Is the U.S. Ramping Up a Secret War in Somalia?

Islamists in East Africa were supposed to be on the run. But the raids and spy flights keep increasing.

The Obama administration earlier this year expanded its secret war in Somalia, stepping up assistance for federal and regional Somali intelligence agencies that are allied against the country's Islamist insurgency. It's a move that's not only violating the terms of an international arms embargo, according to U.N. investigators. The escalation also could be a signal that Washington's signature victory against al-Qaeda's most powerful African ally may be in danger of unraveling.

Just last year, Obama's team was touting Somalia as unqualified success. "Somalia is a good news story for the region, for the international community, but most especially for the people of Somalia itself," Johnnie Carson, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told reporters last October at the New York Foreign Press Center. Carson praised African forces, principally Uganda and Kenya, for driving the terror group al-Shabab out of the Somalia's main cities, Mogadishu and Kismayo. "The U.S.," he boasted, "has been a significant and major contributor to this effort." Indeed, the United States has emerged as a major force in the region, running training camps for Ugandan peacekeepers destined for battle with Somalia's militants, and hosting eight Predator drones, eight more F-15E fighter jets, and nearly 2,000 U.S. troops and military civilians at a base in neighboring Djibouti.

But despite the array of forces aligned against it, Al-Shabab is demonstrating renewed vigor. "The military strength of al-Shabaab, with an approximately 5,000-strong force, remains arguably intact in terms of operational readiness, chain of command, discipline and communications ability," according to a report by the U.N. Monitoring Group for Somalia and Eritrea. "By avoiding direct military confrontation, it has preserved the core of its fighting force and resources."

"At present, al-Shabaab remains the principal threat to peace and security in Somalia," the report adds. "The organization has claimed responsibility for hundreds of assassinations and attacks involving improvised explosive devices, ambushes, mortar shelling grenades and hit and run tactics."

Not coincidentally, perhaps, American involvement in the region is again on the rise, as well. Last year, according to the U.N. group, the United States violated the international arms embargo on Somalia by dispatching American special operations forces in Russian M-17 helicopters to northern Somalia in support of operations by the intelligence service of Puntland, a breakaway Somali province.

(The U.N. Security Council in 1992 imposed an embargo "on all deliveries of weapons and military equipment to Somalia" The embargo was eased in March, 2013, allowing for the transfer of weapons, equipment or military advisors for the development of the federal government's security forces. But the Somali government is required to inform the U.N. Security Council sanctions committee when it receives foreign military assistance.)

Two U.S. air-charter companies linked to American intelligence activities in Somalia have increased the number of clandestine flights to Mogadishu and the breakaway province of Puntland by as much as 25 percent last year.

Florida-based Prescott Support Co. and RAM Air Services, flew at least 84 civilian flights between August 2012 and March 2013. During the previous year, the two companies flew only 65 flights, "indicating an increase in United States support," the U.N. report notes.

The flights -- which have not been reported to the U.N. Security Council -- suggest a further strengthening of American cooperation with Somalia's National Intelligence Agency in Mogadishu and the Puntland Intelligence Service, which has been cooperating with U.S. counterterrorism operations for more than a decade.

Several flights last November by Prescott have been linked by the U.N. group with the construction of two buildings at the Puntland Intelligence Service compound, north of the town of Galkayo. "The construction of these two buildings during the month of November 2012 coincides with four Prescott Support Co. L-100-30 flights that landed at Galkayo airport between 3 and 9 November 2012 and constituted a load capacity of up to 80 tons of cargo," according to the report.

It's one of many ways that Western intelligence agencies -- including those of the United States, Britain and France -- have been secretly and "directly supporting intelligence services" in Mogadishu, Puntland and Somaliland, another breakaway Somali province, according to the U.N. investigators. At times, this assistance has been in violation of U.N. resolutions, claims their latest report, which runs nearly five hundred pages -- not counting several classified annexes.

Since the report was finalized, al-Shabab has been riven by internal fighting that has splintered the movement, left one of its leaders dead, and sent several others fleeing from the group's southern stronghold. But the insurgents's well-financed secret service - Amniyat - remains intact, capable of carrying out terror operations at will. And al-Shabab's leader, Ahmed Godane, remains firmly in charge of the movement's terror apparatus, according to experts on Somali politics.

The survival of al-Shabab's terror infrastructure has dealt a blow to what had appeared to be a signature achievement of the Obama administration: backing an African led effort to deny an al-Qaeda affiliated insurgency a strategic toehold in the heart of East Africa.

In August, 2011, a U.S.-backed African peacekeeping mission wrested control of the capital of Mogadishu, helping to deliver a rare respite of calm. It set the stage for the September 2012, election of a new, Western-backed President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Another key American ally, Kenya, last year joined forces with a Somali clan and seized control of al-Shabab's principle stronghold, Kismayo.

