U.S. forces in East Africa made use of AC-130 gunships, similar to the one shown here, in their secret missions to root out al-Qaida members in the region. (Air Force)
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The destroyer Chafee fired its gun toward the coast of Somalia to aid U.S. troops pinned down there in 2007. (Navy)
The Secret War
The U.S. operators were in trouble. Deep trouble. Along with some Ethiopian troops, a "really small" number of U.S. personnel were hunting a high-value target near the town of Bargal in Somalia's autonomous Puntland region when they came under heavy fire that not only prevented them from killing or capturing the target but also pinned them down, according to several sources.
Running out of options on June 1, 2007, the operators called the destroyer Chafee sailing off the coast. In response, Chafee fired more than a dozen rounds from its 5-inch gun, a senior Pentagon official told Stars and Stripes (without mentioning that the mission was a desperate bid to rescue U.S. troops in Somalia). That naval gunfire — a rarity in the modern age — enabled the United States and Ethiopian troops "to break contact" and get away, a senior intelligence official said.
The close escape was a notable moment in a relationship between U.S. and Ethiopian forces that developed because each country perceived Somalia's burgeoning Islamist militias as a threat but became strained as the U.S. pressed Ethiopia for more substantive on-the-ground cooperation.
The middle years of the last decade proved difficult for the U.S.'s efforts to destroy al-Qaida in East Africa. By mid-2003, as the insurgency blossomed in Iraq, the CIA had withdrawn its Predator drones from Djibouti, according to a special operations source with firsthand experience of operations in the Horn of Africa. "There just wasn't a lucrative enough target environment to maintain a Predator program over there," he said.
Lawless, anarchic Somalia was al-Qaida's sanctuary and hub in the Horn. But getting U.S. intelligence and special ops personnel into Somalia was "really, really difficult," said the intelligence official.
Invasion provided a path
However, in 2006, an opportunity to gain greater access to Somalia presented itself when Ethiopia invaded Somalia in an effort to oust the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist group (sometimes referred to as the Council of Islamic Courts) that had seized power in Mogadishu from the Transitional Federal Government. Ethiopia, which had fought two previous wars with Somalia, first sent forces across the border in July to prop up the TFG, which had moved to Baidoa, about 160 miles northwest of Mogadishu. But in late December, a far larger Ethiopian force invaded with the intent of driving the ICU from power.
Despite speculation that Ethiopia invaded at the U.S.'s behest, cables from the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa released by WikiLeaks indicate Ethiopia felt forced to act by circumstances in Somalia. "The GOE [government of Ethiopia] feels ever more compelled to intervene in southern Somalia to counter what it sees as the growing threat of an extremist Islamic regime in Mogadishu that is cooperating with Eritrea and other foreign elements to undermine Ethiopian stability and territorial integrity," said U.S. Ambassador Donald Yamamoto in a Dec. 6, 2006, cable. The same cable accurately predicted Ethiopia would invade in late December and that the incursion might "prove more difficult for Ethiopia than many now imagine."
The cables make clear that the U.S. expected Ethiopia to invade. Nonetheless, a senior military official said events caught Joint Special Operations Command, which controls the military's elite special ops forces, unprepared.
"The military wasn't prepared to take any advantage of it," the official said. "We should have been leaning forward to capitalize on this, and we did nothing."
JSOC scrambled to take advantage by sending in small teams with Ethiopian special operations forces.
"Less than a dozen" JSOC operators went in, drawn from a mix of units, the intelligence official said. The largest number came from Naval Special Warfare Development Group, sometimes known as SEAL Team 6. The Air Force's 24th Special Tactics Squadron also provided personnel. The numbers were kept small "because we didn't need that much," the official said.
But even the secret deployment of such small numbers of JSOC personnel into Somalia created angst in Washington's policymaking circles.
"It was very uncomfortable," the intelligence official said.
JSOC "would have gone with a much bigger capability and been much more aggressive."
As it was, the deployment had to be approved by the defense secretary, "but he needed to get concurrence, or at least acknowledgment" from President George W. Bush, the official said.
JSOC's focus in Somalia was on the handful of "high-value individuals" linked to al-Qaida. The United States had little interest in killing large numbers of regular Islamist fighters, the official said.
"If we wanted to kill a couple of thousand guys, we could have done that pretty much any time," the official said.
The U.S. preference was for Ethiopians to do the direct action missions against al-Qaida figures whenever possible. The JSOC operators were to liaise with and provide assistance to them, "but also to effect a capture or a kill if necessary," the official said.
