Nikolai Ivanovich Ashinov and the Russian Occupation of Djibouti, 1889

Andrew McGregor

Military History, March 1, 2018

Freebooter Nikolai Ashinov sought a foothold for Mother Russia in the Red Sea – but his African misadventure only caused embarrassment.

Imperial Russia’s 19th century struggle with the British Empire for control of Central Asia left it out of the division of Africa and its resources by the other European powers. However, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 focused the attention of some Russians on establishing a warm water port that would control access to the Red Sea’s southern entrance in the region now known as Djibouti. However, Russia’s Foreign Ministry had little interest in a Russian expansion to Africa, leaving its execution to an unlikely and roguish adventurer, Nikolai Ivanovich Ashinov (1856 – 1902), a member of the Terek Cossack Host of the Chechen lowlands.

Nikolai Ivanovich Ashinov

Though poorly educated, the determined Ashinov possessed enough energy to attract support for the establishment of a Russian base that would offer an entry point to Christian Ethiopia while overseeing the shipping lanes that transported India’s wealth to Britain. Ashinov, however, had failed to notice one vital detail – his projected base in Tadjura (northern Djibouti) was already claimed by France. Joined by an unlikely force of Cossack warriors and Russian Orthodox priests, Ashinov’s attempted occupation of an abandoned fort there in 1889 led to what Tsar Alexander III described as “a sad and stupid comedy” that ignited an international crisis.

Ethiopia barely registered on the Russian consciousness until 1847, when Lt. Colonel Igor Petrovich Kovalevsky led a two-year Russian expedition from Cairo up the Blue Nile into eastern Gojam (north-west Ethiopia) in search for gold deposits. A year later, Russian monk Porfiry Ouspenski claimed (incorrectly) that the rites of the Russian and Ethiopian Orthodox churches were nearly identical after meeting Ethiopian monks in Jerusalem. He suggested sending a religious mission to the Ethiopian emperor in order to unite the churches with the ultimate goal of sending Orthodox missionaries (and Russian influence) to Sudan, Darfur and Somalia. Nothing came of the plan, but in 1855, Ethiopian emperor Tewodros II sent a letter to the Tsar suggesting a joint effort to wrest Jerusalem from Ottoman control. The timing was bad, with Russia just having suffered defeat in the Crimean War.

Meanwhile, the French were taking interest in the physically challenging Gulf of Tadjura region. In 1856, Henri Lambert, the French Consul in Aden, became the first European to visit the Gulf port of Obock and negotiated trading rights with the local Sultan. Lambert was murdered three years later after inserting himself into a local political dispute, but a treaty of alliance was signed by the Sultan of the Danakil in 1862 and Obock purchased for French use. The French found little use for Obock at first and even considered selling it to the Egyptians, who were expanding their African Empire with a modernized military heavily reliant on Western mercenaries, including many veterans of the American Civil War. In 1874 Egyptian troops began occupying the coast southwards from Tadjura. By 1882 French ships observed Egyptian forces moving into the French holdings in the Gulf region. French interest in the area grew the next year after French naval ships were refused re-coaling in the British-held port of Aden for the second time in 13 years. By now the Egyptian military presence was pervasive in Obock, which France had still made no effort to occupy.

The Ethiopian destruction of the Egyptian Army at the Battle of Gura in March 1876 was the beginning of the end of Egypt’s efforts to expand its influence in the Horn of Africa. By 1884 they agreed to abandon their bases along the Ethiopian and Somali coasts, a withdrawal several European powers were ready to exploit. France despatched the energetic Léonce Lagarde, Count of Rouffeyroux, to take care of its interests in the region. Fresh from colonial service in Cochin-China and Senegal, Lagarde established himself on the south side of the Tadjura Gulf before expanding French rule into the rest of the region, building the basis for an eventual French colony. Though the Italians and British were successful in occupying some of the abandoned Egyptian garrisons, Lagarde beat Royal Navy warships to Tadjura by only a few hours, adding the area to the newly established French protectorate by agreement with the local Sultan. The territory included the old fort of Sagallo. Evacuated by the Egyptian garrison, the decaying fort was temporarily occupied by French troops from the cruiser Seignelay.

The Bay at Sagallo by German landscape artist Johann Martin Bernatz (1802-78)

Ashinov began his career in the caravan trade to Persia and Turkey before volunteering for service in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, in which large numbers of the Terek Host fought on the Balkan and Caucasus fronts. Ashinov claimed to be an ataman, or Cossack leader, but others denounced him as an imposter. During a visit to Constantinople, Ashinov encountered two Circassian Muslims returning to the North Caucasus from Egypt who told him of a fertile land to the south of Egypt whose inhabitants practiced an ancient form of Christianity.

The Gulf of Tadjura

Ashinov’s first trip to Africa was in 1885, landing at the Red Sea port of Massawa, which Italy had only just occupied as Egypt’s rule in the region collapsed. The Cossack quarrelled with the Italians (who were also attempting to assert control over Ethiopia) before heading inland.  Though accounts differ on whether Ethiopian emperor Yohannes IV met with Ashinov or not, the Cossack claimed to have obtained a geographically vague permit to create a Cossack settlement on the Gulf of Tadjura. He met Ras Alula, an Ethiopian general and one of the most important figures on the Red Sea coast, and made a reconnaissance of Tadjura, where French poet turned gunrunner Arthur Rimbaud ran arms to local warlords.

To a large degree Ashinov was a product of Russian Slavophilism, an intellectual movement grounded in traditional Russian culture. It emphasized the role of the Orthodox Church, rejected Westernism and sought further expansion of the Russian Empire into new territories. Ethiopia and the Red Sea coast caught the eye of the expansionists, attracted by the region’s strategic value and Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church, which seemed to offer some common ground between the two nations. The preferred base for such efforts, the Gulf of Tadjura, was claimed but not yet fully consolidated by the French. Nonetheless, leading merchants and administrators (including the Tsar’s brother) began to line up behind Ashinov in the hope that when the Cossack colony became a reality, the Tsar would step in and make it an official Russian overseas territory. Despite concerns about Ashinov’s character, Alexander III appears to have toyed with the idea in the face of protests from the Russian Foreign Ministry, which was attempting to cultivate France as an ally. In the end, the Tsar neither supported nor prevented the African initiative, preferring to see how events unfolded.

Ashinov failed to raise support in Paris in 1887 by selling his idea as a joint Russo-French venture, but a lack of overt opposition may have convinced him that he had the tacit support of both France and Russia. Ashinov returned to Tadjura in 1888, where he collected two Ethiopian priests sent by Yohannes to attend the 900th anniversary of the Russian Orthodox Church. Ashinov brought the priests to celebrations in Kiev and then St. Petersburg. They met the Tsar at the insistence of Alexander’s leading advisor, who informed Alexander, “In such enterprises the most convenient tools are cutthroats of the likes of Ashinov.”

