Category Archives: Horn of Africa

The Horn of Africa is a peninsula in East Africa that juts hundreds of kilometers into the Arabian Sea and lies along the southern side of the Gulf of Aden. It is the easternmost projection of the African continent. Referred to in medieval times as Bilad al Barbar (“Land of the Berbers”), the Horn of Africa denotes the region containing the countries of Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia.

U.S. assembling secret drone bases in Africa, Arabian Peninsula, officials say

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U.S. Africa Command/Major Eric Hilliard – The Seychelles, where the U.S. had temporarily stationed MQ-9s under the operational authority of U.S. Africa Command, now houses a base where a small fleet of “hunter-killer” drones resumed operations this month.

By Craig Whitlock and Greg Miller
Published: September 20

The Obama administration is assembling a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen, U.S. officials said.

One of the installations is being established in Ethi­o­pia, a U.S. ally in the fight against al-Shabab, the Somali militant group that controls much of that country. Another base is in the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, where a small fleet of “hunter-killer” drones resumed operations this month after an experimental mission demonstrated that the unmanned aircraft could effectively patrol Somalia from there.

The U.S. military also has flown drones over Somalia and Yemen from bases in Djibouti, a tiny African nation at the junction of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. In addition, the CIA is building a secret airstrip in the Arabian Peninsula so it can deploy armed drones over Yemen.

The rapid expansion of the undeclared drone wars is a reflection of the growing alarm with which U.S. officials view the activities of al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia, even as al-Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan has been weakened by U.S. counterterrorism operations.

The U.S. government is known to have used drones to carry out lethal attacks in at least six countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The negotiations that preceded the establishment of the base in the Republic of Seychelles illustrate the efforts the United States is making to broaden the range of its drone weapons.

The island nation of 85,000 people has hosted a small fleet of MQ-9 Reaper drones operated by the U.S. Navy and Air Force since September 2009. U.S. and Seychellois officials have previously acknowledged the drones’ presence but have said that their primary mission was to track pirates in regional waters. But classified U.S. diplomatic cables show that the unmanned aircraft have also conducted counterterrorism missions over Somalia, about 800 miles to the northwest.

The cables, obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, reveal that U.S. officials asked leaders in the Seychelles to keep the counterterrorism missions secret. The Reapers are described by the military as “hunter-killer” drones because they can be equipped with Hellfire missiles and satellite-guided bombs.

To allay concerns among islanders, U.S. officials said they had no plans to arm the Reapers when the mission was announced two years ago. The cables show, however, that U.S. officials were thinking about weaponizing the drones.

During a meeting with Seychelles President James Michel on Sept. 18, 2009, American diplomats said the U.S. government “would seek discrete [sic], specific discussions . . . to gain approval” to arm the Reapers “should the desire to do so ever arise,” according to a cable summarizing the meeting. Michel concurred, but asked U.S. officials to approach him exclusively for permission “and not anyone else” in his government, the cable reported.

Michel’s chief deputy told a U.S. diplomat on a separate occasion that the Seychelles president “was not philosophically against” arming the drones, according to another cable. But the deputy urged the Americans “to be extremely careful in raising the issue with anyone in the Government outside of the President. Such a request would be ‘politically extremely sensitive’ and would have to be handled with ‘the utmost discreet care.’ ”

A U.S. military spokesman declined to say whether the Reapers in the Seychelles have ever been armed.

“Because of operational security concerns, I can’t get into specifics,” said Lt. Cmdr. James D. Stockman, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Africa Command, which oversees the base in the Seychelles. He noted, however, that the MQ-9 Reapers “can be configured for both surveillance and strike.”

A spokeswoman for Michel said the president was unavailable for comment.

Jean-Paul Adam, who was Michel’s chief deputy in 2009 and now serves as minister of foreign affairs, said U.S. officials had not asked for permission to equip the drones with missiles or bombs.

“The operation of the drones in Seychelles for the purposes of ­counter-piracy surveillance and other related activities has always been unarmed, and the U.S. government has never asked us for them to be armed,” Adam said in an e-mail. “This was agreed between the two governments at the first deployment and the situation has not changed.”

