GAROUA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, proclaimed the sign on the concrete and glass terminal building. The designation was something of a misnomer, because only three or four planes land each week in this sleepy outpost in northern Cameroon, near the Nigerian border, all of them domestic flights. The schedule of the flights tends to be unpredictable. The aging jet that had just flown me to Garoua from Douala, for example, had made an unscheduled stop in N’Djamena, the capital of neighboring Chad, so that a government minister could attend a funeral nearby. As a result, the plane had touched down in Garoua five hours late.
But that wasn’t the only unusual thing about this Cameroon Air flight. Inside the cabin I had noticed several young men who were unmistakably U.S. military — close-cropped hair, athletic builds. And as I descended from the plane and set foot on the tarmac into the blast furnace heat, I spotted a curious triumvirate waiting for them: a middle-aged, sunburned white man wearing cargo pants and a green T-shirt, flanked by two U.S. soldiers in camouflage gear.
“You the Navy guy?” the sunburned man asked me.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m a journalist.”
The Navy guy, a blond and lanky figure wearing Ray Bans and carrying a daypack, approached Mr. Sunburn and introduced himself. Soon, three other Americans from the plane joined them. They stood talking and joking beside the conveyor belt inside the baggage claim, a decrepit hall with fluorescent lights, dangling electrical wires, and scuffed white walls. Then they carried their backpacks and duffel bags to the parking lot, and drove off in four-wheel-drive vehicles — bound for a secretive new military facility not far away.
In late January, I sat on the hotel terrace and eavesdropped on a stubble-cheeked Englishman who was involved with the American operation in Garoua — a drone base that had opened just a few months earlier, in mid-October, on the other side of the “international” airport. He was engaged in an intense conversation with a young British colleague, and he was agitated. A local employee had taken photos of construction sites at the new base — hangars, tents, and troops — and had posted some of them on the internet. “It was a fucking breach of security,” he sputtered. “He took a photo of the fucking colonel.”
Later that day, I introduced myself to the Englishman as he was draining a Castel beer and chatting in fluent French with the hotel’s female bartender. The Englishman, who didn’t want his name used because he was not supposed to speak with journalists, said he had served five years with a French Foreign Legion parachute regiment in Corsica, then worked as a security contractor for British and American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now he was a “one-man operation,” he said, working on logistics and security for the U.S. troops, who numbered about 120 at the time and were increasing with every incoming flight. He had hired 50 Cameroonians to work construction, cook, and do laundry for the Americans, and he was keeping a close eye on them, worried about leaks of information to sympathizers of Boko Haram, the Islamic terrorist group.
The U.S. troops were hunkered down, forbidden to fraternize with locals or visit Garoua’s bars and nightclubs.
“There’s some sensitive shit going on in there,” he said. “The operative word here is Benghazi.”
ON OCTOBER 14, President Barack Obama announced to Congress that America’s global war on Islamic terrorism had expanded to yet another front: The U.S. was sending 300 troops to a new drone base inside Cameroon, along that country’s volatile border with Nigeria, where Boko Haram is most active. Founded in 2002 by a fundamentalist Islamic preacher in Maiduguri, in Nigeria’s destitute northeast, Boko Haram opposes Western education, literature, and science, and transformed itself in 2010 into a terrorist group that has raped, tortured, and killed tens of thousands of civilians in the past five years.
“These forces … will remain in Cameroon until their support is no longer needed,” Obama stated. A White House official later said the troops would not be used for combat, but to oversee intelligence gathering and surveillance. The president didn’t reveal the exact location of the new facility, but the U.S. ambassador to Cameroon, Michael Hoza, said it would be in Garoua, the site of a Cameroonian air force base. No Western journalists had apparently visited this place since Obama’s announcement, little had been written about it in the American media, and the Pentagon was keeping quiet, so I set out to find out what was going on.
