November 17, 2002
U.S. Turns Horn of Africa Into a Military Hub
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
DJIBOUTI, Nov. 16 – For the first time since American troops withdrew from
Somalia after a bloody firefight in the streets of Mogadishu, the United
States military is rebuilding its combat power in the Horn of Africa.
The main goal this time is to put American forces in position to strike
cells of Al Qaeda in Yemen or East Africa. But the Pentagon has also begun
to use Djibouti to train its forces in desert warfare – skills that could
applied in Washington’s campaign against terrorist groups or on the
battlefields of Iraq.
« We are getting heavy weapons ashore and firing, » said Col. John
commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which has been conducting
a major military exercise here for just over a week. « I am preparing
to operate in a high-intensity conflict. »
At a dusty, parched and desolate stretch of African desert, marines used
live ammunition as they practiced infantry assaults. Marine howitzers lobbed
shells six miles. Harrier jets dropped 500-pound bombs, and Super Cobra
helicopter gunships raked the ground with fire. M-1 tanks and other armored
vehicles blasted their targets.
Bereft of oil or valuable resources, the impoverished nation of Djibouti
long been a desirable base for Western militaries. Put simply, what Djibouti
offers is location. It is close to Yemen and near the Bal el Mandeb Strait,
a critical choke-point where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden. The sea
lanes near Djibouti are particularly crucial since they are used for
commercial shipping and to transport American war matériel to the Persian
Djibouti has other advantages for the American military as well, including
serviceable airport and harbor. The country is accustomed to the presence
Western military forces and is politically stable.
France, which had colonized Djibouti (pronounced ji-BOOT-e) before it became
independent in 1977, still maintains a force of 2,800 strong here. Djibouti,
in fact, is France’s largest foreign military base.
American marines who have landed on the northern coast of Djibouti three
times this year in major exercises are fast becoming regular, if temporary,
visitors, but other forces are digging in for the long haul.
The United States Central Command is setting up a military headquarters to
oversee operations in and around the Horn of Africa. Led by a Marine
officer, Maj. Gen. John Sattler, the headquarters will initially be based
the amphibious command ship Mount Whitney, but it will probably be moved
About 800 American Special Operations forces and other American troops have
already moved into Camp Lemonier, a former French barracks near the Djibouti
airport that the Americans have turned into a bastion.
The military is not the only American organization that has found Djibouti
to be a convenient launching pad. The Central Intelligence Agency is flying
classified missions from an airfield in Djibouti using the Predator, an
pilotless drone equipped with Hellfire missiles, according to Western
The C.I.A. missions include a recent strike in which a car was blasted in
Predator attack in a remote area of Yemen, killing a Qaeda operative and
five other occupants of the vehicle.
The clandestine flights have occasionally thrown a scare into the Western
navies that operate in the region and which have at times mistaken the drone
for a possible terrorist kamikaze. With a diverse array of American and
European naval, air and land forces and a variety of security agendas, the
Horn of Africa is becoming an increasingly complex military arena.
This is not the first time that the American military has used Djibouti.
AC-130 gunships were stationed here during the American military
intervention in Somalia in the early 1990’s. Navy ships also stopped here
for fuel until the refueling operation was shifted to Aden, Yemen. The
decision was made to build ties with Yemen’s government and provide a more
secure environment for replenishing Navy ships, but backfired when the
American destroyer Cole was attacked by terrorists in 2000.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and the
subsequent war in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa became an important hub
for military planners.
Worried that Qaeda fighters would flee Afghanistan for Somalia and other
lawless regions in Africa, the United States and its allies organized Task
Force 150, a naval unit that patrols Africa’s eastern coast.
Task Force 150, now under Spanish command, has never captured a Qaeda
operative or intercepted a terrorist arms shipment. But while the Horn of
Africa does not appear to have become a refuge for Al Qaeda, the region is
still of great interest for American defense officials.
Yemen, a known Qaeda haven, is just a short hop from Djibouti. There is also
is concern that Al Ittiyad al Ismalia, a militant group that operates in southern
Somalia and is linked to Al Qaeda, could emerge as a more serious
threat. There are also bandits and smugglers in the region who could be
exploited by Al Qaeda, Western officials said.
« It is the job of the special services – ours, the American and the
European – to track it and determine if there is something that is happening
in the region, » Djibouti’s president, Ismail Omar Gelleh, said in an
interview. « There is always a danger that there is a residue of terrorist
cells in the region. »
For the Marine Corps, which may be called on to fight in Africa, Yemen or
Iraq, Djibouti is also one of the few nations that will let the marines come
ashore in their amphibious landing craft, drive their armored vehicles and
trucks from the beach, fire their large weapons and simulate a small war.
