Two decades after “Black Hawk Down,” U.S. special operations forces are back in East Africa’s most troubled nation. FP provides a rare window into their shadowy operations.
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.