From: Biniam Tekle (email@example.com)
Date: Mon Nov 24 2008 - 09:23:41 EST
chicagotribune.com 'NOBODY IS WATCHING' America's hidden war in Somalia
By Paul Salopek
12:33 AM CST, November 24, 2008
To glimpse America's secret war in Africa, you must bang with a rock on the
iron gate of the prison in this remote port in northern Somalia. A sleepy
guard will yank open a rusty deadbolt. Then, you ask to speak to an inmate
named Mohamed Ali Isse.
Isse, 36, is a convicted murderer and jihadist. He is known among his fellow
prisoners, with grudging awe, as "The Man with the American Thing in His
That "thing" is a stainless steel surgical pin screwed into his
bullet-shattered femur, courtesy, he says, of the U.S. Navy. How it got
there — or more to the point, how Isse ended up in this crumbling,
stone-walled hellhole at the uttermost end of the Earth—is a story that the
U.S. government probably would prefer to remain untold.
That's because Isse and his fancy surgery scars offer what little tangible
evidence exists of a bare-knuckled war that has been waged silently, over
the past five years, with the sole aim of preventing anarchic Somalia from
becoming the world's next Afghanistan.
It is a standoff war in which the Pentagon lobs million-dollar cruise
missiles into a famine-haunted African wasteland the size of Texas, hoping
to kill lone terror suspects who might be dozing in candlelit huts. (The
raids' success or failure is almost impossible to verify.)
It is a covert war in which the CIA has recruited gangs of unsavory warlords
to hunt down and kidnap Islamic militants and—according to Isse and civil
rights activists—secretly imprison them offshore, aboard U.S. warships.
Mostly, though, it is a policy time bomb that will be inherited by the
incoming Obama administration: a little-known front in the global war on
terrorism that Washington appears to be losing, if it hasn't already been
"Somalia is one of the great unrecognized U.S. policy failures since 9/11,"
said Ken Menkhaus, a leading Somalia scholar at Davidson College in North
Carolina. "By any rational metric, what we've ended up with there today is
the opposite of what we wanted."
What the Bush administration wanted, when it tacitly backed Ethiopia's
invasion of Somalia in late 2006, was clear enough: to help a close African
ally in the war on terror crush the Islamic Courts Union, or ICU. The
Taliban-like movement emerged from the ashes of more than 15 years of
anarchy and lawlessness in Africa's most infamous failed state, Somalia.
At first, the invasion seemed an easy victory. By early 2007, the ICU had
been routed, a pro-Western transitional government installed, and hundreds
of Islamic militants in Somalia either captured or killed.
But over the last 18 months, Somalia's Islamists—now more radical than
ever—have regrouped and roared back.
On a single day last month, they flexed their muscles by killing nearly 30
people in a spate of bloody car-bomb attacks that recalled the darkest days
of Iraq. And their brutal militia, the Shabab or "Youth," today controls
much of the destitute nation, a shattered but strategic country that
overlooks the vital oil-shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden.
Even worse, in recent days Shabab's fighters have moved to within miles of
the Somalian capital of Mogadishu, threatening to topple the weak interim
government supported by the U.S. and Ethiopia.
At the same time, according to the UN, the explosion of violence is
inflaming what probably is the worst humanitarian tragedy in the world.
In the midst of a killing drought, more than 700,000 city dwellers have been
driven out of bullet-scarred Mogadishu by the recent clashes between the
Islamist rebels and the interim government.
The U.S. role in Somalia's current agonies has not always been clear. But
back in the Berbera prison, Isse, who is both a villain and a victim in this
immense panorama of suffering, offered a keyhole view that extended all the
way back to Washington.
Wrapped in a faded sarong, scowling in the blistering-hot prison yard, the
jihadist at first refused to meet foreign visitors—a loathed American in
particular. But after some cajoling, he agreed to tell his story through a
fellow inmate: a surreal but credible tale of illicit abduction by the CIA,
secret helicopter rides and a journey through an African gulag that lifts
the curtain, albeit only briefly, on an American invisible war.
"Your government gets away with a lot here," said the warden, Hassan Mohamed
Ibrahim, striding about his antique facility with a pistol tucked in the
back of his pants. "In Iraq, the world is watching. In Afghanistan, the
world is watching. In Somalia, nobody is watching."
>From ashes of 'Black Hawk Down'
In truth, merely watching in Mogadishu these days is apt to get you killed.
Somalia's hapless capital has long been considered the Dodge City of
Africa—a seaside metropolis sundered by clan fighting ever since the
nation's central government collapsed in 1991. That feral reputation was
cemented in 1993, when chanting mobs dragged the bodies of U.S. Army Rangers
through the streets in a disastrous UN peacekeeping mission chronicled in
the book and movie "Black Hawk Down."
