US covert actions in Somalia

US and others have ‘licence to ignore international law’ in Somalia

AU troops advance on Al Shabaab positions May 2012 (AU/ UN IST/ Stuart Price)

African Union troops advance on al Shabaab positions, May 2012 (AU/UN IST/Stuart Price)

The Somali government has given free rein to international forces including the US and African Union to act with impunity in the country, a number of sources have told the Bureau.

During the country’s two decades of conflict, its frail government invited numerous outside forces in to help fight threats such as the al Shabaab Islamic militant movement.

The country is now making tentative steps towards recovery, and recently held its first elections in 21 years. But its newly elected parliamentarians have little or no authority over the numerous foreign forces that still remain in the country.

‘The Somali government is in no position whatsoever to question the soldier that is standing at the gate of the presidential palace defending him from the attack from al Shabaab,’ said Omar Jamal, a diplomat with the Somali mission to the UN, in an interview with the Bureau.


Whoever comes trying to help them defeat al Shabaab, they are more than welcome… they are given a licence to completely ignore any local or international law.’
- Omar Jamal, Somalia Mission to UN

‘Whoever comes trying to help them defeat al Shabaab, they are more than welcome… [but] they are given a licence to completely ignore any local or international law,’ he added.

It’s not even clear which foreign forces are currently serving in Somalia, the terms of their involvement, and what they are doing. So for example when up to 31 civilians were reportedly killed on January 9 2007, it remains unclear even five years on who was responsible for the attack, and there is no way of holding anybody accountable for the deaths.

The Bureau has examined UN documents and spoken to individuals with knowledge of the situation to try and untangle who is doing what.

The US in Somalia
The striking thing that emerges is the extent of the US’s involvement in Somalia, both direct and indirect. The US has carried out covert operations in the country since just after the September 2001 attacks, and according to the Bureau’s own monitoring continues to do so.

The United States has around 2,500 military personnel in the Horn of Africa region. It has provided support to international bodies and, it is alleged, to invading armies. And the founder of the US company formerly known as Blackwater is involved in a controversial ‘counter-piracy’ force that has been criticised by the UN.

As the Bureau’s data shows, US Special Forces have been carrying out out covert operations in Somalia since just after 9/11.

From 2007 elite troops from the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) took advantage of Ethiopia’s invasion to carry out a number of targeted killings. In 2011, US armed drones began operating in the failed state. The Bureau has recorded at least 10 US combat operations in Somalia in the past five years.

The CIA also has a major presence in the country. According to US investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, it runs a secret prison at Mogadishu airport. And the UN monitoring group’s most recent findings suggest a far higher level of US military activity in Somalia than is reported.

Credible news agencies reported 12 air operations over Somalia between June 2011 and April 2012. But in the same period UN monitors recorded 64 unauthorised flights over the country. Most of these were Kenyan air strikes in southern Somalia. But almost a quarter of the flights were either US drones or ‘unidentified’ aircraft.

On at least two occasions drones were ‘employed in targeted assassination of al Shabaab leaders and commanders.’

The monitors also revealed four unarmed and unmarked ‘CIA helicopters’, used to ferry troops into Puntland from a base in neighbouring Djibouti, according to the report. The UN even published a picture of the aircraft.

The UN report shows a Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters at Camp Lemonier, a US base in Djibouti.

Alongside the CIA helicopters, private contractors hired by the US flew ‘sixty-five flights to Puntland between August 2011 and March 2012,’ adds the report. The monitors believe these were in support of the Somali security services, and ‘the US confirmed that on one occasion’ adds Bryden.

The full extent of these operations remains a mystery. Despite spending seven months on the ground, the monitors’ study is limited by what its researchers could uncover.

‘The vast majority of surveillance flights, whether operated by drones or manned aircraft, are not declared to civil aviation authorities and go undetected from the ground,’ says Bryden.

‘There is a lot more going on,’ he continues, estimating the report as a whole may only capture half the picture.

But the US is far from the only external actor in Somalia.

African Union troops
The African Union Mission in Somalia – Amisom – was set up for peacekeeping in the war-torn state. Its 16,500 strong peacekeeping force comes mostly from Uganda, Burundi and Kenya.

It is backed by the US: Amisom’s troops were trained and equipped by the Pentagon and State Department for ‘a pittance’ of just $700,000 (£432,000) over four years, according to the Los Angeles Times.

If we identify foreign fighters on the ground, foreign forces, and someone says “Oh, they’re in support of Amisom,” how do we know that?’
- Matt Bryden, former head of UN Monitoring Group

‘Through Amisom the Obama administration is trying to achieve US military goals with minimal risk of American deaths and scant public debate,’ said the paper.

