This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Six years ago, in late May 2012, I read a New York Times piece by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, "Secret 'Kill List' Proves a Test of Obama's Principles and Will." They reported that President Obama was then overseeing a "regular Tuesday counterterrorism meeting of two dozen security officials in the White House Situation Room" at which potential al-Qaeda suspects -- their biographies on sardonically named "baseball cards" -- were "nominated" for a global "kill list." Their killings were then to be carried out by the CIA's force of Hellfire missile-armed Predator (and later Reaper) drones, which had essentially become the president's private air force.
Those "targeted killings" were, of course, assassinations, which should have but didn't shock the nation. In response, I wrote this at the time: "Be assured of one thing: whichever candidate you choose at the polls in November, you aren't just electing a president of the United States; you are also electing an assassin-in-chief." And I pointed out that, though American presidents had long been associated with assassinations (ranging from plots against Cuba's Fidel Castro to the deaths of Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem and Congolese Premier Patrice Lumumba, not to speak of the CIA's vast Vietnam War-era Phoenix Program), presidents had generally tried to stay above the fray and maintain at least plausible deniability when it came to such acts. No longer. In 2012, the president of the United States took on the mantle of assassin-in-chief and, as long as that drone program continues, will be so, whether we're talking about Donald Trump or any future president.
As I wrote then, assassination had been "thoroughly institutionalized, normalized, and bureaucratized around the figure of the president. Without the help of or any oversight from the American people or their elected representatives, he alone is now responsible for regular killings thousands of miles away, including those of civilians and even children. He is, in other words, if not a king, at least the king of American assassinations. On that score, his power is total and completely unchecked."
In May 2018, as TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon reports, nothing has changed on this score, except for the worse -- and worse yet, the subject of presidential assassination isn't even up for discussion or debate in the Trump era. It is indeed the norm. It is who our president is, whomever the American people elect -- and so, who we are. Think about that as you read Gordon's grim report on the most recent chapters in America's now seemingly never-ending drone wars. Tom
Trump Drones On
How Unpiloted Aircraft Expand the War on Terror
By Rebecca Gordon
They are like the camel's nose, lifting a corner of the tent. Don't be fooled, though. It won't take long until the whole animal is sitting inside, sipping your tea and eating your sweets. In countries around the world -- in the Middle East, Asia Minor, Central Asia, Africa, even the Philippines -- the appearance of U.S. drones in the sky (and on the ground) is often Washington's equivalent of the camel's nose entering a new theater of operations in this country's forever war against "terror." Sometimes, however, the drones are more like the camel's tail, arriving after less visible U.S. military forces have been in an area for a while.
Scrambling for Africa
AFRICOM, the Pentagon's Africa Command, is building Air Base 201 in Agadez, a town in the nation of Niger. The $110 million installation, which officially opens later this year, will be able to house both C-17 transport planes and MQ-9 Reaper armed drones. It will soon become the new centerpiece in an undeclared U.S. war in West Africa. Even before the base opens, armed U.S. drones are already flying from Niger's capital, Niamey, having received permission from the Nigerien government to do so last November.
Despite crucial reporting by Nick Turse and others, most people in this country only learned of U.S. military activities in Niger in 2017 (and had no idea that about 800 U.S. military personnel were already stationed in the country) when news broke that four U.S. soldiers had died in an October ambush there. It turns out, however, that they weren't the only U.S soldiers involved in firefights in Niger. This March, the Pentagon acknowledged that another clash took place last December between Green Berets and a previously unknown group identified as ISIS-West Africa. For those keeping score at home on the ever-expanding enemies list in Washington's war on terror, this is a different group from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), responsible for the October ambush. Across Africa, there have been at least eight other incidents, most of them in Somalia.
What are U.S. forces doing in Niger? Ostensibly, they are training Nigerien soldiers to fight the insurgent groups rapidly multiplying in and around their country. Apart from the uranium that accounts for over 70% of Niger's exports, there's little of economic interest to the United States there. The real appeal is location, location, location. Landlocked Niger sits in the middle of Africa's Sahel region, bordered by Mali and Burkina Faso on the west, Chad on the east, Algeria and Libya to the north, and Benin and Nigeria to the south. In other words, Niger has the misfortune to straddle a part of Africa of increasing strategic interest to the United States.
In addition to ISIS-West Africa and ISGS, actual or potential U.S. targets there include Boko Haram (born in Nigeria and now spread to Mali and Chad), ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Libya, and Al Mourabitoun, based primarily in Mali.
At the moment, for instance, U.S. drone strikes on Libya, which have increased under the Trump administration, are generally launched from a base in Sicily. However, drones at the new air base in Agadez will be able to strike targets in all these countries.
Suppose a missile happens to kill some Nigerien civilians by mistake (not exactly uncommon for U.S. drone strikes elsewhere)? Not to worry: AFRICOM is covered. A U.S.-Niger Status of Forces Agreement guarantees that there won't be any repercussions. In fact, according to the agreement, "The Parties waive any and all claims... against each other for damage to, loss, or destruction of the other's property or injury or death to personnel of either Party's armed forces or their civilian personnel." In other words, the United States will not be held responsible for any "collateral damage" from Niger drone strikes. Another clause in the agreement shields U.S. soldiers and civilian contractors from any charges under Nigerien law.
The introduction of armed drones to target insurgent groups is part of AFRICOM's expansion of the U.S. footprint on a continent of increasing strategic interest to Washington. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European nations engaged in the "scramble for Africa," a period of intense and destructive competition for colonial possessions on the continent. In the post-colonial 1960s and 1970s, the United States and the Soviet Union vied for influence in African countries as diverse as Egypt and what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Today, despite AFRICOM's focus on the war on terror, the real jockeying for influence and power on the continent is undoubtedly between this country and the People's Republic of China. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, "China surpassed the United States as Africa's largest trade partner in 2009" and has never looked back. "Beijing has steadily diversified its business interests in Africa," the Council's 2017 backgrounder continues, noting that from Angola to Kenya,