The US military prides itself on a global reach and it is undeniable that an expansive network of bases across the world has given America the ability to rapidly deploy forces to nearly any location. This expansive coverage was part of the reason Osama bin Laden cited for his orchestration of the September 11 terrorist attacks; as at the time, Saudi Arabia hosted U.S. troops at Prince Sultan Air Base which housed up to 60,000 soldiers until a complete withdrawal in 2003. Despite the removal of forces from the base, America still maintains forces at five Air Force bases across the nation, a sign that the U.S. never truly leaves a country.
One of its more secretive bases is not in the Middle East, however, but on a small island in the heart of the Indian Ocean. Diego Garcia has been leased from the United Kingdom since 1966 and it has served as one of the most strategic locations for launching attacks during the Gulf War and War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. Secrecy at the base is such that troops stationed there are forbidden from bringing their spouses with them and journalists are not permitted to visit.
Diego Garcia is part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. After the French initially settled the island in the late 18th century, the British assumed control following the Napoleonic Wars. The population in 1966 totaled a meager 924 persons who were previously slaves harvesting coconuts for the Chagos-Agalega Company, established by the French. The native people, Chagossians, were considered part of the Chagos Archipelago consisting of seven atolls before the British separated the administration of Diego Garcia. When it did so, it forced the residents from the island with most of them relocated to Mauritius and Seychelles.
The forced expulsion of 1968 to 1973, drew condemnation from human rights advocates, but former inhabitants found little recourse as most international governing bodies have refused to take up the case. In 1972, Britain set aside £650,000 as compensation for 426 families deported to Mauritius, which the Mauritius government delayed distributing until 1978. After some outrage, £4 million in additional funding was provided, but it was not given out until nearly 10 years after the expulsion.
In their new countries, a large percentage of former Chagossians were homeless and destitute. Some petitioned to return to Diego Garcia, but for a decade, the British courts passed the case around. After the British High Court initially granted them the right to return, the British government used the Royal Prerogative to forbid them from ever returning. Following a few more rounds of court cases which flip-flopped the decision several more times, the ban has stood from as recently as 2016.
In May, the United Nations ruled that the transfer of the islands to the British was illegal as it was made as a condition of Mauritius’ independence in 1965. Although the UN served an eviction notice to London, it carries no legal weight and would almost certainly never force the British to relinquish Diego Garcia, especially considering its partnership with the US Navy.
In 2010, a diplomatic cable leaked to Wikileaks revealed that the British government planned a “marine park” or “reserve” to protect the wildlife and environment of Diego Garcia. The true intention, according to the leaked cable, was that the government wanted to establish it to prevent former inhabitants from returning to the island. The cable came amid the continued court cases regarding the resettlement of the island.
After the British formalized the transfer of ownership of the island by purchasing it from Mauritius, the UK, and the US quickly set about building a military base which was the sole reason behind the expulsion of Chagossians. Now, the island is almost completely populated by a few thousand US soldiers and their military equipment. Its geographic location puts it squarely in the middle between Africa, the Middle East, Australia, and South Asia providing the perfect spot for deploying forces or refueling military craft.
A runway over 3 kilometres long caters to B-1, B-52, and ultra-stealth B-2 bombers. A deep-water port allows for docking all sorts of naval craft from nuclear submarines to aircraft carriers. While the island serves as a massive armoury, there are also reportedly massive ships located in the coastal waters which contain enough supplies to mount small invasions including helicopters and tanks.
The need for such secrecy at a remote island raises questions, many of which may never be fully answered. However, some information has trickled out from time-to-time about Diego Garcia. Lawrence Wilkerson who served in the administration of former US President George W. Bush revealed that the US Central Intelligence Agency has top-secret prisons on the island which it has used in some cases for the torture of suspected terrorists. The imprisonment of foreign adversaries and their alleged torture is unusual as the island is only leased by America while the UK retains ownership. Traditionally, to avoid international issues, the US prefers to detain prisoners in bases on US-owned soil. Still, as the claims cannot be verified due to the vast shroud of secrecy, the British government is unlikely to face any serious repercussions.
The US Navy once promoted the island base to recruits as “one of the world’s best-kept secrets” and indeed it has lived up to that claim. As it is rarely discussed, activities at the base are largely speculative with the juiciest revelation being the possibility of a C.I.A. interrogation facility on Diego Garcia. In all likelihood, the base is most-likely kept under wraps because of its critical role in Middle East conflicts. As a staging area for airstrikes including stealth missions, the US military views discretion as paramount. Perhaps more interesting than the current activities at Diego Garcia is its history of human rights abuses against native Chagossians.