The mechanized Ethiopian columns made good progress at first, pushing southeast along the Shabelle River Valley to Mogadishu, as well as along a more southerly axis toward Somalia's southern coast and the Kenyan border. "They moved pretty rapidly and we did seize on that to drive, and to help them drive, the al-Qaida guys toward the border of Kenya," the official said.
In a Dec. 28 meeting with U.S. Ambassador to the African Union Cindy Courville, the TFG's permanent representative to the African Union and ambassador to Ethiopia, Abdulkarim Farah, said the Islamic Courts "extremists" had fled Mogadishu the previous day by boat headed for the southern port of Ras Kamboni, according to a cable sent that day by U.S. Charge d'Affaires Janet Wilgus, posted by WikiLeaks. Another Wilgus cable the same day said Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had "reiterated" his request for U.S. help to "interdict" extremists.
"Meles said that groups of ex-members of the CIC were fleeing south to Kismayo in a convoy of approximately 150 vehicles," the cable reported. "The CIC convoy included foreign fighters, some wounded, and presumably some CIC leaders."
By Jan. 4, 2007, however, in a meeting with Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer, Meles was hailing "bilateral military cooperation with the United States" and calling for "continuing and improved joint intelligence operations to target terrorists," according to a Jan. 8, 2007, cable from Yamamoto.
"Meles welcomed support from the United States and called for continued cooperation to capitalize on the situation on the ground" in Somalia, the cable said, adding that Meles said he had given his military chief of staff "‘very clear guidelines' to cooperate with the [U.S. government], including on identification of foreign fighters in Somalia."
However, some U.S. support quickly wore out its welcome with the Ethiopian leadership.
‘A low profile'
On Jan. 7, an Air Force special operations AC-130 gunship, apparently flying out of Ethiopia, struck suspected al-Qaida targets near Ras Kamboni. The next day, CBS News quoted Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman as saying the strike was based on intelligence "that led us to believe we had principal al-Qaida leaders in an area where we could identify them and take action against them."
In a Jan. 9 meeting with Yamamoto "Meles noted that press reports of an alleged U.S. strike in Somalia may create diplomatic problems for the United States, but so long as terrorist targets are hit and the United States is seen as addressing Somalia's humanitarian needs, the United States will make a positive impact and receive support from the Somali people," according to a Jan. 10, 2007, Yamamoto cable.
"Meles urged the U.S. military, however, to keep its footprint ‘slight,' so as not to play into the hands of jihadists who wish to portray action in Somalia as a crusade against Islam," Yamamoto stated. "Meles said he was not concerned about press reports regarding U.S. action in Somalia, so long as terrorist targets were hit."
Two days after the AC-130 attack, another airstrike hit four towns near Ras Kamboni. (The type of aircraft used in the attack has never been confirmed. The Ethiopians had their own attack helicopters, but a Jan. 12, 2007, Yamamoto cable refers to a "U.S. military … strike Jan. 9 against members of the East Africa Al Qaeda cell believed to be on the run in a remote area of Somalia near the Kenyan border.")
With Ethiopia planning to pull most of its troops out of Somalia within a couple of weeks, to be replaced by international peacekeepers, a note of concern began to creep into exchanges between U.S. and Ethiopian officials. In a Jan. 11 meeting with Yamamoto, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin "requested that the USG [U.S. government] endeavor to keep U.S. military engagement in Somalia at ‘a low profile,' citing concerns among potential African TCCs [troop contributing countries] that media reports of direct U.S. involvement in airstrikes created greater risk of terrorist attacks against peace-keeping contingents," Yamamoto said in a Jan. 11 cable. "Seyoum recommended that the USG publicly state that it would not conduct any future military operations in Somalia, so as not to ‘alarm' potential TCCs for Somalia."
But an AC-130 conducted another strike Jan. 22 in southern Somalia, which the Washington Post reported Jan. 24. (An account in The Nation this year said the attack happened Jan. 23 and targeted Ahmed Madobe, a deputy of ICU leader Hassan Turki. Madobe survived the attack, but was captured, according to the magazine.) Meles met privately with Yamamoto on Jan. 25 and told him the AC-130 strike was "terrific" because "the targets were hit and there were no civilian casualties," the ambassador reported in a Jan. 25 cable. But Meles had a serious complaint. "The problem was that in less than 24 hours after the strike, the Washington Post published a report on it, clearly showing there is no ‘opsec' [operational security] on these military operations," the cable said, adding that Meles was worried the publicity was weakening international support for the peacekeeping mission.
"He requested that for opsec purposes the gunships be removed from the area," the cable continued. "In addition, the Prime Minister requested that the U.S. refrain from further military strikes in Somalia." Instead, Meles said, Ethiopian forces "would act on information relating to where extremists were located." Yamamoto noted that the Ethiopian military "has been effective in acting quickly and engaging targets."
