The Obama administration confirmed today that it had been quietly operating unarmed Reaper drones out of an airport in eastern Ethiopia as part of the ongoing U.S. counterterrorism effort targeting al Shabab in Somalia. Al Shabab is a militant group affiliated with al Qaeda that has created an unstable security situation in Somalia .
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the drones were operating from Ethiopia “as part of our partnership with the government of Ethiopia to promote stability in the Horn of Africa.” He added, “The UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] are not conducting any strike missions from Ethiopia. There are no U.S. military bases in Ethiopia. ”
Asked why the drones were being sent to Ethiopia, a U.S. official confirmed it was to focus on al Shabab activities in neighboring Somalia. In recent years, the U.S. has focused counterterrorism efforts on al Shabab as it’s become more evident that the group may want to conduct terrorist strikes against American targets.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. has “an intense partnership” with the Ethiopian military in training peacekeeping troops and counterterrorism assistance. ”We are working together on a broad, sustained and integrated campaign to counter terrorism. And in doing so, we are harnessing all tools of American power. So obviously, the Ethiopians themselves don’t have these advanced drone aircraft that can provide intelligence surveillance reconnaissance, so we support their counterterrorism efforts with these aircraft. ”
The administration’s acknowledgement of the previously undisclosed drone program in Ethiopia was prompted by a story in today’s Washington Post.
Master Sgt. James Fisher, a spokesman for the 17th Air Force, which oversees Air Force operations in Africa, confirmed that Air Force personnel had been upgrading facilities at the Arba Minch Airport in southeastern Ethiopia since “earlier this year” to ease ”Air Force-led MQ-9 operations there.”
MQ-9 Reaper drones are newer versions of Predator drones that were deadlier than the original because they are capable of carrying more Hellfire missiles and bombs, and have a greater range. Despite these offensive capabilities, Carney and Nuland emphasized that the drones were not carrying weapons and were only conducting reconnaissance and surveillance missions.
Fisher said the drone flights “will continue as long as the government of Ethiopia welcomes our cooperation on these varied security programs.” Fisher explained that the Air Force personnel at the airport are not stationed there, but working there temporarily
The U.S. has also been operating unarmed Reaper surveillance flights from the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean as part of an anti-piracy effort against Somali pirates who have made the waters off of East Africa some of the most dangerous in the world.