Monthly Archives: May 2014

US Marines Go to Italy as Libya Edges Toward a New Civil War

Libya appears to be teetering on the brink of a new civil war three years after an international intervention helped rebels topple Moammar Gadhafi. Since then, the country’s new authorities have been unable assert its authority and demobilize various independent militias. These armed groups have openly challenged the government on numerous occasions, kidnapping domestic and foreign officials and attempting to sell oil from their own personal fiefdoms.

Members of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force - Crisis Response board a KC-130J at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, as they prepare to return to their base in Spain on 1 March 2014.

Members of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response board a KC-130J at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, as they prepare to return to their base in Spain on 1 March 2014.

The US sent 200 Marines from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response (SPMAGTF-CR) to Italy last week as this recent crisis began to unfold. Today it was reported that additional aircraft were deployed to bolster the force at Naval Air Station Sigonella. The Marines could use their MV-22B Ospreys and KC-130J Hercules aircraft to evacuate Americans from the embassy in Tripoli and elsewhere in the country. SPMAGTF-CR was created last year after the infamous attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in 2012. The Marines’ focus is on being able to rapidly assist American diplomatic facilities in hotspots and evacuate personnel to safety. I wrote a longer piece about the Marines’ initial deployment for War is Boring. The US may have also been keeping an eye on Libya with manned or unmanned aircraft, including drones launched from a recently constructed facility in Niger. I have also just written a piece on Niger’s increasing importance in the region, which will only increase if Libya continues to be unstable.

This new crisis reached a head when forces reportedly loyal to General Khalifa Hifter attacked the seat of parliament. Hifter, who had lived in exile in the United States until Gadhafi’s ouster, claims he is trying to rid the country of the Muslim Brotherhood, who he accuses of being a puppet of the large international organization. Islamist political parties came to power earlier this year. The country’s previous prime minister Ali Zidan resigned in March and then his interim successor Abdullah al-Thinni, who had been defense minister, resigned in April. Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood party has in turn accused Hifter of being a reactionary in league with former members of Gadhafi regime.

The conflicting ideologies and the open violence are indicative of the trouble Libya has had in finding common ground after Gadhafi’s departure. The country’s various factions appear to be choosing sides for a broader conflict, but this does not necessarily mean those alliances will have any lasting effect. Al Qaeda aligned groups have vowed to fight Hifter’s forces, but may not necessarily join with forces aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.

This latest crisis has already caused delays in international efforts to try and develop a professional and objective national security force for Libya that could wrest control away from the largely autonomous militias. Libya’s international partners may also find their allegiances split. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Algeria have all shut down their embassies. American Marines in Italy could conduct their own evacuation mission at any time.

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Phoenix Express 14 Features More European than African Participants

This year’s annual Phoenix Express maritime security exercise has kicked off in Greece. Naval forces from Algeria, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Libya, Malta, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, and the United States are currently conducting the in-port portion of the exercise at the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operational Training Centre (NMIOTC) on Souda Naval Base, near the city of Chania.

Moroccan and Libyan personnel conduct medical training with the US military at the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operational Training Centre in Greece during Phoenix Express 14.

Moroccan and Libyan personnel conduct medical training with the US military at the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operational Training Centre in Greece during Phoenix Express 14.

Six of the ten participants this year are European nations, if one includes Malta. The island nation is a member of the European Union, but is just over 200 miles from Libya and less than 200 miles from Tunisia. Phoenix Express’ focus on the Mediterranean Sea means that European nations regularly outnumber African participants in the exercise. There are only five African nations on the Sea compared to more than twice as many European nations.

However, European participation also highlights how important African security is to the bigger picture in the region, especially with regards to drug trafficking and illegal immigration. The continuing instability in Libya is particularly worrisome for nations in Southern Europe. France, Italy, and Greece have repeatedly sparred over how best to tackle the issue. As already mentioned, Greece is hosting the in-port phase of the exercise. The at-sea phase, scheduled to begin on May 24th, will be coordinated from a Combined Maritime Operations Center in Sigonella, Italy. France, who is currently engaged in a number of interventions in Africa, is conspicuously absent from this year’s exercise despite having participated in the past.

As usual, this year’s Phoenix Express exercise will focus on maritime interdiction operations (MIO) training. The training events in-port will include helicopter operations and safety, damage control and firefighting, deck seamanship, navigation, search and rescue (SAR), and small boat training. The underway component at sea will focus on further enhancing interoperability. Medical training will also be provided. The exercise is scheduled to wrap up on June 2nd.

Phoenix Express 14 will mark the eighth iteration of the exercise, which began in 2005 as a US European Command event run by US Naval Forces Europe (NAVFOREUR). After the creation of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2008, the exercise changed hands and is now run by US Naval Forces Africa (NAVFORAF). The commander of NAVFORAF is dual-hatted as the commander of NAVFOREUR, making the change in responsibility in this case almost entirely administrative.

US Steps Up Support to Nigeria to Fight Boko Haram

The US has stepped up its support to the government of Nigeria this week. The driving factor has been the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls by the nebulous Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram, which has been waging a brutal campaign against the central government since 2009. This week President Obama dispatched an inter-agency team to Nigeria to help in efforts to locate and rescue the abductees. The sixty individuals in the team were reportedly from the US military, agencies of the Intelligence Community, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

US and Nigerian military personnel at the Kontagora Grandstand and Impact/Maneuver Area at the Nigerian Army Training Center

US and Nigerian military personnel at the Kontagora Grandstand and Impact/Maneuver Area at the Nigerian Army Training Center

On Friday, US Army Africa (USARAF) announced that the military members of the team would be working with personnel already at the US embassy in Abuja to train a battalion of Nigerian Army Rangers. USARAF said this would be the first time it would train Nigerian troops for “decisive action” against “a real threat.” The US has a long history of working with the Nigerian military, but this has generally been related to peacekeeping operations. You can read more about this in my recent piece on the announcement on War is Boring.

