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.