New US drone base operational in Ethiopia

The unarmed US drones are being used to conduct missions over Somalia and Yemen – a boost for counterterrorism efforts – but Ethiopian officials are nonplussed by the base's presence.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP/File
In this file photo an unmanned Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night.

Last month, reports came out that the United States was building a new drone base in Ethiopia as part of a broader effort to strike targets in Somalia and Yemen. The base is already operational, and the BBC, The Washington Post, and other outlets are covering the story. As the BBC story points out, “the remotely-piloted drones [are] being used only for surveillance, and not for air strikes,” though the vehicles can be equipped with missiles and bombs if commanders choose.

Here’s an excerpt from the Post’s piece:

The Air Force has invested millions of dollars to upgrade an airfield in Arba Minch, Ethi­o­pia, where it has built a small annex to house a fleet of drones that can be equipped with Hellfire missiles and satellite-guided bombs. The Reapers began flying missions earlier this year over neighboring Somalia, where the United States and its allies in the region have been targeting al-Shabab, a militant Islamist group connected to al-Qaeda.


The Arba Minch airport expansion is still in progress but the Air Force deployed the Reapers there earlier this year, [Air Force spokesman Master Sgt. James] Fisher said. He said the drone flights “will continue as long as the government of Ethi­o­pia welcomes our cooperation on these varied security programs.”

Last month, the Ethio­pian Foreign Ministry denied the presence of U.S. drones in the country. On Thursday, a spokesman for the Ethio­pian embassy in Washington repeated that assertion.

The disconnect in rhetoric between the US military and the Ethiopian government points to the major tensions in this relationship. As I noted in my last piece, US officials said that it took years of effort to persuade Ethiopia to host the base. The lack of enthusiasm from Ethiopia’s side has persisted to the present. Ethiopia’s willingness to permit drone operations to continue may be contingent on what reactions occur in Somalia and inside Ethiopia, which is host to many ethnic Somalis and refugees from Somalia.

– Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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