The U.S. Military Is Expanding Its Secret Drone Warfare in Africa to Combat the Rise of ISIS

American efforts are underway to create a string of drone bases in Africa.

Nick Turse December 17, 2015

U.S. soldiers run training exercise on Chabelley Airfield in Djibouti. (The U.S. Army / Flickr)

This post first appeared at TomDis­patch.

For more than a year, U.S. drones flying out of Djibouti waged a secret war against the Islamic State. For more than a year, it went unreported on the nightly news, in the country's flagship newspapers, or evidently anywhere else.

On Octo­ber 7, at an undis­closed loca­tion” some­where in South­west Asia,” men wear­ing dif­fer­ent types of cam­ou­flage and dun – col­ored boots gath­ered before a black back­drop adorned with Ara­bic script. They were attend­ing a cer­e­mo­ny that mixed solem­ni­ty with cel­e­bra­tion, the com­mem­o­ra­tion of a year of com­bat that left scores of their ene­mies slain. One of their lead­ers spoke of com­raderie and hon­or, of forg­ing a fam­i­ly and con­tin­u­ing a legacy.

While this might sound like the descrip­tion of a scene from an Islam­ic State (IS) video or a clip from a mili­tia bat­tling them, it was, in fact, a U.S. Air Force inac­ti­va­tion cer­e­mo­ny.” There, Lieu­tenant Colonel Den­nis Drake hand­ed over to Colonel John Orchard the col­ors” of his drone unit as it slipped into an ethe­re­al mil­i­tary lim­bo. But that doesn’t mean the gath­er­ing had no con­nec­tion to the Islam­ic State. 

It did.

With­in days, Drake was back in the Unit­ed States sur­pris­ing his fam­i­ly at a Dis­ney musi­cal spec­tac­u­lar.” Mean­while, his for­mer unit end­ed its most recent run hav­ing been respon­si­ble for the neu­tral­iza­tion of 69 ene­my fight­ers,” accord­ing to an offi­cer who spoke at that Octo­ber 7th cer­e­mo­ny. Exact­ly whom the unit’s drones neu­tral­ized remains unclear, but an Air Force spokesman has for the first time revealed that Drake’s force, based in the Horn of Africa, spent more than a year tar­get­ing the Islam­ic State as part of Oper­a­tion Inher­ent Resolve (OIR), the unde­clared war on the mil­i­tant group in Iraq and Syr­ia. The Air Force has since tak­en steps to cov­er up the actions of the unit.

Base – build­ing in the Horn of Africa

From Novem­ber 20, 2014, until Octo­ber 7, 2015, Drake com­mand­ed the 60th Expe­di­tionary Recon­nais­sance Squadron, a unit oper­at­ing under the aus­pices of U.S. Air Forces Cen­tral Com­mand (AFCENT), which flew MQ – 1 Preda­tor drones from Cha­bel­ley Air­field in the tiny sun – baked African nation of Dji­bouti. For the unini­ti­at­ed, Cha­bel­ley is the oth­er U.S. out­post in that coun­try — the site of America’s lone avowed major mil­i­tary facil­i­ty” in Africa, Camp Lemon­nier — and a key node in an expand­ing arch­i­pel­ago of hush – hush Amer­i­can out­posts that have spread across that con­ti­nent since 911.

Last week, in fact, the New York Times report­ed on new Pen­ta­gon plans to counter the Islam­ic State by cre­at­ing a hub – and – spoke net­work of bases and out­posts stretch­ing across south­ern Europe, the Greater Mid­dle East, and Africa by expand­ing exist­ing bases in Dji­bouti and Afghanistan — and… more basic instal­la­tions in coun­tries that could include Niger and Cameroon, where the Unit­ed States now car­ries out unarmed sur­veil­lance drone mis­sions, or will soon.” 

Weeks ear­li­er, TomDis­patch had revealed that those efforts were already well under­way, draw­ing atten­tion to key bases in Spain and Italy as well as 60 U.S. mil­i­tary out­posts, port facil­i­ties, and oth­er sites dot­ting the African con­ti­nent, includ­ing those in Dji­bouti, Niger, and Cameroon. The Times cit­ed a senior Pen­ta­gon offi­cial who not­ed that some col­leagues are advo­cat­ing a larg­er string of new bases in West Africa,” a plan TomDis­patch had report­ed on ear­ly last year. The Times didn’t men­tion Djibouti’s secret drone base by name, but that air­field, Drake’s home for almost a year, is now a cru­cial site in this expand­ing net­work of bases and was inti­mate­ly involved in the war on the Islam­ic State a year before the Times took notice.