Garoua represents the newest expansion of America’s stealth war against jihad in Africa. Piloted and unmanned aircraft have flown from bases in Djibouti — the center of U.S. drone operations on the continent — as well as Ethiopia and Kenya, in addition to ships off the coast of East Africa. Predator MQ-1 drones and their larger cousins, MQ-9 Reapers, have been based in Niamey in Niger, N’Djamena in Chad, and Seychelles International Airport. There is plenty more to come. The National Defense Authorization Act for 2016 appropriated $50 million for construction of an “Airfield and Base Camp at Agadez, Niger … to support operations in western Africa.”
The latest drone project began taking shape in 2015, in the midst of a major intensification of Boko Haram’s military operations throughout the Lake Chad basin — a vast area of desert and semi-arid savannah that extends into half a dozen countries in central Africa. Africa Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations on the continent, was concerned about the state of intelligence gathering among the nations involved in the fight — Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Benin. “It mostly consisted of guys looking through binoculars, World War I-style,” says a Western diplomat who was not authorized to speak on the record. When a detachment of Gray Eagle MQ-1C drones and their military support team became freed up from other surveillance operations last year, Africom looked for a base in the heart of the combat zone. The U.S. military already had a relationship with the Cameroon military — Special Forces work with Cameroon’s rapid response brigade, known by the French acronym BIR, an elite unit based primarily along the border with Nigeria — and was familiar with Garoua. The word came down from Africom: Ask the Cameroonians.
The newest drone base constitutes a high-cost, high-tech military enterprise plunked down in a poor, under-developed country in Africa. In early February, the base became fully operational, hosting a fleet of four Gray Eagle drones, a successor to the original Predator, manufactured by General Atomics. The four drones, which can carry out surveillance missions in rotation 24 hours a day, allow U.S. intelligence analysts to gather detailed information about Boko Haram’s movements, bomb-making factories, and military camps — and share it with a multinational force of 8,700 African troops that is now spread across the Lake Chad basin.
Yet the latest drone mission solidifies an alliance with an unsavory African strongman: Cameroonian President Paul Biya, who has clung to power for 33 years, almost as long as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and is regarded as a corrupt, remote, and authoritarian leader. A Human Rights Foundation report in 2014 stated that “Biya has built a system of corrupt and autocratic power, using the legal and justice system to imprison and bankrupt dissidents, opposition leaders, and journalists. … The secret police prowl university campuses, the army regularly patrols urban centers, and state permission is required for public assembly.” Biya had reportedly amassed a personal fortune of more than $200 million — compared to the average Cameroonian income of $1,350 a year.
Moreover, though at the moment the drones are being deployed for surveillance only, they could — if history is any kind of guide — be armed with Hellfire missiles or Viper Strike bombs. If remote-controlled killing from the sky begins, it usually leads to the deaths of the wrong people: Classified military documents previously published by The Intercept show that in a five-month period of a major drone campaign in Afghanistan, nearly nine out of 10 of the people killed by drones were not the intended targets. Civilian casualties tend to generate the kind of local backlash that has been evident in America’s ongoing drone wars in Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan.
ON OCTOBER 12, a vanguard of the Gray Eagle detachment arrived in Garoua. Felix Swaboka, a local journalist who covers the American deployment, told me that 20 U.S. troops set up temporary camp at the Hotel Benoue, while another 80 based themselves in tents and a hangar inside the walled-off Cameroon air force base. Three days later, and one day after President Obama’s notification to Congress, President Biya belatedly announced his agreement to accept an open-ended presence of U.S. troops on Cameroon’s soil. “The government had to reassure people quickly that the Americans were here to cooperate against Boko Haram, because people had already begun to ask questions, like ‘What are they looking for? What’s the real reason?’” Swaboka told me.
