US Drone Base in Ethiopia

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that “the Obama administration is assembling a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen.” There are to be four bases, one each in Ethiopia, Yemen, Djibouti, and the Seychelles (we could add to this list a fifth, namely the CIA presence in Somalia, as reported by Jeremy Scahill of The Nation). Of these bases, as some readers know, two are not new at all: the base in Djibouti has been used by French and American forces for years, while drones have been operating from the Seychelles since at least 2009. The really new news for the greater Horn of Africa, then, is the base in Ethiopia.

The Washington Post gives a few more details:

One U.S. official said that there had been discussions about putting a drone base in Ethiopia for as long as four years, but that plan was delayed because “the Ethiopians were not all that jazzed.” Other officials said Ethiopia has become a valued counterterrorism partner because of threats posed by al-Shabab.


[A] former official said the United States relies on Ethiopian linguists to translate signals intercepts gathered by U.S. agencies monitoring calls and e-mails of al-Shabab members. The CIA and other agencies also employ Ethiopian informants who gather information from across the border.

The BBC adds that the base will be located in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, which borders Somalia and has a large Somali population.

The BBC emphasizes the backlash that drone strikes have caused in Yemen, but basing drones on the continent of Africa entails political risks there as well. As Wired‘s Danger Room notes, building bases in Africa undermines earlier US government assurances to African leaders that the US would not seek a larger military foothold on the continent. Other African countries looking at Ethiopia could begin to feel more uneasy about long-term US intentions in Africa. Within Somalia, drone strikes could kill major terrorists – but they could also hit civilians, inflaming anger against the US, weakening support for the US-backed Transitional Federal Government, and even driving recruits toward the Shabab rebel movement.

The new base could also negatively affect Washington’s relationship with Ethiopia. If the Ethiopians “were not all that jazzed” about drones for the past four years, they may become quite angry if drone strikes kill civilians or stir up anti-Ethiopian resentment in Somalia and in the Ogaden region. Ethiopia’s government is of course happy to receive US military assistance and to strengthen its relationship with Washington, but the negative aspects of a widening drone war may loom larger than the benefits after a while. The idea of Ethiopia playing Pakistan to Somalia’s Afghanistan, with all the tensions that relationship entails for the two countries and for the US, is a troubling scenario.

Basing drones in Ethiopia is a logical extension of current US policy in the region (and part of a larger projection of US power throughout the western Indian Ocean, as Danger Room writes). This policy continues to carry significant risks, however, not only of causing a backlash inside Somalia but also of straining relations between the US and various African governments, starting with Ethiopia.

16 thoughts on “US Drone Base in Ethiopia

  1. Maybe necessary, but relying on another nation’s translators is dangerous. Does Ethiopia think that Al-Shabab is more of a threat now or is it more about trying to pick winners and losers in Somalia’s new scramble for power.

    • America’s great failure is an inability to see the big picture when it is obsessed with what it perceives as major threats. In Latin America, it is the war of drugs, in Africa it is a silly militarisation of foreign policy which neither has a well thought out end-state nor clear strategic aims.

      Conflicts should not be reduced to a simple “either you are with us or against us” and if you are against us, we’ll assassinate you using drones. How reliable is the targeting information? Are you creating more problems than you think you are solving? Do drone attacks further distabilise what are essentially fragile states?

      The only things that really matter to the American Government is natural resource security and counter terrorism. True to form, the drones will start operating in Niger Delta and Northern Nigeria. When drones start flying in Nigeria, I can comfortably predict that no America citizen will be safe anywhere in Nigeria except in maximum security compounds.

      If that’s the World you Americans wish to create, I wish you all the best.

      • I find it unlikely that the U.S would have any use for drone strikes in Niger Delta. There’s nothing of importance to us there. Sure there’s oil, but the past few decades have shown that the U.S doesn’t value it highly enough to get involved.

        Besides that just look at a map. Any drone in Ethiopia would have to fly all the way to the other side of Ethiopia, through South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Cameroon and part of Nigeria just to get there. It would be much more practical just to launch from a ship near south Nigeria (though still a prohibitively long flight) and we can do that right now. We have no use for a base all the way in the Horn of Africa to target a group in northern Nigeria. But even ignoring the issue of distance it doesn’t change the fact that the U.S could just as easily sit back and watch the Nigerian government do it themselves. It’s well within their price range by now.