A few years ago, Cha­bel­ley was lit­tle more than a tar­mac in the midst of a desert waste­land, an old French For­eign Legion out­post that had seem­ing­ly gone to seed. About 10 kilo­me­ters away, Camp Lemon­nier, which shares a run­way with the inter­na­tion­al air­port in Djibouti’s cap­i­tal, was han­dling America’s fight­er air­craft and car­go planes, as well as drones car­ry­ing out secret assas­si­na­tion mis­sions in Yemen and Soma­lia. By 2012, an aver­age of 16 U.S. drones and four fight­er jets were tak­ing off or land­ing there each day. Soon, how­ev­er, local air traf­fic con­trollers in the pre­dom­i­nant­ly Mus­lim nation became incensed about the drones being used to kill fel­low Mus­lims. At about the same time, those robot­ic planes tak­ing off from the base began crash­ing, although the Air Force did not find Dji­boutians responsible.

In Feb­ru­ary 2013, the Pen­ta­gon asked Con­gress to pro­vide fund­ing for min­i­mal facil­i­ties nec­es­sary to enable tem­po­rary oper­a­tions” at Cha­bel­ley. That June, as the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee not­ed, the Gov­ern­ment of Dji­bouti man­dat­ed that oper­a­tions of remote­ly pilot­ed air­craft (RPA) cease from Camp Lemon­nier, while allow­ing such oper­a­tions to relo­cate to Cha­bel­ley Air­field.” By the fall, the U.S. drone fleet had indeed been trans­ferred to the more remote airstrip. Since then, Cha­bel­ley Air­field has become more per­ma­nent. And it appears to have grown,” says Dan Get­tinger, co – founder and co – direc­tor of the Cen­ter for the Study of the Drone at Bard Col­lege and the author of a guide to iden­ti­fy­ing drone bases from satel­lite imagery. 

Despite the sup­pos­ed­ly tem­po­rary nature of the site, U.S. Africa Com­mand (AFRICOM) direct­ed an expan­sion of oper­a­tions” at Cha­bel­ley and, in May 2014, the U.S. signed a long – term imple­ment­ing arrange­ment” with the Dji­bout­ian gov­ern­ment to estab­lish the air­field as an endur­ing” base, accord­ing to doc­u­ments pro­vid­ed to the House Appro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee ear­li­er this year by the Under­sec­re­tary of Defense (Comp­trol­ler).

The Dji­bout­ian solu­tion to the Islam­ic State

As 2014 was com­ing to a close, Lieu­tenant Colonel Den­nis Drake took com­mand of the 60th Expe­di­tionary Recon­nais­sance Squadron at Cha­bel­ley. Under his watch, the unit report­ed­ly car­ried out com­bat oper­a­tions in sup­port of three com­bat­ant com­man­ders. AFCENT failed to respond to a request for clar­i­fi­ca­tion about which com­mands were involved, but Get­tinger spec­u­lates that AFRICOM; U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand (CENT­COM), respon­si­ble for the Greater Mid­dle East; and Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand were the most likely.

Before U.S. drones moved from Camp Lemon­nier to Cha­bel­ley, accord­ing to secret Pen­ta­gon doc­u­ments exposed by the Inter­ceptin Octo­ber, a Spe­cial Oper­a­tions task force based there con­duct­ed a drone assas­si­na­tion cam­paign in near­by Yemen and Soma­lia. Get­tinger believes the mis­sions con­tin­ued after the move. We know that MQ – 1s have been involved in coun­tert­er­ror­ism oper­a­tions in the Horn of Africa and Preda­tors have for many years been fly­ing mis­sions over Yemen,” he told me recent­ly by phone, not­ing how­ev­er that the strikes in Yemen have slowed of late. 

There were no U.S. drone strikes report­ed in Yemen in Novem­ber, the sec­ond cal­en­dar month this year with­out a report­ed attack,” researchers with the Bureau of Inves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism not­ed ear­li­er this month. After a lull since July, a Novem­ber drone strike in Soma­lia killed at least five peo­ple, accord­ing to local reports. And just last week, the Pen­ta­gonannounced that anoth­er U.S. strike in Soma­lia had killed Abdi­rah­man Sand­here, a senior leader of the mil­i­tant group al – Shabaab.

Drake’s 60th Expe­di­tionary Recon­nais­sance Squadron, how­ev­er, focused its fire­pow­er on anoth­er tar­get: the Islam­ic State. The unit was a large con­trib­u­tor to OIR,” accord­ing to Major Tim Smith of AFCENT Pub­lic Affairs, and exe­cut­ed com­bat flight oper­a­tions for AFCENT in sup­port of Oper­a­tion Inher­ent Resolve.”