Russian Gunboat Mandjur

Depending upon whose backing was being sought, Ashinov represented a Russian mission to Tadjura as strategic, commercial or religious in intent. Russian scholars began to produce detailed analyses of the Tadjura region, but Ashinov’s project was vigorously opposed by the Foreign Ministry, which did not care to put Russia’s international relations in the hands of a rogue Cossack. Nonetheless, support was found, including that of Russian naval commander Admiral Ivan Shestakov, who sent the Russian gunboat Mandjur to Aden to support the Cossacks. Unfortunately for Ashinov, the ship was recalled after the admiral’s sudden death in December 1888.

As part of its religious cover, the mission was joined by Father Païsi, an Archimandrite of the Orthodox Church. Païsi, formerly a monk at Mount Athos in Greece, was also an Orenburg Cossack with military experience in Central Asia. A popular figure in Russia, Païsi, as official head of the mission, gave it credibility and popularity at home.

With roughly 150 armed men of the Terek Cossack Host and a number of monks, women and children, the mission left Odessa on December 10, 1888 and landed at Tadjura on January 18, 1889 after taking a circuitous route on three different ships to avoid observation. The last ship, the Austrian Amphitrite, was followed through the Suez Canal by the Italian gunboat Agostino Barbarigo before slipping the Cossacks past a patrolling French sloop, the Météore.

Emperor Menelik II of Abyssinia

Once ashore, the pretense of a religious mission to Ethiopia was quickly abandoned as Ashinov revealed his intention to settle permanently in the Gulf of Tadjura. Italian protests that it had sovereignty over Ethiopia were largely ignored by Russia, which had never recognized the Italian claims. Emperor Menelik II, who had succeeded Yohannes after the latter was killed by Mahdists at the Battle of Gallabat, was surprised to learn of the Italian claim to his realm, but believed an Italian envoy’s assertions that Italy had no designs on Ethiopia. The Italian press began describing the Cossacks in the worst light possible – Ashinov was uneducated, a pirate and a rapist, while his wife Sofia Ivanovna, a highly educated woman who had accompanied Ashinov, was a hysterical individual and the real leader of the expedition.

The Flag of New Moscow

Meanwhile, Commandant Lagarde dispatched an officer from the Météore to warn Ashinov and his men that any abuse of the local Danakil population would be met with a harsh response. Ashinov’s group settled into the abandoned Egyptian fort at Sagallo on January 28. Renaming the position “New Moscow,” the Cossacks fashioned a makeshift chapel (“The Church of St. Nicholas”) and raised a specially designed flag in which the Russian white, blue and red tricolor was overlaid with a yellow Saltire cross. Four of the Russian monks were former Russian military engineers who had joined the clergy to escape some type of scandal; these individuals were responsible for building any necessary fortifications. Ashinov, Païsi, and the handful of Cossack families took refuge in the fort’s blockhouse while the rest used temporary shelters outdoors. Even though it was “winter,” a daily average high temperature of 84˚ F under a relentless sun made the work of rebuilding the fort a taxing effort for the northern intruders. Discipline dissolved quickly and Ashinov was forced to distribute cash to his followers to dissuade them from raiding passing caravans.

Ashinov, Father Paiisi and others at Fort Sagallo

The colonial ambitions of Italy and Britain were threatened by the possibility of Russian arms being delivered directly to indigenous groups in Africa. France was thus urged to assert its claims in the Tadjura region and bring a quick end to the Cossack occupation. The problem was that France was not necessarily hostile to the Russian incursion and was ready to consider the usefulness of cooperative efforts in the Horn region to interrupt Britain’s dominance of the approaches to the Suez Canal, purchased by Britain in 1875.

The French and Cossacks engaged in a brief propaganda war, with Ashinov trying to convince the Danakil that the French were but a minor power while Lagarde gave the tribesmen the impression that the Russians were only there with French permission. Lagarde sent emissaries to Ashinov to demand he turn over his group’s “excess weapons,” lower his flag and raise the French flag. None of this was done, Ashinov claiming he could do nothing without the permission of the local ruler, Muhammad Leita, who was conveniently away fighting the Somalis. Never a diplomat, Ashinov failed to recognize he was being offered an opportunity to remain so long as he observed certain formalities.

Ashinov’s Cossacks at Sagallo

Eventually the Cossacks began raiding the Danakil, stealing their animals and raping their young women. All the noble religious rhetoric surrounding the purpose of the expedition came crashing down. Not all the Cossacks were pleased with the chaotic conditions and lack of leadership. Some deserters were caught by the Danakil and turned over to the French in Obock, where they were able to give a true picture of the disorder prevailing in “New Moscow.” Angered that Ashinov was discrediting Russia abroad, Tsar Alexander publicly disavowed any involvement with Ashinov’s mission.

Tsar Alexander III

Once the French government was satisfied that Ashinov’s expedition had no official backing in Russia, orders were delivered to Admiral Orly, commander of the French Levant squadron, to expel the intruders. The cruisers Primauguet and Seignelay steamed for Tadjura, picking up Governor Lagarde at Obock, where they were joined by the gunboats Météore and Pingouin.

By now, the Tsar was heeding the counsel of the Foreign Ministry and demanded that “this beast Ashinov” be removed from Tadjura as soon as possible. After Paris learned that the Russians had decided to send the gunboat Manchuria from Aden to deal with Ashinov themselves, orders were sent to Orly’s squadron to stand down. Due to the poor communications of the day the new orders were not received in time.

French Cruiser Le Seignelay

On February 5, 1889 the French cruisers arrived offshore. An officer was sent to bring Ashinov to his senses, if the sight of the warships lining up in battle formation had not already done so. Some 20 Cossacks understood the implications and swam out to the French ships to surrender. The French lieutenant informed Ashinov that Lagarde wished to see him on board immediately. Ashinov replied that he didn’t especially feel like going anywhere at the moment, but helpfully suggested that if Lagarde really wanted to speak to him, he could come to the fort.

Panic gripped the Russians when the French naval guns opened a fifteen-minute barrage. Ashinov ordered some of the Cossacks to create a line of defense on the beach, but this suicidal command was ignored. Though eleven larger shells were fired, most of the French fire came from the newly introduced 47 mm rapid-firing Hotchkiss cannon. Cossack skill in arms and horsemanship provided no defense for naval guns, and the group had little alternative but to run for the nearby woods or hide behind the fort’s ruined walls and pray.

By the time the shelling was over, two women, three children and one Cossack were dead, with 22 more wounded. The women and children had taken refuge in the fort’s main building, a useful target for the French guns. The fight had been pounded out of the Russians, who were now more than ready to surrender. The survivors began to carry the wounded down to the beach. The Ataman’s arrogance had taken a shocking beating, and it was left to Father Païsi to deal with the French, Ashinov’s wife serving as interpreter. Païsi angrily protested the French action but found little sympathy; French opinion was that the Cossacks had brought it on themselves after passing up numerous opportunities to stand down.