The State Department cables show that U.S. officials were sensitive to perceptions that the drones might be armed, noting that they “do have equipment that could appear to the public as being weapons.”

To dispel potential concerns, they held a “media day” for about 30 journalists and Seychellois officials at the small, one-runway airport in Victoria, the capital, in November 2009. One of the Reapers was parked on the tarmac.

“The government of Seychelles invited us here to fight against piracy, and that is its mission,” Craig White, a U.S. diplomat, said during the event. “However, these aircraft have a great deal of capabilities and could be used for other missions.”

In fact, U.S. officials had already outlined other purposes for the drones in a classified mission review with Michel and Adam. Saying that the U.S. government “desires to be completely transparent,” the American diplomats informed the Seychellois leaders that the Reapers would also fly over Somalia “to support ongoing counter-terrorism efforts,” though not “direct attacks,” according to a cable summarizing the meeting.

U.S. officials “stressed the sensitive nature of this counter-terrorism mission and that this not be released outside of the highest . . . channels,” the cable stated. “The President wholeheartedly concurred with that request, noting that such issues could be politically sensitive for him as well.”

The Seychelles drone operation has a relatively small footprint. Based in a hangar located about a quarter-mile from the main passenger terminal at the airport, it includes between three and four Reapers and about 100 U.S. military personnel and contractors, according to the cables.

The military operated the flights on a continuous basis until April, when it paused the operations. They resumed this month, said Stockman, the Africa Command spokesman.

The aim in assembling a constellation of bases in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula is to create overlapping circles of surveillance in a region where al-Qaeda offshoots could emerge for years to come, U.S. officials said.

The locations “are based on potential target sets,” said a senior U.S. military official. “If you look at it geographically, it makes sense — you get out a ruler and draw the distances [drones] can fly and where they take off from.”

One U.S. official said that there had been discussions about putting a drone base in Ethiopia for as long as four years, but that plan was delayed because “the Ethiopians were not all that jazzed.” Other officials said Ethiopia has become a valued counterterrorism partner because of threats posed by al-Shabab.

“We have a lot of interesting cooperation and arrangements with the Ethiopians when it comes to intelligence collection and linguistic capabilities,” said a former senior U.S. military official familiar with special operations missions in the region.

An Ethio­pian Embassy spokesman in Washington could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

The former official said the United States relies on Ethiopian linguists to translate signals intercepts gathered by U.S. agencies monitoring calls and e-mails of al-Shabab members. The CIA and other agencies also employ Ethiopian informants who gather information from across the border.

Overall, officials said, the cluster of bases reflects an effort to have wider geographic coverage, greater leverage with countries in the region and backup facilities if individual airstrips are forced to close.

“It’s a conscious recognition that those are the hot spots developing right now,” said the former senior U.S. military official.

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Africa: Expanding US interests on the continent

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Washington’s decision to send 100 military advisers to Uganda to assist in the government’s fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has  defence and intelligence analysts keenly interested to see if this may be part of a broader trend to further increase the US military’s presence in the continent…possibly in support of its quest to access African mineral and energy resources.

It is widely perceived that India and China have beaten the US and the West in the race for access to Africa’s treasure trove of natural resources by forging massive bilateral trade agreements. Bilateral US trade with Africa in 2010 stood at about US$82bn, compared to India’s US$44.6bn and China’s US$117.3bn. Combined Sino-Indian trade with Africa outstrips that of the US by some US$80bn.

Although President Barack Obama promised increased trade, investment and development aid for Africa during his presidential election campaign in 2008, the US still lacks a definitive Africa policy. The US has over the past decade focused far more on its strategic military interests when it comes to Africa. However, of late its appetite for oil also seems to be shaping its engagement in Africa, especially in North, East and West Africa.

There have been suggestions that the US’ decision to send military advisers – not combatants, it says – to Uganda was triggered by the substantial oil finds recently in Uganda. The US has denied this.

A recent Norwegian study by Paul Midford and Indra de Soysa found that the US’ arms sales to Africa far outstripped that of China. In addition, it was found that while China prefers doing business with African democracies, the US has been doing business with many African tyrants and dictators.

