US expands ‘shadow war’ in Africa with spy planes, report says

Dylan Stableford

The U.S. military is expanding its intelligence-gathering operations across Africa, the Washington Post reports, mainly using small, unarmed planes "equipped with hidden sensors that can record full-motion video, track infrared heat patterns, and vacuum up radio and cellphone signals"—part of a "shadow war" against al-Qaida and other militants.

Approximately a dozen secret U.S. air bases have been established there in the last five years, according to the paper, which "pieced together descriptions of the surveillance network by examining references to it in unclassified military reports, U.S. government contracting documents and diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group."

One of them is in "Ouagadougou (WAH-gah-DOO-goo), the flat, sunbaked capital of Burkina Faso." But the planes often "refuel on isolated airstrips favored by African bush pilots, extending their effective flight range by thousands of miles."

The spy program is overseen by U.S. Special Operations but relies on help from private military contractors and African troops, the Post said. And while it's not technically part of the White House's controversial drone program—which killed Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaida's No. 2, in a drone strike in Pakistan earlier this month—the U.S. military does use a few unmanned spy planes there, too.

"We don't have remotely piloted aircraft in many places other than East Africa, but we could," a senior U.S. military official told the paper. "If there was a need to do so and those assets were available, I'm certain we could get the access and the overflight [permission] that is necessary to do that."

Most, though, "take off the old-fashioned way—with pilots in the cockpit." Why not drones? Conventional aircraft "are cheaper to operate and far less likely to draw attention because they are so similar to the planes used throughout Africa."