The U.S.’s overlooked counter-terrorism outpost in Kenya

I’ve written before about Niger’s emerging role as a locus of AFRICOM’s counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel and Sahara, including drone bases in Niamey and Agadez, and a special operations force (SOF) facility in Arlit. It’s a topic that seems to be of some interest, and deservedly so. But if one wants a clear example of the  U.S. military’s more longstanding yet still expanding presence in Africa, a little known base across the continent in Kenya is also illustrative.

Established in 2004, Manda Bay, also sometimes referred to as Camp Simba, is a ‘forward operating location’ (FOL) situated along the coast roughly 100 kilometers from the border with Somalia at the site of a previously existing Kenyan naval base. Manda Bay’s primary function is to serve as a center for training exercises with Kenya’s naval special forces and a base for SOF operations in Somalia, including the “hunter-killer team” Task Force 88, which set up shop in early 2007 according to Thomas Barnett.

In its early years Manda Bay was a small scale affair with no more than a few dozen troops based there at any one time. Former Navy Seal and recently elected governor of Missouri, Eric Greitens, served there in 2005 and his memoir, The heart and the fist, offers a useful picture of the modest (“probably no larger than two football fields” in his estimation) facility at the time: “Our compound was centered around a small house that had once been in shambles—broken roof, smashed walls, trees growing through the floor—but was now, after several deployments of special warfare personnel, structurally sound with a new red roof and a fresh coat of white paint…Surrounding the main house stood five khaki-colored, ten-man tents that hummed with small air conditioning units used to keep them cool at night.” In addition to this compound the base consisted of a small jetty and a rudimentary runway of barely 3,000 feet cut out of the jungle.

Greitens also writes about the logistical challenges of supplying a remote base such as Manda Bay, especially when it came to food: “We had no fresh fruit or vegetables at Manda Bay. Our supply officers in Djibouti tried to get us fresh fruit, but it was difficult to transport an orange from Europe to Djibouti, from Djibouti to Mombasa, and from Mombasa up to Lamu. We ate peaches soaked in syrup packaged in MRE bags.”

To overcome these and other supply shortcomings Manda Bay was part of a 2011 initiative to develop an “adaptive” military logistics network on the continent utilizing sealift by international contractors and line-haul by local truck companies. Following the successful completion of this experiment a Dubai firm, Seven Seas Shipchandlers, was awarded a contract to make regular deliveries to Manda Bay. Since then this logistics concept has been adopted across AFRICOM, most notably in the form of a 2014 African Surface Distribution Service contract, worth up to $10 million for each of the five selected companies, “to perform surface transport and distribution of general cargo within all fifty five (55) nations of the AFRICOM AOR and Egypt.”

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In the decade since Greiten’s tour Manda Bay has undergone a remarkable expansion that belies its designation as a ‘temporary’ FOL. The two sets of satellite images above (taken from Google Earth) provide a glimpse of the physical transformation of the base from 2006 to 2014. In the first we can see a more than 3-fold expansion of the base compound’s footprint, accompanied by a similar growth in buildings and infrastructure. A 2012 Navy engineering document I have obtained details a host of improvements completed and under construction at the time, including a new dining facility, extra fuel storage tanks, a new well and expanded water storage, and new power generators. In addition to this the Navy spent millions improving the base’s road network and repaving and lengthening the runway to 4,000 feet.

These infrastructural improvements reflect—and are necessitated by—Manda Bay’s growing importance for counter-terrorism operations in the Horn of Africa, as evidenced by the rapid growth in troops located at the facility since the few dozen stationed there in 2005. By 2012 the base “routinely” supported “in excess of 200 US service members” according to the Navy’s FY 2013 Overseas Contingency Operations budget request (see p. 67). This September the Navy posted a solicitation for bids for a new Base Operations Service (BOS) contract covering Camp Lemmonier and the Chabelley drone facility in Djibouti, and Manda Bay. According to the document the latter’s dining facility now serves 325 troops “with surges to 510 personnel for up to 3 months” (see p. 227). This suggests that Manda Bay is the second largest base on the continent after Lemmonier, even larger than the drone base in Niamey, which had—as of July this summer—a steady state of 200-250 personnel according to another contract solicitation.

Logistics contracting and U.S. military operations in Niger and Cameroon

An excellent article today from Nick Turse at The Intercept on the new drone base being built by AFRICOM in Agadez, Niger. According to documents Turse obtained MQ-9 Reapers will fly from the base, with Niger being the only country in the region willing to host this model of drones, which have greater range and strike capabilities than MQ-1 Predators. Unlike the drone facilities in Niamey and the new SOCAFRICA base in Arlit, French forces will not be co-located at Agadez. One nugget from the documents is that the U.S. considered Arlit as an alternative location (albeit on that would be more expensive) but it was requested by Niger that the base be located in Agadez.

From the perspective of my research on logistics contracting both the bases in Arlit and Agadez and the new drone facility in Garoua, Cameroon are interesting in that the military has apparently chosen to utilize the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) for support services. These services are provided by Fluor, the prime contractor for LOGCAP in AFRICOM. A 2015 LOGCAP industry day slideshow (see slide 63) indicates that Fluor is providing a wide range of base support at both Garoua and Arlit, including construction, infrastructure maintenance and repair, food service, power generation, fire protection and waste removal.

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Additionally, this spring Fluor posted advertisements at its LOGCAP recruiting page for positions in vector management (pest control) at Garoua and maintenance mechanics at Agadez (these advertisements are no longer visible but I saved screen shots of both). Mechanics at Agadez are expected to provide maintenance support for portable Skywatch towers which are being utilized for base protection. These towers are also increasingly used by police to provide crowd surveillance in public places—another example of the merging of military and police tactics and technology in the U.S.

The evolving U.S. military presence in Niger

Last month Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) posted a contract solicitation for two helicopters to be based at undisclosed locations in Niger in support of military operations in “the North and West Africa Area of Operations”, which includes the countries of Mali, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin, Mauritania, Senegal and Burkina Faso. Two weeks ago it posted a revised solicitation in response to interested company questions. Both the original and revised solicitations offer further insight into the evolving U.S. military presence in the region.

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To begin, the contract refers to a previously undisclosed “AFRICOM Analysis Office” in Arlit, a remote mining city in northern Niger that is the source of most of the uranium for France’s nuclear power plants. Arlit is also a key transportation node in the region, used by both Islamic militants operating across the Sahel and Maghreb and smugglers transporting migrants north to the Mediterranean coast and then on to Europe. The city appears to be the primary operating base for the SOCAFRICA helicopters, based on contract language (p. 39 in original solicitation) identifying it as the delivery location for all required reporting—daily sitreps, logs, administrative reports, etc.—and necessary equipment, supplies, personnel, etc.

One of the reasons that AFRICOM utilizes contracted air support is visibility. Unmarked civilian planes and helicopters are relatively unobtrusive, masking the military’s presence and activities. This contract is no different, as it specifically states that “aircraft shall not be painted in a color that is close to military colors and paint schemes. A conservative, predominately white, civilian-style paint scheme is preferred” (p. 7 of revised solicitation).

The contract is one more data point indicating that Niger is now the most important hub for the U.S. military the region. In 2014 AFRICOM shifted its primary contract for airlift support from Ouagadougou to Niamey, where its main drone base for the region is also located. The construction of a second drone base in Agadez (begun last year) and presence of an “analysis office” supporting SOCAFRICA operations in Arlit indicates that the military views the northern reaches of Niger as a critical site in its ongoing counterterrorism operations in the region.

ISR flights and U.S. SOF operations in Tunisia

James Walker and I have an article forthcoming in Geopolitics (see here for final draft) that traces the growing U.S. military presence in Africa. One of the things we examine is the use of flight contractors for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) gathering. This map, for example, shows sites and areas of operation of the Creeksand and Tuskersand programs.

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Another potential operation/site that was left out of the paper was the mysterious case of ISR flights over Tunisia last March. These flights originated from the airport on the small Italian island of Pantelleria, located just 50 miles from Tunisia. The aircraft, N351DY, is a Beechcraft King Air registered to Aircraft Logistics Group, one of a portfolio of aerospace and defense companies owned by a private equity firm called Acorn Growth Companies. Another one of Acorn’s companies, Commuter Air Technology, is one of the key firms supporting the Tuskersand ISR operations, or its successor, run out of Uganda.

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Three days ago Missy Ryan and Souad Mekhennet published an article in the Washington Post that details a March 2015 Tunisian/U.S. SOF operation that led to the death of nine militants linked to the terrorist attack at the Bardo National Museum 10 days earlier. Ryan and Mekhennet don’t mention ISR support for the mission, but the timing and location of the Pantelleria flights make clear that they were connected to this operation. The first known Pantelleria flight (March 21) took place just three days after the Bardo attack, which suggests one of two things: 1) a previously existing ISR program run out of Pantelleria operating over Tunisia and possibly Libya, or 2) a remarkable capacity possessed by flight contractors operating in conjunction with U.S. SOF in Africa to establish within days a new ISR operation over the continent.