In July of this year, France launched Operation Barkhane, an ambitious counterterrorism initiative spread across five countries in Africa’s Sahel and Sahara regions. The mission seeks to build upon the success of the French military intervention that drove al Qaeda-linked jihadi militants from northern Mali in 2013, and comes at a time when the US is expanding its own counterterrorism operations on the continent, setting the stage for what some analysts consider a burgeoning Franco-American alliance in Africa.
"This is a new chapter in French-American relations," Michael Shurkin, a former CIA analyst who is now a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, told VICE News. "There is an unprecedented level of cooperation going on."
In an August 11 memo to US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama, citing an “unforeseen emergency,” authorized the transfer of up to $10 million “to assist France in its efforts to secure Mali, Niger, and Chad from terrorists and violent extremism.” The move hints at a division of labor in which the US foots the bill for a cash-strapped French military that is both logistically and politically better placed than the US to engage in combat operations in the Sahel.
An even more striking example of US-French counterterror cooperation in Africa may have taken place earlier this month, when US airstrikes in Somalia killed Ahmed Godane, co-founder of the al Shabaab Islamist group. Subsequent reporting by French magazine Le Point suggests that the actionable intelligence leading to Godane’s death came from the French, an indication that the two nations already have mechanisms in place for tight cooperation at a highly sensitive level.
All of this comes as part of what analysts have dubbed the US military’s “pivot to Africa.” Although the US has engaged in counterterrorism activities in Africa since 2002, military operations have grown rapidly under the Obama administration. Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti remains the only official, permanent US base in Africa, but over the last decade, a constellation of sites, including “intermediate staging bases,” and “cooperative security locations,” have spread across the continent. A near-constant rotation of US military personnel, intelligence operatives, and private military contractors who engage in humanitarian missions, civil affairs activities, bilateral training exercises, and covert operations is now underway in almost every country in Africa.