The troops maintained a low-key presence, spending their days readying the new base; the 20 lodged at the Benoue returned to the hotel after dark to work on their laptops. Shortly after the troops arrived, the governor of Cameroon’s Nord region called a meeting of traditional chiefs to try to ensure that the locals would welcome the Americans. He assembled the chiefs in a conference room at his headquarters. “The governor told us, ‘The Americans are here for one goal: to assure the security of the population in the battle against terror. Receive them with open arms, let them do their work,’” recalled chief Djoubani Lawan, as we sat together in his sand-filled courtyard on the city’s outskirts. A frail 75-year-old wearing a gown that exposed his thin legs, the chief soaked an infected right foot in a ceramic bowl filled with iodine, and remembered his excitement — and the wariness of his constituents about the new arrivals.
Some Garoua residents were convinced that the U.S. was mainly interested in exploiting oil reserves that are believed to lie along the country’s border with Chad, while others complained that the troops were coming to the war zone too late, pointing to the 1,200 Cameroonian civilians who had already died in Boko Haram incursions from Nigeria. A top opposition politician had echoed these suspicions, stating that “the United States [has] come to defend [its] interests, particularly as regards the Chad-Cameroon pipeline.” He was referring to a multibillion-dollar World Bank-financed project, completed in 2003, that transports petroleum more than 600 miles from three Chadian oil fields to a floating oil facility in the Gulf of Guinea. Lawan urged his followers to put aside their suspicions. “I know only one thing,” he told me. “The Americans are the only power in the world, and their presence here should reassure us.”
“I wanted to have a closer relationship with the Americans, but they have not been open to it,” said Lawan, who has managed only brief glances at the troops through the windows of their vehicles as they speed up the highway to Maroua, the capital of the country’s Extrême Nord region, where a small team of U.S. Special Forces soldiers trains Cameroonian soldiers, according to a journalist who has embedded with the forces along the border.
The Cameroonian workers, paid the equivalent of $10 a day, a generous salary by the standards of the country’s impoverished north, have been given the impression that they can lose their jobs if they divulge any information about the activities on the base. “There’s a trust issue going on now,” the British security man told me. A U.S. military spokesperson insisted, however, that everything is fine.
DRIVING BACK from the chief’s compound on Garoua’s outskirts, I went by the base, known within the Cameroon military as Air Base 301. It had been built by German contractors several decades ago; Cameroon was a German colony before World War I, and German firms have built bridges, airports, and other parts of the country’s infrastructure. Though deteriorating, the base shares a 2-mile runway with the adjacent commercial airport and is capable of handling Mirage fighter jets and other combat aircraft.
We followed a low pink wall topped by coiled barbed wire that ran for about a mile through the bush. “ATTENTION MILITARY PROPERTY,” signs warned in French. “ENTRY FORBIDDEN. DANGER OF DEATH.” On the other side of the wall, I could make out a control tower and rows of green bungalows with corrugated iron roofs. Inside the facility was the nation’s flight-training school and barracks for some of the Cameroon air force’s 600 troops. The main entrance was marked by a patch of manicured lawn and a jet fighter mounted on a plinth and painted the colors of the Cameroon flag — green, red, and yellow. Six Cameroonian troops stood guard. The U.S. forces and their aircraft were somewhere deep inside the compound, impossible to see from the road.
I asked my driver if we could talk our way inside the base, but he refused; there was “no way,” he said, and he was frightened by the notion of approaching the guards without authorization. Relations between civilians and troops in Garoua have been particularly tense since 2014, when soldiers from Air Base 301 rampaged through a poor neighborhood to avenge the death of a comrade killed by one of the locals. Using rifle butts and batons, they fractured the skulls and broke the bones of some civilians, seriously injuring dozens.
In addition, security has grown especially tight since Boko Haram began attacking military bases along the border north of Garoua. The attacks turned the normally sleepy facility into a hub of military activity. Alpha jets have carried out surveillance of Boko Haram positions from the base, and in December 2014, after jihadis overtook a military camp along the border, President Biya personally ordered an airstrike against them from this base. Fighter jets killed several fighters and drove the rest from the military camp. It was the first time that Cameroon’s air force has been deployed against Boko Haram.
