From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Mon Dec 01 2008 - 09:08:01 EST
U.S. keeps a secret in Somalia
Efforts to stop militancy in Africa may be backfiring
By PAUL SALOPEK
Decem. 1, 2008, 5:19PM
BERBERA, SOMALIA - 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 Leg."
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 war that has been waged silently, over the past five years, with the sole aim of preventing anarchic Somalia from becoming the 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 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 war on terrorism that Washington appears to be losing, if it hasn't already been lost.
"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 past 18 months, Somalia's Islamists - now more radical than ever - have regrouped and roared back.
On a single day last month, they killed 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, 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.
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.
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 invisible American war.
"Your government gets away with a lot here," said the warden, Hassan Mohamed Ibrahim. "In Iraq, the world is watching. In Afghanistan, the world is watching. In Somalia, nobody is watching."
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 the U.S. provided intelligence to the invading Ethiopians two years ago.
The homegrown 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 jihadists associated with al-Qaida.
But the Islamic Courts Union's 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.
When the Islamic movement again strengthened, Isse was a pharmacy owner from the town of Buro in Somaliland, a parched northern enclave that declared independence from Somalia in the early 1990s.
Radicalized by U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Isse 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 teachers.
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 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.
"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."
Qanyare is a member of Somalia's weak transitional government. Today he divides his days between 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 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 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 catches.
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 and was flown, bleeding, to an offshore U.S. vessel.
Navy doctors spliced a steel rod into Isse's bullet-shattered leg, said Isse's Somali defense lawyer, Bashir Hussein Abdi. The CIA never has publicly acknowledged its operations in Somalia. Agency spokesman George Little declined to comment on Isse's case.
'A crime in itself'
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 detention camps such as the one in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
But Chicago 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.
Security officials in neighboring Somaliland did confirm that they collected Isse from the Ethiopian police at a dusty border crossing in late 2004. Isse 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."
KUNI TAKAHASHI CHICAGO TRIBUNE
A man sleeps inside a destroyed building in the Shangani district of Mogadishu, Somalia. A large part of the district was destroyed during the civil war in the 1990s.
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