And Amisom’s rather fluid structure makes it even harder to discern who is really operating in Somalia. States do not have to inform the UN Security Council of their support for Amisom in advance – which leaves observers such as the UN Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group chasing shadows.

‘Anyone can say anything they are doing in Mogadishu or Somalia is in support of Amisom,’ explains Matt Bryden, former head of the monitoring group.

‘If we identify foreign fighters on the ground, foreign forces, and someone says “Oh, they’re in support of Amisom,” how do we know that?’ he continues. ‘We can talk to Amisom but it’s all very time-consuming and some of the missions are more sensitive than others.’

Ethiopia and other neighbours
Forces from neighbouring Ethiopia crossed over to Somalia with US backing in December 2006 after the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was ousted from power by Islamists in what journalist Jeremy Scahill described as ‘a classic [US] proxy war’.

The Ethiopians invaded again in 2011.

How many Ethiopian troops are still in the country is a mystery, although its forces are currently reported to be involved in an advance on the port of Kismayo, the last stronghold of al Shabaab. 

‘To be honest, no one knows,’ said EJ Hogendoorn from the International Crisis Group. ‘My guess is it’s definitely in the order of thousands.’

Eritrea is implicated in providing support for militants, and Kenyan aircraft have reportedly taken part in operations. And naval forces from the European Union and up to 20 other nations run anti-piracy and counter-terrorism operations off Somalia’s coast.

With so many nations militarily engaged in Somalia the TFG was effectively powerless, according to Somali diplomat Jamal: ‘The Somali government is put in a position, is forced in a position, where they have to accept everything that comes to them… [They] exercise with impunity what they want to do under the auspices of fighting terrorism’.

‘Private army’
More controversially, the UN monitoring group has raised concerns about the funding of a private military force for the president of Puntland, a semi-autonomous region of Somalia.

The Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF), has been ‘disingenuously labelled a “counter-piracy” force’, the report says.

Instead, the report claims, it is ‘an elite force outside any legal framework, engaged principally in internal security operations, and answerable only to the Puntland presidency’.

Training of the PMPF started in 2010, with ‘the initial involvement of Erik Dean Prince’, founder of controversial security contractor Blackwater USA, the report says. The training programme was run by Dubai-registered contractor Sterling Corporate Services (SCS) and is allegedly funded by the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The report brands the ‘externally financed assistance programme’ to train the PMPF as ‘the most brazen violation of the [Somali] arms embargo by a private security company.’

The UAE has always officially denied funding the force, although SCS lawyer Stephen Heifetz told the Bureau: ’SCS personnel at all times acted with the financial support of the UAE… and the political support of the TFG’.

Heifetz rejects the report’s criticisms of the PMPF, directing the Bureau to a letter sent to Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, chairman of the Security Council committee for Somalia. The monitors’ allegations about SCS’s involvement are ’not only false but outrageous and even vindictive,’ the letter states.

The report’s conclusions are ‘absurd and suggests a deliberate disregard for the facts’, the letter states.

The PMPF project was ‘UN-mandated, transparent and internationally supported,’ Heifetz adds.

But the monitors disagreed, calling for SCS and the key individuals training the PMPF to be added to sanctions lists. Bryden said such action has still not been taken. ‘If it doesn’t happen,’ says Bryden, ‘then I think it shows the sanctions regime to be toothless.’

Some, however, have accused Bryden himself of bias. Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government expressed ‘great concern’ to the Security Council, describing parts of the report as ‘akin to the proverbial witch-hunt’. Puntland’s president could not be reached for comment by the Bureau.

With any new Somalia government possibly tainted by claims of illegitimacy – and still dependent on foreign military intervention – the full scale of international operations within Somalia are likely to stay in the shadows for some time to come.


‘Unwilling to talk’

There is so little scrutiny of what is happening in Somalia in part because it is the most dangerous country in Africa for journalists. Eight have died doing their job so far in 2012. Even comedians face death for exercising free speech.

The UN monitors also face threats to their security. And their sources can face accusations of treason and threats of assassination.

But a lack of sources is not the main challenge to reporting on Somalia, says EJ Hogendoorn who served for two years on the UN Panel of Experts on Somalia – the monitoring group’s predecessor.

‘To some degree Somalia is an extremely oral society so it’s very difficult for people to keep secrets,’ Hogendoorn told the Bureau. The real challenge is getting credible information. It is a challenge not just for the UN monitors but ‘for other organisations that are collecting information,’ he continued. ‘I can tell you from past experience that lots of information that the intelligence agencies gather is also problematic.’