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|ISSUE 47 December 14, 2002||
In Djibouti, US Special Forces Develop Base Amid Secrecy
by Robert Schlesinger, Globe Staff, 12/12/2002
CAMP LEMONIER, Djibouti - This desolate new US base is much like the military mission it supports: a work in progress, and shrouded in secrecy.
Pallets of supplies and equipment, unloaded but not yet unpacked, line a dusty road, while huge piles of dirt point to the flurry of construction at the main support and logistics base for the new US military presence in the Horn of Africa. Its sharp edge is an unspecified number of US Special Forces soldiers for whom this base is being built and whose mission is to hunt down Al Qa’eda and other terrorists operating in the region.
"We need to be where the action is," Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, visiting briefly during a swing through the region, told several hundred desert fatigue-clad soldiers yesterday at a town hall meeting. "There's no question but that this part of the world is an area where there's action.... There are a number of terrorists, for example, just across the water in Yemen and in the southern part of Saudi Arabia. These are serious problems."
Djibouti is perfectly situated for dealing with those problems: Located where the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden meet, it is an hour's boat ride from Yemen. That is Al Qa’eda leader Osama bin Laden's ancestral home and the site of the boat-bomb attack on the USS Cole in 2000 as well as a similar attack on a French tanker in October. It also shares borders with Ethiopia and Somalia, the latter country seeing a rise in US special forces activity in recent weeks.
"Operations in Yemen, operations in Somalia - that's the part that Bush keeps talking about, that there will be parts of the war we'll see and some parts of the war we won't see. Djibouti is the part that we won't see," said Patrick Garrett of Global Security.org, a defense think tank. "The troops that are down there, at least the special forces units, are people who don't advertise their existence."
Indeed, while US officials acknowledged that some portion of the 900 service members at the base are special operations forces, they refused to discuss in even the broadest terms what they are doing. Three helicopters parked several hundred feet from the "Clam Shell," a recently built hangar-like structure where Rumsfeld held his meeting, illustrate the secrecy. Asked to identify the types of airships, Marine Captain William Klumpp, a public affairs officer, readily identified one of the coal-gray choppers as a standard Marine helicopter. He would not discuss the other two - Special Forces ships - at all.
Asked whether any missions have been launched from the base since US forces arrived here in June, Army Captain Dave Connolly, another camp spokesman, replied simply, ‘‘none that are conventional enough that we can speak about."
It is widely assumed that the CIA is also operating here, using the base as its launch point for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles like the one that used a Hellfire missile last month to destroy a car carrying Al Qaeda leader Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, a reputed planner of the Cole bombing.
The base is perched at the far edge of Ambouli Airport in this tiny country's capital city. Soldiers can be seen working on the coiled barbed wire surrounding the base's perimeter. Tan humvee vehicles with mounted machine guns are visible, some parked, some patrolling. Marine and Special Forces helicopters are also in sight, as well as an MC-130 gunship, a version of the heavily armed AC-130 modified for special forces. Photography of any equipment or defenses is illegal.
The base has been transformed since the first US soldiers arrived, taking over a former French installation that was in advanced disrepair. Many of the old buildings were razed, replaced with a growing number of tents and hard buildings. Hesko barriers - wire and canvas structures filled with dirt - line roads, some of which are paved, many of which are bumpy gravel. The base has two gyms and the old French pool is close to being renovated. Where midday meals were once the military's pre-packaged Meals Ready to Eat, four hot meals are now served daily.
"The whole place is changing every day since I've been here," Connolly told reporters, the first allowed access to the installation. It is also a base whose caretakers are in transition, with the Army in the process of handing control over to the Marines.
Asked in his town hall meeting how long the base would be functioning, Rumsfeld said the answer was "not knowable."
"Needless to say a year ago, we weren't here," Rumsfeld said. "I suspect that if we looked out one or two or three or four years we would find that this facility would be here."
The 900 military personnel at the camp will soon be augmented by roughly 400 more from the Mount Whitney, a command and control ship that will serve as the headquarters for operations in the region, which includes Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, and Yemen.
Several of those countries provide varying levels of the conditions in which terrorists can thrive and hide - especially lawlessness and chaos. Rumsfeld has suggested often during his trip that the Sept. 11 attacks prompted realignments of strategic relationships.
"What you're seeing happen in the world is that the United States is working with a large number of countries that we did not previously have close relationships with of a political, economic, or military type," he told reporters while flying to the region. "It is a good thing for our country."
Some analysts say those countries have no alternative but to be on the US side in this conflict.
"We're the only game in town," said Daniel Benjamin, a Clinton-era staffer on the National Security Council. "If anyone wants to get any financial assistance, if they want support for any particular goals in the international community, whatever, the United States remains the key partner and as a result, no one wants to be on the wrong side of the war on terrorism."