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In A Secret Desert Base
by James Dunnigan
May 20, 2014

The United States is spending nearly a billion dollars to expand its operations in Djibouti (northeast Africa). There is one official U.S. military base in Africa, the one in Djibouti. France and the United States SOCOM (Special Operations Command) have had special operations forces (commandos and special aircraft) stationed in Camp Lemonnier, which is next to the main airport outside the Djibouti capital since 2002. The U.S. recently agreed to a ten year lease for Camp Lemonnier with the annual rent payment going from $38 million to $63 million a year.

There are actually a number of satellite camps around Lemonnier, including one on the coast for training Somali coast guard personnel. Most of the details of the new construction and refurbishment of the existing stuff is classified. A lot of it obviously (via cell phone photos taken by anyone passing by) involves a basic stuff like roads, air strips and buildings as well as training areas. But a lot of new equipment is coming in and discreetly installed.

Djibouti is next to northern Somalia. France had commandos there until the 1990s, when they left and abandoned Camp Lemonnier. The U.S. moved in after September 11, 2001 and French commandos soon joined them. But you don't hear much about this corner of the War on Terror, despite the numerous terror groups in the region (especially Yemen and Somalia). Why is that? Well, it's complicated.

France has been building up their special operations capability in Djibouti since 2006, in anticipation of problems in Eritrea and Somalia, both of which are involved in disputes with Ethiopia. The Addis Ababa (Ethiopia)-Djibouti railroad is pretty lucrative for Djibouti and France because it is Ethiopia's main outlet to the sea, and fighting between Ethiopia and either of its neighbors could create problems there. American and French Special Forces facilities in Camp Lemonnier are pretty easy to spot on Google Earth. Less easy to spot is the fact that France and SOCOM also have access to one or more Ethiopian air bases. American UAVs operate from Ethiopia and Djibouti, while U-28s SOCOM air transports are seen in many other airports (Kenya and Uganda) in the region. The UAVs are sometimes armed with missiles. Some of these armed UAVs are believed to have also operated out of Yemen air bases. When not attacking al Qaeda targets in Yemen, these UAVs are sometimes seen across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia.

U.S. forces in Djibouti were increased after resistance collapsed in Iraq in 2008 and are now the command post for a network of American operations through the region. That includes a UAV facility on the Seychelles Islands (1,500 kilometers to the east) and permission to move troops and aircraft through countries like Kenya and Uganda. There is even a small, and unofficial, CIA base in Mogadishu, the traditional capital of Somalia. The CIA, and similar outfits from other nations, also work from Djibouti. But most of the effort is directed at monitoring what is going on in the region (mainly Somalia and Yemen but also Eritrea, Nigeria, Mali, Libya, Kenya, and Ethiopia) not at interfering with the local terrorists. Not much, anyway. The Djibouti base also supports operations throughout the Sahel (the semi-desert strip between the North African desert and the Central African jungles, which stretches from the Atlantic to Somalia).

One minor part of the expansion project involves moving American UAV operations away from the main French/American military base that is next to the international airport outside the capital. The UAVs will now operate from another airstrip far away from the capital. This is to prevent any accidents involving the American UAVs (mainly 1.1 ton Predators and 4.6 ton Reapers) shutting down Djibouti’s main airport. There have been five accidents involving these UAVs in the last two years and Djibouti officials fear it’s only a matter of time before an airliner or transport using the international airport collides with one of the UAVs. The Americans pointed out that this has never happened, but it seemed the most diplomatic thing to do was just move the UAVs to another airstrip, 10 kilometers from the current one, that the French and Americans were already using. The move will cost the United States about $13 million.

 


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