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Last updated: Friday, April 30, 2010

Djibouti emerges as new US base

Camp Lemonier, Djibouti


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By Katy Salmon

NAIROBI: As the United States gears up for possible strikes on Iraq, the Horn of Africa is emerging as the focus of its vast anti-terrorism operations.

Regional political allegiances are becoming extremely fluid and the United States will have to tread carefully to avoid upsetting its erstwhile allies.

"The Red Sea and Middle East is now the central arena for terrorism. Everyone is on the look out for this phenomenon," says Mustapha Hassouna, a political and diplomatic analyst with the University of Nairobi.

The tiny French protectorate of Djibouti is the focus of US attentions. Some 400 troops, including marines, are on their way to Djibouti, to supplement a force of 800 Special Forces troops already stationed there. Their job is to monitor and be prepared to make commando raids on suspected terrorists trying to transit, hide or organise Al Qaeda bases in the region.

Djibouti has traditionally been a firm ally of France, which has been vocal in its denunciation of US President George W. Bush's aggressive stance towards Iraq.

"The US is taking over territory that was the political turf of the French. Whether it has France's tactic approval is open to question," Hassouna observes.

The United States has had a military presence in the region for several years, but it is now increasing dramatically, hand in hand with an unprecedentedly intense surveillance of the Horn's lengthy coastlines and porous borders.

Hassouna points out that the region's poorly-policed borders have long made it a focus of a "very visible and widespread" narcotics trade which is a "comfortable bed-fellow" of terrorism.

General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a news conference in Washington recently that they "have positioned forces" in the Horn of Africa to prevent "terrorists" from "planning or training" there.

Myers went on to speculate that the Horn of Africa could be a hiding place for "people and other instruments of war weapons, explosives, perhaps weapons of mass destruction."

Djibouti's strategic position, between Somalia and Ethiopia, makes it an ideal base for US military and intelligence operations. It sits at the meeting point of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden and within striking distance of Yemen and Somalia the two main suspected havens of Al Qaeda followers.

The Pentagon announced that a headquarters element of the 2nd Marine Division, of some 400 troops, will head the Horn of Africa command. It will initially operate from a Navy ship in the Red Sea for the 60 to 90 days it will take to build a command post ashore, Associated Press (AP) reports.

The United States also has begun working more closely with other armed forces in the region. At a recent press briefing in Washington, General Tommy Franks admitted that the US also has "security arrangements or engagement opportunities" with Kenya, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Yemen, according to The East African weekly.

But Hassouna believes the US's latest "off the cuff" moves particularly Tuesday's assassination of Qaed Salim Sinan Al- Harethi in Yemen - could jeopardise these previously harmonious relationships.

"Anti Americanism is in vogue right now. Traditional allies, like Kenya, are wary of being seen as too close to the US," he says.

Kenya has a sizeable Muslim community along the coast, who are vociferously opposed to the Bush regime and their own government's support for him. They charge that the war on terrorism is a pretext for persecuting Muslims and that Bush is the real terrorist, because of US policy towards Palestine.

Similarly, in Yemen, currently the focus of US operations, Osama bin Laden, who allegedly masterminded the Sept 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington,on, has more popular support than Bush.

While Yemeni President Abdullah Ali Saleh has been busy rounding up scores of suspected members of Osama's Al Qaeda network - including his youngest wife, 20-year-old Amal al- Saddah, according to Time magazine - the majority of Yemenis living in its remote hillsides are much less sympathetic towards the United States.

"The government controls the cities and the towns but the countryside is in the hands of traditional chieftains," says Hassouna.

Yemen, Osama's ancestral home, has long been a base for al- Qaeda. Hundreds of Yemenis followed him to Afghanistan in the 1990s to become his disciples. They are now believed to have returned home, in the wake of the US's war on Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda is the chief suspect behind last month's attack on a French oil tanker in Yemen. The US claims the assassinated Al- Harethi was their chief operative in the country and a suspect in the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen in Oct 2000, which killed 17 people.

Al-Harethi's assassination marks a dramatic shift in policy from the major military force used against the Taliban and al- Qaeda in Afghanistan to well-targeted commando raids.

Intelligence reports say Al Qaeda has decentralised its operations around the globe, making it difficult to launch conventional military offensives against the illusive organisation.

This is good news for Somalia, which has lived in fear of US missile attacks for the last year. One of the reasons the US sees Somalia as a potential haven for Al Qaeda is because it has been without a central government since 1991.

It also alleges links between Al Qaeda and a group called al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, which means Islamic Unity. The US believes Al-Itihaad allowed Al Qaeda to train in Somalia before the August 1998 twin attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The US has sent reconnaissance missions to Somali to investigate but has not come up with any evidence of terrorist operations.

Somali leaders have been anxious to reassure the United States that their country is not a terrorist haven. One of the main points on a cease-fire recently signed by Somali leaders negotiating in neighbouring Kenya was a commitment to fight terrorism.

Despite its suspicions, the United States will be wary of taking any rash moves against Somalia that could jeopardise the ongoing peace talks.

"Somalia has been on their terrorist books for a long time. But they will not want to destroy peace in the region. It is to their benefit if there is peace in Somalia," says Hassouna.-Dawn/InterPress News Service.

U.S. Sets Up Base in Djibouti to Hunt Militants
Tue Nov 5,11:23 AM ET

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - The United States is setting up a command center in Djibouti and sending more troops to the Horn of Africa to hunt down militant groups, a U.S. official said on Tuesday.


Djibouti boasts a strategic Red Sea port and has borders with Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. It already hosts most of the U.S. troops in a region that Washington fears could be a haven for Osama bin Laden (news - web sites)'s al Qaeda network or other groups.

Djibouti lies across the Red Sea from Yemen, where a missile fired by an unmanned U.S. aircraft on Sunday killed six alleged members of al Qaeda, which Washington blames for the September 11 attacks on the United States and other raids.

"U.S. troops already in Djibouti are busy setting up a command base," said a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

The number of U.S. troops in the region will increase to 1,200 from 800, according to Pentagon (news - web sites) officials quoted by the embassy. Many are Marines or elite Special Operations troops.

"In the Horn of Africa, there are a number of areas...not under some government's tight control, where terrorists can gather and do operational planning," the embassy quoted Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers as having said last week.

"We are interested in the area for this reason and positioned forces there to take appropriate action," he said.

Many of the troops are in Djibouti, a tiny, mostly-desert country of 600,000 people which has long been used as a military base by the former colonial power France. Other U.S. troops are stationed aboard navy ships in the Red Sea.

Somalia, which descended into anarchy more than a decade ago, is often cited by U.S. officials as a potential haven for militants.


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