Is the U.S. Ramping Up a Secret War in Somalia?
Islamists in East Africa were supposed to be on the run. But the raids and spy flights keep increasing.
The Obama administration earlier this year expanded its secret war in Somalia, stepping up assistance for federal and regional Somali intelligence agencies that are allied against the country’s Islamist insurgency. It’s a move that’s not only violating the terms of an international arms embargo, according to U.N. investigators. The escalation also could be a signal that Washington’s signature victory against al-Qaeda’s most powerful African ally may be in danger of unraveling.
Just last year, Obama’s team was touting Somalia as unqualified success. "Somalia is a good news story for the region, for the international community, but most especially for the people of Somalia itself," Johnnie Carson, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told reporters last October at the New York Foreign Press Center. Carson praised African forces, principally Uganda and Kenya, for driving the terror group al-Shabab out of the Somalia’s main cities, Mogadishu and Kismayo. "The U.S.," he boasted, "has been a significant and major contributor to this effort." Indeed, the United States has emerged as a major force in the region, running training camps for Ugandan peacekeepers destined for battle with Somalia’s militants, and hosting eight Predator drones, eight more F-15E fighter jets, and nearly 2,000 U.S. troops and military civilians at a base in neighboring Djibouti.
But despite the array of forces aligned against it, Al-Shabab is demonstrating renewed vigor. "The military strength of al-Shabaab, with an approximately 5,000-strong force, remains arguably intact in terms of operational readiness, chain of command, discipline and communications ability," according to a report by the U.N. Monitoring Group for Somalia and Eritrea. "By avoiding direct military confrontation, it has preserved the core of its fighting force and resources."
"At present, al-Shabaab remains the principal threat to peace and security in Somalia," the report adds. "The organization has claimed responsibility for hundreds of assassinations and attacks involving improvised explosive devices, ambushes, mortar shelling grenades and hit and run tactics."
Not coincidentally, perhaps, American involvement in the region is again on the rise, as well. Last year, according to the U.N. group, the United States violated the international arms embargo on Somalia by dispatching American special operations forces in Russian M-17 helicopters to northern Somalia in support of operations by the intelligence service of Puntland, a breakaway Somali province.
(The U.N. Security Council in 1992 imposed an embargo "on all deliveries of weapons and military equipment to Somalia" The embargo was eased in March, 2013, allowing for the transfer of weapons, equipment or military advisors for the development of the federal government’s security forces. But the Somali government is required to inform the U.N. Security Council sanctions committee when it receives foreign military assistance.)
Two U.S. air-charter companies linked to American intelligence activities in Somalia have increased the number of clandestine flights to Mogadishu and the breakaway province of Puntland by as much as 25 percent last year.
Florida-based Prescott Support Co. and RAM Air Services, flew at least 84 civilian flights between August 2012 and March 2013. During the previous year, the two companies flew only 65 flights, "indicating an increase in United States support," the U.N. report notes.
The flights — which have not been reported to the U.N. Security Council — suggest a further strengthening of American cooperation with Somalia’s National Intelligence Agency in Mogadishu and the Puntland Intelligence Service, which has been cooperating with U.S. counterterrorism operations for more than a decade.
Several flights last November by Prescott have been linked by the U.N. group with the construction of two buildings at the Puntland Intelligence Service compound, north of the town of Galkayo. "The construction of these two buildings during the month of November 2012 coincides with four Prescott Support Co. L-100-30 flights that landed at Galkayo airport between 3 and 9 November 2012 and constituted a load capacity of up to 80 tons of cargo," according to the report.
It’s one of many ways that Western intelligence agencies — including those of the United States, Britain and France — have been secretly and "directly supporting intelligence services" in Mogadishu, Puntland and Somaliland, another breakaway Somali province, according to the U.N. investigators. At times, this assistance has been in violation of U.N. resolutions, claims their latest report, which runs nearly five hundred pages — not counting several classified annexes.
Since the report was finalized, al-Shabab has been riven by internal fighting that has splintered the movement, left one of its leaders dead, and sent several others fleeing from the group’s southern stronghold. But the insurgents’s well-financed secret service – Amniyat – remains intact, capable of carrying out terror operations at will. And al-Shabab’s leader, Ahmed Godane, remains firmly in charge of the movement’s terror apparatus, according to experts on Somali politics.
