A former Delta Force soldier went to Mogadishu to help a little-known company train African soldiers to fight al-Shabab. He never came home.
- By Seán D. NaylorSeán D. Naylor is the intelligence and counterterrorism senior staff writer for Foreign Policy. He previously spent 23 years at Army Times, where his principal beat was special operations forces. He is the author of Not A Good Day To Die – The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda and the forthcoming Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command.
It was lunchtime on Christmas Day in Mogadishu, and Brett Fredricks was doing what he loved. The retired member of the Army’s famed and secretive Delta Force was huddling with Ugandan soldiers planning an assault on an enemy position during a firefight with al-Shabab guerrillas. But this gunbattle was different. It was taking place inside the international force’s heavily secured base at Mogadishu airport. It would also be one of the final moments of Brett Fredricks’s life.
At least eight al-Shabab fighters, some dressed in Somali national army uniforms, had infiltrated the base, then made their way to arms caches apparently stashed by Somali workers who had easy access to the complex. Now they were on the attack. When word reached Fredricks, he was across town at another Ugandan base, combining a work meeting with a Christmas celebration.
Together with a small group of Ugandans, including some senior officers, Fredricks, 55, raced back to the airfield. By the time they got there, the infiltrators appeared to be holed up in an old building being used as a kitchen. After gathering some reinforcements, Fredricks and about a dozen Ugandans made their way to what seemed to be a safe position near the kitchen building and discussed how best to attack it.
But two al-Shabab fighters had slipped unseen into a patch of heavy brush from where they could engage Fredricks and his protégés. One or both of them opened up on the small group, spraying them with bullets. One Ugandan soldier fell wounded, another dead. And an AK bullet hit Fredricks between the eyes, killing him instantly.
Fredricks’s death, which hasn’t been reported previously, is an exceptionally rare example of a retired member of Delta Force dying on a foreign battlefield. The Pentagon doesn’t officially acknowledge 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, as the unit is known by its full name. It’s the Army’s equivalent to the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, and its members are trained to conduct high-risk missions like freeing hostages or raiding enemy territory to kill or capture wanted militants. The unit has a bloody history in Somalia: In October 1993, five Delta operators and 13 other U.S. troops died in a desperate fight with Somali militiamen, hundreds of whom also lost their lives. The battle was later memorialized in the book Black Hawk Down and the movie of the same name.
His death was also the first in Somalia for Bancroft, a small firm that is trying to make money in one of the world’s most dangerous places. American security firms like Blackwater have made hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years protecting U.S. diplomats and other personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other hot spots. Bancroft, a much smaller company, has a very different business model. Its personnel don’t travel through cities like Baghdad armed to the teeth with military-grade weaponry. Instead, most of its employees, including Fredricks, are unarmed, an approach in sharp contrast with for-profit security firms, some of whom — the most notorious being Blackwater — made enemies of Iraqi civilians and U.S. military personnel alike with what many perceived as their bullying, shoot-first mindset.
The company also has a highly unusual business model. In reality, it’s two firms. Bancroft Global Development is a nonprofit that seeks to stabilize a region by using the classic Special Forces approach of working “by, with, and through” local security forces, which in Somalia means advising the African peacekeepers there, as well as the Somali national police. Then there is Bancroft Global Investments, a for-profit company that seeks literally to capitalize on that success by investing in the newly pacified countries and regions.
Michael Stock founded Bancroft in 1999, shortly after his graduation from Princeton, using some of his family’s investment banking fortune to bankroll the company. But the firm seems only to have come into its own after the United Nations’ creation in 2007 of the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, a multinational force deployed in an attempt to bring peace to the Horn of Africa nation. Bancroft’s website lists 26 countries in which it has operated, but the firm is best known for its work in Somalia, where it now does about 75 percent of its business and where Bancroft Global Development, its nonprofit wing, earned about $35 million over the past two years. Meanwhile, Bancroft Global Investments “has invested about $40 million in Somalia and has generated returns that adequately compensate for the risk factor,” said Marc Frey, executive director of Bancroft Global Development.
Bancroft officials first visited Mogadishu in November 2007, roughly six months after the first AMISOM troops arrived. By late spring 2008 the firm was mentoring AMISOM forces, essentially paying its own way, with no contracts or other funding arrangements in place, according to Stock.
It was dangerous work. “The parts of Mogadishu that were actually under AMISOM and Somali government control at that time was next to nothing,” Stock said. “We’re talking from the front gate of the airport a few hundred yards, not even to the first major traffic intersection.” The Bancroft advisors — or “mentors,” as the firm prefers to call them — as well as the rest of the AMISOM contingent frequently found themselves under fire as they were setting up their camp. Their aircraft were also shot at, according to Stock.