Yet if Mogadishu was once merely a perilous destination for outsiders,
visiting today is suicidal.
For the first time in local memory, the airport—the city's frail lifeline to
the world—is regularly closed by insurgent mortar attacks despite a small
and jittery contingent of African Union peacekeepers.
Foreign workers who once toiled quietly for years in Somalia have been
evacuated. A U.S. missile strike in May killed the Shabab commander, Aden
Hashi Ayro, enraging Islamist militants who have since vowed to kidnap and
kill any outsider found in the country.
The upshot: Most of Somalia today is closed to the world.
It wasn't supposed to turn out this way when Washington provided
intelligence to the invading Ethiopians two years ago.
The homegrown Islamic radicals who controlled most of central and southern
Somalia in mid-2006 certainly were no angels. They shuttered Mogadishu's
cinemas, demanded that Somali men grow beards and, according to the U.S.
State Department, provided refuge to some 30 local and international
jihadists associated with Al Qaeda.
But the Islamic Courts Union's turbaned militiamen had actually defeated
Somalia's hated warlords. And their enforcement of Islamic religious laws,
while unpopular among many Somalis, made Mogadishu safe to walk in for the
first time in a generation.
"It's not just that people miss those days," said a Somali humanitarian
worker who, for safety reasons, asked to be identified only as Hassan. "They
resent the Ethiopians and Americans tearing it all up, using Somalia as
their battlefield against global terrorism. It's like the Cold War all over
again. Somalis aren't in control."
When the Islamic movement again strengthened, Isse, the terrorist jailed in
Berbera, was a pharmacy owner from the isolated town of Buro in Somaliland,
a parched northern enclave that declared independence from Somalia in the
Radicalized by U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, he is
serving a life sentence for organizing the killings of four foreign aid
workers in late 2003 and early 2004. Two of his victims were elderly British
A dour, bearded man with bullet scars puckering his neck and leg, Isse still
maintains his innocence. Much of Isse's account of his capture and
imprisonment was independently corroborated by Western intelligence
analysts, Somali security officials and court records in Somaliland, where
the wounded jihadist was tried and jailed for murdering the aid workers.
Those sources say Isse was snatched by the U.S. after fleeing to the safe
house of a notorious Islamist militant in Mogadishu.
How that operation unfolded on a hot June night in 2004 reveals the extent
of American clandestine involvement in Somalia's chaotic affairs—and how
such anti-terrorism efforts appear to have backfired.
Interrogation aboard ship
"I captured Isse for the Americans," said Mohamed Afrah Qanyare. "The
Americans contracted us to do certain things, and we did them. Isse put up
resistance so we shot him. But he survived."
A scar-faced warlord in a business suit, Qanyare is a member of Somalia's
weak transitional government. Today he divides his days between lawless
Mogadishu and luxury hotels in Nairobi.
But four years ago, his militia helped form the kernel of a CIA-created
mercenary force called the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and
Counter-Terrorism in Somalia. The unit cobbled together some of the world's
most violent, wily and unreliable clan militias—including gangs that had
attacked U.S. forces in the early 1990s—to confront a rising tide of Islamic
militancy in Somalia's anarchic capital.
The Somalis on the CIA payroll engaged in a grim tit-for-tat exchange of
kidnappings and assassinations with extremists. And Isse was one of their
He was wounded in a CIA-ordered raid on his Mogadishu safe house in June
2004, according to Qanyare and Matt Bryden, one of the world's leading
scholars of the Somali insurgency who has access to intelligence regarding
it. They say Isse was then loaded aboard a U.S. military helicopter summoned
by satellite phone and was flown, bleeding, to an offshore U.S. vessel.
"He saw white people in uniforms working on his body," said Isse's Somali
defense lawyer, Bashir Hussein Abdi, describing how Isse was rushed into a
ship-board operating room. "He felt the ship moving. He thought he was
Navy doctors spliced a steel rod into Isse's bullet-shattered leg, according
to Abdi. Every day for about a month afterward, Isse's court depositions
assert, plainclothes U.S. agents grilled the bedridden Somali at sea about
Al Qaeda's presence.
The CIA never has publicly acknowledged its operations in Somalia. Agency
spokesman George Little declined to comment on Isse's case.
For years, human-rights organizations attempted to expose the rumored
detention and interrogation of terror suspects aboard U.S. warships to avoid
media and legal scrutiny. In June, the British civil rights group Reprieve
contended that as many as 17 U.S. warships may have doubled as "floating
prisons" since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Calling such claims "misleading," the Pentagon has insisted that U.S. ships
have served only as transit stops for terror suspects being shuttled to
permanent detention camps such as the one in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
But Tribune reporting on Isse indicates strongly that a U.S. warship was
used for interrogation at least once off the lawless coast of Somalia.