Washington’s growing interest in Africa from a strategic geopolitical point of view became quite evident when the US established the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007. In terms of its strategic threat analyses the US military has divided the world into several military “commands”.

When AFRICOM was established most African nations militated against the idea of a large US military presence in the continent. As a result the US was forced to headquarter AFRICOM in Stuttgart, Germany, where it remains.

But it appears the US military in the interim has been following a strategy of increasing its presence and/or influence in Africa by stealth, most notably so in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Djibouti. It has also recently strengthened its military collaborative relationships with countries like Botswana, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Mauritania, Mali and Senegal, some of them having considerable oil deposits.

While the US has focused much of its military attention on Kenya because of its increased exposure to Islamic terrorism, and on the Horn of Africa and adjacent areas because of the various conflicts and security threats in that region, it has also steadily increased its presence and/or influence elsewhere on the continent. The US also has an interest in energy resources in the Horn of Africa, most notably in Djibouti while it is closely mitoring oil exploration in Ethiopia. The Horn of Africa is also very close to the rich oilfields of the Arabian Peninisula.

The bulk of the US African military presence – estimated at around 3,600 troops – is concentrated in the capital city of Djibouti as AFRICOM’s Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa. These US troops are stationed in the US Naval Expeditionary Base at Camp Lemonnier, a former French Foreign Legion base. From this base the US military says it provides mostly humanitarian and developmental support in the region, but security and counter-terrorism objectives are also high on the agenda with the US task force regularly engaging in training and military exercises.

With Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh himself having been the target of terrorism in the past, he takes a proactive stance against terrorism which accommodates the US’ global strategy of “war on terrorism” nicely. It is from here that the US monitors and acts against terrorist organisations and operatives in the Horn of Africa, East Africa and especially Yemen, the latter located on the Arabian Peninsula just across a narrow strip of sea in the Gulf of Aden.

Trained by the Somali National Security Service and the French Secret Service, Guelleh became the head of his country’s security agency under his uncle’s regime and now rules with an iron fist, making use of a mixture of divide and rule tactics, intimidation and repression. Although a multi-party democracy in theory, Djibouti is pretty much a de facto one-party state where little opposition to the ruling regime is tolerated.

Djibouti’s geopolitical and security significance for the US is its close proximity to trouble spots in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, its good relations with Yemen, its close proximity to Arab oil resources, its strategic maritime location between the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, and the availability of replenishment and operational facilities for US warships and airplanes, among other things.

The US maintains good relations with Yemen and has refrained from intervening in President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s bloody repression of a popular uprising against his rule since February this year. Yemen has an oil-based economy but is is anticipated that its oil reserves will be depleted by 2017, after which the US expects economic collapse and accompanying social upheavals.

Despite security threats to the US emanating from Yemen, President Obama and the US military have said they have no plans to send US forces to Yemen. Instead they are keeping them in Djibouti. But Yemen’s geopolitical significance regarding its oilfields and strategic maritime location, are keeping it within the US sphere of strategic interests and the Obama administration has increased military aid to the country, the same as it has done in Djibouti.

The decision to do so may have something to do with US oil interests and its strategic influence in the Arab world being threatened by popular uprisings in a number of Arab states, but probably also with the fact that China is trying hard to increase its influence and presence in this region on both sides of the Gulf of Aden.

The increased US military presence in and military aid to Djibouti, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya has also allowed the US military to effectively establish a ring of fire around Somalia where its main target is al-Shabab with its alleged al-Qaeda links.

Al-Shabab is fighting to overthrow the transitional government in Somalia and is listed as a terrorist organisation by the US, Britain, Australia and several other Western countries. It has training links with elements in Afghanistan, and has been responsible for a bloody terrorist attack in Kampala, Uganda, and also the frequent abduction of foreigners from Kenya, among other things.

The organisation has recently grown bolder in its activities, something that may have prompted greater US involvement in the region. The US has in the past targeted its leaders, with at least one prominent leader killed in a US missile attack on the Arabian Peninsula.

However, the US has not been successful in finding support from African nations for it to headquarter AFRICOM on African soil. Initially only Liberia showed some interest, while the US was hopeful at one stage that Ethiopia, together with Djibouti, would play host to AFRICOM. But those plans also fell through. Countries like Nigeria and South Africa voiced considerable opposition to a large US military on African soil.

