Secrets of the Secret War: Why Did Weekend Somalia Raid Fail?
The Defense Department's Friday night operation to go after an Al-Shabaab commander in Somalia peeled the veil a bit off the Obama administration's ongoing secret war in Somalia, but left many questions about the story behind the failed raid.
Pentagon press secretary George Little confirmed today that U.S. military personnel conducted a "targeted operation" against Abdikadir Mohamed Abdikadir, a.k.a. "Ikrima," a Kenyan of Somali origin and a top commander in the al-Qaeda affiliate.
Ikrima is "closely associated" with late al-Qaeda operatives Harun Fazul and Saleh Nabhan, who played roles in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.
"The goal of the operation was to capture Ikrima under legal authorities granted to the Department of Defense by the Authorization to Use Military Force (2001) against al-Qaeda and its associated forces," Little said. "While the operation did not result in Ikrima's capture, U.S. military personnel conducted the operation with unparalleled precision and demonstrated that the United States can put direct pressure on al-Shabaab leadership at any time of our choosing."
"Working in partnership with the government of the Federal Republic of Somalia, the United States military will continue to confront the threat posed by Al-Shabaab. The United States military has unmatched capabilities and could rely on any of them to disrupt terrorist networks and plots."
Somali Radio Mustaqbal reported that after the U.S. attack via sea on a coastal headquarters in Barawe, Shabaab directed extra resources to the district and imposed a 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew on the area. Somali Current reported that Al-Shabaab leader Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, a.k.a. Godane, was in the house just hours before the U.S. raid, suggesting that SEALTeam Six may have had a weightier target in mind than the Pentagon admitted.
Godane was known to use the villa for some R&R. Somali Current reported that he stayed close to Barawe for nearly a day after the hourlong gun battle with U.S. forces. Al-Shabaab then closed down the town, searched every home and arrested an "unconfirmed number" of people under the accusation that they colluded with "invaders." Some local media also reported a Chechen member of al-Qaeda was staying at the villa.
The "prudent decision" by U.S. forces to pull back from the Somali raid contrasted with the success of a concurrent operation in Libya, where Abu Anas al-Libi, accused of masterminding the 1998 embassy bombings, was captured in Tripoli.
White House spokesman Jay Carney referred all questions about the Somali raid to the Pentagon today, but confirmed "the president approved both operations in both Libya and Somalia."
"And when an approval like this happens, there is obviously discretion given to commanders as to when they initiate and fulfill those missions," Carney added. "So it is a coincidence that they happened at the same time."
"The mujahidin repulsed their attack and in Allah's wishes they have and we chased them until they reached the coast," Al-Shabaab military operations spokesman Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Mus'ab said, according to Dalsan Radio. "We have killed one white officer and wounded at least two others."
The Pentagon spokesman made no mention either way about deaths or injuries. Officials told Reuters that there were no casualties among the SEALs but they retreated to avoid civilian casualties. A local man told Dalsan Radio that he saw a bulletproof vest left behind by the U.S. forces as well as two ladders.
President Obama would likely fear any casualties on such a mission sparking memories of President Clinton's unpopular Black Hawk Down Battle of Mogadishu.
Somali Foreign Minister Fawzia Yusuf Adam told CNN on Sunday that her government believes "not just Al-Shabaab" repelled the U.S. forces from the Barawe hideout.
"This is al-Qaeda. It's a global phenomenon. People from all over the place come there," she said, before claiming the terror group is on its "last legs."
"We accepted it. We welcomed it. We are welcoming more if this will help us get rid of Al Qaeda/Al-Shabaab," Adam added of the U.S. operation. "We have cooperation and they don't have to ask us because we are fighting a common enemy. This is what we feel and we are grateful for their support. Otherwise, the whole region will be in turmoil."
House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) today compared Somalia to "the Wild West."
"There are people there being trained to kill as terrorists. Al Shabaab is the group that really did the unspeakable, killing of innocent people in Kenya. And they are trained, and they have ammunition, and they know what they're doing," Ruppersburger said. "…But we had to come back. We didn't want any of our Navy members who put their lives on the line for us to be hurt. They had gunfire, they had resistance, and they decided to come back."
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Sunday that "these operations in Libya and Somalia send a strong message to the world that the United States will spare no effort to hold terrorists accountable, no matter where they hide or how long they evade justice."
"We will continue to maintain relentless pressure on terrorist groups that threaten our people or our interests, and we will conduct direct action against them, if necessary, that is consistent with our laws and our values," Hagel said.
Still, the government turned more focus on the al-Libi capture, even as some Libyans angrily charged the U.S. with kidnapping the wanted terrorist. As if the Al-Shabaab nut wasn't hard enough to crack, the failure of the raid let the terror group add another feather to its cap as it rallies jihadists in the wake of the horrifying attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi.
Thus the details coming from Washington were shrouded in mystery much like other operations in Somalia during this administration.
President Obama told Congress in the “consolidated” version of this summer’s report on U.S. activities consistent with the War Powers Resolution that “in Somalia, the U.S. military has worked to counter the terrorist threat posed by al-Qa’ida and associated elements of al-Shabaab.”
A July report by the U.N. Monitoring Group for Somalia and Eritrea charged that the Obama administration has expanded its secret war in Somalia in such a way that could violate the arms embargo.
“A large part of the assistance provided to the Somali security forces involved in counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism operations at the federal and regional levels has not been reported. According to multiple diplomatic and military sources, the Governments of the United States and the United Kingdom are increasingly involved in directly supporting intelligence services in ‘Somaliland’, ‘Puntland’ and Mogadishu, at times in violation of resolutions 733 (1992) and 1425 (2002),” the report states.
“From August 2012 to March 2013, the Monitoring Group identified 84 civilian flights operated to Mogadishu and ‘Puntland’ by the United States-based air companies Prescott Support Co. and RAM Air Services, which are connected to United States support to ‘Puntland’ and Mogadishu intelligence services, 54 in comparison to 65 flights counted in the same period of the previous mandate of the Monitoring Group, indicating an increase in United States support.”
Al-Shabaab claimed in July that it killed a veteran CIA official-turned-contractor who oversaw the agency’s September 2001 plunge into Afghanistan as well as another CIA operative as U.S. officials accompanied an African Union convoy from the airport in Mogadishu. The U.S. government didn't respond to the public claims.
Soon after that claim, though, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter became the highest-ranking Pentagon official to ever visit Uganda to meet with “senior government and military leaders to affirm the growing security partnership between the United States and Uganda,” the other country that Al-Shabaab claimed was working with the U.S. on the suicide-bombed Mogadishu mission.
Carter "met with U.S. personnel supporting the Ugandan military’s effort to remove leaders of the LRA from the battlefield and a separate contingent of U.S. forces providing specialized counterterrorism training to Ugandan forces who will deploy as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia.”
U.S. Special Forces waged a helicopter raid in southern Somalia in 2009 to kill al-Qaeda-linked Saleh Ali Nabhan, wanted in the 2002 bombing of a resort in Kenya and linked to the 1998 embassy bombings.
That raid also took place near Barawe. At least four helicopters swooped in from a nearby U.S. vessel, fired at and struck Nabhan's vehicle, and then one of the helicopters landed to grab the four bodies.
"We must not make the same mistake with Al-Shabaab that we did with al-Qaeda and that is viewing it as only a local or regional threat," Don Borelli, COO of The Soufan Group and a 25-year FBI veteran, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week. "In the early 1990s, many smart people ignored al-Qaeda because it was seen as a group only focused on the Middle East and Central Asia. We have seen how a terrorist organization gone unchecked can morph into a global threat. We must not let that happen with Al-Shabaab."