Based in Africa, it was, accord­ing to Lieu­tenant Colonel Kristi Beck­man, direc­tor of pub­lic affairs at the Com­bined Air Oper­a­tions Cen­ter at al – Udeid air base in Qatar, a geo­graph­i­cal­ly sep­a­rat­ed unit.” By the begin­ning of Octo­ber 2015, drones flown out of Cha­bel­ley had already logged more than 24,000 hours of intel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance, and recon­nais­sance (ISR), accord­ing to the chief of oper­a­tions analy­sis and recon­struc­tions of the 380th Expe­di­tionary Oper­a­tions Group, its par­ent unit. (In an Air Force news release, that offi­cer was iden­ti­fied only as Major Kori,” evi­dent­ly to obscure his iden­ti­ty.) Accord­ing to Kori, Chabelley’s drones were also respon­si­ble for the neu­tral­iza­tion of 69 ene­my fight­ers, includ­ing five high – val­ued individuals.”

AFCENT failed to pro­vide addi­tion­al details about the mis­sions, those tar­get­ed, or that euphemism, neu­tral­iza­tion,” which was once a favored term of the CIA’s often mud­dled and some­times mur­der­ous Phoenix Pro­gram that tar­get­ed the civil­ian infra­struc­ture” of America’s ene­mies dur­ing the Viet­nam War. Beck­man did, how­ev­er, con­firm that neu­tral­iza­tions” took place in Iraq and/​or Syria.

Despite the loss of a unit that had flown tens of thou­sands of hours of ISR mis­sions and attacked scores of tar­gets, Smith says that America’s war on the Islam­ic State has not suf­fered. Coali­tion efforts in the region are not ham­pered,” he assured me. Oper­a­tion Inher­ent Resolve has the per­son­nel and assets nec­es­sary to con­tin­ue aer­i­al dom­i­nance with­in the region,” accord­ing to Smith. Though the squadron isn’t need­ed any­more, there is suf­fi­cient capa­bil­i­ty with­in the AOR [area of oper­a­tions] to ensure the needs of the mis­sion are met.”

The begin­ning of the end or the end of the begin­ning for drones in Djibouti?

Some com­men­ta­tors have spec­u­lat­ed that the trans­fer of the 60th Expe­di­tionary Recon­nais­sance Squadron’s Preda­tors indi­cates a pos­si­ble end to U.S. drone mis­sions from Dji­bouti. Oth­ers sug­gest that the move offers a clear indi­ca­tion of demands for the robot air­craft else­where in the world. 

There’s no ques­tion about the demand for drones. The Air Force pushed back plans to retire the Preda­tor by a year — until 2018 — and began out­sourc­ing com­bat air patrols to civil­ian con­trac­tors to deal with a pauci­ty of drone pilots at a moment of expand­ing oper­a­tions. Last week, it unveiled a $3 bil­lion plan, which must be approved by Con­gress, to sig­nif­i­cant­ly expand its drone pro­gram by dou­bling the num­ber of pilots, deploy­ing them to more bases, and adding scores of new drones to its arsenal. 

All of this comes at a time when, accord­ing to a top AFRICOM com­man­der, the Islam­ic State is mak­ing inroads in Africa from Nige­ria to Soma­lia, and espe­cial­ly in Libya. If Raqqa [the cap­i­tal” of its caliphate in Syr­ia] is the nucle­us, the near­est thing to the divid­ed nucle­us is prob­a­bly Sirte,” said Vice Admi­ral Michael Franken, the com­mand’s deputy for mil­i­tary oper­a­tions, speak­ing of a Libyan city in which IS fight­ers are deeply entrenched. From there they look to export their ter­ror into Europe and elsewhere.”

Dan Get­tinger sees no end in sight for the use of the Dji­bout­ian air­field or of Amer­i­can drones fly­ing from there. All the signs point to a more per­ma­nent instal­la­tion at Cha­bel­ley,” he says, not­ing a string of con­struc­tion con­tracts award­ed for the base in recent years. Indeed, at the end of Octo­ber, Navy Seabees were con­struct­ing anoth­er air­craft main­te­nance pad there. This month, they are work­ing to extend the apron — where air­craft can be parked and ser­viced — at the drone base. It’s the Preda­tor that’s on its way out, he tells me. I think the MQ – 1 is becom­ing old hat at this point.” 

