For all his reservations over the veracity of the information that the intelligence agencies provide, there is one thing President-Elect Donald Trump needs to get over quite quickly. He will have to learn to trust the briefings he will be given, almost weekly, on the activities and locations of key terrorists on what has been known as President Obama’s “Kill List.”
This is the list of people who pose an immediate and direct threat to the United States and its allies. Arguably, this is the most important database maintained by the collective intelligence services of the allies. It’s more formerly known as the “Disposition Matrix,” and was created by the Obama administration in 2010. It is the centrepiece of a framework of analysis that allows the intelligence agencies to advise the President on the various ways to neutralise, either through killing or arrest, anyone on the list.
The list of targets on the intervention board has not been going down. When it was created, unnamed intelligence officials were quoted as saying the size of the list was going to expand for “at least another decade.”
As Obama leaves office, his favourite mechanism for reaching out and engaging terrorists using drones to strike their sanctuaries in the Middle East and South East Asia will come under the control of the new President, who will quickly realise the decisions he has to take are no computer game. The pace of these operations is relentless.
This is the front-end of the on-going war on terror that sees strikes against terrorists in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Syria on a daily basis. They have become the de-facto instruments of death as far as terrorists are concerned. The one thing these terrporists simply do not know how to counter, other than not to move around, is that as soon as they get in a car and away from civilians, their life expectancy can be measured in minutes.
The problem of the geography over which these strikes occur is not getting any easier. As Islamic State (IS) supporters take flight from Iraq, new areas of focus are emerging. The latest headache is in Libya. With the remnants of IS fleeing south to the Fezzan region in southern Libya around the towns of Jarmah, Murzuq andZawila to the south of what was Ghaddafi’s last stronghold of Sabha, maintaining the operational tempo of drone strikes is critical. If they are not pursued relentlessly, they will have an opportunity to re-group. To ensure that does not happen, the new President will have to listen to the advice being provided by the intelligence services.
This new dynamic over bases for drone operations is testing America’s influence overseas. In the past, as the publicity surrounding drone operations in a local area reached the media –such as in Pakistan — the sovereign government felt obliged to ask the Americans to cease operations in their country.
What the incoming President will have to realise is he cannot tweet a stream of consciousness when it comes to issues that might see a country withdraw basing rights for drones. It opens a pathway for terrorist groups to find new sanctuaries where they can plan and develop attacks bound to place people at risk in the West. What is needed is cooperation; not upset and diplomatic offense being taken because the new President saw fit to express his views on complex matters of diplomacy in less than 140 characters.
With the leader of Islamic State, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi stating just before Christmas that all foreign fighters seeking to help IS should now travel to Libya, it is becoming a new focus for drone operations. Whereas before IS units left the Libyan coastal town of Surt where they had attempted to establish a new province in the global Caliphate announced by the leader of IS, coverage from a secret base in Tunisia was possible. However, their move south into the Fezzan has created coverage issues. Even the bases at Niamey and the new base being constructed at Agadez in Niger are not close enough. In sub-Saharan Africa, distances on a map can be deceptive.
The $50 million-dollar project known as “Air Base 201” to construct the new facilities at Agadez has already been overtaken by events. Its completion this year will come at a point when new alignments between Al Qaeda and IS could occur despite the on-going and very public spat between its leaders. Those disagreements over the theological arguments that underpin jihad are one thing — it’s a strategic issue. As far as on the ground, cooperation is a very different matter. The axiom “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” applies. Disrupting any emerging nexus between Al Qaeda and IS in the Sahel is vital, especially from a European viewpoint. This is one of the areas used to smuggle people to ports of departure to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
By all accounts, a search is on for a new operating base in southern Libya to help increase coverage over this vast mountainous terrain. This new military capability will have to deal with the confluence of Al Qaeda and IS supporters that are now gathering in the south east of Algeria on the Tassili n’Ajjer and the Hoggar plateaus. These are desolate places where the climate has extremes of temperature. Even scorpions find it difficult to survive. It’s hard, therefore, even for Special Forces operations.
Moves by the United States to establish a new base reflects this growing concern about the sub-Saharan rectangle that begins in Northern Mali, goes through the south west of Algeria and northern Niger and on into the south west of Libya. It covers an area of just under one million square kilometres where population densities are close to zero. Only the local nomads know how to live in these areas.
These remote sanctuaries are ideal territory for drone operations, as the successful campaign disrupting Al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan showed. Despite the machinations of various groups claiming hundreds of civilians were being killed, the reality on the ground has improved dramatically. The rules of engagement have improved significantly ensuring that the risks of accidentally killing civilians is significantly reduced.
Unmanned aircraft can loiter for many hours over a target area, collecting valuable intelligence information. They address the operational and tactical levels of intelligence needs, leaving the strategic picture evolution to the highly-classified satellites that have been in use for many years. Drones not only collect the data, they can also deliver a weapon. Their utility as a weapon of war is not in doubt. The issue is to ensure they can get close enough to the potential enemy to deliver that effect when and where it’s required.
Over the last decade, their use has rapidly expended across the world. What were originally a series of obvious pin-pricks in the map have now become a galaxy of locations from which drones can be operated, even including the idyllic Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean.
This asset is one the new President must come to love. It also provides a way in which the current fault line between the President-Elect and the intelligence agencies can be healed. For the security of the West in the face of a geographically spreading threat, that is nothing short of vital.
Dr. Dave Sloggett is a contributing writer for Homeland Security Today and author of, Drone Warfare: The Development of Unarmed Aerial Conflict.