"We recommend compliance with the Prime Minister's request for removal of the AC-130 aircraft," Yamamoto said. "Heavy press interest has made it difficult to secure and protect AC-130 operations."
Before long, the AC-130 element was on its way out of Ethiopia.
"They got told to go home," said the senior military official, adding that the Ethiopians had warned that AC-130 operations would have to end if they were made public.
The Ethiopians also temporarily shut down the fusion cell that helped coordinate U.S. and Ethiopian actions in Somalia, in particular the sharing of intelligence related to al-Qaida in East Africa leaders and other foreign fighters in Somalia. The Jan. 25 cable says Yamamoto and Meles met that day "to discuss the GOE decision to suspend operations by our fusion cell." Meles told the ambassador there was "no suspension of mil-to-mil relations, and that operations, specifically intelligence-sharing and targeting of HVI/HVT [high-value individuals/high-value targets] must continue," the cable says. "[T]omorrow we could resume all contacts and information-sharing."
Meles "made it clear that the ENDF [Ethiopian National Defense Force] will continue its objectives of neutralizing extremist elements and HVI/HVT, and that Ethiopia welcomes information from the USG," the cable said. Meles "stressed that information and material obtained from Somalia is fully accessible and will be openly shared with the USG. He underscored the importance of Ethiopia's bilateral relationship with the United States."
"The Somalia fusion cell continues to provide an important function welcomed by the Ethiopians," Yamamoto said. "The fusion cell will be able to deconflict and support ENDF operations, as well as maintain close U.S.-Ethiopian mil-mil ties."
Those ties were embodied by the JSOC operators working with Ethiopian special operations forces on both sides of the Ethiopia-Somalia border.
Ethiopia used its special operations elements to buttress the TFG's fledgling military. In his Jan. 9 meeting with Yamamoto, "Meles said Ethiopia planned to embed personnel in Somali units, to train and equip Somali intelligence and assist with operations," according to the Jan. 10 cable. "It was essential to conduct clandestine operations against the jihadists, to prevent them from reorganizing within Somalia, Meles added."
But although the cables quote Meles emphasizing the Islamist threat when talking with U.S. officials, they also reveal that for Meles' government, the Somalia conflict was as much a proxy war between Eritrea and Ethiopia as it was an alliance among the TFG, Ethiopia and the U.S. against the jihadists. Thus U.S. and Ethiopian interests in Somalia overlapped, as Meles told Yamamoto, but each country had different priorities. The U.S. was completely focused on capturing or killing a handful of "high-value individuals" in the East African al-Qaida cell. Ethiopia's primary goals were to oppose the wider Islamist threat posed by the ICU and to keep its bitter enemy Eritrea from being able to attack Ethiopia via the ICU.
Eight weeks before the invasion, Meles told a U.S. delegation "that the normally anti-Islamic Eritrean Government was pursuing a short-sighted policy of aiding jihadists, apparently in the hopes that the extremists ‘would attack Ethiopia before they attack us,' " according to an Oct. 26 cable from U.S. Charge d'Affaires Vicki Huddleston. "Meles claimed that the Eritreans had provided the CIC with Russian-made, shoulder-fired anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry. … He noted that the GOE had observed some tension between the two groups in training camps in Somali [sic], but that their unusual cooperation was continuing."
In his Jan. 11 meeting with Yamamoto, Seyoum, the Ethiopian foreign minister, said Kenya had taken into custody "senior Eritrean military officers … who had been ‘training, organizing, and commanding an international force to destroy the constitutional government in Somalia' " before the Ethiopian offensive forced them across the Kenyan border.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Ethiopian forces enjoyed a patchy relationship with the Kenyans as they tried to get Somalia's southern neighbor to round up the most dangerous Islamists who fled across the border.
"What we were trying to do was have forces postured [on the Kenyan side of the border] so that when they came across to try to arrest or detain them," the intelligence official said.
Armed JSOC personnel based in Kenya accompanied Kenyan forces to the border but were there to "enable" the Kenyans rather than to conduct direct action missions themselves, the official said.
However, U.S. trust in the Kenyans was finite.
"We were always convinced that the Kenyans were spilling their guts to certain Somali elements," said an intelligence source with long experience in the Horn. "Some of our concerns were well-founded. Others were not."
‘Marriages of convenience'
U.S. officials were not alone in their reservations. In his Jan. 4 meeting with Frazer, Meles voiced concern "that Kenya's susceptibility to ‘financial inducements' threatened to jeopardize Ethiopia's operations … [and] called for the USG to highlight to Kenyan authorities the need to capture extremists."
