An innocuous-seeming US Air Force press release. A serendipitous satellite image in Google Earth. Snapshots from a photographer on assignment at a Spanish air base. The crash of an Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle fighter-bomber in the United Arab Emirates. These are some of the fragments of information that Italian aviation blogger David Cenciotti has assembled to reveal the best picture yet of the Pentagon’s secretive war in the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa.
In a series of blog posts over the two weeks since 11 May, Cenciotti has described in unprecedented detail the powerful aerial force helping wage Washington’s hush-hush campaign of air strikes, naval bombardments and commando raids along the western edge of the Indian Ocean, including terror hot spots Yemen and Somalia. Cenciotti outlined the deployment of eight F-15Es from their home base in Idaho to the international air and naval outpost at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, north of Somalia.
Over the years there have been hints of the F-15s’ presence in East Africa, but “their actual mission remains a (sort-of) mystery,” Cenciotti writes. Based on the evidence, he proposes that the twin-seat fighter-bombers — one of the Air Force’s mainstay weapon systems in Afghanistan — are dropping bombs on al-Qaida-affiliated militants in Yemen. If true, that means the US intervention in the western Indian Ocean is far more forceful, and risky, than previously suggested.
Ten years ago the Air Force openly acknowledged the initial F-15E rotation in Djibouti, but since then the flying branch has released few details. New official information on the Indian Ocean aerial armada has emerged only after airplanes crashed. An accident involving an Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone in the Seychelles late 2011 forced the Pentagon to admit it was building a drone base on the island nation. Reporters followed the Seychelles lead to uncover additional Reaper bases in Yemen and Ethiopia. Armed drones operated by the CIA and the military have killed scores of militants in Somalia and Yemen under steadily loosening rules of engagement.