Djibouti a growing hub for clandestine US combat operations


Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti is now the United States’ busiest Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) hub outside the Afghan war theatre, with a dozen flights every day, striking high value targets in Africa and the Middle East.

Every day, 16 UAVs and four jet fighters take off or land at Camp Lemonnier as they take part in US military counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. This is according to a report by the Washington Post, citing a letter to the US Congress sent by Deputy Defence Secretary Ashton B Carter on August 20.

A variety of aircraft fly out of Camp Lemonnier, including RQ-1/MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, U-28A surveillance aircraft, F-15E Strike Eagles and C-130 Hercules transports.

In late 2010, the US dispatched eight MQ-1B Predators to Djibouti and turned Camp Lemonnier into a full-time UAV base. These UAVs have been used to strike targets in Yemen and Somalia.

The number of military flights from Djibouti has grown dramatically recently, and according to Defence Department documents seen by the Washington Post, the number of takeoffs and landings each month grew to 1 666 in July, compared with a monthly average of 768 two years before. The growing tempo of operations has resulted in numerous accidents, with five Predators crashing since January 2011.

On February 18 this year a US Air Force U-28A surveillance aircraft crashed five miles from Camp Lemonnier, killing all four on board. An Air Force investigation into the crash concluded that the crew could not recognize the aircraft’s position in the air, causing it to crash. The U-28A “Ratchet 33” had taken off from Camp Lemonnier at approximately 3 p.m. local time to “accomplish a combat mission in support of a combined joint task force” in the region. After the crash, Camp Lemonnier scrambled two F-15s and a Marine UH-53 helicopter with an Army quick reaction force and Air Force pararescue jumpers to head to the scene.

Air Force Special Operations Command flies 21 U-28A reconnaissance aircraft, which are modified Pilatus PC-12 airframes and are maintained by contractors.

In addition to the UAVs and U-28s, US forces are also flying F-15s out of Djibouti, with a squadron arriving in October 2011. Two former US defence officials told the Washington Post that the F-15s were flying combat missions over Yemen in an effort to counter al Qaeda there.

Earlier this year the United Nations Monitoring Group on Eritrea and Somalia and Eritrea said that, “based on confidential security reports and open source information, [it] has counted 64 reports of activities of foreign jet fighters, helicopters and UAVs in Somalia from June 2011 to April 2012.” Some of these reports concern attacks mistakenly targeting an internally displaced people camp and a humanitarian feeding centre, targeted killings by drones of Al-Shabaab commanders, and Special Forces covert operations in Somalia.
“The Monitoring Group has also received report that the US government is operating for covert operations in Somalia a fleet of four unmarked Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant Mi-17 helicopters, based at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti. These aircraft, although not equipped with any weaponry, are reportedly used to deploy US-Special forces from Djibouti to northeastern Somalia in support of the Puntland Intelligence Agency (PIA).”

The reported highlighted several incidents involving UAVs. On August 19, 2011, an Associated Press reporter saw pieces of a surveillance drone that had crashed on a house in central Mogadishu, before being recovered by AMISOM soldiers. On November 13, 2011, a UAV matching the description of an RQ-11 Raven overflew Mogadishu, passing over the UNCC and UNSOA bulk fuel installations, representing a serious security threat to AMISOM, because of the risk of a crash into its main fuel depot. On January 9 this year, a Boeing 737 passenger jet, operated on behalf of AMISOM, almost collided with a UAV after departure from Mogadishu International Airport. Furthermore, on February 3, 2012, a US-manufactured drone crashed in Badbaado IDP camp in Mogadishu. The remains of the aircraft were quickly recovered by AMISOM and TFG security forces.

Camp Lemonnier is the only official US military base in Africa, and is home to more than 2 000 American military personnel – around half of the total on the continent. According to the Washington Post, there are around 300 Special Operations personnel at Camp Lemonnier who plan and coordinate missions from the base.
“In August, the Defence Department delivered a master plan to Congress detailing how the camp will be used over the next quarter-century. About $1.4 billion in construction projects are on the drawing board, including a huge new compound that could house up to 1 100 Special Operations forces, more than triple the current number,” the Washington Post said.

A number of construction contracts have already been awarded – on September 10 the DoD awarded CH2M Hill-Metag $61 995 330 to construct a combat aircraft loading area, a taxiway extension and an ammunition supply point to “support current and emerging operational missions at Camp Lemonnier”. Work is due for completion by April 2014.

Further contracts for ‘construction projects’, announced on September 6, were awarded to another four companies: Lakeshore Toltest Corp; Barlovento L L C; Prime Projects International (Construction) Ltd; and PAE Government Services Inc. The maximum value for these four contracts at Camp Lemonnier, scheduled to conclude in September 2017, is $75 000 000.

In June the Washington Post article stated that the United States has established a dozen air bases in Africa since 2007, mainly for surveillance purposes. Most are small operations run out of secluded hangars at African military bases or civilian airports. Surveillance is overseen by US Special Operations forces but relies to a large extent on private military contractors and support from African troops. This allows these operations to fly below the radar. Using U-28 surveillance aircraft rather than unmanned aerial vehicles also keeps the profile of these operations low. Some of the bases are in Ethiopia, the Seychelles, Burkina Faso and Uganda.

Africa has emerged as a greater priority for the US government because terrorist groups there have become an increasing threat to US and regional security. The US is concerned about al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), insurgents in Mali, Boko Haram extremists in Nigeria and al Shabaab militia in Somalia. In central Africa, around 100 US special forces are assisting in the hunt for warlord Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army.