But those gains are being threatened by rampant corruption within the U.S. backed government's weak institutions, al-Shabab's infiltration in the "highest levels" of the Somali government, and continued attacks against targets inside Somali, including a recent deadly strike on a U.N. humanitarian aid compound in Mogadishu.

Even worse, Kenyan forces in Kismayo have clashed with clans loyal to the U.S.-backed federal government while colluding with financial backers of al-Shabab in the lucrative and illicit charcoal trade, enabling the Islamist movement to refill its war chest. "The revenue that al-Shabaab currently derives from its Kismayo shareholding, its ... exports and the taxation of ground transportation likely exceeds the estimated U.S. $25 million it generated in charcoal revenue when it controlled Kismayo," the report stated.

Over the long term, al-Shabab appears to pursuing a strategy that can best be described as biding its time. It has not carried out a major offensive against African peacekeepers in nearly two years.

Instead, it has stockpiled weapons and ammunition throughout Southern and central Somalia, launching hundreds of attacks against foreign African forces, civilians and U.N. humanitarian aid workers, and waiting for foreign forces to withdraw from the country. Earlier this year, Ethiopian forces, worn down by a campaign of guerrilla attacks, withdrew from the towns of El Bur, in the Galgadud region, and Hudur, in the Bakol region. Al-Shabab effortlessly seized control of the towns.

Ever since the 9/11 terror attacks, American military intelligence agencies have expanded their presence in East Africa, seeking initially to track al-Qaeda militants responsible for attacks against U.S. targets, but later investing in regional African efforts to confront Somali militants. While the Obama administration has strived to conceal those activities from public view in the United States, its presence in Somalia has sometimes been hard to ignore. Last year, the U.N. monitoring group complained that drone flights had clogged the skies over Somalia, posing a threat to air safety in the country. According to the report, unmanned aircraft slammed into a refugee camp, skirted a fuel dump and nearly crashed into a passenger plan over Mogadishu.

This year's report notes that international investigators have requested information from the U.S. government about "uncorroborated information" about a "handcuffed and blindfolded passenger" who boarded a plane at Galkayo airport. The United States government "has not replied to date."

Spokespeople for the United States and British missions to the United Nations declined to comment on the reports, citing a longstanding policy of not commenting publically on intelligence operations. Officials from Prescott and RAM, the airlines, did not respond to requests for comment.

Kenneth Menkhaus, a professor at Davidson College and an expert on Somalia, said that for the time being the greatest threat to al-Shabaab is emerging within the organization's own ranks, not from the U.S. counter-terrorism effort.

Internal division within the Islamist group exploded into all out fighting during the past month. In June, forces loyal to Godane killed al-Shabab cofounder Ibrahim al-Afghani, and sent two other Shabab leaders, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, and Hassan Dahir Aweys, fleeing. The fighting, according to Menkaus, has left Shabab "weaker. But weaker than what?"

The movement, more solidly under the control of Godane, remains "a strong and dangerous force, capable of extortion, intimidation, and assassination," he added. "This fits the shift of al-Shabab from what had been a standing army, capable of controlling large swaths of territory, to a decentralized, clandestine terrorist network."

In a particularly grim twist, it is America's counterterrorism partners -- corrupt Somali institutions and Kenyan collusion with al-Shabab's financial backers -- that pose a potentially even more lethal threat to American aims. "That Shabab is stronger than people think is interesting and newsworthy," said Menkhaus. But to Menkhaus, the bigger story is the failure of America's allies to maintain a united front against al-Shabab. "Our best friends are busy fighting one another."



How Michael Jackson's Rabbi Made Samantha Power Kosher

America's next U.N. ambassador was once under fire from Jewish groups. Then she met Shmuley.

There's a chance -- just a chance -- that Samantha Power might not today be on the verge of becoming America's ambassador to the U.N. if she hadn't played nice with Michael Jackson's rabbi.

No, seriously.

More than two years ago, influential rabbi-to-the-stars Shmuley Boteach sharply criticized Power for "troubling statements" she had made nearly a decade earlier that "maligned the American pro-Israel lobby." Worse, in the Rabbi's eyes, Power implied that billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Israel might be better spent on investments in the "state of Palestine."

Power had been sharply criticized by conservative supporters of Israel before. But Boteach was different. He was seen as not strictly political (even though he later ran as a Republican for a New Jersey Congressional seat). And he had a rather large soapbox, thanks to his best-selling books and his daily radio show.

So Power decided to nip her Shmuley problem in the bud.

Days after the column appeared, Power placed a midnight call to the Rabbi and invited him to the White House to hear her side of the story. "She said, ‘if I've lost you then I must have lost many in the Jewish community,'" Boteach recalled in a phone interview with Foreign Policy. In their White House meeting, Power "regretted" that her comments may have made Israel look bad but that she felt that her remarks had also been distorted by her critics.  

