Tag Archives: CIA assassination

Djibouti, the US Permanent Drone War Base

Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti…began as a temporary staging ground for U.S. Marines looking for a foothold in the region a decade ago (2001). Over the past two years, the U.S. military has clandestinely transformed it into the busiest Predator drone base outside the Afghan war zone, a model for fighting a new generation of terrorist groups.  The Obama administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal the legal and operational details of its targeted-killing program. Behind closed doors, painstaking debates precede each decision to place an individual in the cross hairs of the United States’ perpetual war against al-Qaeda and its allies.  Increasingly, the orders to find, track or kill those people are delivered to Camp Lemonnier. Virtually the entire 500-acre camp is dedicated to counterterrorism, making it the only installation of its kind in the Pentagon’s global network of bases.

Secrecy blankets most of the camp’s activities. The U.S. military rejected requests from The Washington Post to tour Lemonnier last month. Officials cited “operational security concerns,” although they have permitted journalists to visit in the past.  After a Post reporter showed up in Djibouti uninvited, the camp’s highest-ranking commander consented to an interview — on the condition that it take place away from the base, at Djibouti’s lone luxury hotel. The commander, Army Maj. Gen. Ralph O. Baker, answered some general queries but declined to comment on drone operations or missions related to Somalia or Yemen.

Despite the secrecy, thousands of pages of military records obtained by The Post — including construction blueprints, drone accident reports and internal planning memos — open a revealing window into Camp Lemonnier. None of the documents is classified and many were acquired via public-records requests.  Taken together, the previously undisclosed documents show how the Djibouti-based drone wars sharply escalated early last year after eight Predators arrived at Lemonnier. The records also chronicle the Pentagon’s ambitious plan to further intensify drone operations here in the coming months.

The documents point to the central role played by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which President Obama has repeatedly relied on to execute the nation’s most sensitive counterterrorism missions.  About 300 Special Operations personnel plan raids and coordinate drone flights from inside a high-security compound at Lemonnier that is dotted with satellite dishes and ringed by concertina wire. Most of the commandos work incognito, concealing their names even from conventional troops on the base…

In Washington, the Obama administration has taken a series of steps to sustain the drone campaign for another decade, developing an elaborate new targeting database, called the “disposition matrix,” and a classified “playbook” to spell out how decisions on targeted killing are made.

Djibouti is the clearest example of how the United States is laying the groundwork to carry out these operations overseas. For the past decade, the Pentagon has labeled Lemonnier an “expeditionary,” or temporary, camp. But it is now hardening into the U.S. military’s first permanent drone war base.

In August, the Defense Department delivered a master plan to Congress detailing how the camp will be used over the next quarter-century. About $1.4 billion in construction projects are on the drawing board, including a huge new compound that could house up to 1,100 Special Operations forces, more than triple the current number.  Drones will continue to be in the forefront. In response to written questions from The Post, the U.S. military confirmed publicly for the first time the presence of remotely piloted aircraft — military parlance for drones — at Camp Lemonnier and said they support “a wide variety of regional security missions.”….For nearly a decade, the United States flew drones from Lemonnier only rarely, starting with a 2002 strike in Yemen that killed a suspected ringleader of the attack on the USS Cole.  That swiftly changed in 2010, however, after al-Qaeda’s network in Yemen attempted to bomb two U.S.-bound airliners and jihadists in Somalia separately consolidated their hold on that country. Late that year, records show, the Pentagon dispatched eight unmanned MQ-1B Predator aircraft to Djibouti and turned Lemonnier into a full-time drone base.

The impact was apparent months later: JSOC drones from Djibouti and CIA Predators from a secret base on the Arabian Peninsula converged over Yemen and killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric and prominent al-Qaeda member.  Today, Camp Lemonnier is the centerpiece of an expanding constellation of half a dozen U.S. drone and surveillance bases in Africa, created to combat a new generation of terrorist groups across the continent, from Mali to Libya to the Central African Republic. The U.S. military also flies drones from small civilian airports in Ethiopia and the Seychelles, but those operations pale in comparison to what is unfolding in Djibouti.

Lemonnier also has become a hub for conventional aircraft. In October 2011, the military boosted the airpower at the base by deploying a squadron of F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets, which can fly faster and carry more munitions than Predators…

In March 2011, a Predator parked at the camp started its engine without any human direction, even though the ignition had been turned off and the fuel lines closed. Technicians concluded that a software bug had infected the “brains” of the drone, but never pinpointed the problem.  “After that whole starting-itself incident, we were fairly wary of the aircraft and watched it pretty closely,” an unnamed Air Force squadron commander testified to an investigative board, according to a transcript. “Right now, I still think the software is not good.” …

“This [Djibouti] is not an outpost in the middle of nowhere that is of marginal interest,” said Amanda J. Dory, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for Africa. “This is a very important location in terms of U.S. interests, in terms of freedom of navigation, when it comes to power projection.”