But the company’s approach to training and mentoring the AMISOM forces proved attractive to the United Nations, which now provides a little more than half of Bancroft Global Development’s funding in Somalia via its Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The balance comes from the Ugandan government, which is reimbursed on a dollar-for-dollar basis by the U.S. State Department, and a small State Department payment directly to Bancroft for mentoring the Somali national police.
Bancroft’s 75 or 80 mentors from about 20 different countries focus on training the Somali and peacekeeping personnel on mine-clearing, other forms of explosive ordnance disposal, and what Stock described as “counter-irregular warfare,” which includes instruction on how to defeat snipers, detect ambushes, and evade enemy surveillance. Bancroft’s primary mentor for that mission was Fredricks, a gray, balding, and — in Africa at least — bearded man who met Stock in 2002 and spent the mid-2000s as a part-time advisor to Bancroft.
Indeed, Bancroft owes its approach in part to Fredricks’s schooling in the traditional Special Forces missions of foreign internal defense, which focuses on teaching host nation forces how to defeat insurgencies, and irregular warfare, which involves helping guerrillas overthrow a hostile government. Fredricks began his career in Special Forces before joining Delta Force, where he built a reputation as “a really good guy who would do anything for you, a guy you could go to if you needed something hard done,” said retired Maj. Gen. Gary Harrell, who served in Delta in the 1980s and 1990s, commanding it from 1998 to 2000.
That view was echoed from those who saw him on the ground in Mogadishu. “He had such a great reputation as a soldier and a gentleman,” said a U.S. source familiar with Bancroft’s operations in Somalia. “He was in great shape, but he carried himself with such humility that you’d never know he was the operator that he was.”
Fredricks retired in the mid-1990s and by 2007 was serving on Bancroft’s board — an unpaid position — while doing traditional private security contractor work in Iraq. But he had become “disenchanted” with that work, according to Stock, and within a year was working full-time for Bancroft, for whom he spent 80 percent of his time in Somalia and much of the rest in Uganda training the forces he’d be mentoring once they deployed to Somalia.
With the exception of a short stint training Burundians, Bancroft spent most of his time with the Ugandans, the largest national contingent within the peacekeeping force.
Stock said that he and Fredricks believed that AMISOM, though fighting on behalf of a sovereign government, was actually carrying out an “unconventional warfare mission” because its fighters were actually the weaker party.
Some observers credit Fredricks with playing a major role in AMISOM’s 2011 success in forcing al-Shabab out of Mogadishu. Although strong rumors persist that Fredricks put his own sniper skills to use during that fight, killing hundreds of al-Shabab fighters, Stock denies that and says that it would be anathema to Fredricks’s philosophy.
“He … wanted the protégés that he was working with to understand that he had enough confidence in the training that he had given them to think that not only were they brave enough to protect him, but they would be able to do it,” Stock said. “So not carrying a weapon made that point.”
Stock believes that the Ugandan sniper teams Fredricks was mentoring possibly racked up the kills that people later attributed to Fredricks himself, inadvertently exaggerating the battlefield prowess of a man who was already one of the U.S. military’s best.
Other observers say Bancroft’s role in the 2011 battle was limited at best. “The major factor was the local population turning against the Shabab themselves,” said a Western security consultant who visits Somalia frequently and is a sometime competitor of Bancroft.
Meanwhile, a former staffer at U.S. Africa Command gave the credit to American special operations forces and drones. “The turning of the tide really had nothing to do with Bancroft,” he said.
In recent years, Bancroft has kept a low media profile, as well as a low physical profile in Mogadishu. “They keep to themselves,” said the security consultant. But that hasn’t prevented some people from forming negative opinions of a firm that they describe in terms diametrically opposed to those used by Stock and others at Bancroft.
Brett Fredricks’s body was flown out of Mogadishu on an AMISOM flight that was also carrying the Ugandan wounded to Nairobi. The U.S. military liaison unit at the Mogadishu base provided a U.S. flag that was draped over his casket, which Bancroft employees carried onto the plane for the beginning of his last flight home.
In the United States, Stock made the sad, lonely drive to Fredricks’s North Carolina home to personally inform his wife of her husband’s death.
Bancroft and AMISOM successfully kept any word about an American, let alone a former U.S. Army special operator, out of the initial reports on the airport attack, out of a concern that publicizing it would hand al-Shabab a propaganda victory. Word of Fredricks’s death thus spread via email among his former Delta colleagues, who felt his demise keenly, according to Harrell. “They felt like a good man was lost,” he said.
Photo courtesy of Bancroft Global Development