The two met again at the White House to debate the biblical roots of humanitarian intervention, a favorite topic of Power's. Boteach, who had long admired her writings on the morality of confronting genocidal regimes - including her Pulitzer Prize winning book, A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide -- compiled a five page document with relevant biblical writings. It included a passage from Leviticus 19 which instructed the faithful, "You shall not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow's blood." 

The meetings represented a turning point for Boteach, and converted the celebrity rabbi into a champion of Power's cause in Jewish-American circles. "I became intent on transforming the Jewish community's opinion of her," said Boteach, who has been invited to attend Power's Senate confirmation hearing as a personal guest.

Boteach organized a gathering of some 40 influential Jewish leaders at the Manhattan office of Michael Steinhart, an American hedge fund manager, and founder of the Birthright Israel program, which organizes visits by young Jews to Israel. Power delivered a "moving representation" of American multilateral affairs and the president's effort to prevent atrocities around the globe, Boteach said. "When we got to questions, she began...well, there's no other word for this...she just began to cry. For her, these allegations of anti-Semitism...were the most painful of her entire life."

Those charges date back to 2002, when Power -- at the time head of Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy --  appeared on a public access television program in Berkeley, California. The host, University of California Berkeley professor Harry Kreisler, asked her how she would respond if she were in a position to advise an American president if, hypothetically speaking, one of the parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were on the verge of committing genocide. Power answered that a credible response would require the imposition of "a mammoth protection force -- not of the old Srebrenica kind or of the Rwanda kind, but a meaningful military presence."

"What we need is a willingness to actually put something on the line in the service of helping the situation," she said, "And putting something on the line might mean alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import," an obvious reference to the pro-Israeli lobby in the United States.

Power's critics have also cited a 2003 New Republic article, in which Power faults the United States for applying double standards (what she termed "a la cartism") in the conduct of its foreign policy. The United States, she noted, complains about the "shortage of democracy in Palestine, but not in Pakistan."

In the meeting orchestrated by Boteach, Power said those comments in no way made her some sort of Israel-hater. In fact, she added, she had a strong "affinity for the Jewish people." Not only is her husband, Cass Sunstein, Jewish, she added; he's a direct descendant of the Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, a revered 18th century Jewish scholar and leader of the non-Hasidic Jewish community.

"I think a lot of people were persuaded they had the wrong opinion of her," Boteach recalled

The outreach was part of a broader courtship by Power to assure leaders in the American Jewish community that she was not out of step with their commitment to Israel. "She aggressively reached out" to American Jewish leaders, said Abraham Foxman, the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, who attended several meetings between Power and the heads of pro-Israel groups, including the meeting hosted by Boteach and  Steinhart.

"I would say she succeeded in the sense of explaining and apologizing" for past statements she had made outside of the government, said Foxman who endorsed Power's nomination as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "Most of us who met with her felt she was sincere, that this was all part of her past; that this is not where she is at today. The overwhelming majority that attended that meeting tended to walk away saying, "OK, accept, move on."

The effort has helped to blunt far-right critics, including former Pentagon official Frank Gaffney, who have mounted a campaign to derail Power's nomination, citing her criticism of America and Israel's human rights records. Gaffney and 57 other Power critics -- including a retired U.S. congressman, Allen West and Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America -- wrote a letter urging lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to oppose her nomination.

"Samantha Power's record suggests that she is better suited to represent the virulently anti-American UN to the United States, rather than the other way around," Gaffney said in a statement today.

But the campaign to block Power's ascent to the top U.S. diplomatic post at the United Nations seems to have lost steam -- if it ever had any to begin with. She has the support of influential pro-Israeli voices, including the lawyer Alan Dershowitz and former U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), a key Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who last year opposed Susan Rice's secretary of state candidacy, has endorsed Power's nomination. Other Republican committee members have made favorable remarks about Power's efforts to assure them she is the right person for the job.

Israel's outgoing ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, even took the unusual step of registering support for Power. 

Israel "will welcome whomever the president nominates and the Senate confirms as ambassador to the United Nations," the Israeli envoy told the New York Times last month. "Samantha Power and I have worked closely over the last four years on issues vital to Israel's security. She thoroughly understands those issues and cares deeply about them."  

"Samantha Power has made it clear going certainly as far as back as 2008 what her views are with respect to Israel: they are mainstream views, they are supportive of having the Israelis and the Palestinians negotiate an agreement between themselves," said Menachem Rosensaft, the general counsel for the World Jewish Congress. "If ambassador Michael Oren and Joe Lieberman endorse her that means those who express any reservations are outside the mainstream." 

"But more importantly, we have to see Samantha Power in a multifaceted way, not through the skewed lens of a few comments she made," he added. "The issue that Samantha represents is whether or not prevention of genocide, prevention of atrocities should be a priority for the United States government. Sending her to the United Nations makes the strongest statement that preventing genocide is a priority of the U.S. government."