This article was written by Louis Tayler and originally published on Grey Dynamics

Key Judgements

  • AFRICOM’s mission in North Africa is to limit the instability caused by the second Libyan Civil War. This mission has achieved some measure of success.
  • AFRICOM, and by extension, the United States, has a de-facto neutrality policy regarding the second Libyan Civil War. In light of Trump’s “America First” withdrawal, the U.S. is highly unlikely to pick a side or get involved in the war beyond hunting IS and AQ affiliates, and other extremists.
  • Despite denial by Tunisian authorities and strategic ambiguity by U.S. authorities, it is almost certain that Tunisia hosts a politically sensitive drone base and U.S. SOF, who use the country to operate across North Africa.
  • Scenario Generation: The U.S. is highly unlikely to support either side in the Libyan Civil War, however, scenario generation of limited U.S. support to either side is at the end of this report.

United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) is the unified command structure responsible for managing all U.S. military activity in Africa, with the exclusion of Egypt, which falls under a different command. Due to the politically charged and controversial nature of hosting U.S. Headquarters in Africa, and for security and financial reasons, AFRICOM is headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany. AFRICOM also delivers a wide variety of projects, including the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) program.

AFRICOM’s Mission in North Africa

AFRICOM itself describes its mission in North Africa as one of containing the spread of instability originating from Libya. It claims that it will accomplish this by building up the resilience and security capability of the region’s countries to counter threats from Libya. This mission has been mostly effective. Terror attacks have been kept to a relatively small number in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, with particularly effective cross-border counter-terrorism cooperation between Algeria and Tunisia (see previous Grey Dynamics Report).

However, the mission to contain regional instability has not been an unmitigated success. Low-level terrorism continues to plague North African nations. Islamic State, though greatly weakened, still has a presence in Libya.

Most importantly, the conflict in the Sahel mars AFRICOM’s success. The current conflict in the Sahel has its origins in the Libyan Civil War. Tuareg fighters returning from the 1st Libyan Civil War destabilized Mali. The resulting French intervention and Islamist exploitation of the situation started the conflict seen today in the Sahel. Yet, AFRICOM is far from solely responsible for this.

Figure 1: Terror attacks in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia 2010-2018.

AFRICOM’s Presence in Tunisia

Despite U.S. strategic ambiguity as to the placement of troops across Africa, and the Tunisian government’s unwillingness to acknowledge active U.S. military presence within its borders for political reasons, it is a badly kept secret that Tunisia hosts the largest U.S. drone base in North Africa. Drone missions are run from Bizerte-Sidi Ahmed Air Base in Northern Tunisia. Both the U.S. and Tunisia claim that drones are unarmed and merely conduct reconnaissance, mainly for the purpose of border security and “cooperation and training” with Tunisian forces. The second major component of active military operations is the Special Operations Forces’ ongoing missions, of which relatively little is known.

An exception is a 2017 gunfight between al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Tunisian forces, supported by Marine Special Operations Command. It resulted in several Marines gaining valor awards. The official U.S. version of the story leaves the exact country in North Africa unnamed for “classification considerations, force protection, and diplomatic sensitivities.”

The Bizerte-Sidi Ahmed drone base and the 2017 firefight exemplify the significant AFRICOM presence in North Africa and highlight how AFRICOM approaches its mission, preserving regional stability and building capability and resilience in North African countries.