The U.S. Navy conceded Isse had stayed aboard one of its vessels. In a terse
statement, Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the Bahrain-based 5th
Fleet that patrols the Gulf of Aden, said only that the Navy was "not able
to confirm dates" of Isse's imprisonment.
For reasons that remain unclear, he was later flown to Camp Lemonier, a U.S.
military base in the African state of Djibouti, Somali intelligence sources
say, and from there to a clandestine prison in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Isse and his lawyer allege he was detained there for six weeks and tortured
by Ethiopian military intelligence with electric shocks.
Ethiopia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and office of prime minister did not
respond to queries about Isse's allegations.
However, security officials in neighboring Somaliland did confirm that they
collected Isse from the Ethiopian police at a dusty border crossing in late
2004. "The Man with the American Thing in His Leg" was interrogated again.
After a local trial, he was locked in the ancient Berbera prison.
"It doesn't matter if he is guilty or innocent," said Abdi, the defense
lawyer. "Countries like Ethiopia and America use terrorism to justify this
treatment. This is not justice. It is a crime in itself."
Tales of CIA "snatch and grab" operations against terror suspects abroad
aren't new, of course. President George W. Bush finally confirmed two years
ago the existence of an international program that "renditioned" terrorism
suspects to a network of "black site" prisons in Eastern Europe, Iraq and
As for the CIA's anti-terror mercenaries in Mogadishu, they may have
kidnapped a dozen or more wanted Islamists for the Americans, intelligence
experts say. But their excesses ended up swelling the ranks of their enemy,
the Islamic Courts Union militias.
"It was a stupid idea," said Bryden, the security analyst who has written
extensively on Somalia's Islamist insurgency. "It actually strengthened the
hand of the Islamists and helped trigger the crisis we're in today."
In the sweltering Berbera prison, Exhibit A in Washington's phantom war in
Somalia had finished his afternoon prayers. He clapped his sandals together,
then limped off to his cell without a word.
A sinking nation
The future of Somalia and its 8 million people is totally unscripted. This
unbearable lack of certainty, of a way forward, accommodates little hope.
Ethiopian and U.S. actions have eroded Somalis' hidebound allegiance to
their clans, once a firewall against Al Qaeda's global ideology, says
Bryden. Somalia's 2 million-strong diaspora is of greatest concern. Angry
young men, foreign passports in hand, could be lured back to the reopened
Shabab training camps, where instructors occasionally use photocopied
portraits of Bush as rifle targets.
Some envision no Somalia at all.
With about $8 billion in humanitarian aid fire-hosed into the smoking ruins
of Somalia since the early 1990s—the U.S. will donate roughly $200 million
this year alone—a growing chorus of policymakers is advocating that the
failed state be allowed to fail, to break up into autonomous zones or
fiefdoms, such as Isse's home of Somaliland.
But there is another possible future for Somalia. To see it, you must go to
Bosaso, a port 300 miles east of Isse's cell.
Bosaso is an escape hatch from Somalia. Thousands of people swarm through
the town's scruffy waterfront every year, seeking passage across the Gulf of
Aden to the Middle East. Dressed in rags, they sleep by the hundreds in dirt
alleys and empty lots. Stranded women and girls are forced into
"You can see why we still need America's help," said Abdinur Jama, the coast
guard commander for Puntland, the semiautonomous state encompassing Bosaso.
"We need training and equipment to stop this."
Dapper in camouflage and a Yankees cap, Jama was a rarity in Somalia, an
optimist. While Bosaso's teenagers shook their fists at high-flying U.S.
jets on routine patrols—"Go to hell!" they chanted—Jama still spoke well of
international engagement in Somalia.
On a morning when he offered to take visitors on a coast patrol, it did not
seem kind to tell him what a U.S. military think tank at West Point had
concluded about Somalia last year: that, in some respects, failed states
were admirable places to combat Al Qaeda, because the absence of local
sovereignty permitted "relatively unrestricted Western counterterrorism
After all, Jama's decrepit patrol boat was sinking.
A crew member scrambled to stanch a yard-high geyser of seawater that
spurted through the cracked hull. Jama screwed his cap on tighter and peered
professionally at land that, despite Washington's best-laid plans, has
turned far more desperate than Afghanistan.
"Can you swim?" Jama asked. But it hardly seemed to matter. Back on dry
land, in Somalia, an entire country was drowning.
Copyright (c) 2008, Chicago Tribune
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