“I’m going to be brutally honest: For me Boko Haram is a good thing,” Col. Barthélémy Tsilla, the commander of Air Base 301, told US Africa News. “It allows me to actually use the aircraft on a real objective and gives me concrete feedback.” He added, “It’s good for the men to know that this is no longer a joke. It’s war.”
THE AMERICAN MOVE into Cameroon marks a dramatic uptick in the war to contain a terrorist threat that has expanded across central Africa. Boko Haram first took root in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s Borno state, 180 miles northwest of Garoua. Its founder was a self-taught preacher named Mohammed Yusuf, who argued that Western institutions and ideas are haram — forbidden under Islamic law — and called on Muslims to reject the legitimacy of the Nigerian state. After clashes between Yusuf’s armed supporters and Nigerian security forces, Yusuf was arrested and summarily executed in 2009 by Nigeria’s feared Mobile Police. His successor, Abubakar Shekau, who served as the group’s “chief of doctrine,” has led a campaign of violence against the state and anyone perceived as being allied with it. Boko Haram has carried out scores of suicide bombings, burned churches and schools, wiped out villages, and kidnapped thousands of girls and women and turned them into sex slaves. An estimated 20,000 Nigerians have died since the violence began.
Beginning around 2012, the insurgents moved their war into Chad, Niger, and, above all, Cameroon, which emerged as a new and little-known front line in the conflict. The insurgents’ objectives appeared to be threefold: to use the border zones as a refuge from the Nigerian army, which had no right of pursuit across frontiers; to go after potentially lucrative new targets; and to expand their territory with the aim of establishing a caliphate throughout the region. In 2013, Boko Haram fighters kidnapped a Yaoundé-based French oil executive, his wife, and their four children while they were vacationing in Waza National Park in the Extrême Nord region. The French government reportedly paid a ransom of 11 million euros to secure their release. Over the next six months, Boko Haram abducted and ransomed a French priest, two Italian priests, a Canadian nun, and 10 Chinese highway engineers. After the last expatriates fled Cameroon’s north at the end of the year, the group shifted its focus to Cameroonian targets. In one spectacular operation, Boko Haram seized 17 hostages, including the wife of a government minister, in a raid on a Muslim festival in Kolofata, 10 miles from the border.
Though both Nigeria and Cameroon were suffering at the hands of Boko Haram, a long-running territorial dispute blocked efforts to coordinate strategy. The oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula, a territory along the Gulf of Guinea that straddles both countries, was the object of repeated clashes between their armies in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2007, the International Court of Justice, backed by the United Nations, ordered Nigeria to cede sovereignty to Cameroon. Though Nigeria withdrew its forces, it regarded the surrender as a humiliation and a violation of its constitution. Nigeria’s popular Guardian newspaper called the forced secession “a rape,” and relations between the neighbors sunk to a low point.
After Boko Haram fighters abducted 276 schoolgirls from a dormitory in the village of Chibok in 2014, the Obama administration deployed surveillance drones, based in N’Djamena, to help the Nigerian army hunt for the missing girls. But reports of extrajudicial killings, torture, and other human rights abuses by the Nigerian military stopped the White House from going any further. The situation changed when the hapless Jonathan was voted out of office last March and replaced by Muhammadu Buhari, a former military dictator who vowed to clean up the army’s behavior. The Pentagon provided armored vehicles to the Nigerians and dispatched two Cessna surveillance aircraft to Niger to assist a new regional force. Britain, France, China, and Russia also contributed materiel and training.
But the Nigerian and Cameroonian armies were still not sharing intelligence or crossing into each other’s territory, and Boko Haram refocused its efforts on the weak points along their border. Fifteen months ago, at the start of Cameroon’s dry season, waves of up to 1,000 Boko Haram fighters began pouring across the frontier, catching the Cameroon army blind. Using improvised explosive devices, tanks captured from the Nigerian military, as well as their own technicals — pickup trucks with heavy weapons mounted in their beds — the Islamist fighters inflicted heavy casualties on the Cameroonian troops, and briefly captured military bases and held territory.
