Hidden History: America’s Secret Drone War in Africa

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PostMon Aug 13, 2012 6:50 pm » by Evildweeb

Hidden History: America’s Secret Drone War in Africa

By David Axe

August 13, 2012 | 6:30 am


An MQ-9 Reaper in Iraq in 2008. Photo: Air Force

More secret bases. More and better unmanned warplanes. More frequent and deadly robotic attacks. Some five years after a U.S. Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle flew the type’s first mission over lawless Somalia, the shadowy American-led drone campaign in the Horn of Africa is targeting Islamic militants more ruthlessly than ever.

Thanks to media accounts, indirect official statements, fragmentary crash reports and one complaint by a U.N. monitoring group, we can finally begin to define — however vaguely — the scope and scale of the secret African drone war.

The details that follow are in part conjecture, albeit informed conjecture. They outline of just one of America’s ongoing shadow wars — and one possible model for the future U.S. way of war. Along with the counterterrorism campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen and the Philippines, the Somalia drone war demonstrates how high-tech U.S. forces can inflict major damage on America’s enemies at relatively low cost … and without most U.S. citizens having any idea it’s even happening.

Since 2007, Predator drones and the larger, more powerful Reapers — reinforced by Ravens and Scan Eagle UAVs and Fire Scout robot helicopters plus a small number of huge, high-flying Global Hawks — have hunted Somali jihadists on scores of occasions. It’s part of a broader campaign of jet bombing runs, naval gun bombardment, cruise-missile attacks, raids by Special Operations Forces and assistance to regional armies such as Uganda’s.

In all, air raids by manned and unmanned U.S. aircraft have killed at least 112 Somali militants, according to a count by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Fifty-seven innocent civilians also died in the raids, the nonprofit Bureau found. The dead jihadists have included several senior members of al-Qaeda or the affiliated al-Shabaab extremist group. In January, a drone launched three Hellfire missiles at a convoy near Mogadishu and killed Bilaal al-Barjawi, the mastermind of the 2010 bombing in Kampala, Uganda, that claimed the lives of 74 soccer fans.

In an escalating secret war, drones are doing an ever-greater proportion of the American fighting.

The Drones Are Coming

It wasn’t until relatively recently that U.S. drones were permanently stationed in East Africa. The military and CIA have operated armed versions of General Atomics’ one-ton Predator since 2001, but early on the remote-controlled warplanes were in high demand and short supply. Afghanistan and later Iraq monopolized the drones.

That was a big problem for the small U.S. force in East Africa struggling to keep tabs on increasingly radical, and dangerous, Somali militants. “The largest gap is knowledge,” Navy Rear Adm. Tony Kurta, former commander of U.S. troops in Djibouti, told Danger Room in 2009.

In 2003, Joint Special Operations Command resorted to spending six months sneaking SEALs into Somalia by submarine to painstakingly plant disguised surveillance cameras — all to capture just a fraction of the images a drone could acquire in a single mission.

“If we’re having to go to that extreme, it’s because we lack other capabilities because they’re drawn elsewhere,” a senior intelligence official told Army Times’ ace reporter Sean Naylor. ”Instead of doing it like that, you’d want to have more Predators.”

The drone shortage represented a huge risk for CIA agents attempting to build an intelligence network for tracking suspected terrorists in Somalia. The agency used cash payments to Somali warlords as a “carrot” to draw them to the American side. U.S. air power was supposed to be the “stick” that helped motivate the Somalis. But for years the intel agency didn’t actually possess any stick. So it lied, telling the warlords there were drones overhead when in fact there weren’t.

It was risky bluff. ”But it worked,” an intelligence official told Naylor.

It took a surprise — and ultimately doomed — invasion of Somalia by regional power Ethiopia to open the door for a stronger U.S. presence in East Africa. American commandos followed along behind the Ethiopian tank columns as side-firing AC-130 gunships provided lethal top cover.

Where once the small U.S. force in East Africa had relied mostly on a single large base in Djibouti, just north of Somalia, in the wake of the Ethiopian blitz American bases sprouted across the region. The CIA and American security contractors set up shop alongside a U.N.-backed peacekeeping force at the shell-crated international airport in Mogadishu. American contractors quietly carved a secret airstrip out of a forest in Arba Minch, Ethiopia. Under the guise of tracking Somali pirates, the Pentagon negotiated permission to base people and planes on the Indian Ocean island nation of the Seychelles.

Soon all these bases would support drone aircraft being churned out at an accelerating rate by the U.S. aerospace industry. In 2003 the U.S. military possessed only a handful of Pioneer, Predator and other drones. After spending around $5 billion annually, year after year, by 2012 America’s robotic arsenal had swelled to 678 large and medium drones and no fewer than 3,000 small, hand-launched Ravens.

Some of each were destined for Somalia, where the CIA and Pentagon were advancing plans for a far-reaching, but subtle, campaign to defeat militants and prop up a fledgling, U.N.-backed government. It was a campaign that, in stark contrast to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, would not include any large, permanent American ground forces. American CIA agents, mercenaries, commandos and drones would provide intelligence, training, raiding prowess and air cover while Ethiopian, Ugandan and Kenyan troops did most of the day-to-day fighting inside Somalia.