The twelve Army personnel, said to be a combination of Army Special Forces and Army National Guard general purpose forces, would run a recently formed 650-man Nigerian Army Ranger Battalion through a training course modeled on the US Army Ranger Course. No details were given as to which units the trainers would come from, but 3rd and 10th Special Forces Groups have an established history of conducting security assistance and foreign internal defense efforts in Africa. The California Army National Guard is also aligned with Nigeria through the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program. Military personnel are apparently already in Nigeria conducting military-to-military engagements to figure out what the existing capabilities of the Nigerian troops actually are.

View of the Nigerian Army Training Center Headquarters

View of the Nigerian Army Training Center Headquarters

The actual training is scheduled to begin in two weeks at the Nigerian Army Training Center (NATRAC). The Nigerian government is reportedly footing the entire $400,000 bill for the event and that amount was decided on by them in the first place. The Nigerian Army had first requested the advanced infantry training assistance after touring the US Army Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia last fall. USARAF then worked with them to figure out how much training could be done for that amount. There is also no indication that any of those funds will be used to rehabilitate any part of NATRAC. USARAF released a set of undated and less than flattering pictures of NATRAC facilities to go along with their announcement, some of which are reproduced below:

Training Barracks Tents at the Nigerian Army Training Center

Training Barracks Tents at the Nigerian Army Training Center

Kontagora Village Training Site at the Nigerian Army Training Center

Kontagora Village Training Site at the Nigerian Army Training Center

Obstacle course at the Nigerian Army Training Center

Obstacle course at the Nigerian Army Training Center

Kontagora Small Arms Range at the Nigerian Army Training Center

Kontagora Small Arms Range at the Nigerian Army Training Center

This training event is also just one part of expanding US assistance to the Nigerian military to combat Boko Haram. In January, the Nigerian government established the Nigerian Army Special Operations Command with American assistance. The US is also reportedly in talks with the Nigerian government about providing intelligence aircraft support. This could potentially involve manned and unmanned aircraft.

The US government only declared Boko Haram a terrorist group last November. It also applied that designation the splinter faction Ansaru at that time. There has been some controversy recently over why it took years of escalating violence for the Department of State to make this decision. Whatever the case was, the US appears to be paying attention now.

US Secures New Lease for Non-Base in Djibouti

On Monday, the US government announced that it had reached a deal with Djibouti regarding the continued American military presence at Camp Lemonnier. The new deal will allow Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa and other US forces to remain in the country for another decade at the cost of $630 million. This is significantly more than the reported $38 million fee Washington is currently paying every year. The deal also allows the US government to get another decade at the same rate, as well as a decade after that at a renegotiated rate.

Camp Lemonnier's front gate

Camp Lemonnier’s front gate

Camp Lemonnier was first built by the French as a base for the Foreign Legion in the region. The US arrived there shortly after the attacks on 11 September 2001 and has dramatically increased the size and scope of the facility. Initially part of US Central Command’s (CENTCOM) area of responsibility, Camp Lemonnier was passed to US Africa Command (AFRICOM) after its creation in 2008. The facility, ostensibly run by the US Navy, is also generally referred to as America’s only base on the continent, but the Pentagon does its best to steer clear of using that term to describe it. During a press conference last month, the commander of AFRICOM US Army General David Rodriguez described it as “a major forward operating site” and later corrected a reporter who attempted to use the word “base.”

Whatever one wants to call it, the facility is critical to the Pentagon’s counter-terrorism efforts in both East and Central Africa and across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen. US forces also use the facility to help patrol the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean for pirates. Furthermore, AFRICOM and the US State Department  conduct numerous security assistance efforts throughout these regions under various initiatives, including the Africa Contingency Operations Training & Assistance (ACOTA) program.  Peacekeepers have trained regularly under the ACOTA program for deployment to support the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Djibouti is an important contributor to this mission and provides a location to train other African forces.

The counter-terrorism campaign in East Africa was previously referred to under the broad umbrella of Operation Enduring Freedom, or more specifically Operation Enduring Freedom – Horn of Africa, but is now generally referred to as Operation Octave Shield. The nickname Copper Dune has been used to reference operations in Yemen, but it is unclear whether this is still valid. Camp Lemonnier’s airstrip has been a major part of drone operations in the region, though recently the decision was made to shift this effort to Chabelley Airfield.

The major operation in Central Africa is Operation Observant Compass. This is the nickname for the effort assisting the African Union’s Regional Task Force stamp out the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army. In March, CV-22B Osprey and MC-130P Hercules deployed from Djibouti to Uganda to support this operation. The Osprey aircraft were actually tasked to support CENTCOM operations from Camp Lemonnier. The Pentagon has said CENTCOM may loan the aircraft to AFRICOM again in the future if needed.

Camp Lemonnier has also been an important staging ground for crisis response efforts recently. Last December, two CV-22B Ospreys and US Navy SEALs launched from the facility in an attempt to rescue American citizens caught up in the crisis in South Sudan. Later that month, AFRICOM moved the Marine Corps’ Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response to Djibouti from its base in Spain in response to events in South Sudan. SPMAGTF-CR then moved elements forward to Entebbe, Uganda to support evacuation efforts.

In all, Camp Lemonnier has cemented itself as an important piece of the US military puzzle in both Africa and the Middle East. The US military will remain there for at least another decade, but its quite likely the additional options to stay for twenty years after that will be exercised.