In response, the Cameroon army bolstered its front lines with its elite BIR soldiers, conducted its first air assaults on Boko Haram, and carried out counter-IED operations — spotting and disabling roadside bombs — with the help of trainers from the U.S. Special Forces. The direct attacks on military bases died out, but Boko Haram switched to a terrifying new tactic. “They’ve gone from carrying out frontal assaults on the army to kamikaze attacks against civilians,” Lt. Emmanuel Mbede, a Cameroon military spokesperson, told me.
He was not exaggerating. In December 2015, a teenage female suicide bomber killed seven Cameroonians at a mosque in Kolofata, and on January 13, a male bomber killed 13 at dawn prayers at a mosque in nearby Kouyape. Two weeks later, another 32 died and 66 were injured when a pair of female suicide bombers struck a busy marketplace in Bodo, also a few miles from the border. And in February, two young women infiltrated a funeral wake in the village of Nguetchewe, just south of Kouyape, and blew themselves up, killing six and injuring more than 30.
THE SO-CALLED infiltration zone begins a hundred miles to the north of Garoua, reached by a two-lane paved highway that passes through an arid landscape of corn and millet fields, round huts made of mud and thatch, and extinct volcanoes. On the way to Maroua, we passed several gendarme posts, set up to catch Boko Haram infiltrators. Just before reaching the city, we came to a turn-off from the highway. This rough road — where the 10 Chinese engineers were kidnapped in 2013 — runs northwest toward the border and a rugged escarpment that divides Cameroon from Nigeria’s Adamawa state. It is a no-go zone for anyone without military authorization. More than 2,000 Cameroonian troops have established bases along the escarpment, but the area is laced with bush trails that are difficult to patrol; Boko Haram fighters have been able to cross the border almost at will.
We continued another 5 miles or so to Maroua, a poor but lively town straddling the Kaliao River, which turns into a vast field of sand and stagnant water during the dry season. Last July, three teenage girls wearing suicide belts reached Maroua on motor scooters, and turned the Extrême Nord capital into a slaughterhouse. Two of them hid their explosives beneath their burqas and blew themselves up almost simultaneously in the central market, killing a dozen people; three days later, the third bomber detonated herself on a street packed with outdoor bars, killing 21 and injuring 80. The regional government enacted a series of drastic security measures, forbidding women from wearing burqas, closing bars after 6 p.m., organizing neighborhood watch committees, and banning motor scooters from the streets after 8 p.m.
That evening, I sat in the courtyard of the Hotel Sahel, dining on roasted chicken and plantains in the company of a Cameroonian military officer who was a frequent visitor to the infiltration zone. The new multinational force had gotten up and running in November, he said, adding that most of the soldiers belonged to the BIR — “among the best troops in Cameroon.” But other sources told me that the multinational force had been beset by internal feuding. The Nigerian military was demanding a leadership role, and the Chadians and Cameroonians were resisting. The feuding had slowed the integration of the three nations’ soldiers into a single unit; the “multinational force” along Cameroon’s border, for example, was still almost entirely made up of Cameroonians, and by the time I caught up with the officer in mid-January, it had made only four brief incursions into Nigeria.
In mid-February, however, the Cameroon contingent made its deepest penetration into Nigeria since the cross-border actions began. Using surveillance and intelligence data provided by the U.S. drones that flew out of Garoua, and working for the first time in tandem with the Nigerian army, the BIR troops broke through two defensive lines of Boko Haram fighters and pushed into the Islamist stronghold of Ngoshe, 10 miles inside Nigeria. There they found a hastily abandoned Boko Haram camp with food still on the tables, along with bomb-making factories packed with equipment, chemicals, and suicide vests. They freed dozens of women and children from both Cameroon and Nigeria who had been held prisoner, according to a statement from Cameroon’s government. The Western diplomat said that surveillance imagery from the U.S. drones had played a key role.
