The word came down suddenly in early January to the fifty or so U.S. troops stationed inside Camp Simba, a Kenyan naval base located on that country's sandy coast: Drop everything and pull everyone back inside the compound wire. Then they were instructed to immediately clear a couple acres of dense forest. Task Force 88, a very secret American special-operations unit, needed to land three CH-53 helicopters.
"We had everybody working nonstop," says Navy Lieutenant Commander Steve Eron, commander of Contingency Operating Location Manda Bay, a new American base in Kenya, including a dozen or so on-site KBR contractors. By the next day, every tree had been hauled off and the field graded and packed down using heavy machinery. The pad was completed in thirty-six hours.
Soon after, U.S. special operators flying out of Manda Bay were landing in southernmost Somalia, searching for survivors among the foreign fighters and Al Qaeda operatives just targeted in a furious bombardment by a U.S. gunship launched from a secret airstrip in eastern Ethiopia.
The 88's job was simple: Kill anyone still alive and leave no unidentified bodies behind.
A few weeks later, the president would announce the creation of a new regional command -- Africa Command -- that would commit U.S. military personnel to the continent on a permanent basis. The January operation would be, in effect, the first combat mission of Africa Command, and it would not go as planned.