More than 1,500 marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit are here
a major exercise. They left Camp Lejeune in North Carolina in August on
three amphibious ships led by the Nassau.
The approximately 3,000 forces in the group are a mixture of Navy sailors
and pilots, who operate the amphibious warships, and a unit of marines who
spends their time lifting weights, studying military procedures – and
waiting for their chance to storm the beaches and swing into action.
After leaving North Carolina, the marines did a stint in Kosovo. But the
mood changed in October when the Nassau and its sister ships passed through
the Suez Canal and moved south through the Red Sea.
During the trip, Capt. Russell P. Tjepkema, the commander of the Nassau,
said he became concerned about a merchant ship whose captain indicated that
the vessel had mechanical problems. But the ship seemed to be maneuvering
a way that would force the Nassau to sail closer to Yemen, where several
speed boats were clearly visible.
Worried that Al Qaeda might be laying a trap, Captain Tjepkema warned the
other vessels to stay away and ordered Super Cobra gunships from the Nassau
to fly over them. The captain said he was still not sure whether he averted
a terrorist attack or simply kept curious locals at bay. « You can’t tell,
and that is the dilemma we have when we operate in this area, » he said.
With merchant traffic, coastal graft and potential terrorist threats the
Nassau group often has to contend with such ambiguities.
After transiting the Red Sea and emerging in the Gulf of Aden, the American
ships used classified techniques to disguise their identity as a military
flotilla. Last week, the flotilla moved closer to the Djibouti shore for the
For Capt. Terry O’Brien, the Navy officer who was in charge of the
three-ship flotilla, the exercise was an opportunity to practice a
The Tortuga, one of the ships in the flotilla, moved into position a mile
and a half from shore so its amphibious armored vehicles could roll into the
water and start moving toward shore. The Austin, another ship in the group,
released large amphibious hovercraft that can zoom at 50 miles an hour and
The Nassau set loose amphibious landing craft that look like throwbacks to
World War II. To launch the landing craft, the Nassau let water stream into
its ballast tanks to lower the stern of the ship. On the Nassau’s flight
deck, Marine Harrier jets and helicopters took off for missions over
All the while, the Nassau had armed helicopters flying and picket ships at
sea to fend off a terrorist attack. While the landing was an exercise,
protecting the force against possible terrorists attacks was a real military
Captain O’Brien said his ships would try to use deception when they could
keep potential foes off balance. « And when we can’t or don’t need to,
will come in with force, » he added. « So, if you are looking to target,
are not a soft target. »
Wearing helmets and flak jackets, the marines quickly secured the beaches
and a pier in Obock, a town north of the capital. But they soon ran into a
problem when the residents became alarmed that the marines might occupy the
dock and interfere with Obock’s supply of khat, a plant that many of
Djibouti’s men chew for its amphetamine-like effects. After a rowdy
demonstration by local residents, a tense standoff ensued. The dispute was
defused after the Djibouti military arrived and the marines moved off the
Then the marines began to drive north engulfed in a veil of dust. A military
camp was erected in a desolate wasteland, protected by a sand berm and
supplied by thousands of gallons of water trucked in from a plant the
marines erected to desalinate sea water. A Cuban-American officer dubbed the
base Camp Havana.
The main order of business for the marines was the chance to maneuver and
fire their heavy weapons. For Fox Battery, the Marine artillery unit, it was
the first time the battery had fired its howitzers since it left Camp
Lejeune as well as being an opportunity to carry out combined arms exercises
with other Marine forces.
In one of the battery’s combat exercises, a Marine infantry unit was trying
to advance on a determined foe. A forward air controller called in an
airstrike. The role of the battery was to fire an illumination round to mark
the target for Harrier jets, which would mount a bombing attack, and then
fire a barrage against the enemy’s air defenses to keep them from shooting
down the Marine planes.
« We are coordinating our artillery, our mortars and our air, along with
maneuvers, to engage targets, » said Capt. Mike Landree, the artillery
As the exercise unfolded, one of the battery’s howitzers hurled an
illumination round 22,000 feet in the air. It took 80 seconds for the round
to land and begin to burn. Before it landed, another of the battery’s
howitzers fired the first of its suppression rounds to disrupt the enemy’s
Some of the artillery rounds rattled some of the livestock that forage in
the desert. But Colonel Mills, the commander of the 24th Expeditionary Unit,
placated an anxious herder by buying three shell-shocked donkeys for $250
With a new headquarters in the region and a growing focus on the Horn of
Africa, it is likely that Djibouti will become a familiar venue for future
Marine expeditionary units, or M.E.U.’s.
« It offers things that are difficult to find, that is, your ability
employ your heavy weapons systems, » Colonel Mills said. « Ranges
for that are
disappearing all over the world as areas are getting developed. I think that
M.E.U.’s possibly in the future will make this a regular stop. »