KISMAYO, Somalia — Some say the Americans are everywhere. Some say they are nowhere. Still others say they are everywhere and nowhere at once. But the shadowy U.S. presence in this strategic port city in war-torn southern Somalia has clear consequences for anyone with a share of power here. That includes Somali regional officials who are quick to praise American counterterrorism efforts, African Union forces who rely on U.S. intelligence as they battle back al-Shabab, and even the al Qaeda-linked militants themselves, who are increasingly hemmed in by a lethal combination of AU-led counterinsurgency, airstrikes, and raids by U.S. special operators.
Based out of a fortress of fading green Hesco barriers at the ramshackle airport in Kismayo, a team of special operators from the Joint Special Operations Command, the elite U.S. military organization famous for killing Osama bin Laden, flies drones and carries out other counterterrorism activities, multiple Somali government and African Union sources have confirmed. Their presence in this volatile city, which until 2012 was controlled by al-Shabab, has not previously been reported. Nor has the United States acknowledged operating drones from Somali soil. (Unmanned armed and surveillance flights are said to originate from Camp Lemonnier in nearby Djibouti or from bases in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia.)
"They have a base over there," Abdighani Abdi Jama, state minister for the presidency in the interim regional administration in Kismayo, said of U.S. forces, gesturing to a heavily fortified compound not far from the airport's small terminal. He confirmed that as many as 40 U.S. military personnel are currently stationed in Kismayo, roughly 300 miles south of the capital of Mogadishu, where he said they operate drones from the airport's single runway and carry out covert "intelligence" and "counterterrorism" operations.
"They have high tech; they have drones; they have so many things," said Jama. "We are really benefiting." Another regional official, Jubaland's minister of planning, international cooperation, and humanitarian affairs, Mohamed Nur Iftin, also confirmed the existence of the U.S. outpost and the use of the runway for drones, as did a cabinet-level official in Mogadishu. Kenyan Brig. Gen. Daniel Bartonjo, the sector-level commander for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the multinational peace enforcement mission that has been battling al-Shabab since 2007, said that his troops have made gains against insurgents "with the help of the Americans who are here." He made this comment in a June 19 briefing in Kismayo for Nicholas Kay, the special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for Somalia, attended by this reporter.
The secretive outpost in Kismayo is one of several locations within Somalia where U.S. special operations forces have set up shop beyond the prying eyes of the Somali public — and the American public that foots the bill. Somali government and AMISOM sources confirmed the existence of a second clandestine American cell in Baledogle, the site of an abandoned Cold War-era Air Force base in Somalia's sun-blasted Lower Shabelle region. These sources estimated that between 30 and 40 U.S. personnel are stationed there, also carrying out counterterrorism operations that include operating drones.
A spokesman for the U.S. Special Operations Command, which handles public affairs for JSOC, referred Foreign Policy to the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) for comment. AFRICOM spokesman Chuck Prichard, in turn, confirmed that a "small number" of U.S. personnel within AFRICOM's area of responsibility are special operations forces, but declined to comment on the size or location of their units. He also declined to comment on whether or not they are responsible for operating drones, saying only that they "are not tasked with directly engaging enemy forces."
"While we cannot provide exact details because of operational security issues, we can tell you [U.S. AFRICOM] has sent a limited number of trainers and advisors plus a small military coordination cell to support AMISOM and Somali security forces in international efforts to stabilize Somali," Prichard wrote in an email to Foreign Policy. "The sharing of information and expertise is key to assisting partner nations in their mission. The exact nature of this support, weapons systems or number of personnel involved in these operations cannot be disclosed in order to protect the integrity of these operations and the safety of units in the region."
The expanded U.S. footprint in Somalia is part of a broader trend toward deeper covert military engagement in the volatile Horn of Africa region. That engagement has taken the form of ramped-up intelligence and special operations activities, as well as military assistance programs that have grown dramatically in recent years without much in the way of public debate or congressional oversight. As the U.S. Defense Department draws down its presence in Afghanistan and shutters bases across Europe, and as the threat of terrorism surges in East Africa, the quiet accumulation of military installations in this part of the world has been easy to miss. In addition to its main hub in Djibouti, where some 4,000 American service members and civilians are stationed, the U.S. military has established smaller outposts in Ethiopia, Kenya, and the Seychelles, a tropical archipelago located roughly 800 miles off the Somali coast. It has also indirectly financed the training of thousands of AMISOM troops.
U.S. boots on the ground
Even as it became firmly entrenched in the region, the U.S. government for years denied putting boots on the ground in Somalia, where the infamous "Black Hawk Down" disaster in 1993 sparked an American exodus from the region. But in June of last year, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman acknowledged that a "small contingent of U.S. military personnel" had been operating inside Somalia for "several years." The news agency Reuters later quoted an unnamed official of President Barack Obama's administration as saying that there were "up to" 120 U.S. personnel stationed inside the country.