The survival of al-Shabab’s terror infrastructure has dealt a blow to what had appeared to be a signature achievement of the Obama administration: backing an African led effort to deny an al-Qaeda affiliated insurgency a strategic toehold in the heart of East Africa.
In August, 2011, a U.S.-backed African peacekeeping mission wrested control of the capital of Mogadishu, helping to deliver a rare respite of calm. It set the stage for the September 2012, election of a new, Western-backed President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Another key American ally, Kenya, last year joined forces with a Somali clan and seized control of al-Shabab’s principle stronghold, Kismayo.
But those gains are being threatened by rampant corruption within the U.S. backed government’s weak institutions, al-Shabab’s infiltration in the "highest levels" of the Somali government, and continued attacks against targets inside Somali, including a recent deadly strike on a U.N. humanitarian aid compound in Mogadishu.
Even worse, Kenyan forces in Kismayo have clashed with clans loyal to the U.S.-backed federal government while colluding with financial backers of al-Shabab in the lucrative and illicit charcoal trade, enabling the Islamist movement to refill its war chest. "The revenue that al-Shabaab currently derives from its Kismayo shareholding, its … exports and the taxation of ground transportation likely exceeds the estimated U.S. $25 million it generated in charcoal revenue when it controlled Kismayo," the report stated.
Over the long term, al-Shabab appears to pursuing a strategy that can best be described as biding its time. It has not carried out a major offensive against African peacekeepers in nearly two years.
Instead, it has stockpiled weapons and ammunition throughout Southern and central Somalia, launching hundreds of attacks against foreign African forces, civilians and U.N. humanitarian aid workers, and waiting for foreign forces to withdraw from the country. Earlier this year, Ethiopian forces, worn down by a campaign of guerrilla attacks, withdrew from the towns of El Bur, in the Galgadud region, and Hudur, in the Bakol region. Al-Shabab effortlessly seized control of the towns.
Ever since the 9/11 terror attacks, American military intelligence agencies have expanded their presence in East Africa, seeking initially to track al-Qaeda militants responsible for attacks against U.S. targets, but later investing in regional African efforts to confront Somali militants. While the Obama administration has strived to conceal those activities from public view in the United States, its presence in Somalia has sometimes been hard to ignore. Last year, the U.N. monitoring group complained that drone flights had clogged the skies over Somalia, posing a threat to air safety in the country. According to the report, unmanned aircraft slammed into a refugee camp, skirted a fuel dump and nearly crashed into a passenger plan over Mogadishu.
This year’s report notes that international investigators have requested information from the U.S. government about "uncorroborated information" about a "handcuffed and blindfolded passenger" who boarded a plane at Galkayo airport. The United States government "has not replied to date."
Spokespeople for the United States and British missions to the United Nations declined to comment on the reports, citing a longstanding policy of not commenting publically on intelligence operations. Officials from Prescott and RAM, the airlines, did not respond to requests for comment.
Kenneth Menkhaus, a professor at Davidson College and an expert on Somalia, said that for the time being the greatest threat to al-Shabaab is emerging within the organization’s own ranks, not from the U.S. counter-terrorism effort.
Internal division within the Islamist group exploded into all out fighting during the past month. In June, forces loyal to Godane killed al-Shabab cofounder Ibrahim al-Afghani, and sent two other Shabab leaders, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, and Hassan Dahir Aweys, fleeing. The fighting, according to Menkaus, has left Shabab "weaker. But weaker than what?"
The movement, more solidly under the control of Godane, remains "a strong and dangerous force, capable of extortion, intimidation, and assassination," he added. "This fits the shift of al-Shabab from what had been a standing army, capable of controlling large swaths of territory, to a decentralized, clandestine terrorist network."
In a particularly grim twist, it is America’s counterterrorism partners — corrupt Somali institutions and Kenyan collusion with al-Shabab’s financial backers — that pose a potentially even more lethal threat to American aims. "That Shabab is stronger than people think is interesting and newsworthy," said Menkhaus. But to Menkhaus, the bigger story is the failure of America’s allies to maintain a united front against al-Shabab. "Our best friends are busy fighting one another."
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch