GAROUA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, proclaimed the sign on the concrete and glass terminal building. The designation was something of a misnomer, because only three or four planes land each week in this sleepy outpost in northern Cameroon, near the Nigerian border, all of them domestic flights. The schedule of the flights tends to be unpredictable. The aging jet that had just flown me to Garoua from Douala, for example, had made an unscheduled stop in N’Djamena, the capital of neighboring Chad, so that a government minister could attend a funeral nearby. As a result, the plane had touched down in Garoua five hours late.
But that wasn’t the only unusual thing about this Cameroon Air flight. Inside the cabin I had noticed several young men who were unmistakably U.S. military — close-cropped hair, athletic builds. And as I descended from the plane and set foot on the tarmac into the blast furnace heat, I spotted a curious triumvirate waiting for them: a middle-aged, sunburned white man wearing cargo pants and a green T-shirt, flanked by two U.S. soldiers in camouflage gear.
“You the Navy guy?” the sunburned man asked me.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m a journalist.”
The Navy guy, a blond and lanky figure wearing Ray Bans and carrying a daypack, approached Mr. Sunburn and introduced himself. Soon, three other Americans from the plane joined them. They stood talking and joking beside the conveyor belt inside the baggage claim, a decrepit hall with fluorescent lights, dangling electrical wires, and scuffed white walls. Then they carried their backpacks and duffel bags to the parking lot, and drove off in four-wheel-drive vehicles — bound for a secretive new military facility not far away.
Until recently, about the only Westerners to visit Garoua were big-game hunters and safari goers, but now a steady stream of crew-cut Americans has been stepping off these irregular flights from Douala and Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. Clues to what is happening can be found at Garoua’s finest hotel, the Benoue, where fruit bats fly screeching through the sky at dusk and local security agents are usually sprawled in the lobby. The hotel has 100 rooms, air-conditioning units that pump nothing but warm air, and a backyard garden with coconut palms, a cracked swimming pool, chipped ping pong tables, and a terrace where a breakfast buffet — greasy chicken pieces, black beans, and soggy croissants — is served every morning.