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America’s Secret African Drone War Against Islamic State

By Nick Turse / TomDispatch
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Nick Turse / TomDispatch

Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum / CC BY-SA 2.0

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

On October 7th, 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 9/11. 

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.    

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