The U.S. military pays $38 million a year to lease Camp Lemonnier from the Djiboutian government…

Excerpts, Craig Whitlock, Remote US base at core of secret operations, Washington Post, Oct. 26, 2012

How to Hide Drones, CIA, Pakistan, and the bugsplats

One day in March an American drone circled above Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area, zeroed in on a gathering of village men, some of whom were armed, and unleashed three missiles in quick succession. It turned out to be a meeting to settle a dispute over a chromite mine. Most of the 40 or so killed were civilians, according to accounts, though a dozen Taliban also died in the attack, including a local commander, Sherabat Khan. The Taliban nowadays often adjudicate quarrels in the tribal areas, a wild buffer zone that runs along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

The attack illustrated two problems with the drone war in the tribal regions: the risk of civilian casualties, and Pakistan’s ambiguous attitude towards America’s use of drones. Pakistan’s army chief, Ashfaq Kayani, called the strike a “complete violation of human rights”. For Pakistan, the difficulty went beyond civilian casualties. Khan was a lieutenant of a notable warlord, Gul Bahadur. But Pakistan considers Mr Bahadur to be a “good Taliban”, ie, one who has agreed to fight only in Afghanistan, not on Pakistani soil. After the strike, he threatened to tear up the deal.

Relations between the governments in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, and Washington, DC, are deeply troubled by the issue of drones. Though it publicly denounces the drone strikes, Pakistan certainly does not want all of them stopped. Indeed, the co-operation of Pakistani intelligence is crucial to employing the drones. But the army wants the number of strikes reduced, concentrating on targets both countries can agree on. America has told Pakistan bluntly it must either flush the Taliban and other jihadists out of their safe havens in North Waziristan, or it will continue with what amounts to an assassination campaign there. Pakistan says it cannot launch a ground offensive in North Waziristan because its armed forces are already stretched.

The drone attacks, a supposedly “secret” programme started by the CIA in 2004, have been ramped up over the past three years, with a record 118 strikes last year and 50 so far in 2011. The drones started under President Pervez Musharraf, the former military ruler. There were just nine strikes from 2004 to the end of 2007. According to Pakistani officials, it was supposed to be a highly selective programme for eliminating terrorist leaders in the tribal areas, under an understanding that gave the Americans the use of at least one remote Pakistani air base for the drones. The drones also take off from Afghanistan, but are operated thousands of miles away by a “pilot” at a desk in America, watching a video feed from the aircraft. A successful hit is known in the CIA as a “bugsplat”. It is all horribly like a video game.

The New America Foundation, a Washington think-tank, found that up to 2,551 people have been killed in the strikes since 2004. Based on press reports, it estimates that 80% of them were militants, rising to a pretty astonishing 95% in 2010. In recent months, there has been a move away from blowing up compounds to targeting vehicles, where militants can more easily be hit without killing civilians. Even for compounds, smaller missiles are used to try to limit the damage to the separate male living quarters. Perceptions on the ground, however, are often different. The foundation’s own poll in the tribal areas last year found only 16% believe the drones accurately target militants. But many locals privately support the strikes against extremists who have overrun their homeland.

Accepting the figure for the success rate in killing militants nevertheless means that fully 500 or so Pakistani civilians have been killed since 2004. Unlike, say, in the war in Afghanistan, there is no investigation of civilian casualties, and no compensation paid. Transparency and accountability are absent, and some question the legal basis of the attacks. The programme is a charade because the CIA never admits to it and Pakistan pretends that it does not co-operate. A legal action launched this month, initially in Pakistan, with the backing of Reprieve, a campaigning group, seeks the arrest of a former CIA lawyer, John Rizzo, who boasted in a magazine interview this year that he used to approve a monthly list of some 30 individuals to be targeted by the drones.

Whatever the outcome of that case, a debate will grind on about whether the strikes are harming al-Qaeda and related groups, or spurring on Afghanistan’s powerful insurgency. According to the New America Foundation, out of the 2,600-odd deaths, 35 were recognised militant chiefs, or just 1.3% of the total. Among the successes was the fearsome leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, who was the country’s number one public enemy. Still, the vast majority of targets have been low-level fighters. All the while, the number of suicide attacks in Afghanistan, many launched from Pakistan, has soared over the past year or more.

Drones in Pakistan, Out of the blue, Economist, July 30, 2011. at 36-37