Although much of what the U.S. military does in Somalia remains shrouded in secrecy, it is clear that the Americans are doing more than just gathering intelligence and supporting African troops. In recent years, special operations commandos have staged a number of daring raids on al-Shabab targets, including an aborted amphibious assault in 2013 by Navy SEAL Team 6 aimed at capturing one of the suspects in the Westgate Mall attack, which took place in neighboring Kenya and left 67 people dead. U.S. forces have also carried out drone strikes and other airstrikes in Somalia since at least 2007, when an American AC-130 gunship fired the opening salvo in the Somali theater of the war on terror. That operation targeted a convoy carrying Aden Hashi Ayro, an al Qaeda operative thought to be responsible for the murder of Western aid workers. Ayro survived, only to be taken out by a U.S. missile strike one year later.
As the al-Shabab threat intensified in the middle 2000s, and as more and more foreign fighters were drawn into the fray, Somalia began to inch up the Pentagon's list of priorities. "When you had [American] Somalis leave from Minnesota [to go] to Somalia and [blow] themselves up, then it really, really started getting people nervous, and more and more discussions began to pop up about 'we need to spend more resources' [and] 'how do we fix this problem?'" said Rudolph Atallah, the Pentagon's former top Africa counterterrorism official.
Part of the fix opted for by U.S. policymakers involved ramping up airstrikes and other kinetic operations against al-Shabab. Between 2007 and 2011, when the first lethal drone strike was reportedly carried out in Somalia, U.S. forces launched at least nine missile strikes or helicopter raids on al-Shabab targets, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The United States has since carried out between eight and 12 additional drone strikes that have killed dozens of al-Shabab militants, among them the movement's top leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane.
Until now, though, U.S. operations were thought to originate from outside the country, carried out by Navy SEALS and other special operators who swooped into Somalia only briefly before retreating to the relative safety of Djibouti or Kenya. That assurance has been eroded by the revelation of cells of special operators in Kismayo and Baledogle, and by the small window into their activities provided by Somali and AMISOM officials. In addition to flying drones and conducting other surveillance and reconnaissance activities, sources say that U.S. special operators have on occasion decamped for AMISOM forward operating bases and attacked al-Shabab targets alongside African Union troops.
"They come to our forward operating bases and sometimes do joint operations with us," said a source with knowledge of Ugandan operations within AMISOM. (Ugandan troops are responsible for the sector that includes Baledogle, whereas Kenyan troops operate in and around Kismayo.) "We often don't get much notice," the source added. "They don't trust us, and we don't trust them."
Gains against al-Shabab, but at a cost
But it's not just U.S. special operators that are leaving their mark on the Somali conflict. As the comments by the AMISOM commander in Kismayo suggest, the United States has also gotten mileage out of the advise-and-assist role it plays in support of the African Union mission. In addition to passing intelligence to AU troops, who have seen the lion's share of the combat, the United States has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in training and equipping its AU proxies. U.S. support for AMISOM since 2007 comes to more than $500 million. Washington also chipped in another $455 million to the U.N. assistance mission in Somalia that provides logistical support to the AU forces.
This support has helped AMISOM turn the tide against al-Shabab, which at its height in 2011 controlled huge swaths of Somalia. "Five years ago, [al-Shabab] controlled 60 percent of this country. Today they control 6 percent, barely," said Somali Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Abdirahman Yusuf Ali Aynte, who added that the terrorist group still "retains operational capacity throughout the country."
But experts caution that the gains made by AMISOM, which accelerated after the U.N. Security Council topped up the peace enforcement mission with an additional 4,000 Ethiopian troops after the Westgate Mall attack in 2013, have not degraded the al-Shabab threat as thoroughly as some have claimed. "Al-Shabab is simply retreating, conceding ground," said Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. "They are not actually confronting AMISOM head-on anymore, which means that their forces and weapons are mostly intact. They have shifted from a conventional force to a pure terrorist one that is increasingly focusing its attention on attacks outside of Somalia, in Kenya, and elsewhere in the region."
AMISOM's territorial gains have also spread its forces more thinly, leaving their supply lines exposed to asymmetrical attacks. Ambushes and improvised explosive devices, once relatively infrequent in Somalia, are now regular occurrences on the sparsely monitored highways that connect pockets of AMISOM control. In the briefing in Kismayo, Brig. Gen. Bartonjo reported that his forces had weathered 42 IED attacks and ambushes, although he did not say within what time frame.
As African Union troops struggle to maintain order in areas captured from al-Shabab, the importance of training competent Somali military and police units to help fill the security void — and eventually to take over for AMISOM, which at the moment has no clear exit strategy — has come to the fore. As a result, the United States is now involved in training the Somali National Army as well as African Union forces.
Sharpening the spear
The Central Intelligence Agency, whose substantial presence in Mogadishu was first exposed by the Nation magazine, is thought to have trained and equipped a clandestine commando force of Somalis known as the Gaashaan, or "Shield." This force, which works in close concert with Somalia's National Intelligence and Security Agency, is considered a cut above the ragtag national army and has notched a number of impressive military achievements. When al-Shabab gunmen descended on Somalia's Parliament last May, for example, the Gaashaan played a pivotal role in repulsing the attack.
