After years in the shadows, U.S. Navy SEALs emerged in a big way with the 2011 night raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Afterward, they were lauded in print as supermen, feted by the president, and praised by the first lady. Soon, some of the country’s most secretive and elite special operators were taking the big screen by storm with 2012’s blockbuster Zero Dark Thirty and a film starring actual Navy Seals, Act of Valor.
Last year, yet another Hollywood smash, Captain Phillips, featured heroic SEALs. This time, the elite mariners weren’t slipping into a compound in Pakistan or on some crazy global quest, but killing pirates off the coast of Africa. The location was telling.
In recent years, as stories of SEAL exploits have bubbled up into the news, the operations of America’s secret military have been on an exponential growth spurt (with yet more funding promised in future Pentagon budgets) — and a major focus of their activities has been Africa. In 2012, for example, SEALs carried out a hostage rescue mission in Somalia. Last fall, word of a SEAL mission in that country hit the news after a bid to kidnap a terror suspect went south, and the Americans were driven off under heavy fire. (That same night, Army Delta Force commandos successfully captured a Libyan militant in a night raid.) A few months later, three of four SEALs conducting an evacuation mission in South Sudan were wounded when the aircraft they were flying in was hit by small arms fire. And just recently, SEALs were again in the news, this time for capturing an oil tanker with cargo from Libya that the weak U.S.-backed government there considered stolen.
By all accounts, SEAL missions in Africa are on the rise, and the Navy’s special operators are far from alone. For the last several years, Nick Turse, author of the bestseller Kill Anything That Moves, has been covering the expansion of U.S. Africa Command and the quiet, under-the-radar growth of U.S. operations on that continent at TomDispatch. He has repeatedly broken news about the military’s long African reach, its new bases (even if never referred to by that name), and its creation of a logistics network that now stretches across significant parts of the continent. Today, Turse offers a revealing look at the quickening pace of U.S. military operations in Africa as the Pentagon prepares for future wars, and the destabilization and blowback it is already helping to sow on that continent.