Russian Cruiser Zabiyaka

French troops collected all the Russian weapons and oversaw the embarkation of the Russians to Obock. To prevent any re-occupation of the site, Admiral Orly ordered the remaining fortifications to be destroyed with explosives. After transport to Suez, the surviving Cossacks were put aboard the Russian cruiser Zabiyaka on March 4 for a depressing trip back to the naval base at Sebastopol, though some sources indicate that four monks were allowed to proceed on a “religious mission” to the Ethiopian court.

Ashinov found himself treated like a bad odor back in Russia. Given the Tsar’s anger with him, Ashinov was perhaps lucky to be punished with only three years exile in the Volga River region; the Foreign Ministry had recommended five years in Siberia. The Cossack tried to flee to Paris and London, but eventually obeyed an order from the Tsar to return home in 1891. His new sentence was ten years’ exile to his wife’s estates in Chertigov in the northern Ukraine. After this, his trail grows cold, though one account claims Ashinov flourished in Chertigov as late as 1906. Ashinov’s antagonist, Commandant Lagarde, went on to become French ambassador to Ethiopia and was made Duke of Entotto by Menelik in 1897.

Commandant Lagarde

Even as Ashinov was engaged in his failed effort to create an African “New Moscow,” the Russian Minister of War was busy developing his own mission to the Ethiopian court using a trusted and far less erratic officer, Lieutenant Vasiliev Federovich Mashkov, an Anglophobe and strategic thinker. In October 1889, Mashkov arrived in the court of Menilek II with the apparent support of Lagarde. French and Russian interests were converging so far as challenging British control of the sea routes passing the Horn of Africa. Mashkov’s second visit in 1891 led to the eventual formation of a Russian military advisory mission and the delivery of Russian arms that helped Menelik defeat the Italian Army at Adowa in 1896. France and Russia viewed Italy as an ally of Britain in the contest for the Horn.

Nikolai Leontiev

Captain A.V. Eliseev visited Tadjura and the nearby Sultanate of Rahayta in 1895 with an eye to establishing relations. Eliseev was accompanied by a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church as the idea of uniting the Russian and Ethiopian churches persisted to the end of the 19th century. The Cossack connection continued as Eliseev’s visit was followed up by Kuban Cossack Captain N.V. Leontiev (who alarmed the British with his plans to contact the Mahdist regime in Omdurman) and a mission led by Colonel Leonid Artamonov, who became military advisor to Menelik II.

Artamanov with Cossacks Shedrov and Archipov

Artamanov and two Cossack soldiers accompanied the military expedition of Ethiopian commander Tessema Nadew to the White Nile in 1898 in advance of both Kitchener’s British forces and the French Marchand expedition, but the diseased and exhausted Ethiopians were compelled to withdraw after raising the Ethiopian flag near Fashoda. In the same year, Russia established formal relations with Ethiopia and built an impressive embassy in Addis Ababa, guarded by forty Cossacks. France meanwhile consolidated its territories and protectorates in the Tadjura Gulf region in 1896 as the Côte française des Somalis.

In the end, the Ashinov adventure failed to cause a breach in the warming Franco-Russian relations. In the face of growing British might, no mere Cossack could significantly influence geo-political imperatives. Russia had suffered an embarrassment, but France had suffered little – if anything, its local prestige in the Horn had been raised by the firmness with which it had dealt with the Russian challenge.

Despite Russian attempts to become a player in the Horn, its inability to establish a permanent presence on the coast was to have devastating consequences in 1905, when Japan’s devastation of Russia’s Pacific Squadron at Port Arthur forced Russia to send its outdated Baltic Fleet to tackle Admiral Tojo’s British-built battleships. London denied use of the Suez Canal after the Russians fired on British fishing boats in the North Sea, mistaking the trawlers for Japanese torpedo boats. After an 18,000-mile journey round the Cape of Good Hope, the exhausted Russian fleet was destroyed by the Japanese at the Battle of Tsushima. Ashinov and his backers had grasped the strategic importance of a Russian base in the Horn of Africa, but the Cossack’s erratic behavior unwittingly contributed instead to Imperial Russia’s military decline.

Dr. Andrew McGregor is director of Aberfoyle International Security and writes on military, security and terrorism issues. For further reading he recommends The Russians in Ethiopia: An Essay in Futility, by Czeslaw Jesman, and Russia and Black Africa before World War II by Edward Thomas Wilson.


This article first appeared as “The Half-Cocked Cossack: Nikolai Ivanovich Ashinov and the Russian Occupation of Djibouti, 1889,” Military History 34(6), March 2018, pp. 32-39.

Will Khartoum’s Appeal to Putin for Arms and Protection Bring Russian Naval Bases to the Red Sea?

Andrew McGregor

Eurasia Daily Monitor 14(158)

December 6, 2017

Though Sudan’s national economy is near collapse, the November 23 visit of Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir to Russia’s top leadership in Sochi was dominated by expensive arms purchases and Sudan’s appeal to Russia for “protection from aggressive actions by the United States” (TASS, November 23; see EDM, November 29). A suggestion that Khartoum was ready to host Russian military bases took most Sudanese by surprise, given that Washington lifted 20-year-old economic sanctions against Sudan in October and relations with the US finally seemed to be improving.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (AFP/Ashraf Shazly)

Al-Bashir expressed Sudan’s interest in purchasing the highly maneuverable Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30 and Su-35 fighter jets during the Sochi visit. And in fact, an unknown number of Su-35s were reportedly delivered days ahead of al-Bashir’s visit, making Sudan the first Arab country to have the aircraft (RIA Novosti, November 25; al-Arabiya, November 20).

Khartoum announced its intention to replace its Chinese and Soviet-era aircraft in March, when Air Force chief Salahuddin Abd al-Khaliq Said declared Sudan would henceforth be “fully dependent on Russia for its air armament” (Defenceweb, November 29).

Sudan’s Red Sea Coast

The Su-35, deployed in Syria by the Russian Air Force, is one of the best non-stealth fighters and missile-delivery platforms available, but at an export price of as much as $80 million each, cash-strapped Khartoum may have to provide other forms of compensation. It may have been no surprise then that Sudan’s delegation in Sochi expressed willingness to host Russian naval bases along its 420-mile Red Sea coastline (Sputnik News, November 28). However, there are few suitable places for such bases on the coast, where transportation infrastructure is poor.

The Old Coral City of Suakin

Suakin, the coast’s historic port, was replaced in 1909 by the newly built Port Sudan, able to accommodate the large steamers Suakin could not. Otherwise the coastline has only a handful of small harbors (sharm-s) suitable only for dhows and fishing boats. Sailors must cope with coral reefs, shoals and numerous islets. Gaps in the large reef that runs parallel to the coast determined the location of both Suakin and Port Sudan. The entire coast is notoriously short of fresh water, a problem that must be accounted for before the construction of any large facilities. Though Egypt’s own military ties with Russia are growing, Cairo is unlikely to welcome a Russian naval base on the Red Sea coast, where Egypt currently contests possession of the Hala’ib Triangle with Sudan. [1]

Djibouti, with its vast harbor and strategic location on the Bab al-Mandab strait would make a far better base for Russian naval operations in the Red Sea. Russian Cossacks first tried to seize the region in 1889, but now existing US, French and Chinese military bases there (along with an incoming Saudi base) make such a proposition unlikely. Russian naval ships on anti-piracy operations in the Red Sea have used Djibouti for resupply and maintenance.

Moscow is also providing Khartoum with 170 T-72 main battle tanks under a 2016 deal; and the latter has expressed interest in buying the Russian S-300 air-defense system as well as minesweepers and missile boats (Xinhua, November 25). Though Sudan still uses a great deal of military equipment of Chinese and Iranian origin, al-Bashir opened the possibility of hosting Russian military personnel when he claimed, “All of our equipment is Russian, so we need advisors in this area” (RIA Novosti, November 25). The BBC’s Russian service has reported unconfirmed rumors of Russian mercenaries operating in Sudan or South Sudan (BBC News—Russian service, December 4).

Two other factors weigh in on Khartoum’s improving relations with Russia:

Gold: President Putin was reported to have confirmed Russia’s continuing support in preventing US- and British-backed United Nations Security Council sanctions on exports of Sudanese gold due to irregularities in Sudan’s mostly artisanal gold industry in Darfur (SUNA, November 23). Since Sudan’s loss of oil revenues with the 2011 separation of South Sudan, gold has become Sudan’s largest source of hard currency, but Khartoum’s inability to control extraction has led to huge losses in tax revenues and has helped fund regime opponents in Darfur (, October 15). Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour explained that it was in this context that al-Bashir’s remarks regarding “Russian protection” were made (Sudan Tribune, November 25).

War Crimes: Al-Bashir recently learned that Washington does not want to see him seek another term as president in the 2020 elections (Sudan Tribune, November 27). The 73-year-old has ruled Sudan since 1989, but retirement seems elusive—al-Bashir’s best defense against being tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes in Darfur is to remain president. Russia withdrew from the ICC in November 2016, calling it “one-sided and inefficient” (BBC News, November 16, 2016).

Khartoum’s request for Russian “protection” was best explained by Sudanese Deputy Prime Minister Mubarak Fadl al-Mahdi, who said the outreach to Moscow was intended to create a new balance: “We can at least limit American pressure, which cannot be confronted without international support… But with Russia’s support at international forums and the Security Council, American demands will be reasonable and help in accelerating normalization of ties” (Asharq al-Awsat, December 3).

However, the Sudanese regime’s nervousness over how this abrupt turn in foreign policy will be received at home was reflected in a wave of confiscations by the security services of Sudanese newspapers that had covered al-Bashir’s discussions in Sochi (Radio Dabanga, November 30).

Jibril Ibrahim, the leader of Darfur’s rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), insisted that al-Bashir’s request for Russian protection and willingness to accommodate Russian military bases had destroyed attempts to normalize relations with the US and was an opening to bring down the Khartoum regime (Sudan Tribune, November 27).

Is Sudan playing a double game here? Foreign Minister Ghandour claims “there is nothing to prevent Sudan from cooperating with the United States while at the same time pursuing strategic relations with China and Russia” (Sudan Tribune, November 25). Nonetheless, al-Bashir has so far avoided becoming anyone’s client and is likely aware that pursuing this new relationship with Russia to the point of welcoming Russian military bases could be his undoing as he seeks to reaffirm his rule over a restless nation in 2020. For this reason, Russian military bases on the barren and furnace-like Sudanese Red Sea coast seem unlikely for now.


  1. For a detailed map of Sudan’s Red Sea coast, see:

“The Notion of Spring Does Not Exist in the Arab World”: Djibouti’s President Ismail Guelleh Wards Off the Arab Spring

Andrew McGregor

December 22, 2011

In a recent interview with a French-language African news magazine, Djibouti’s head of state, Ismail Omar Guelleh, was asked if “the great wind of the Arab Spring” had “blown as far as Djibouti?” Guelleh, leader of Djibouti since 1999, quickly dismissed the notion: “The Holy Koran talks of ‘summer and winter voyages.’ The notion of spring does not exist in the Arab world”  (Jeune Afrique, December 10). [1]

President Ismail Omar Guelleh

The importance of Djibouti to American strategic planning was reinforced this month by a visit to the small African nation from U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who said partnerships with nations such as Djibouti were essential to the American counterterrorism effort (AP, December 13). Djibouti is home to the American Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), a mission of over 3000 troops engaged in counterterrorism, anti-piracy, surveillance and humanitarian missions. The Task Force is centered on Camp Lemonnier, a former Foreign Legion installation leased by the United States in 2001. The U.S. facility also serves as a base for CIA-operated drones carrying out missions over Somalia and elsewhere.

Government in Djibouti has been dominated by the ruling Rassemblement populaire pour le Progrès (RPP – People’s Rally for Progress).since independence in 1977. After serving as chief of the secret police, Guelleh succeeded his uncle, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, as the nation’s second ruler in 1999. Opposition leaders are routinely jailed before or after elections, leading to election boycotts in 2005 and in 2011 after Guelleh amended the constitution to allow for a third six-year term. Guelleh had previously promised his second term would be his last. The president justifies his reluctance to share power by citing an excuse used frequently by authoritarian rulers: “This time round, I will not change my mind. I did not want this last mandate. It is a forced mandate, because the people felt there was no one ready to take over” (Jeune Afrique, December 10).

Djibouti’s Strategic Importance

Djibouti, a small, hot and otherwise insignificant country of 8500 square miles nevertheless occupies one of the most strategic pieces of real estate in the world. Close to many of the major oil-producing regions in the Middle East, Djibouti occupies the western side of the Bab al-Mandab, the southern entrance to the Red Sea and ultimately the Suez Canal. Djibouti is also the place where the great east African Rift Valley meets the Gulf of Aden. The deep, fifty-mile-long Gulf of Tadjoura, protected by the Musha Islands at its entrance from the Gulf of Aden, provides an excellent natural harbor for naval and commercial ships, a fact quickly noted by the French imperialists who arrived in the region in 1862, acquiring the port of Obock from local Sultans as a foothold in the region.  The modern port of Djibouti City lies on the southern side of the Gulf of Tadjoura and has historically played a major role in projecting French force and influence into Asia. [2]

Djibouti has played a military role in both world wars, the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1936, the Suez War of 1956 (as part of France’s Operation Toreador), the Gulf War of 1991 (as a base of French operations) and now the current conflict in Somalia (including anti-piracy operations).

Until recently, Djibouti was home for 49 years to one of the world’s most famous fighting forces. The 13th Demi-Brigade of the French Foreign Legion was formed in 1941 from legionnaires who rallied to the Free French cause. The unit was initially created to participate in the attack on Narvik in Norway, but later served in heavy fighting on more familiar desert turf in Syria, Eritrea and most notably in Libya at the Battle of Bir Hakeim.  During its nine post-war years in Indo-China the unit took terrible losses, particularly at the 1952 Battle of Hoa Binh and the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu. After service in Algeria the 13th was assigned to permanent residence in Djibouti in 1962. After deploying from Djibouti to missions in Somalia, Rwanda and the Côte d’Ivoire, the 13th left Djibouti last June for a new French base in the United Arab Emirates. (, June 20).

Djibouti is also home to another unique military formation, the 5e Régiment interarmes d’outre-mer (5e RIAOM), the last combined arms (infantry, artillery and armor) regiment in the French army. The 5e RIAOM is the successor of the 5e Régiment d’infanterie de marine (RIMa – colonial infantry), which deployed one company of troops to protect the newly acquired port of Obock in 1890. The unit in one form or another had already participated in the assault on Russian forts in the Baltic Sea during the Crimean War as well as colonial campaigns in China, Mexico and Vietnam. In the 20th century the unit was disbanded and recreated several times under slightly different names while participating in campaigns in the Great War, World War II and the Indo-China War. The unit was re-established as the 5e RIAOM in 1969 with the mission of guarding French interests in Djibouti and being available to support French military operations in Africa or the Middle East. The RIAOM is supported by a section of Gazelle and Puma military helicopters.

An agreement reached in May 2010 allowed the Russian Navy to use port facilities in Djibouti but did not provide for the establishment of a land forces base or permanent Russian naval facility. The agreement allowed Russia to deploy warships in the region on anti-piracy or other missions without the necessity of using supply ships (Shabelle Media Network, May 17; 2010; Interfax, May 17, 2010; see also Terrorism Monitor Brief, May 28, 2010). The first ever visit to Moscow by a Djiboutian Foreign Minister in October highlighted the growing relations between Djibouti and Russia (Buziness Africa [Moscow], October 20; Agence Djiboutienne d’Information, December 13).

Japan has also identified Djibouti as an important asset in the protection of its vast commercial shipping fleet. A Japanese naval base and an airstrip for Japanese Lockheed P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft opened in July as a port for ships of Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF). Japan typically deploys a pair of destroyers on rotation in the Gulf of Aden on counter-piracy operations as well as members of the Special Boarding Unit (SBU), a Hiroshima-based Special Forces unit patterned after the U.K.’s Special Boat Service (SBS) (Kyodo News, July 31, 2009; AFP, April 23, 2010).

Djibouti and the Winds of the Arab Spring

Protests against the regime in Djibouti calling for Guelleh’s resignation began at roughly the same time as the Tunisian revolution and the beginning of the Egyptian revolution in late January 2011. Mass arrests of demonstrators quelled the demonstrations by March, but the problems behind the protests remained unresolved (al-Jazeera, February 18; Reuters, March 4). Though Djibouti is not an Arab nation, its proximity to Yemen, its Muslim majority and its membership in the Arab League mean that developments in the Arab world are often influential in Djibouti’s political development.

Guelleh denies the protests had any political motivation, suggesting they were simply an “expression of a purely social malaise, which some big-wigs of the opposition wanted to transform into a revolution… very quickly, it all degenerated into looting… It was, in a much reduced form, the equivalent of [the London riots] in early August. The only difference is that over there, if the media are to be believed, the British police simply restored order when confronted with the urban riots, whereas here we were said to have savagely quelled the peaceful protests” (Jeune Afrique, December 10).

A lingering insurgency by the ethnic-Afar Front pour la Restauration de l’Unité et de la Démocratie (Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy – FRUD) has survived the 2001 peace agreement that brought an end to a ten-year civil war, with some Afar militants still set on deposing President Guelleh (see Terrorism Monitor, September 25, 2009). The Afar (also known as Danakil after their home territory in northern Djibouti) form roughly a third of the nation’s population, with the majority of the population formed from Somali clans, including the majority Issa (a sub-clan of the Dir) and smaller groups from the Isaaq clan and the Gadabursi, another Dir sub-clan. Religion is not a divisive force in Djibout, with 96% of the population practicing Sunni Isam. The government is dominated by the Issa and to a lesser extent by the Isaaq and Gadabursi, with the Afar having only a small representation in the cabinet. For a time in the 1960s, Djibouti was known by the name “Territoire français des Afars et des Issas,” reflecting a short-lived desire to build a post-independence partnership between the two peoples.

President Guelleh has been accused of repressing dissent and an independent press, but denies these charges: “It is not a problem of censorship, but a problem of money. In Djibouti, there are neither investors nor advertisers in this [media] domain, and the potential readership is very much reduced. Here, people prefer to talk endlessly” (Jeune Afrique, December 10).

Guelleh regularly derides the opposition in Djibouti as immature and incapable of participating in the democratic process: “In Djibouti the conception of democracy that these gentlemen have is as follows: either one is the head or one seeks to topple the head. They have neither the patience nor the will to take care of the rest” (Jeune Afrique, December 10).

Development in Djibouti

The majority of Djiboutians live in the port city while the rest tend to live as nomadic pastoralists in the harsh conditions of the countryside. Unemployment ranges between 40% to 50% and provides a source of dissatisfaction with the regime. Other than its strategic location, Djibouti has little to trade on; both resources and industry (other than a small fishing sector) are nearly non-existent.

Djibouti has launched an ambitious $330 million plan to triple its port capacity by 2014 by enlarging the existing container terminal and constructing two new cargo terminals. The port is currently managed by Dubai’s DP World. Much of the new commercial traffic is expected to arrive through a modernized rail line from Addis Ababa and a new rail line from Mekele. Since the loss of Eritrea, land-locked Ethiopia has increasingly relied on a traditional commercial route through Djibouti to the sea. Some 70% of the traffic passing through Djibouti originates in Ethiopia. The main stages in the new rail line from Addis to Djibouti are being built with Chinese financing by the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) and the China Railway Engineering Corporation (CREC) (Reuters, December 17).

Chinese firms are expanding their interests in Djibouti, particularly in the still-nascent energy sector. There is also speculation that Djibouti could be developed as an outlet to the sea for South Sudan (possibly including the shipment of oil products from Chinese companies working in South Sudan) as an alternative to using Port Sudan on the Red Sea in the now separate north Sudan. President Guelleh suggests that China is attentive to Djibouti’s needs in a way that the rest of the international community sometimes is not. Describing Djibouti’s search for assistance in the terrible drought experienced this year, Guelleh notes: “We were asking for $30 million. Four months later, only China made a contribution of $6 million. The rest? They are pledges without any hope of fulfillment” (Jeune Afrique, December 10).

Djibouti has also obtained Kuwaiti and Saudi funding for the construction of a new container terminal on the north side of the Tadjoura Gulf to relieve congestion in the port of Djibouti and enable the handling of greater traffic from Ethiopia (Agence Djiboutienne d’Information, December 13).

Although Djibouti has not been directly affected by piracy, the phenomenon has led to many ships refusing to come to Djibouti, preferring to use alternative ports to avoid both pirates and rising insurance premiums. Guelleh has urged the international community to address this situation on land in Puntland and Somaliland rather than at sea, where years of international naval activity have failed to deal effectively with the problem (Jeune Afrique, December 10).

Djibouti and Somalia

On December 14, Djibouti held a ceremony to mark the long-awaited dispatch of a unit of 850 men and 50 instructors of the 3,500 man Forces Armées Djiboutiennes (FAD) to Somalia to join the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The force, the first Djiboutian military unit to serve outside of the homeland, is under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Osman Doubad Sougouleh (Agence Djiboutienne d’Information, December 14).

Al-Shabaab has been angered by Djibouti’s hosting of French and American training for troops of the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and has promised retaliatory strikes within Djibouti should FAD troops arrive in Somalia to aid AMISOM operations (Garowe Online, September 18, 2009). President Guelleh says the nation is remaining vigilant, but “on the other hand, I am not overestimating the Shabaab’s capacity for causing harm; a 2,000 km stretch separates us from their Baidoa stronghold.” Guelleh says he is seeking French military assistance to make Djibouti capable of defending itself, being well aware that French troops do “not want to die for Ras Doumeira [the border territory disputed with Eritrea]” (Jeune Afrique, December 10).

President Guelleh has expressed his sympathy for the task set for the TFG in building a new government in an ungoverned nation: “They have nothing. To try to establish one’s authority over a country at war, without revenue, to be constantly solicited [and] harassed by a suffering population is not an easy task” (Jeune Afrique, December 10).

Regional Relations

Guelleh is one of the most prominent defenders of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity related to the government’s repression of the insurgency in Darfur. According to Guelleh:

Al-Bashir is not what they say he is. He is the only Sudanese leader who has had the courage of negotiating with the south, going as far as amputating his country in the name of peace. Do remember the way those who are opposing him today were treating southern Sudanese as slaves, beginning with [former Sudanese Prime Minister] Sadiq el-Mahdi! They threw this Darfur wrench in [al-Bashir’s] works by inventing a scarecrow of a pseudo-genocide. It was a fable concocted by evangelists and pro-Israeli lobbies (Jeune Afrique, December 10).

Al-Bashir attended Guelleh’s inauguration in May alongside the French Cooperation Minister and the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Karl Wycoff (Sudan Tribune, May 8). As a signatory of the ICC Statute, Djibouti was required to arrest al-Bashir but, like Chad and Kenya, Djiboutian authorities have declined to do so.

Djibouti has clashed twice with Eritrea (most recently in 2008) over respective claims to ownership of the Ras Doumeira peninsula along the Eritrea-Djibouti border. In the 2008 border fighting, French troops supplied logistical, medical and intelligence support to Djibouti under the terms of their common defense pact (BBC, June 13, 2008). The opposing forces are now separated in Ras Doumeira by a small Qatari buffer force.


Though Djibouti’s external security is assured by its French patron and the presence of an American military base, internally the situation is different, and the heavy-handed response of the security services seems at odds with the president’s casual dismissal of last spring’s protests as nothing more than “the expression of a social malaise.” It also seems likely that Djibouti’s new commitment to the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia will invite some type of retaliation from al-Shabaab terrorists who have proven capable of carrying out operations as far afield from their southern Somali base as Kenya, Uganda, Puntland and Somaliland. It seems improbable that Guelleh will be able to survive his new six-year term without substantial internal opposition, though a retaliatory strike by al-Shabaab might play into the regime’s hands, allowing mass arrests and new measures of political repression to ensure Guelleh’s eventual succession, if not by himself, then by other members of his family or the ruling RPP.


  1. Guelleh refers here to the Surat Quraysh, the 106th chapter of the Quran, which refers to journeys by the Quraysh tribe (that of the Prophet Muhammad) “in winter and summer.”
  2. Charles W Koburger, Naval Strategy East of Suez: The Role of Djibouti, Praeger Publishing, 1992.

This article first appeared in the December 22, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Russian Navy to Use Port in Djibouti for Anti-Piracy Operations

Andrew McGregor

May 28, 2010

News that the Russian Navy will begin using port facilities in Djibouti is further proof that the small, resource poor nation intends to take full advantage of its strategic location in the Horn of Africa (Shabelle Media Network, May 17; Interfax, May 17). The former French colony is already host to French and American military bases, with a base for Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) currently under construction.

Russia Djibouti 1The Russian Destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov

Hard on the heels of a successful anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden by the Marshal Shaposhnikov came an announcement that the government of Djibouti and the command of the Djibouti Navy (which consists primarily of five U.S. donated patrol boats) had approved Russian use of port facilities. However, both Russian Navy officials and the Russian Embassy in Djibouti emphasize that the new agreement with Djibouti does not provide for the establishment of a land forces base or permanent Russian naval facilities like those being built for ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet at Tartus in Syria. Work on the Tartus base is expected to be complete in 2011 (Vzglyad Online, May 18).

According to a Russian Naval staff spokesman, “[The Djibouti port] is located quite close to the area where our combat objective is being carried out, it is convenient and cost-effective to use if staying long in the region. With the use of the port of Djibouti, it is no longer necessary to send support ships to the region alongside our warships… As regards the creation of a base facility for ships of the [Russian] Navy in Djibouti, as is now the case with Tartus, it is too early to speak of that at this stage. The issue is not being discussed right now” (Itar-Tass, May 17, May 19). Though French and American authorities have not commented publicly on the Djibouti government’s decision, it seems unlikely that it could have been made without the approval of both of these parties.

Currently the flagship of the Russian Pacific Fleet, the Marshal Shaposhnikov is a 1980s vintage Udaloy class destroyer designed for anti-submarine warfare. With a crew of 300 men, the ship is armed with anti-submarine missiles, surface-to-air missiles, torpedoes, two 100 mm guns and two Kamov Ka-27 helicopters.

