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The Secret US Military Operation Underway in Africa

Like many of the operations conducted by the United States military in Africa, little is known about Operation New Normal.

| Thu May 15, 2014 2:05 PM EDT

Operation New Normal and the Incredible Disappearing Lee Magee

With so many officials talking about the "new normal" and with documents citing a specific operation sporting the same name, I called up AFRICOM's media chief Benjamin Benson looking for more information. "I don't know the name new normal," he told me. "It isn't a term we're using to define one of the operations."

That seemed awfully curious. An official military document obtained by TomDispatch explicitly noted that US troops would be deployed as part of Operation New Normal in 2014. The term was even used, in still another document, alongside other code-named operations like Juniper Micron and Observant Compass, missions to aid the French and African interventions in Mali and to degrade or destroy Joseph Kony's murderous Lord's Resistance Army in central Africa.

Next, I got in touch with Lieutenant Colonel Glen Roberts at CJTF-HOA and explained that I wanted to know about Operation New Normal. His response was effusive and unequivocal: I should speak with Lee Magee—that is Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee Magee, a West Point graduate, third-generation Army officer, and commander of the East African Response Force who had deployed to South Sudan as the nation shattered on the rocks of reality. "He lives this concept and has executed it," was how Roberts put it.

Was I available to talk to Magee the next day? Yes, indeed.

On March 27th, the day of the proposed interview, however, a lower-ranking public affairs official got in touch to explain that Lieutenant Colonel Magee could not speak to me and Lieutenant Colonel Roberts was out of the office. I asked to reschedule for the next day. The spokesman said he didn't know what their calendars looked like, but that Roberts was expected back later that day. I left a message, but heard nothing.

The next morning, I called the press office in Djibouti and asked to speak to Magee. He wasn't there. No one was. Everyone had left work early. The reason? "Paint fumes."

That was a new one.

Another follow-up and Roberts finally got back in touch. "Apologies, but I am no longer able to arrange an interview with Magee," he informed me. "Thanks for understanding."

But I didn't understand and told him so. After all, Magee was the man who lived and executed the new normal. I thought we were set for an interview. What happened?

"He has simply declined an interview, as is his privilege," was the best Roberts could do. Magee had been dropped into the hot zone in South Sudan to forestall the next Benghazi, and had previously spoken with other media outlets about his work in Africa, but conversing with me about Operation New Normal was apparently beyond the pale. Or maybe it had something to do with those paint fumes.

On March 31st, Roberts told me that he could answer the questions by email—questions that I had already sent in on March 17th. But no response came. I followed up again. And again. And again. I sent the questions a second time.

As of publication, almost two months after my initial inquiry, no word yet. That, evidently, is the new normal, too.

The Real New Normal

Quite obviously, the US military isn't eager to talk about Operation New Normal, which—despite Benjamin Benson's contentions, Lee Magee's silence, and Glen Roberts' disappearance—is almost certainly the name for a US military mission in East Africa that, US documents suggest, is tied to the Benghazi-birthed East African Response Force.

More important than uncovering the nature of Operation New Normal, however, is recognizing the real new normal in Africa for the US military: ever-increasing missions across the continent—now averaging about 1.5 per day—ever more engagement with local proxies in ever more African countries, the construction of ever more new facilities in ever more countries (including plans for a possible new compound in Niger), and a string of bases devoted to surveillance activities spreading across the northern tier of Africa. Add to this impressive build-up the three new rapid reaction forces, specialized teams like a contingent of AFRICOM personnel and officials from the FBI and the departments of Justice, State, and Defense created to help rescue hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by members of the Islamic militant group Boko Haram, and other shadowy quick-response units like the seldom-mentioned Naval Special Warfare Unit 10.

"Having resources [on the continent] that are ready for a response is really valuable," Benson told me when talking about the Djibouti-based EARF. The same holds for the US military's new normal in Africa: more of everything valuable to a military seeking a new mission in the wake of two fading, none-too-successful wars.

The Benghazi killings, unrest in South Sudan, and now the Boko Haram kidnappings have provided the US with ways to bring a long-running "light footprint in Africa" narrative into line with a far heavier reality. Each crisis has provided the US with further justification for publicizing a steady expansion on that continent that's been underway but under wraps for years. New forces, new battlefields, and a new openness about a new "war," to quote one of the men waging it. That's the real new normal for the US military in Africa—and you don't need to talk to Lieutenant Colonel Lee Magee to know it.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of and a fellow at the Nation Institute. A 2014 Izzy Award winner, his pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Nationat the BBC and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Times bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (now out in paperback).

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