The Kenyans sometimes either released Islamists sought by the U.S. "or they would just not let them in," the senior intelligence official said. This ran counter to the U.S. desire for Kenya to allow the Islamists to cross the border so they could be detained and screened.
"We're wanting them to let them in, roll up the whole group of them and then let's go face by face and start looking," the official said. "Then you can push them back across the border, those that are just Somalis that got rolled up." The failure to "rein them in" meant some Islamist fighters "probably lived to fight another day," the official said.
This type of behavior, in which a national ally could not be trusted to round up suspected Islamist fighters on its territory, prompted the intelligence source with long experience in the Horn to describe the region as a "wilderness of mirrors" characterized by "marriages of convenience" between government and nongovernment actors in the Somali drama. "You never really knew who was a true partner and who wasn't," the source said.
Meles said in his Jan. 4, 2007, meeting with Frazer "that he hoped Ethiopian troops could withdraw within two weeks, following one week of ‘mopping up.' " But his hopes were misplaced. The Islamist fighters returned to Mogadishu and elsewhere to wage a guerrilla campaign that bogged the Ethiopians down for two years.
Ethiopian cooperation with U.S. forces against al-Qaida began to fray.
"Our love relationship with them didn't last very long," the senior military official said.
Small JSOC teams continued working with the Ethiopians in Somalia, but it was a tense partnership that Ethiopia did not want to expand, according to the official. JSOC "wanted to train more Ethiopians, they wanted to train Ethiopian and Somali surrogates to go in and do things, they wanted to do what you would naturally expect," the official said.
But the Ethiopians' attitude was, " ‘We don't really want any help, we don't want to be associated with you while we're doing this, we don't want people to think we're your proxy,' " the official said. "So that was the issue. There was a lot of pressure put on them and they wouldn't let us do the things that we wanted to do."
However, JSOC's role in training and fighting with Ethiopian special ops forces did not end immediately.
"JSOC did that for a while," because after working with the most elite U.S. special operators, the Ethiopians were reluctant to work with regular Special Forces, the special ops element most experienced in training host-nation militaries, the military official said. But the U.S. campaign against Islamist militant leaders in Somalia continued, with a notable success May 1, 2008, when at least one Tomahawk cruise missile fired from a Navy vessel slammed into a house in the town of Dhusamareb, killing Aden Hashi Ayro, leader of the al-Shabaab militia that rose from the ashes of the ICU, as well as seven other Islamist fighters. The attack occurred less than two months after a March 3 Tomahawk strike hit the town of Dhoble. Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a leading figure in al-Qaida in East Africa, and Turki were reportedly there but survived the strike.
President Bush had to approve each strike, the senior intelligence official said.
"The decision-making process … was unbelievably painful," the official said. JSOC's attitude was, "Just let us make the decision and we'll be able to kill these guys," the official said. As for "political consequences," the official compared it to the decisions to authorize Predator and Reaper drone strikes against al-Qaida targets in Pakistan and elsewhere. "It's like firing drones, it has a political consequence, [but] what would you rather have: the guy dead and then you get through one weekend of Sunday talk shows and you get onto another problem, or do you want this guy still around? And it was not easy to convince the powers that be."
The official cited the strike that killed Ayro as an example.
"In order for that decision to be made, the confidence level they wanted [was] almost 100 percent, because they didn't want to have this compound destroyed with a whole bunch of women and children getting lined up," the official said. Therefore, U.S. forces "really had to time the collection" of intelligence. For real-time video of the target site, the military used a little-known variant of the Navy P-3 Orion aircraft called a Chain Shot. It was "a very good aircraft, very effective," the official said. "We used that capability quite a bit because it has long legs."
The Chain Shot flew out of Djibouti, the official said.
"So the precision of timing when that thing was going to be on station, and then the timing for when the TLAMs [Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles] had to be teed up, ready to go, because if we saw the target, then the decision had to be made … and it's not just push a button [on the Navy vessel firing the Tomahawk], there's a whole series of things that the guys there had to go through, they had to tee everything up … then there's the time to fly … it really, really had to be precise," the official said.
The Ethiopian military pulled out of Somalia in January 2009. The withdrawal closed a window of opportunity for U.S. forces.
"They were truly abetted by circumstances on the ground in Somalia that don't exist anymore," said a former military officer with long experience in the CENTCOM theater. But JSOC and the CIA had done their best to maximize the chances presented by the Ethiopian invasion.
"During that time, when the Ethiopians were in there — because the Ethiopians went all the way to Mogadishu — there was a lot of opportunities that we were trying to take advantage of, and, in a way, did," the intelligence official said.