Opening Salvo

On Jan. 7, 2007, a Predator took off from an American base in Africa — all evidence suggests it was Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. Command of the aircraft was then transferred to a two-person crew, most likely sitting in a trailer in Nevada. The Predator cruised the roughly 500 miles to the southern Somali town of Ras Kamboni. Following coordinates provided by Ethiopian intelligence, the Predator used its high-fidelity video camera to track a convoy of vehicles transporting Aden Hashi Farah, one of Somalia’s top Al Qaeda operatives. Farah had trained in Afghanistan and returned to Somalia where he led the kidnapping and murder of aid workers.

The Predator was unarmed, possibly to save weight for its long-distance flight. So an AC-130 gunship fitted with cannons and machine guns opened fire, smashing the convoy. Farah was wounded but survived: he would be killed a year later in another U.S. air strike. While it failed to take out the primary target, the Ras Kamboni raid was the opening shot in the East African drone war. Subsequent robot-led attacks would be much more successful for the Americans.

The drones came by land and by sea. Besides Camp Lemonnier, Predators and Reapers operated by the Air Force (and possibly the CIA) deployed to the Seychelles and Ethiopia for flights over the Somalia. It’s been difficult to verify exactly how many drones are present at each base, but Predators and Reapers normally deploy in groups of three or four known as “orbits,” each staffed by around 75 people who launch, land, arm and repair the ‘bots. If all three major known African UAV bases have single orbits, the robot force structure in the region could include as many as 12 Predators and Reapers at a time.

At around the same time the larger drones were settling in, American agents, commandos or contractors in Mogadishu — it’s no clear who, exactly — received an unknown number of five-pound, hand-launched Ravens from manufacturer AeroVironment. The simple, camera-equipped Ravens were ideal for short-range surveillance flights during the urban battles aimed at liberating Mogadishu from militants. In 2011 Washington approved a $45-million package of arms and training to Ugandan peacekeepers in the city that included another four Ravens.

Meanwhile Navy ships sailing off the Somali coast began carrying catapult-launched Scan Eagles manufactured by Boeing and Insitu as well as Northrop Grumman’s vertical-takeoff Fire Scout robo-copters. The Fire Scouts initially helped in Navy counter-piracy efforts, but by 2011 had shifted to “overland intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance … for Special Operations Forces,” according to a recent Navy story. The sailing branch also deployed one of its five RQ-4 Global Hawks — Northrop-built spy drones with the wingspan of a 737 airliner — to an unspecified Indian Ocean base to, among other duties, provide air cover for the 5th Fleet off the Somali coast. And although unmentioned in press reports, Air Force Global Hawks are also theoretically available for Somalia patrols from their forward base in the United Arab Emirates.

The Ethiopians occupied Somalia for three bloody years then retreated, leaving behind a mostly Ugandan peacekeeping force that gradually fought its way out of its Mogadishu strongholds, finally recapturing the city this year. In late 2011 the Kenyans invaded in Somalia’s south. American support steadily expanded in concert with the Ugandan-Kenyan attacks. The pace of U.S. drone flights increased commensurately.

“The number of reports concerning the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Somalia in 2011-12 has increased,” the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea reported in late June. The group said it tracked 64 unidentified military aircraft over Somalia, including drones, in the 11 months between June 2011 and April this year. There were surely many more flights the U.N. observers did not see.

How many? It’s possible to make an educated guess.

In 2009 Air Force Gen. John Corley, then chief of Air Combat Command, said that 95 percent of his branch’s UAV sorties were focused on “Southwest Asia,” which to the Pentagon means Iraq and Afghanistan. Let’s say just half of the remaining five percent of flights occurred in the Pentagon’s other major drone battleground, Somalia. Since 2007 the Air Force’s Predators and Reapers, today numbering around 300, have flown nearly a million flight hours. By our reckoning, the percentage that may have occurred over East Africa — some 25,000 hours over five years — equates to around 12 hours of robot flight time per day. And that’s assuming the proportion of drone flights devoted to Somalia hasn’t increased lately, which in fact it most certainly has.

Conservatively speaking, it’s possible at least one Predator or Reaper drone has been airborne over Somalia half the day, every day since the first Predator took off from Camp Lemonnier in 2007. Flights by Global Hawks, Fire Scouts, Scan Eagles and Ravens adds to this persistent robot presence.

For the first four years the aerial robots played a strictly supporting role, surveilling and tracking targets for Special Operations Forces, gunship attacks, F-15 bombing runs, helicopter raids and cruise-missile strikes. When the Predators and Reapers began using their own weapons is unclear. The first verifiable drone attack occurred on June 23, 2011, after which the robotic strikes occurred in rapid-fire fashion. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism counted as many as nine confirmed drone attacks between June 2011 and today.

Again, the actual number of strikes is undoubtedly higher. If a robotic strike occurs out of sight of reporters or their sources, it remains secret.


A Ugandan soldier in Mogadishu. Photo: U.N.



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