Now U.S. contractors are training another battalion, the Danab, or "Lightning," which is supposed to be Somalia's answer to the U.S. Army Rangers. "It's basically really at the beginning stage, because we've only so far recruited and at least done some training of three companies" totaling around 450 troops, said a U.S. official with knowledge of Somalia policy, who characterized the program as "the most significant" U.S. training initiative to date. The U.S. official said that the elite companies, which are supposed to include fighters from multiple clans and regions in order to encourage loyalty to the central government, represent a "model for the future Somali National Army." Ultimately, the official said, "you'd like to see this multiplied out [to more battalions], and we would like to do that, although frankly the resources aren't there to do it as quickly as some people would like to see done."
The training of Danab forces currently takes place in Baledogle at a facility run by the contractor Bancroft Global Development. The shadowy U.S. outfit, which in 2011 was revealed to have hired a former French army officer convicted in South Africa of recruiting mercenaries to fight in Ivory Coast, maintains a dingy, second-floor office in the decrepit Soviet-era Air Force base, which is riddled with bullet holes and badly in need of a paint job. In one otherwise Spartan room, a roster of Danab personnel, complete with passport-sized photos, stared down from the wall. Elsewhere, there were lists of Danab weapons and equipment.
Despite the willingness of U.S. officials to own the Danab training operation in Baledogle, Bancroft employees downplayed their ties with the U.S. government. "We have nothing to do with the Americans," said one employee, a stocky former special operator whose biceps bulged out of his tight-fitting company shirt. "We're in charge of training Danab. We have nothing to do with the Americans, and the Americans have nothing to do with us."
Bancroft's executive director, Marc Frey, told Foreign Policy that the company "has no contracts with the U.S. government" and "no contract to train the Danab battalion with any country." Instead, U.S. officials say the company trains Somali National Army troops as part of a larger contract with the Ugandan government to provide what it calls "military mentors" to AMISOM. The U.S. government then reimburses the Ugandans for the cost of the training.
While this roundabout method of payment has been the norm for Bancroft's training of AMISOM troops over the years, some officials worry that it shields the firm from the additional scrutiny that goes along with contracting directly with the U.S. government. "Basically, it's a way for the [United States] to avoid having to look too hard at what Bancroft or any other contractor is up to," said a U.N. official in Mogadishu. "If everything was kosher, there would be no need to go through such maneuvers."
The U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea has raised concerns about the conduct of other military contractors operating in Somalia — in 2012, it accused Sterling Corporate Services, a Dubai-based company involved in training an anti-piracy force in the semiautonomous region of Puntland, of a "brazen, large-scale and protracted violation" of the U.N. arms embargo — but to date no allegations of misconduct have been levied against Bancroft. In fact, the African Union turned to the U.S. contractor to pick up the pieces after the Sterling venture fell apart, but Bancroft declined to get involved after documenting ongoing violations of the arms embargo.
The conditions under which Bancroft and other private military contractors operate, however, offer little in the way of transparency or safeguards against abuse. Vast swaths of Somalia are effectively lawless, and communications links between rural communities are weak. Neither feature of the terrain augers well for accountability. "Even the glossiest [private security companies] — think Blackwater back in the day — are prone to excesses of force," said the Atlantic Council's Bruton. "In the Somali context, those excesses are likely to go unreported, which makes abuse all the more likely."
The same goes for any potential abuses committed by U.S. special operators or by the African Union troops they coordinate with on the battlefield. As one senior military official with special operations experience recently told the New York Times, "JSOC investigates JSOC, and that's part of the problem."
Nobody's first choice
The secretive nature of U.S. special operations also makes it difficult to assess the implications for civilians, who are often preyed upon whether or not al-Shabab is present. The routing of the militant group from many areas has not yet translated into improved day-to-day living for the majority of the population. Nor are the democratic credentials of the replacement authorities all that much better.
In Kismayo, the cell of U.S. special operators is indirectly propping up an interim regional administration presided over by a notorious warlord and former member of al-Shabab. Ahmed Mohamed Islam, better known as "Madobe" — whose Ras Kamboni militia hosted al Qaeda training camps in the 1990s and who Bruton describes as "one of the most radical" militants — seized power after Kenyan forces pushed al-Shabab out of Kismayo in 2012. Madobe has since received the imprimatur of the United Nations, which is providing his administration with technical assistance as it drafts a new constitution. According to Matt Bryden, who used to head the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, Madobe was "nobody's first choice" to lead the emerging U.N.-backed state-level administration.
"The model in Kismayo — strongman takes power and then establishes a parliament — is far from ideal," said Bryden. "I don't think anyone thinks this is the way Somalia is going to be stabilized over the long-run."
As long as U.S. drones keep a watchful eye over Madobe's fiefdom, however, nobody's first choice may remain the only viable one.
Photo credit: JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images