Russia Djibouti 2In a May 6 operation using helicopters and Russian Marines borne on small assault craft launched from the Marshal Shaposhnikov, Russian naval forces succeeded in rescuing the MV Moscow University, a Russian oil tanker seized by pirates in the Gulf of Aden (Zvezda TV, May 10). After a short firefight, one hijacker was killed and ten others captured, some of them wounded. The MV Moscow University is a Liberian-flagged tanker capable of carrying 86,000 tons of crude oil. At the time it was taken by pirates it was shipping oil from Sudan to China (Itar-Tass, May 10).

After initial reports the pirates were to be taken to Moscow for trial, they were instead set free on one of their own boats. According to Captain Ildar Akhmerov, “We gave to the pirates in the boat water, food and the remnants of the junk that was with them, except for the weapons, boarding ladders and navigation devices that we had seized” (Interfax, May 10). The pirates are not believed to have survived the 350 mile trip back to shore – as one Russian media outlet said, “It seems that what happened to them afterwards does not interest anyone in either Russia or Somalia” (NTV, May 10). Nevertheless, Moscow has proposed the creation of international tribunals at the U.N. to deal with the jurisdictional problem of pirates captured on the high seas (Itar-Tass, May 13).

A Russian Navy spokesman said the Marshal Shaposhnikov had been “overwhelmed” by applications from foreign merchant vessels asking to be escorted by the Russian destroyer (ITAR-TASS, May 10). After a short stay in Djibouti on May 16-17, the Marshal Shaposhnikov began preparations for escorting a convoy of commercial ships through the Gulf of Aden on May 18 (Interfax-AVN Online, May 19). The passage typically takes four days.

This article first appeared in the May 28, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Japan Opens Naval Base in Djibouti in Defiance of Peace Constitution

Andrew McGregor

May 6, 2010

Japanese authorities have confirmed their intention to develop a Japanese naval base in the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti, already home to large American and French military installations. The base will be Japan’s first overseas since Japan’s defeat in 1945 and the major political and military reforms that followed. The $40 million base is expected to be ready early in 2011 and will provide a permanent port for ships of Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF).

Japan DjiboutiThe plans for a Japanese base in Djibouti were first announced last July, when Tokyo outlined its intention to build housing facilities and an airstrip for JMSDF Lockheed P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft. The decision followed a request by U.S. authorities for Japan to build facilities that would allow it to take a larger role in security operations in the Gulf of Aden (Kyodo News, July 31, 2009).

Japanese navy commander Keizo Kitagawa of the JMSDF’s Plans and Policy section told reporters “We are deploying here to fight piracy and for our self-defense. Japan is a maritime nation and the increase in piracy in the Gulf of Aden through which 20,000 vessels sail every year is worrying” (AFP, April 23). According to Japanese authorities, 99% of Japanese exports rely on use of the shipping lanes off Somalia (Somaliland Press, April 29; Alshahid, April 29).

Japan sent teams of military experts to Yemen, Oman, Kenya and Djibouti to explore the possibilities of opening a naval base in one of these nations. Djibouti was chosen in April, 2009. Japanese personnel and material supporting the JMSDF deployment off Somalia are currently housed in rented space at the American base at Djibouti’s Camp Lemonnier, a former French Foreign Legion base. French troops in Djibouti are engaged in anti-piracy operations, training French troops for action in Afghanistan and keeping an eye on the volatile Horn of Africa region (Radio France Internationale, April 18).

Japan Djibouti 2Japan’s Special Boarding Unit: Active in the Horn of Africa

The largest warships in the JMSDF are Guided Missile Destroyers, Destroyers and Helicopter Destroyers. Japan has been deploying a pair of destroyers on a rotational basis in the Gulf of Aden since last year. The naval deployment includes members of the Special Boarding Unit (SBU), a Hiroshima-based Special Forces unit patterned after the U.K.’s Special Boat Service (SBS).

The creation of a Japanese military base in Africa would have been implausible only a few years ago, as such deployments are in clear violation of Japan’s 1947 “Peace Constitution,” which forbids the maintenance of a Japanese military, the deployment of Japanese military forces overseas and participation in collective military operations, regardless of their purpose. With American encouragement during the Cold War, Japan began a conscious evasion of the Peace Constitution by creating “Self-Defense” Forces rather than a Japanese military. Japanese troops began overseas deployments in the early 1990s with non-combatant peacekeeping operations in Cambodia and Mozambique. After 9/11, new anti-terrorism and anti-piracy laws eased the transition to offshore operations. The JMSDF provided support to American forces in Afghanistan from 2001 to January 2010 and Japanese Ground Forces joined Coalition operations in Iraq in a humanitarian capacity in 2004. Technically, all members of Japan’s Self Defense Forces are classified as civilian civil servants and the naval deployment to the Horn of Africa is being characterized by the government as anti-crime operations rather than military operations.

This article first appeared in the May 6, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor


Djibouti Facing Local Insurgency and Threats from Somali Islamists

Andrew McGregor

September 25, 2009

Few nations in the world are as strategically important but as little known as Djibouti, a small desert nation of half a million people in the heart of the Horn of Africa. A lingering insurgency by the ethnic-Afar Front pour la Restauration de l’Unité et de la Démocratie (Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy – FRUD) that many believed was over in 2001 has re-emerged as one of a number of security problems challenging Djibouti’s continued stability.
Djibouti MapFRUD is based in northern Djibouti, the traditional home of the nomadic Afar people. The Afar ethnic group represents roughly a third of the population in Djibouti, where the dominant ethnic Somali group is divided between the majority Issa clan and smaller groups from the Issaq clan and the Gadabursi, a Dir sub-clan. Most of the nomadic Afars live in the Danakil Desert of Ethiopia, giving them their alternate name of “Danakil.” The lack of Afar representation in the central government sparked the Djiboutian Civil War in 1991. France became involved in both mediation efforts and support missions for government troops, but the conflict continued until 2001, when the remaining radical faction signed a peace agreement with the government and joined the president’s governing coalition. Since then, however, it appears that a number of Afar militants have retaken the field, dissatisfied with the implementation of the peace treaty.  Most of the movement made peace with the government in 1994, with a group of hardliners under the late FRUD founder Ahmad Dini Ahmad holding out until 2001 before cutting their own deal with the government. Though certain roles at the highest level of the government have been reserved for Afars, the rest of the administration is still largely dominated by the ethnic-Somali Issa clan.

