These Documents Show a Vast Network of Bases.
By Nick Turse
The U.S. military has long insisted that it maintains a “light footprint” in Africa, and there have been reports of proposed drawdowns in special operations forces and closures of outposts on the continent, due to a 2017 ambush in Niger and an increasing focus on rivals like China and Russia.
But through it all, U.S. Africa Command has fallen short of providing concrete information about its bases on the continent, leaving in question the true scope of the American presence there.
Documents obtained from AFRICOM by The Intercept, via the Freedom of Information Act, however, offer a unique window onto the sprawling network of U.S. military outposts in Africa, including previously undisclosed or unconfirmed sites in hotspots like Libya, Niger, and Somalia.
The Pentagon has also told The Intercept that troop reductions in Africa will be modest and phased-in over several years and that no outposts are expected to close as a result of the personnel cuts.
According to a 2018 briefing by AFRICOM science adviser Peter E. Teil, the military’s constellation of bases includes 34 sites scattered across the continent, with high concentrations in the north and west as well as the Horn of Africa.
These regions, not surprisingly, have also seen numerous U.S. drone attacks and low-profile commando raids in recent years. For example, Libya — the site of drone and commando missions, but for which President Donald Trump said he saw no U.S. military role just last year — is nonetheless home to three previously undisclosed outposts.
“U.S. Africa Command’s posture plan is designed to secure strategic access to key locations on a continent characterized by vast distances and limited infrastructure,” Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the AFRICOM commander, told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year, though he didn’t provide specifics on the number of bases.
“Our posture network allows forward staging of forces to provide operational flexibility and timely response to crises involving U. S. personnel or interests without creating the optic that U. S. Africa Command is militarizing Africa.”
According to Adam Moore, an assistant professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles and an expert on the U.S. military’s presence in Africa, “It is getting harder for the U.S. military to plausibly claim that it has a ‘light footprint’ in Africa.
In just the past five years, it has established what is perhaps the largest drone complex in the world in Djibouti — Chabelley — which is involved in wars on two continents, Yemen, and Somalia.” Moore also noted that the U.S. is building an even larger drone base in Agadez, Niger.
“Certainly, for people living in Somalia, Niger, and Djibouti, the notion that the U.S. is not militarizing their countries rings false,” he added.
For the last 10 years, AFRICOM has not only sought to define its presence as limited in scope, but its military outposts as small, temporary, and little more than local bases where Americans are tenants.
For instance, this is how Waldhauser described a low-profile drone outpost in Tunisia last year: “And it’s not our base, it’s the Tunisians’ base.” On a visit to a U.S. facility in Senegal this summer, the AFRICOM chief took pains to emphasize that the U.S. had no intension of establishing a permanent base there.
Still, there’s no denying the scope of AFRICOM’s network of outposts, nor the growth in infrastructure. Air Forces Africa alone, the command’s air component, has recently completed or is currently working on nearly 30 construction projects across four countries in Africa.
“The U.S. footprint on the African continent has grown markedly over the last decade to promote U.S. security interests on the continent,” Navy Cmdr. Candice Tresch, a Pentagon spokesperson, told The Intercept.
While China, France, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates have increased their own military engagement in Africa in recent years and a number of countries now possess outposts on the continent, none approach the wide-ranging U.S. footprint.
China, for example, has just one base in Africa – a facility in Djibouti.
According to the documents obtained by The Intercept through the Freedom of Information Act, AFRICOM’s network of bases includes larger “enduring” outposts, consisting of forward operating sites, or FOSes, and cooperative security locations, or CSLs, as well as more numerous austere sites known as contingency locations, or CLs.
All of these are located on the African continent except for an FOS on Britain’s Ascension Island in the south Atlantic.
Teil’s map of AFRICOM’s “Strategic Posture” names the specific locations of all 14 FOSes and CSLs and provides country-specific locales for the 20 contingency locations.
The Pentagon would not say whether the tally was exhaustive, however, citing concerns about publicly providing the number of forces deployed to specific facilities or individual countries. “For reasons of operational security, complete and specific force lay-downs are not releasable,” said Tresch.
While troops and outposts periodically come and go from the continent, and some locations used by commandos conducting sensitive missions are likely kept under wraps, Teil’s map represents the most current and complete accounting available and indicates the areas of the continent of greatest concern to Africa Command.
“The distribution of bases suggests that the U.S. military is organized around three counter-terrorism theaters in Africa: the Horn of Africa — Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya; Libya; and the Sahel — Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso,” says Moore, noting that the U.S. has only one base in the south of the continent and has scaled back engagement in Central Africa in recent years.
Libya, Tunisia, and Djibouti
Teil’s map shows a cluster of three unnamed and previously unreported contingency locations near the Libyan coastline. Since 2011, the U.S. has carried out approximately 550 drone strikes targeting al Qaeda and Islamic State militants in the restive North African nation. During a four-month span in 2016, for example, there were around 300 such attacks, according to U.S. officials.
That’s seven times more than the 42 confirmed U.S. drone strikes carried out in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan combined for all of 2016, according to data compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based nonprofit news organization.
The Libya attacks have continued under the Trump administration, with the latest acknowledged U.S. drone strike occurring near Al Uwaynat on November 29.
AFRICOM’s 2015 posture plan listed only an outpost at Al-Wigh, a Saharan airfield near that country’s borders with Niger, Chad, and Algeria, located far to the south of the three current CLs.
Africa Command’s map also shows a contingency location in neighboring Tunisia, possibly Sidi Ahmed Air Base, a key regional U.S. drone outpost that has played an important role in air strikes in Libya in recent years.
“You know, flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drones out of Tunisia has been taking place for quite some time,” said Waldhauser, the AFRICOM commander, last year.
“[W]e fly there, it’s not a secret, but we are very respectful to the Tunisians’ desires in terms of, you know, how we support them and the fact that we have [a] low profile…”
Djibouti is home to the crown jewel of U.S. bases on the continent, Camp Lemonnier, a former French Foreign Legion outpost and AFRICOM’s lone forward operating site on the continent.
A longtime hub for counterterrorism operations in Yemen and Somalia and the home of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF–HOA), Camp Lemonnier hosts around 4,000 U.S. and allied personnel, and, according to Teil, is the “main platform” for U.S. crisis response forces in Africa.
Since 2002, the base has expanded from 88 acres to nearly 600 acres and spun off a satellite outpost — a cooperative security location 10 kilometers to the southwest, where drone operations in the country were relocated in 2013.
Chabelley Airfield has gone on to serve as an integral base for missions in Somalia and Yemen as well as the drone war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“United States military personnel remain deployed to Djibouti, including for purposes of posturing for counterterrorism and counter-piracy operations in the vicinity of the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and to provide contingency support for embassy security augmentation in East Africa,” President Donald Trump noted in June.
Nick Turse is a contributing writer for The Intercept, reporting on national security and foreign policy. He has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Nation, and Village Voice, among other publications. Turse is a fellow at The Nation Institute and the managing editor of TomDispatch.com.