The CIA's Secret Sites in Somalia
In a series of interviews in Mogadishu, several of the country’s recognized leaders, including President Sharif, called on the US government to quickly and dramatically increase its assistance to the Somali military in the form of training, equipment and weapons. Moreover, they argue that without viable civilian institutions, Somalia will remain ripe for terrorist groups that can further destabilize not only Somalia but the region. “I believe that the US should help the Somalis to establish a government that protects civilians and its people,” Sharif said.
In the battle against the Shabab, the United States does not, in fact, appear to have cast its lot with the Somali government. The emerging US strategy on Somalia—borne out in stated policy, expanded covert presence and funding plans—is two-pronged: On the one hand, the CIA is training, paying and at times directing Somali intelligence agents who are not firmly under the control of the Somali government, while JSOC conducts unilateral strikes without the prior knowledge of the government; on the other, the Pentagon is increasing its support for and arming of the counterterrorism operations of non-Somali African military forces.
A draft of a defense spending bill approved in late June by the Senate Armed Services Committee would authorize more than $75 million in US counterterrorism assistance aimed at fighting the Shabab and Al Qaeda in Somalia. The bill, however, did not authorize additional funding for Somalia’s military, as the country’s leaders have repeatedly asked. Instead, the aid package would dramatically increase US arming and financing of AMISOM’s forces, particularly from Uganda and Burundi, as well as the militaries of Djibouti, Kenya and Ethiopia. The Somali military, the committee asserted, is unable to “exercise control of its territory.”
That makes it all the more ironic that perhaps the greatest tactical victory won in recent years in Somalia was delivered not by AMISOM, the CIA or JSOC but by members of a Somali militia fighting as part of the government’s chaotic local military. And it was a pure accident.
Late in the evening on June 7, a man whose South African passport identified him as Daniel Robinson was in the passenger seat of a Toyota SUV driving on the outskirts of Mogadishu when his driver, a Kenyan national, missed a turn and headed straight toward a checkpoint manned by Somali forces. A firefight broke out, and the two men inside the car were killed. The Somali forces promptly looted the laptops, cellphones, documents, weapons and $40,000 in cash they found in the car, according to the senior Somali intelligence official.
Upon discovering that the men were foreigners, the Somali NSA launched an investigation and recovered the items that had been looted. “There was a lot of English and Arabic stuff, papers,” recalls the Somali intelligence official, containing “very tactical stuff” that appeared to be linked to Al Qaeda, including “two senior people communicating.” The Somali agents “realized it was an important man” and informed the CIA in Mogadishu. The men’s bodies were taken to the NSA. The Americans took DNA samples and fingerprints and flew them to Nairobi for processing.
Within hours, the United States confirmed that Robinson was in fact Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a top leader of Al Qaeda in East Africa and its chief liaison with the Shabab. Fazul, a twenty-year veteran of Al Qaeda, had been indicted by the United States for his alleged role in the 1998 US Embassy bombings and was on the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” list. A JSOC attempt to kill him in a January 2007 airstrike resulted in the deaths of at least seventy nomads in rural Somalia, and he had been underground ever since. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Fazul’s death “a significant blow to Al Qaeda, its extremist allies and its operations in East Africa. It is a just end for a terrorist who brought so much death and pain to so many innocents.”
At its facilities in Mogadishu, the CIA and its Somali NSA agents continue to pore over the materials recovered from Fazul’s car, which served as a mobile headquarters. Some deleted and encrypted files were recovered and decoded by US agents. The senior Somali intelligence official said that the intelligence may prove more valuable on a tactical level than the cache found in Osama bin Laden’s house in Pakistan, especially in light of the increasing US focus on East Africa. The Americans, he said, were “unbelievably grateful”; he hopes it means they will take Somalia’s forces more seriously and provide more support.
But the United States continues to wage its campaign against the Shabab primarily by funding the AMISOM forces, which are not conducting their mission with anything resembling surgical precision. Instead, over the past several months the AMISOM forces in Mogadishu have waged a merciless campaign of indiscriminate shelling of Shabab areas, some of which are heavily populated by civilians. While AMISOM regularly puts out press releases boasting of gains against the Shabab and the retaking of territory, the reality paints a far more complicated picture.
Throughout the areas AMISOM has retaken is a honeycomb of underground tunnels once used by Shabab fighters to move from building to building. By some accounts, the tunnels stretch continuously for miles. Leftover food, blankets and ammo cartridges lay scattered near “pop-up” positions once used by Shabab snipers and guarded by sandbags—all that remain of guerrilla warfare positions. Not only have the Shabab fighters been cleared from the aboveground areas; the civilians that once resided there have been cleared too. On several occasions in late June, AMISOM forces fired artillery from their airport base at the Bakaara market, where whole neighborhoods are totally abandoned. Houses lie in ruins and animals wander aimlessly, chewing trash. In some areas, bodies have been hastily buried in trenches with dirt barely masking the remains. On the side of the road in one former Shabab neighborhood, a decapitated corpse lay just meters from a new government checkpoint.
In late June the Pentagon approved plans to send $45 million worth of military equipment to Uganda and Burundi, the two major forces in the AMISOM operation. Among the new items are four small Raven surveillance drones, night-vision and communications equipment and other surveillance gear, all of which augur a more targeted campaign. Combined with the attempt to build an indigenous counterterrorism force at the Somali NSA, a new US counterterrorism strategy is emerging.
But according to the senior Somali intelligence official, who works directly with the US agents, the CIA-led program in Mogadishu has brought few tangible gains. “So far what we have not seen is the results in terms of the capacity of the [Somali] agency,” says the official. He conceded that neither US nor Somali forces have been able to conduct a single successful targeted mission in the Shabab’s areas in the capital. In late 2010, according to the official, US-trained Somali agents conducted an operation in a Shabab area that failed terribly and resulted in several of them being killed. “There was an attempt, but it was a haphazard one,” he recalls. They have not tried another targeted operation in Shabab-controlled territory since.