The Huge U.S. Counterterrorism Operation You've Probably Never Even Heard About

In this photo taken Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013 and released by the U.S. Air Force, soldiers of the East Africa Response Force (
In this photo taken Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013 and released by the U.S. Air Force, soldiers of the East Africa Response Force (EARF), a Djibouti-based joint team assigned to Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, prepare to load onto a U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, to support with an ordered departure of personnel from Juba, South Sudan. Gunfire hit three U.S. military CV-22 Osprey aircraft Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013 trying to evacuate American citizens in Bor, the capital of the remote region of Jonglei state in South Sudan, that on Saturday became a battle ground between South Sudan's military and renegade troops, officials said, with four U.S. service members wounded in the attack. (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force, Tech. Sgt. Micah Theurich)

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As many headlines around the country focus on President Obama's moves in Iraq to contain the violence wreaked by Islamist militants, the news of U.S. airstrikes in Somalia this week targeting the leader of the extremist group al-Shabab may have seemed out of the blue.

Yet the U.S. has quietly been building up a large counterterrorism operation in Africa in recent years. The tiny African nation Djibouti, which neighbors Somalia, is home to the busiest Predator drone base outside the Afghan war zone, according to The Washington Post. The 500-acre base, called Camp Lemonnier, has 4,000 U.S. civilians and military personnel mostly engaged in counterterrorism in East Africa and Yemen, including a secretive Special Operations task force which coordinates drone missions. The U.S. is investing almost $1 billion to expand the base, according to a congressional report for fiscal year 2014.

Although the U.S. military pulled out of Somalia after two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in 1993, counterterrorism operations in the country never stopped. After 9/11, the CIA worked with Somali warlords to hunt down al Qaeda-linked militants and take them to secret jails -- the so-called "extraordinary renditions" program -- according to an investigation by the Army Times. The U.K.'s Bureau of Investigative Journalism has documented up to 20 covert American operations in Somalia since 2001. And in 2011, The Nation's Jeremy Scahill reported that the CIA had recently established a more permanent base at the airport in Mogadishu to train Somali intelligence officers.

Over the past year, American operations in the country have started to emerge from the shadows. Last October, U.S. Navy SEALs raided a Somali beach town seeking to capture a senior commander from the al-Shabab militant group, but were forced to retreat. That same month, U.S. military advisers started arriving in Mogadishu to set up a longer-term coordination center.

The U.S. military has said that it has no more than a "light footprint" in Africa. But it has a string of troops deployed across the continent, and has been rapidly but quietly expanding its operations since the Pentagon established an Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007. With the secrecy surrounding intelligence operations and drone bases across the world, the full scale of America's footprint in Africa may remain largely unknown.