The issue again made headlines recently when Julius Malema, the president of the youth wing of South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC, said his organisation would work for regime change in neighbouring Botswana because Botswana was a “puppet of US imperialism”. Malema claimed the US was about to establish a military base there. Botswana strongly denied this and Malema was repudiated by the ANC and the South African government.

Although Botswana had been a contender to host AFRICOM some years ago, it decided against such a move. Malema may have based his claim on disinformation fed to him by Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF. Robert Mugabe’s party strongly dislikes the Botswana government of Ian Khama because the latter called for new elections in Zimbabwe after the disputed and violent elections of 2008. Khama has also been one of the most vocal African critics of Mugabe.

According to a secret US embassy cable recently published by Wikileaks, Botswana asked the US for military equipment in 2008 to arm itself against what it believed was an imminent military attack by Zimbabwe. However, the US decided against doing so because it would not serve its strategic and diplomatic interests in Southern Africa.

But General William E. Ward, until March the commander of AFRICOM, had also paid several visits to Botswana between then and 2011, ostensibly to beef up military cooperation in an effort to off-set any damage caused by turning down the weapons request.

While AFRICOM remains in Germany for now, the concentration of US forces, advisers and military training and aid in Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya has considerably strengthened its presence in the Horn/East Africa region – a region originally targeted by the US for its AFRICOM headquarters. Many defence and security analysts believe it is just a matter of time before the US realises its dream of basing AFRICOM on African soil, and most probably in this region.

A Congressional Research Service paper for members and committees of the US Congress dated July 22, 2011 says a decision will be reached next year regarding AFRICOM’s headquarters. In the meantime the US military has a presence in all five African regions.

US forces have access to Co-operative Security Locations, referred to as “lily pads” in military jargon, in Algeria, Botswana, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Namibia, Sao Tome, Sierra Leona, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia.  According to the paper the US also has military ties with countries designated “areas of interest” and which apart from Kenya and Uganda include Burundi, Chad, Comoros, the DRC, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and, strangely enough, Yemen which is not part of Africa, although only about 50km across the Gulf of Aden.

Few people realize this, but AFRICOM itself has already engaged in warfare in the African continent, its jets having fired the first shots in Libya earlier this year before it handed over all military operations to NATO. The US is, of course, also eyeing Libya’s vast oil resources.

So, in the final analysis it would seem that the US is definitely engaged in expanding its military presence and influence across Africa – something China and India have not yet attempted. And the US is doing this in tandem with its covetous evaluation of access to Africa’s mineral resources and huge energy reserves. Seeking the same access, India and China however, by contrast, are going the trade and development route.

Stef Terblanche

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Tanzania to Protect Seimic Vessels from Somali Pirates

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Tanzania has ordered its army to escort ships searching for oil and gas off its coast to protect them from Somali pirates.

The East African country has licensed at least 17 international companies to look for offshore and onshore energy reserves.

“Due to increased piracy attacks, we have been compelled to beef up security in our territory,” Tanzanian Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda told parliament late on Saturday.

“The first step has been to provide escorts to vessels that request security assistance when they enter our territorial waters and the second is for the government to provide protection to vessels exploring for gas and oil in our ocean.”

Companies exploring in Tanzania include Canada’s Artumas Group Inc (AGI) , France’s Maurel & Prom , Norway’s StatoilHydro ASA, Shell International and Ras al-Khaimah Gas Commission of United Arab Emirates.

Somalia’s lack of effective central government has allowed piracy to flourish offshore and deep into the Indian Ocean despite a flotilla of international warships.

Armed pirate gangs have made millions of dollars demanding ransoms for ships captured as far south as the Seychelles and eastwards towards India.

Pinda said Tanzanian authorities had so far arrested 11 Somali pirates in its waters and prosecuted all the suspects.

Tanzania this month postponed its fourth deep offshore bidding round to next year to allow it to offer new blocks discovered by a new seismic survey.

By Fumbuka Ng’wanakilala (Reuters)

Original Article

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