The U.S. military is dramatically expanding its operations at a former Soviet airstrip in Somalia, constructing more than 800 beds at the Baledogle base, VICE News has learned. The construction at the secretive base marks the latest example of America’s growing and controversial shadow war in Africa.
Baledogle’s expansion is one part of what appears to be a massive U.S. military infrastructure development project in the Horn of Africa country that will see at least six new U.S. outposts built this year, according to multiple defense contractors who spoke to VICE News.
The buildup coincides with an aggressive escalation by U.S. forces in their fight against al Qaida-linked al-Shabaab. U.S. Africa Command (known as AFRICOM) now has more than 500 U.S. military personnel in Somalia, according to a spokeswoman, a dramatic increase from 2016, when AFRICOM only acknowledged 50 American troops on the ground.
And since January 2017, U.S. forces have conducted at least 48 airstrikes in Somalia, compared to 14 in 2016 and 11 in 2015, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based watchdog organization.
Access to Baledogle is highly restricted, but American contractors and Somali security officials with knowledge of the project told VICE News the construction work began last June, soon after Somalia officially declared war on the insurgency group al-Shabaab. AFRICOM wouldn’t comment on specific base sizes, but it confirmed that Somalia now has the third-largest concentration of U.S. DOD personnel on the continent, after Djibouti and Niger.
Baledogle — or “B-dog” as it’s colloquially referred to by the Americans in Somalia — has long been a forward operating base on the plains of Southern Somalia, a bumpy, 40-minute propeller plane ride from Mogadishu or a days-long drive through terrain littered with IEDs. Until recently just a few dozen American personnel worked in secrecy there alongside African Union Peacekeepers and Somali National Army Special Forces.
But over the past year, yellow Caterpillar excavators and compactors have flooded the grounds and rickety secondhand trucks carrying petrol and equipment have bumbled their way daily into the base’s gates. Mounds of the red earth have been flattened and tan tents erected in their place.
According to the scope of work seen by VICE News, the Department of Defense funded the construction of at least 208 of these beds through the U.S. Army’s Logistical Civil Augmentation Program. The other 600 beds are being constructed under the Department of State’s Africa Peacekeeping Program, according to one contractor with knowledge of the project.
“The size of the Baledogle has doubled in the last year. There are many more Americans here now, and planes are coming in every day to the base,” one Somali soldier stationed at the base said on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
Military leaders have kept a tight lid on U.S. activity in Somalia, but the recent flood of American resources into the country suggests a deepening involvement beyond the counterterror mission against al-Shabaab. Increasingly, experts and contractors familiar with military activities say, the U.S. is setting its sights on building up Somalia as another key strategic location for American military activity in Africa and the Middle East.
Last year, the Trump administration removed several Obama-era restrictions on airstrikes, including interagency vetting prior to each strike and a requirement that every target must pose a direct threat to American lives. Trump also designated parts of Somalia as “areas of active hostilities,” meaning that U.S. Special Operations Forces now have the authority to go on the offensive to target members of al-Shabaab and ISIS.
Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the head of AFRICOM, told lawmakers in March that even though his forces had “turned up the heat in the last few months” in their fight against al-Shabaab, the U.S. was gearing up for a long fight ahead.
“It’s going to be slow, there is no doubt about it,” Waldhauser said. “I’ve said on several occasions you measure progress in Somalia by eighths of an inch, not by yardsticks or rulers.”
Waldhauser’s mandate grants him relative freedom to achieve those goals. AFRICOM conducts its counterterror operations across the continent under Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the congressional legislation passed in the wake of 9/11 that grants the military sweeping power in its war on terror. And in Somalia, the U.S. military has been careful to frame its mission under its broad definition of counterterror, claiming that al-Shabaab leaders have strong links to al Qaida as the reason for going after the terror group. But recent al-Shabaab defectors have cast doubts on the extent to which al-Shabaab maintains ties to al Qaida today, and the threat the group poses outside of Somalia.
“Al Qaida offered us strategic advice, media advice, and technical approaches, but many of the the al Qaida officials in charge of working with us have been killed in Yemen, so the link is weaker now,” one recent mid-level defector told VICE News.
The same post–9/11 authorization has been used to justify the expanding presence of U.S. Special Operations Forces across Africa. In 2006, just 1 percent of all U.S. commandos overseas were deployed to Africa. But by 2017, it jumped to 17 percent, meaning there are more U.S. Special Operators on the continent than anywhere else in the world outside the Middle East. Today these operators are carrying out almost 100 missions at any given time in at least 20 African countries, according to an internal military report uncovered by VICE News last year.
To support these troops, the U.S. has quietly been building a series of outposts across Africa. AFRICOM has long maintained that its base in Djibouti, Camp Lemmonier, which is home to roughly 4,000 U.S. personnel, is the only permanent forward operating base on the continent, yet in April 2017 it admitted to having 46 U.S. outposts in Africa, 15 of which are designated “enduring locations.”
The most well-known outpost in this expansion is the new $110 million American drone base currently being built in Agadez, Niger, though it attracted attention only after the deaths of four U.S. Special Operations in the country last year. Niger Air Base 201 is expected to be up and running by 2019, when it will be home to fighter jets and MQ-9 reaper drones with surveillance and striking capabilities that can reach a number of West and North African countries. Currently 800 U.S. military personnel are deployed to Niger, where they are fighting al Qaida and the Islamic State group.