Hassan Mokbel, the FRUD spokesman, announced in early September that the movement had fought off an attack by the Djibouti military on one of their bases in the northern Mablas region. Though the attack was supported by two helicopter gunships that bombarded FRUD positions, Mokbel claims the rebels killed four soldiers and wounded 20 others in repulsing the government attack (FRUD communiqué, carried by, September 1; Middle East Online, September 1). The troops were units of the Armée Nationale Djiboutienne (AND) based at Gal Ela in Mablas, together with reinforcements from the barracks at Tadjourah and Obock. If the FRUD reports are accurate, the action would appear to be the Djibouti army’s biggest offensive against the Afar guerrillas since May, 2006, when Colonel Abdo Abdi Dembil of the Presidential Guard led 2000 men through the Tadjourah and Obock districts  (FRUD communiqué, May 17, 2006, carried by, May 22, 2006).

The FRUD militants term the present Djibouti regime a 32-year-old dictatorship characterized by a refusal to conduct free and transparent elections, a refusal to honor peace agreements, the repression of social movements (including trade unions) and the killing of innocent civilians, citing the killing of five people during the November 2005 clearance of the slum district Arhiba in Djibouti City (FRUD communiqué, June 26, carried by the Sudan Tribune, July 3; FRUD communiqué, May 17, 2006, carried by, May 22, 2006).

Djibouti AfarAfar Tribesman

According to spokesman Hassan Mokbel, “FRUD, which has a politico-military approach, does not exclude any option. For FRUD, armed struggle was never the only solution. These options come in a wide range, combining social actions and mass actions and diplomatic policies… FRUD has until today ensured its military presence on the ground and is able to respond to any aggression on the part of the AND. In addition, FRUD has considerably strengthened its positions in the Djibouti diaspora in Europe, North America and Oceania [including New Zealand and Australia]” (Les, January 24, 2006).

Mokbel complains that “international forces” are placing advanced technology such as satellite surveillance at the disposal of President Guelleh, who uses it to thwart the development of “true democracy” in Djibouti. Guelleh is also accused of playing the French army against the U.S. military to extract the greatest concessions from each (Les, January 24, 2006). The FRUD spokesman maintains that the movement has never been equated with terrorism because it has never targeted civilians – “I would even add that the activities of FRUD are the antithesis of religious proselytism (Les, January 24, 2006). In June, FRUD appealed to the people of Djibouti to “end the lifetime presidency of Ismael Omar Guelleh” and join FRUD’s struggle for “justice, for a real national state and for authentic democracy” (FRUD communiqué, June 26, carried by the Sudan Tribune, July 3).

France first arrived in the region in 1862, when it acquired the port of Obock from the local Sultans. By 1888, the Djibouti region had become the colony of French Somaliland, giving France a strategic presence in the Horn of Africa that was largely unaffected by independence in 1977 (French Somaliland was known as “The French Territory of the Afars and the Issas” from 1967 to 1977). France continues to guarantee Djibouti’s territorial integrity from foreign aggression, but now finds itself competing for the attention of Djibouti’s leaders with the powerful new American military presence based at Camp Lemonier since 2002. Camp Lemonier, once a French Foreign Legion base, now hosts the American Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), which focuses on coordinating U.S. military activity in the region, including anti-terrorism operations. In recent years China has emerged as a new suitor, seeking to establish diplomatic and economic ties with Djibouti.

Though Djibouti’s ethnic-Somalis have so far escaped being dragged into the interminable conflict raging between their ethnic-Somali cousins in Somalia, Djibouti’s role as a host of French and American training of Transitional Federal Government (TFG) troops and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces and its own offer of peacekeeping troops for Somalia have incensed Somalia’s al-Shabaab Islamist militants. Al-Shabaab, which has carried out a number of deadly suicide bomb attacks against AMISOM targets, has promised to prepare a similar welcome for the Djiboutians (Garowe Online, September 18).

Djibouti’s rapidly deteriorating economy and massive unemployment in an increasingly urban population is another threat to its future stability. Djibouti also has a simmering border conflict with Eritrea in the Ras Doumeira region on the Red Sea coast. Nine members of the AND were killed when fighting broke out with Eritrean forces in June, 2008.

This article first appeared in the September 25, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Islamists Warn France against Military Role in Somalia

Andrew McGregor

September 10, 2009

With al-Shabaab extremists threatening to try a captured French security advisor in Somalia under their version of Islamic law, the radical Islamist movement appears ready to provoke a French military intervention. The man is one of two Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) agents abducted in a July 14 raid on a Mogadishu hotel (see Terrorism Monitor, July 30). The other agent claims to have escaped his captors on August 26.
France - Somalia 1

DGSE Agent Marc Aubrière after His Escape (NYT)

Shaykh Muhammad Ibrahim Bilal, chairman of the Islamic Council of Amal (Hope), a former leading member of the ICU and al-Shabaab, condemned France’s military and security support for Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) on August 29, adding that any other French officials coming to Somalia will be kidnapped (Daily Nation [Kampala], August 31). On August 28, an al-Shabaab official announced that the remaining French hostage would be sentenced for spying under Islamic law.  Two days later Shaykh Bilal told Iranian TV that al-Shabaab was ready to execute their prisoner (Press TV, August 30).

The agent who escaped, identified as Marc Aubrière (probably not his real name), provided a dramatic but highly improbable account of navigating his way by the stars to Mogadishu’s Presidential Palace after escaping his Hizb al-Islam captors and evading armed gunmen shooting at him for five hours in Shabaab-controlled neighborhoods (Shabelle Media Network, August 26; Somaliland Times, August 29). More likely are reports circulating in Mogadishu that Aubrière was released after the French government agreed to a ransom. The second DGSE agent is being held by al-Shabaab, which has assured reporters that the man is heavily guarded and unlikely to escape (AFP, August 28).

A senior al-Shabaab official described the agent’s tale as absurd and accused the movement’s Hizb al-Islam allies of accepting money for the agent’s release. “Even if he escaped, how was it possible for him to walk all the way to the presidential palace without being noticed by the mujahideen?” (Hillaac, August 26). Al-Shabaab may feel it necessary to deal harshly with the French prisoner to preserve its image in light of their Islamist ally’s alleged perfidy in releasing their prisoner in exchange for a ransom (as is widely believed in Mogadishu).

France - Somalia 2

5e Régiment Interarmes d’Outre-Mer Training in Djibouti (Ministére de la Défense)

150 of an expected 500 TFG soldiers are now in Djibouti receiving military training from the 5e Régiment Interarmes d’Outre-Mer (5e RIAOM), a mixed-arms Marine regiment permanently stationed in Africa. There are reports that some of the TFG recruits were returned to Somalia for being too young (Libération, August 28). The government of Djibouti has also announced its readiness to send an estimated 500 soldiers with French assistance to Somalia to join the badly undermanned African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping force (Garowe Online, September 2).

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has indicated France will not be deterred by hostage-takings. “We will mobilize to support Africa faced with the growing threat from al-Qaeda, whether in the Sahel or in Somalia… France will not let al-Qaeda set up a sanctuary on our doorstep in Africa. That message, too, must be clearly heard” (AFP, August 27).


This article first appeared in the September 10, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor