“Djibouti is a central location for continuing the efforts against terrorism,” Panetta said in a speech to around 500 US soldiers at the Camp Lemonier military base.
“Al-Qaeda started this war. We have made the commitment that we are going to track these guys wherever they go and make sure that they have no place to hide … whether it is in Yemen, whether it is in Somalia, or anyplace else.”
Djibouti neighbours war-torn Somalia where Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab rebels control large parts of the country and are fighting to overthrow a Western-backed government.
Yemen, which lies across the Red Sea from Djibouti, is home to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula (AQAP).
American drones are launched from Djibouti against Al-Qaeda operatives in the region, according to security site Globalsecurity.org.
Earlier, Panetta said counter-terrorism efforts had moved to Somalia and Yemen after “the significant efforts that have been made against Al-Qaeda” in northwestern Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal region.
Now the challenges had “moved to key nodes, like Yemen and Somalia, and the efforts to go after them require important partnerships in that part of the world and Djibouti helps provide that partnership for operations that continue, not only against Al-Qaeda but Al Shebab as well.”
“Without getting into operational details, it’s pretty clear that since (US-Yemeni cleric and terror suspect Anwar al-)Awlaki was taken down, that has impacted on AQAP and their capability but just like taking Ben Laden in Pakistan, the fact is AQAP, Al Qaeda still remain dangerous,” he added.
Djibouti is strategically located where the Red Sea joins the Gulf of Aden, a key international shipping route that has been plagued by Somali pirates.
The small Horn of Africa state also hosts the largest overseas French military base.
A senior US official speaking on condition of anonymity said Panetta was also to discuss Djibouti’s troop deployment to the African Union force protecting the Somali government in the war-wracked capital Mogadishu.
“The situation there is quite dynamic,” he said.
A 9,700-strong African Union force comprising Burundian and Ugandan troops has so far failed to stamp out the Shebab, which has been fighting to topple the Somali government for five years.