[News] America’s Secret African Drone War Against the Islamic State

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Dec 17 11:35:03 EST 2015

    *America’s Secret African Drone War Against the Islamic State*
    *Predators and the “Neutralization” of 69 People in Iraq and Syria*
    By Nick Turse <http://www.tomdispatch.com/authors/nickturse>


    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 <https://theintercept.com/drone-papers/target-africa/>
    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

    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
    <https://theintercept.com/drone-papers/target-africa/> 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
    <http://dronecenter.bard.edu/how-to-hunt-for-drones/> 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/Intercept/ in 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 Pentagon announced
    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

    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
    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

    Like Gettinger, Jack Serle of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism
    <https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/> 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. “[I]f 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 is the managing editor of /TomDispatch/and a fellow at
    the //Nation Institute/
    <http://www.nationinstitute.org/fellows/2904/nick_turse/>/. A 2014
    Izzy Award and //American Book Award/
    for his book /Kill Anything That Moves/, his pieces have appeared in
    the /New York Times
    the /Intercept
    <https://theintercept.com/drone-papers/target-africa/>/, the /Los
    Angeles Times/, the /Nation/, and regularly at /TomDispatch
    His latest book is /Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and
    Secret Ops in Africa

    Copyright 2015 Nick Turse

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