Exclusive: Massive military base buildup suggests the U.S. shadow war in Somalia is only getting bigger

May 5, 2018 in News by RBN

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Source: news.vice.com
By Christina Goldbaum

MOGADISHU, Somalia — The U.S. military is dramatically expanding its operations at a former Soviet air strip 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.

“There are many more Americans here now, and planes are coming in every day to the base.”

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 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.

An explosive escalation

Somali soldiers patrol on the scene of the explosion of a truck bomb in the center of Mogadishu, on October 15, 2017. (Photo credit should read MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

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