CAMP LEMONNIER, DJIBOUTI — Pirates once again prowl the high seas off shore of this tiny country on the strategic Horn of Africa.
Navy Capt. Richard Rodriguez, chief of staff of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, said Sunday U.S. forces are monitoring of piracy in the area.
“It certainly has increased over the last eight weeks,” he told reporters.
After an absence of pirate attacks on commercial vessels for five years, there have been at least four incidents in the area since April 14, according to records kept by the IMB Piracy Reporting Center. The attacks are cause for concern but not surprising given the instability in the region.
On April 16, for example, a container ship in the Red Sea was repeatedly approached by small skiffs, according to the center, which tracks the crime. Armed guards on the ship showed their weapons and fired shots, turning away the skiffs. The center reported three other pirate attacks between April 14 and 22, its records show.
Piracy is one of several security concerns in Africa among of top Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. He is the first Trump administration official to visit Africa. During his one-day visit, Mattis is meeting with Djibouti’s leaders as well as U.S. and allied troops at this breezy, steamy base.
Piracy was a huge issue in the region earlier in the decade, with hundreds of attacks each year in waters nearby. Increased security has largely squelched the problem.
Another worry, or at least an eyebrow raiser, is China’s construction of its own military base here.
China also shares concern about piracy but also seeks access to Africa’s mineral wealth. For the moment, the biggest worry for the Pentagon is how crowding will affect U.S. military operations from Camp Lemonnier, according to military budget documents that call for an expansion of the base.
The U.S. presence here in the former French colony gained urgency after the Sept. 11 attacks. A small presence in the years following 2001 led to long-term leases for space at the military outpost. In 2014, officials from the U.S. and Djibouti signed a 20-year deal with an option for another decade — at the cost of about $65 million per year — a signal that problems besetting the region are not fading.
Among them: a particularly virulent branch of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which aims to attack U.S. and western targets. A Navy SEAL raid targeting the group ended badly in January with the loss of one commando, civilian casualties and the destruction of a U.S. warplane. Special operators here live and work behind a screened, fenced compound, essentially a base within the base.
And then there are those pirates. They have haunted the Gulf of Aden for years, seeking ransom in return for hostages and the commercial vessels they seize.
Djibouti’s strategic position, astride the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, make it an ideal launching pad for responding to piracy and terrorist groups in the region.
The camp, a former outpost of the French Foreign Legion, is named for Brig. Gen. Emile Lemonnier. He was beheaded by Japanese forces in southeast Asia at the end of World War II after his garrison was overrun.
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