        For that matter, what exactly would your recommendation be? Negotiate with Al-Shabab? If we’re lucky they might just laugh at our envoys and not kill them out of hand. Also there’s nothing to negotiate on. The U.S position is that the TFG is currently the proper government of Somalia. Al-Shabab’s position is that the TFG is not and that Al-Shabab is. When the Union of Islamic Courts broke up after the Ethiopian invasion the elements that would negotiate largely went over to the TFG. What’s in Al-Shabab is the hardline elements who might consider allowing aid in their land (especially leaders who are tied to the lands hardest hit) but aren’t about to allow the TFG to take over.

        On another note, for all the criticism of drones and targeted killing it certainly has played a large role in devastating Al Qaeda’s capabilities, not to mention lessening civilian casualties in Libyan cities. There’s a reason why I consider the Taliban to be a much larger problem in the Af-Pak region than I do Al Qaeda.

      • Let me remind you that AFRICOM is still looking for bases in the Gulf of Guinea, presumably to launch drones from. There are billions of dollars invested by US backed multinationals in the Niger Delta (the Bonny LNG project is only one out of many).

        Your Government published a report on the strategic importance of the Niger Delta.

        In future, the temptation will be to use drones to target militant camps (they live somewhere) and Boko Haram locations.

        My wider point is that wisdom lies in knowing were to stop and sometimes strategic neglect is a better course of action than triggering a decades long war with no clear strategic objectives. There is no hard evidence that Al Shabhab is a great threat to American interests – I think you are merely being played by the Ethiopians here.

        There are too many religious and ethnic fault-lines in Africa for America to sub-contract its Africa policy to the Pentagon. This is exactly what Osama Bin Laden wanted – an endless war between America and its allies and the Muslim World.

        Meanwhile, the Chinese are focusing on what really matters – infrastructure and job creation.

      • I think that Al-Shabab made its willingness to attack outside Somalia clear a few years ago. It might have lost a good deal of its capacity, but there’s plenty of reason to want it to stay down. Additionally the U.S really does want to see a real state in Somalia, which is why we’re irritated with the current TFG. We didn’t want A-Shabab or the UIC taking control but we don’t want it to remain the way it is.

      • I could loudly proclaim from my bedroom that I want to attack the US. Does that make me a bona fide target for drone attacks?

        There are millions of young men in Northern Nigeria who may wish to attack the US, but they don’t have the capacity to do so. The US cannot afford to confront every rag head with scores to settle.

        Secondly, if America really wanted stability in Somalia, it is going about it the wrong way. The American backed invasion of Somalia led to more chaos and present operations will backfire. Sometimes it is better to acknowledge that there is a limit to what you can do and let things be.

  2. Nigeria could be next in line, but the delta makes for some of the worst terrain for air operations, and Boko would be better off tracked on the ground. The base in Ethiopia isn’t unexpected and there are worse places for one – it’s an improvement over Pakistan and Yemen (a terrible idea) – but I’m of the same mindset in regards to potential controversy with Somalis. However animosity is harder to stir up without civilian casualties and the CIA, somewhat surprisingly, appears to accept Somalia’s heightened sensitivity.

    I’m waiting for the TFG-AU’s battle to extend outside of Mogadishu before air operations begin to gain prominence.

    • I hope you guys have carefully thought out the consequences of your strategy. You need to carefully calibrate what you say (43 million Nigerians have access to the Internet) and what you do.

      While I appreciate the importance of tracking down terrorists, I need to refer you to Rumsfeld’s question: “are we creating more terrorists than we are killing?”. If the entire Muslim belt across the Sahel (Mauretania to Somalia) erupts in opposition to US actions / US policy (with the support of newly liberated North African nations), can the US possibly contain the fallout?

      Most terrorist organisations in Africa are rooted in deep seated grievances. In the case of the Niger Delta, US policy seems to have shifted from dealing with the causes (corruption, economic deprivation, environmental damage) to dealing with the symptoms (hence the need for AFRICOM and drones).

      If the US triggers a continent-wide war in Africa and sucks in China, you will not suffer. My children and I will suffer while you offer commentary from the comfort of your suburban home. I am seeing the warning signs and pleading with you and your trigger happy generals to stop.

  3. For the record I think the U.S. is already committing the mistake of leading with its military instead of a non-military agenda. AQ always dreamed of dragging America into Africa. I would advise a completely different strategy than the one currently unfolding.

      • Well Osama Bin Ladin’s people attacked two very high value targets in Africa (America’s embassies in Tanzania and Kenya) in the late nineties.

        Please update your knowledge base.

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