“This gave [the force] a 21st-century advantage,” he told me. “It was an absolute game changer.”
Yet the new coordination is still a work in progress, he conceded. A critical question remains unresolved: Who should control the data obtained by the U.S. drones? Over the last couple of years, British, French, and U.S. intelligence units — based in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, and Maroua as well as N’Djamena in Chad — have acted as clearinghouses for intelligence about Boko Haram. These units analyze imagery obtained from overflights as well as reports from prisoner interrogations, and they work hand in hand with the Nigerian military. Though the Gray Eagles are based in Cameroon, the Nigerian government has been flexing its muscles about being the “first point of information,” according to the diplomat. Attempts are being made to place liaison officers from these intelligence units on the ground with Nigerian forces, to gain instant approval from the Nigerians to share the data with Cameroonian troops and other members of the multinational force. The intel sharing worked during the Ngoshe operation, the diplomat said, but there’s no guarantee that it will continue.
These squabbles among regional powers about who is in control of the ground action and who gets the intelligence are a sign of how complicated drone warfare can be, and how human frailty — ego, mistrust, rivalry — can stand in the way. Another barrier is the history of violence by the Nigerian military. President Buhari has fired top officers accused of abuses, but the military has a longstanding reputation for brutality and is accused of the torture and murder of thousands of civilians in Boko Haram territory. There is a clear danger that the new surveillance capabilities provided by U.S. drones could lead to more lethal violence being inflicted against non-combatants in the war zone.
LA DERNIÈRE ESCALE — The Last Stop — is a ramshackle bar adjacent to Air Base 301 on the northern edge of town, and it has become the most popular place in Garoua to witness America’s unfolding high-tech drone war. Owned by a Cameroon air force officer, the shabby establishment drew dozens of drone watchers in the first few weeks after the Americans arrived. Since those heady days, the thrill has dissipated. “Most people have gotten used to them,” said Felix Swaboka, the journalist. But I was new in town, and made a beeline for The Last Stop soon after I arrived.
Swaboka and I set up a table and chairs in the large dirt parking lot, and ordered beer from a sullen waitress who demanded that we pay first. Across the lot, troops and civilians were drinking and listening to music beneath a corrugated metal roof held up by rough logs. It was an unlikely post from which to observe one of America’s most sensitive, sophisticated military missions. Soon we were joined by four of Swaboka’s colleagues, including Ernest Djonga, a haggard man in his 50s who lived in a house a few hundred yards away.
Djonga could barely contain his excitement as he explained that on the previous afternoon, at 4:30, he was relaxing at home when he heard the purr of an engine overhead. He looked up to see the unmistakable outlines of a Gray Eagle drone sweeping across the cloudless sky. The drone was returning to the U.S. base, apparently from a run over the infiltration zone. Djonga stared at the Gray Eagle in amazement, marveling at its thin and elongated wings, its bulbous nose, and its V-shaped tail — a design that he regarded as both sleek and sinister.
“It circled around three times,” he told me, gesticulating emphatically. “It made a noise, not as loud as a jet, and it was blinking its lights as if it was a car, signaling.”
Djonga dashed into his house, grabbed his camera, and shot two photos of the drone. He showed them to me on his camera’s display panel, as his colleagues gathered around, nodding and whistling. Then we finished our beers, took in the music, and waited for the Gray Eagle to make an encore appearance. The first stars appeared in the darkening sky, the moon rose, and it became clear, under the empty skies, that we would be disappointed.
For Djonga and the others drinking with me that night, the U.S. drone base evoked complex emotions. They were elated that Cameroon had not been abandoned in its fight against Islamic terrorism, they told me, and they seemed thrilled to be witnessing a complex military mission unfolding on their doorstep. But the drones sweeping overhead also reminded them of Cameroon’s poverty and powerlessness, and heightened their sense of being pawns in a global game. “You Americans are kings of the world, you have no borders,” Djonga said. “All we can do is go along.”