The Astounding Reach of US Military Counterterrorism
by Stephanie Savell
August 1, 2018
This article and the accompanying maps were first published in frank on April 3, 2018.
Stephanie Savell co-directs the Costs of War project at Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.
In the name of fighting terrorism, the US military footprint is rapidly expanding across the globe. President George W. Bush launched the “Global War on Terror” with Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in October 2001. Today, this war has morphed into a shadowy, expansive network of counterterror activity in more places than most Americans could possibly imagine. According to a map released by the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, the US military is taking some sort of action against terrorism in 76 nations, or 40% of the countries on the planet.
In a lack of transparency that is unsurprising, perhaps, but striking nonetheless, the US government does not release complete information about the locations of US counterterror activity to the public. In creating the map, the Costs of War Project assembled this data in one place for the first time, gathering information country-by-country from reputable news sources, government websites, and expert input. One obscure but key source for the map, for example, was a Pentagon list labeled “Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medals Approved Areas of Eligibility.” From it, the Costs of War team was able to learn of places the military deems part of that “War on Terrorism,” like Ethiopia and Greece. These locations were then crosschecked with the State Department’s “Country Reports on Terrorism,” which officially document terrorist incidents, country-by-country, and what each country’s government is doing to counter terrorism.
Of the four categories of military activity on the map, by far the most common is training or assisting other countries’ security forces in counterterrorism (58 of 76 countries’ forces are being trained). Various countries also see more intense levels of activity -- they are home to US military base(s) and/or lily pads used in counterterror operations, they host US combat troops deployed in counterterror missions, or they are targeted by US air and drone strikes. But even the category of “training and assistance” is often far less innocuous than it sounds. A recent investigative piece by The New York Times into the deaths of four Green Berets, last October, by an Islamic State affiliate in the West African nation of Niger, revealed that so-called “training” missions can involve a great deal of on-the-ground combat.
Noticeably, the map shows that beyond the Middle East – which most Americans associate with the war on terror – counterterror activities are taking place in Africa more than any other region. The continent is home to countless US military bases, camps, compounds, port facilities, and "cooperative security locations," and the US military is providing massive amounts of military technology, hardware, training and expertise to local African militaries and police forces. US special operations forces have been deployed to track local insurgents, and drone strikes to kill terrorist targets have increased substantially, causing hundreds of civilian casualties.
After the Niger incident, congressional debates revealed that American lawmakers had little idea where in the world our troops are stationed, what they are doing there, or even the extent of counterterrorism activity among the Pentagon’s various commands. This map, therefore, is an important step towards increased public awareness and oversight of US military activity, in Africa and in many other countries. It is the visible face of a vast financial, political, and social investment for which Americans can, and should, hold lawmakers accountable.
Below are a series of maps created by Stephanie and frank. Scroll through for a visual look at the astounding reach of the U.S. Military.