridors to tunnels as wide as residential streets. Soldiers will need new equipment and training to operate in conditions such as complete darkness, bad air and lack of cover from enemy fire in areas that challenge standard Army communications equipment…

“This training circular is published to provide urgently needed guidance to plan and execute training for units operating in subterranean environments, according to TC 3-20.50 “Small Unit Training in Subterranean Environments,” published in November 2017.

The Army has always been aware that it might have to clear and secure underground facilities such as sewers and subway systems beneath densely-populated cities. ..An assessment last year estimates that there are about 10,000 large-scale underground military facilities around the world that are intended to serve as subterranean cities…The endeavor became an urgent priority because more than 4,800 of these underground facilities are located in North Korea, the source said… But in addition to its underground nuclear missile facilities, North Korea has the capability to move thousands of troops through deep tunnels beneath the border into South Korea, according to the Army’s new subterranean manual.

“North Korea could accommodate the transfer of 30,000 heavily armed troops per hour,” the manual states. “North Korea had planned to construct five southern exits and the tunnel was designed for both conventional warfare and guerrilla infiltration. Among other things, North Korea built a regimental airbase into a granite mountain.”

For its part, Russia inherited a vast underground facilities program from the Soviet Union, designed to ensure the survival of government leadership and military command and control in wartime, the manual states. Underground bunkers, tunnels, secret subway lines, and other facilities still beneath Moscow, other major Russian cities, and the sites of major military commands.  More recently, U.S. and coalition forces operating in Iraq and Syria have had to deal with fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria operating in tunnel systems.

Toxic air, or a drop in oxygen, are other challenges soldiers will be likely to face operating deep underground. The Army is evaluating off-the-shelf self-contained breathing equipment for units to purchase.”Protective masks without a self-contained breathing apparatus provide no protection against the absence of oxygen,” the subterranean manual states. ”  Soldiers can find themselves exposed to smoke, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, methane natural gas underground, according to the manual. Breathing gear is expensive; some apparatus cost as much as $13,000 apiece, the source said.

Underground tunnels and facilities are often lighted, but when the lights go out, soldiers will be in total darkness. The Army announced in February that it has money in its fiscal 2019 budget to buy dual-tubed, binocular-style night vision goggles to give soldiers greater depth perception than offered by the current single-tubed Enhanced Night Vision Goggles and AN/PVS 14s.

Excerpts from Matthew Cox, Army Is Spending Half a Billion to Train Soldiers to Fight Underground, Military.com, June 24, 2018

See also DARPA on Underground War

Knowledge Never Ends: the fate of SS-18 Satan

RS-20 (SS-18 “Satan”) decommissioned. Image from wikipedia

While Ukraine renounced its own possession of nuclear weapons in 1994, many scientists and design bureaus in the country still have the know-how required to manufacture important components of strategic weapons.

China has often been particularly keen of this knowledge, acquiring Ukrainian help in designing their first phased-array radar system.  Ukrainian aerospace, tank and naval engineers is also a common phenomenon in China, most notably Valerii Babich, designer of the Varyag aircraft carrier. There are even rumors of “Ukrainetowns” in some Chinese cities founded by the large number of expats hired by Chinese firms. Ukrainian and Russian businessmen even sold Kh-55 nuclear cruise missiles (without the warheads) from Ukrainian stockpiles to China in the 2000s. As China continues to modernize their ICBM fleet, it begs the question: how much help is Ukraine providing, willingly and unwillingly?

This wouldn’t be the first time Ukraine’s ICBM knowhow was possibly exported. In the fall of 2017, Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye Design Bureau, based in Dnipro, was accused of providing rocket engines to North Korea. While Ukrainian media has denied this allegation, there was a definite case of Yushnoye employees who were caught selling the plans on the RS-20 (SS-18 “Satan”) to Chinese missile engineers. Although the Chinese engineers were caught by Ukrainian police, Chinese diplomatic influence resulted in the charges being cleared. This trend has continued, as recently as 2016 when a scientist at Dnipropetrovsk National University left for China with many materials regarding the use of composites and heat-shielding coatings on rocket launchers—which were considered Ukrainian state secrets…

Given all the different vectors through which rocket and missile technology are flowing from Ukraine to China, it’s reasonable to say that Ukraine has provided considerable aid to the Chinese ballistic missile program.

Excerpts, Charlie Gao, Do China’s Nuclear Missiles Have Ukrainian DNA?, The National Interest, June 23

How to Break the Rules without Breaking the Law

In 2009,  coalition casualties in Afghanistan had as much as doubled in the space of a year. Civilian casualties climbed to 2412. It was 2009. Coalition forces had been there since 2001 with no end and, to this point, no real campaign plan in sight…

Chris Masters, who was the only journalist to have been embedded with Australian special forces soldiers (SASR) in Afghanistan, believes a desensitisation occurred within the forces that allegedly allowed a “kill count mentality to develop”…SASR’s sabre squadrons are the tips of a trident of land, air and water operators, with the “wateries” an elite within an elite. And like their US counterparts, the Navy SEALs, unquestionable ability can come tinged with arrogance. In SASR, their rock-star persona did not sit easily with everyone when modesty was supposed to be a core value…

The most prominent allegation is traced to an assault on a compound codenamed Whiskey 108 at Kakarak in Oruzgan on Easter Sunday 2009…As shooting erupted, one operator remembers thinking: “I am going to die today.” Instead, methodically, they closed in on the remaining enemy, killing them one by one.  At this time Australian weapons were again heard firing and soldiers entering the compound saw something hurled from a window. It was an older man with a prosthetic leg, shot and now lying dead. The prosthetic leg was souvenired and returned to Perth to be fashioned into a drinking vessel.  What troubled a range of witnesses was not so much the killing of the men, who whether armed or unarmed were considered Taliban. It was more that the grim task of pulling the trigger had been pushed onto a “rookie”. As one operator told me: “If s— needs to be done, do it yourself.”

In rotations to come, the concept of blooding became well known. What became more disturbing was a suspicion the practise was not only about a first kill but also executing prisoners. ..What was not thought through was how many of the “blooded rookies” would be haunted well into the future by what was done…Soldiers began to refer to some of their members having gone “up the Congo”, into the moral wilderness of novelist Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Numerous witnesses have spoken of one SASR team posting a kill board on their door. The patrol commander was heard talking about needing more kills and subsequently of the goal being met….

As the mission wore on, further alleged breaches of the rules of armed conflict began to emerge, conspicuously contained to Special Forces and most particularly to SASR. The “Who Dares Wins” ethos of the regiment encourages the testing of boundaries. As they often tell themselves, “you break the rules but not the law”.

Exceprts from Chris Masters, Australia’s ugly turn in Afghanistan, Sydney Morning Herald, June 8, 2018