The increasingly erratic conduct of one of Africa's more despotic rulers is raising serious concerns about the future of a vital American intelligence-gathering base that plays a central role in targeting al-Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS) militants in countries such as Yemen and Syria.
Since coming to power 1999, President Ismail Omar Guelleh of Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, has emerged as a vital ally of the United States, in spite of his despotic style of government and mounting criticism over his country's lamentable record on human rights.
American officials fear that President Ismail Omar Guelleh of Djibouti (left) is turning away from his alliance with the U.S., jeopardizing one America's key intelligence listening posts, which is located in Djibouti. (Image source: White House video screenshot)
Successive American administrations -- including that of President Barack Obama, who claims to champion greater democracy in Africa -- have willingly turned a blind eye to Mr. Guelleh's dictatorial style, in return for being allowed to operate the Camp Lemonnier military base that is located in the strategically-important African state.
Sited at the junction between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, the sprawling Camp Lemmonier complex, which houses 4,500 U.S. military personnel and is the only U.S. military based located in Africa, has developed into one of America's key listening posts since the September 11, 2001 attacks. Apart from being a sophisticated communications centre for the Arab world and beyond, it also houses U.S. Special Forces, fighter planes and helicopters, as well as being a major operational center for drone operations in Africa and the Middle East.
But the unpredictable behaviour of Mr. Guelleh, who has been summoned to make an unprecedented appearance at a London court next month, has prompted senior counter-terrorism officials in Washington to question whether the U.S. can afford to maintain its decade-long alliance with the Djibouti strongman.
Mr. Guelleh will certainly find himself under intense scrutiny next week, after a judge at London's Commercial Court, which is hearing fraud claims lodged by the Djibouti government, took the extraordinary decision to rule that Mr. Guelleh must appear in person, rather than via video link, when the court resumes its hearings on October 5. The judge made the order after Mr. Guelleh's legal team were accused of deliberately misleading the court. It will be the first time a head of state has been ordered to appear before a British court since King Charles I of England in 1649, who was subsequently beheaded for treason.
But while this unique twist in the forthcoming legal proceedings is likely to dominate the headlines when the case resumes, it is the effect Mr. Guelleh's erratic conduct is having on Djibouti's political stability, as well as the country's worrying tilt towards China, that is causing most concern for the Pentagon.
In recent months Mr. Guelleh has intensified his efforts to form a strategic partnership with China, which is keen to expand its military presence throughout the African continent. China, which is already contracted to build a railway linking Djibouti to Ethiopia, has negotiated a $400 million deal to develop Djibouti's port facilities, a development Pentagon officials believe will lead to China establishing its own military presence just a few miles from the highly sensitive Camp Lemonnier complex.
China's foothold in Djibouti, moreover, has raised fears in Washington that Mr. Guelleh is turning away from his erstwhile ally in the U.S., with all the implications that could have for the future operational security of Camp Lemmonier.
Consequently, senior policymakers in Washington are now hoping to prevent Mr. Guelleh from running for a fourth term in office when the next round of presidential elections are held next year. Certainly, if China continues with its plans to establish a military presence in the Horn of Africa, the Pentagon will have to give serious consideration to relocating some of Camp Lemonnier's more sensitive operations elsewhere.
"The trade deal between Djibouti and China has raised serious concerns with regard to Camp Lemonnier," commented a senior U.S. security official. "There are now genuine concerns that if President Guelleh gets too close to China, then he may be tempted to impose restrictions on U.S. access to the base, which would seriously impact on the West's counter-terrorism operations against Islamic State and al-Qaeda."
If Mr. Guelleh continues with his confrontational approach towards Washington, then Mr. Obama is likely to come under pressure to press for political reform in Djibouti, thereby ending the president's long-running dictatorship. After all, it was only last July that Mr. Obama, in his keynote speech to the African Union, made a scathing attack on Africa's culture of presidents-for-life, urging the continent's leaders to follow the example of George Washington and Nelson Mandela by respecting term limits -- a warning is particularly pertinent so far as Mr. Guelleh is concerned.
Con Coughlin is the Defence Editor at Daily Telegraph, London