On May 30, Army Brig. Gen. Kimberly Field announced the formation of a new “rapid response force” to be established at Camp Lemonnier in the East African nation of Djibouti.
It will be a force “specifically trained and ready to respond to a crisis such as Benghazi, [Libya, which] we didn’t have before,” Gen. Field, deputy director of strategy, plans and policy for the Army, told reporters at the Pentagon.
While serving as U.S. ambassador to three East African island nations from 2002 to 2005, I was told by U.S. commanders that rapid response to emergencies in East Africa was one of the original purposes for establishing the base in Djibouti.
Djibouti is located on the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea, a key terrorist transit point to Africa, just 17 miles from Yemen. In December 2002, U.S. Central Command established the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) at Camp Lemonnier, the former French Foreign Legion base. The objective was to cover Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Sudan, Somalia, the Seychelles and Yemen.
The base’s functions were to conduct security operations, counterterrorism training, humanitarian assistance and civil affairs projects. The “real” purpose, however, was to deny al Qaeda from using East Africa as a safe haven.
Sub-Saharan Africa had become a dangerous place, with the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, the 2002 bombing of the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, and the 2002 attempted missile attack on an Israeli charter aircraft. Al Qaeda had developed a significant presence and had to be stopped.
Temporary headquarters of the CJTF-HOA were set up in 2002 on the USS Mount Whitney, off the coast of Djibouti, with several hundred military personnel onboard. In May 2003, the task force became operational for regional operations.
In 2002, there were three U.S. commands with areas of responsibility in Africa — European Command, Pacific Command and Central Command — all operating independently. With the increase of attacks by Islamists in Iraq, escalating instability in the region and the expansion of al Qaeda in East Africa, a chief of mission conference was held in Djibouti in late 2003. At the time there were almost 1,800 troops, including special forces, stationed at the base.
Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of Central Command who oversaw operations in 27 countries, gave us an overview of terrorist concerns and security issues in the region. He indicated that increased terrorist activity was linked to a rise in radical imams teaching hatred in their madrassas, an issue not isolated to any one region.
Testifying before Congress in March 2004, Gen. Abizaid discussed the expansion of al Qaeda in several regions and said that eliminating the terrorist network’s senior leadership would not eliminate terrorism. Adding to the tumult, many Arab insurgents recruited by Osama bin Laden to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s had left and found a safe haven in Yemen, while others ended up in various parts of Africa.
In late 2006, al Qaeda terrorists responsible for the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings reportedly were embedded with Islamist militias in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. In early January 2007, Somali and Ethiopian troops pursued the Islamists, who fled to several southern towns, including the fishing village of Ras Kamboni, where al Qaeda had a training camp, few miles from the Kenyan border.
Two AC-130 gunships from Djibouti assisted in aerial attacks, killing several insurgents.
In September 2008, the establishment of U.S. Africa Command united operations on the continent, except those in Egypt, which remained under Central Command. The new command’s headquarters were based in Stuttgart, Germany, but Camp Lemonnier would have been a better choice to interface with the CJTF-HOA.
Camp Lemonnier has been expanded to include a squadron of F-15 fighter jets, AC-130 gunships, Black Hawk helicopters and refueling aircraft. Nearly 3,000 troops, including 300 special operation forces, are stationed there. Its fleet of Predator drones conduct surveillance and attack missions in Africa, Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Recently a Navy SEAL team, transported by an AC-130, parachuted at night into a Somali village to rescue two hostages held by pirates. The raid killed nine insurgents, and the freed hostages were flown to Djibouti. Camp Lemonnier’s trained force is capable of undertaking almost any type of counterterrorism operation.
In the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, the Djibouti base could have sent resources to disperse the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamists. The compound was under siege for almost nine hours. The distance of 1,900 miles is within the range of the “combat ready” F-15s, AC-130s and special forces.
The Pentagon and the State Department did not act timely to minimize the attacks, which possibly could have saved U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and the other three Americans.
The CJTF-HOA has succeeded in operations in Africa and beyond, since the base’s inception in 2003. Its resources could have made a difference in Benghazi. Failing to intervene militarily has only emboldened Islamist extremists to strike again.
• John Price is a former U.S. ambassador to Comoros, Mauritius and the Seychelles islands. He currently serves as a resident scholar at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. He is the author of “When the White House Calls,” and regularly writes commentaries on Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.