Like Get­tinger, Jack Ser­le of the Bureau of Inves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism sees the larg­er, more heav­i­ly armed cousins of the Preda­tor, MQ – 9 Reapers, as the future of drone oper­a­tions at the satel­lite Dji­bout­ian base. I don’t think this means the Preda­tors the 60th launched and recov­ered are being retired — I think they’ll have been rede­ployed,” he told me by email. And I don’t think this means Cha­bel­ley is denud­ed of drones. I think it means Reapers only will be oper­at­ing out of there.” 

The per­son­nel that were assigned to the 60th were sent back to the states to retrain on oth­er weapon sys­tems and the assets were redis­trib­uted to the states, [Euro­pean Com­mand], and CENT­COM,” AFCENT’s Major Tim Smith told me. And this unit has not been replaced with anoth­er.” Mil­i­tary press mate­ri­als sug­gest, how­ev­er, that mem­bers of the 870th Air Expe­di­tionary Squadron and the 33rd Expe­di­tionary Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Squadron have recent­ly been oper­at­ing at Cha­bel­ley air­field. The lat­ter unit has been known to fly Reapers from there.

Fam­i­ly planning

U.S. Air Forces Cen­tral Com­mand failed to pro­vide addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion in response to mul­ti­ple requests for clar­i­fi­ca­tion about mis­sions car­ried out by the 60th Expe­di­tionary Recon­nais­sance Squadron. Due to force pro­tec­tion con­cerns and oper­a­tional secu­ri­ty, I can­not dis­cuss fur­ther,” Smith explained, although how the secu­ri­ty of an inac­tive unit could be com­pro­mised was unclear. Smith also referred me to AFRICOM for answers. That com­mand, how­ev­er, failed to respond to repeat­ed ques­tions about drone oper­a­tions flown from Chabelley.

Dur­ing the course of my report­ing, the Air Force news release about the Octo­ber 7th inac­ti­va­tion cer­e­mo­ny was removed from the AFCENT web­site, leav­ing only an error mes­sage — 404 – Page not found!” — where an arti­cle with min­i­mal­ist details about the neu­tral­iza­tion” of ene­my fight­ers” by drones once stood. AFCENT failed to reply to a request for fur­ther infor­ma­tion on the rea­son the sto­ry was withdrawn.

Nor did the com­mand respond to a request for an inter­view with Lieu­tenant Colonel Den­nis Drake. Before he trav­eled home to sur­prise his own fam­i­ly, how­ev­er, Drake spoke of the fam­i­ly” he had forged as, in the words of Major Kori, he engaged ene­mies of the Unit­ed States from Cha­bel­ley Airfield.” 

My desire at the begin­ning was sim­ple: make the squadron a fam­i­ly while still con­tin­u­ing the tra­di­tion of excel­lence the pre­vi­ous com­man­ders already estab­lished,” said Drake. If I took care of the peo­ple they took care of the mis­sion… I am most proud of the fam­i­ly this squadron became.”

Today, those words, along with pho­tos of the cer­e­mo­ny, have van­ished from AFCENT’s web­site, join­ing a raft of infor­ma­tion about America’s war against the Islam­ic State, oper­a­tions in Africa, and drone cam­paigns that the mil­i­tary has no inter­est in shar­ing with the tax­pay­ers who foot the bill for all of it and in whose name it’s car­ried out. For more than a year, U.S. drones fly­ing out of Dji­bouti waged a secret war against the Islam­ic State. For more than a year, it went unre­port­ed on the night­ly news, in the country’s flag­ship news­pa­pers, or evi­dent­ly any­where else. 

The New York Times now reports that the Pen­ta­gon has pro­posed a new plan to the White House to build up a string of mil­i­tary bases in Africa” and beyond, bring[ing] an ad hoc series of exist­ing bases into one coher­ent sys­tem that would be able to con­front region­al threats from the Islam­ic State, Al Qae­da, or oth­er ter­ror­ist groups.” But the expan­sion of Cha­bel­ley, the far flung net­work of bases of which it’s a part, and the war on the Islam­ic State waged from it sug­gest that there is lit­tle new” about the pro­pos­al. The facts on the ground indi­cate that the Pentagon’s plan has been under­way for a long time. What’s new is its emer­gence from the shadows.

Nick Turse, asso­ciate edi­tor of TomDis​patch​.com, is the author of The Com­plex: How the Mil­i­tary Invades Our Every­day Lives (Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books) and a forth­com­ing his­to­ry of U.S. war crimes in Viet­nam, Kill Any­thing That Moves (Metropolitan/​Henry Holt). His web­site is Nick​Turse​.com.
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