The United States have built another large hangar to house unmanned aircraft at Camp Chabelley in Djibouti, despite Defense Secretary James Mattis announcing in August that he would wind down special operations on the African continent a year after four US troops were killed in Niger.
Satellite imagery published on the open source intelligence website Cryptome highlights a large new hangar constructed over the the summer. It lies at the end of a row of smaller hangers housing General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1 Predator Drones: the unmanned killing machines of choice of the US Airforce, Navy and the CIA; not to mention a host of US allied states such as the UK, France, Germany and – bizarrely – the impoverished Dominican Republic.
Camp Chabelley serves as a convenient stopgap for refuelling UAV operations across the Middle East including Syria, Iraq and as far as Afghanistan. Most importantly since 2015 it has facilitated the unrelenting barrage of Yemen, which lies just 100 miles across the Gulf of Aden and possesses literally no airforce at all to retaliate. This proximity allows constant unblinking surveillance of the Gulf through a rotation of UAVs orbiting and returning to Chabelley, giving excuses of ‘mistaken’ casualties in the brutal Saudi-US coalition intervention even less credence.
Unmanned aerial operations were once based in Camp Lemonnier, the centre of Africom where 4,000 US troops are stationed; however, the Department of Defense felt compelled to change their strategy after 2 separate Predator flights crashed over 10 days in Djibouti in May 2011.
A 2012 Washington Post analysis of various Djibouti drone crashes was extremely eager to primitivise and infantilise the locals in a Gods Must be Crazy pastiche: ‘word spread quickly about the mysterious insect-shaped plane that had dropped from the sky’. As if the people of Djibouti, who have seen their country transformed into a sweltering arms fair and their villages full of refugees from the North, are unable to make sense of the ‘insects’ that dominate their skyline. The crashes also contaminated the land they rely on for subsistence farming, but at least they got to see some awesome tech, right?
Though politicians and Djiboutian land-owners are no doubt delighted at the good fortune of America choosing their country to colonise, the everyday people of Djibouti take a very different view. A 2008 Wikileaks cable from the US embassy in Djibouti displays serious concerns over the ‘rising anti-American sentiment’ in the country because the locals were becoming ’empathetic to the Somalis’ who sought refuge in their country from the tiresome dual threat of Al-Shabaab and US airstrikes. The American military empire prepares for an endless array of contingencies, but is seems that basic human solidarity still manages to blindsight them every time.
Country for sale
Djibouti pockets $38 million a year in rent for Camp Lemmonier alone, dwarfing their own entire military budget and then some. The tiny East African nation effectively now exists as a singular tarmac trophy cabinet for the world’s most cutting edge aerial genocide devices. In addition to the huge US presence, China and Japan have moved-in since 2009 to join France, who were there first. Russia offered to purchase a stretch of land in 2014 to use for military purposes, but Djibouti blocked the deal after intensive American lobbying.
China have invested billions of dollars in South Sudan, and have no interest in giving it up in the result of a skirmish. Somalian piracy provides a convenient rationalisation for arming a tiny and unpronounceable East African country to the teeth; in reality they are hedging against a Suez Canal type situation in the Gulf of Aden, where 11% of the world’s seaborne petroleum passes through.
Despite effectively auctioning off their nation as a military themepark to imperial forces from all four corners of the globe, very few actual Djiboutians are employed in running the bases: some 400 work at the Chinese airfield and Camp Lemonnier is entirely run by Americans.
No development is required to borrow a country for playing fighter jets. You don’t need to build bridges or roads; you don’t even have to meet a single local. Once the Yemen war is over, the pop-up US base will probably disband as attention turns elsewhere. When you run the world, you’re always home.