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Inside America's only military base in Africa, as it tries to prevent the rise of a new bin Laden, or "someone worse"

A look at Africa's only U.S. military base
A look at Camp Lemonnier Djibouti, the only U.S. military base in Africa 03:32

Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti — While the eyes of the world are on Ukraine, the U.S. is also keeping focused on hidden conflicts against jihadists in Africa, where at least 18 different terrorist organizations are operating. Thousands of Americans are stationed at Camp Lemonnier in the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti.

CBS News correspondent Debora Patta visited the sprawling camp, which is the only permanent U.S. military base in all of Africa and as she reports, it's close to some of the continent's most dangerous trouble spots.

As troops dropped one by one out of U.S. military transport plane, Patta said while it was just a routine training exercise, the Special Operations air combat forces know they have to stay fighting fit. Their job is to rescue American troops that get trapped behind enemy lines.

U.S. Special Operations forces jump from a plane over the Horn of Africa during training exercises at Camp Lemmonier, the American military base in the East African nation of Djibouti.  CBS News

In the air, on land or at sea, the 4,500-strong American contingent at Camp Lemonnier is tasked with combatting the deadliest al Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated groups in the world.  

Standing on the deck of a U.S. Navy patrol vessel just off Djibouti's coast, Patta said it was clear to see why the location is of such strategic importance: Yemen, where a grueling civil war has allowed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to flourish, is only about 70 miles to the north. 

Yemen civil war continues as al Qaeda strengthens its presence in the region 02:17

In Somalia, just 20 miles to the south, the al-Shabaab group — which also has suspected links to al-Qaeda — acts with impunity, and violent attacks have increased there.

ISIS-linked groups are on the ascendancy across Africa, too. Throw conflict-ravaged Ethiopia and a shaky Sudan, rocked by recent coups, into the mix and there's no doubt that this is one of the most volatile regions on the continent.

But despite those circumstances, Patta says there has been a rebranding of America's "war on terror" since the country's chaotic departure from Afghanistan.

The Trump administration withdrew troops from Somalia more than a year ago. The Biden administration says it is now fighting terrorism from "over the horizon." That has included unmanned drone strikes, periodic special-ops raids, and training African forces.

That strategy is being put to the test at Camp Lemonnier. Instead of having American "boots on the ground" in hotspots like Somalia, the war is being fought from a distance. But the approach has failed to stop the growth of terrorist groups across the continent.

Kenya cracks down on Al-Shabaab terror group 03:06

U.S. Air Force Col. Matt Bartlett, the commander in charge of America's air power in East Africa, told Patta that al-Shabaab is now one of the most well-resourced extremist organization's in the world.

The risk, he told CBS News, is that "al-Shabaab has a safe space, as it were, to grow [its] capacity and capability."

U.S. Army Major General William Zana is the overall Commander General for the combined American forces in the Horn of Africa, and he was even more candid.

Patta asked him if he was concerned that Somalia might be harboring the next Osama bin Laden.

"Sure," Zana replied. "Or something and someone worse than Osama bin Laden."

He believes Camp Lemonnier is a modest insurance policy that can help prevent another September 11.  

"Groups like al-Shabaab's capabilities are only growing," he told Patta. "From my perspective, it's only a matter of time before... their stated intent, their desire, is to strike the U.S. homeland."

President Biden is expected to make a decision soon on whether to send U.S. troops back into Somalia.

Until then, the last thing America's military leaders on the ground want is an emboldened al-Shabaab that believes all it needs to do is wait it out and wear America down, like the Taliban did in Afghanistan.

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