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6714Somalia: Fighting in the Shadows

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  • Zafar Khan
    Jun 1, 2006
      Fighting in the Shadows
      Battles rage near the scene of 'Black Hawk Down'—and a
      covert American hand is tied to the warlords.
      By Michael Hirsh and Jeffrey Bartholet


      June 5, 2006 issue - Mogadishu is a place most
      Americans would rather forget. During the 1990s, the
      "Black Hawk Down" debacle symbolized the dangers of
      dabbling in far-off lands we don't understand. TV
      images of a half-stripped GI being dragged through the
      dust by gleeful Somalis—he was one of 18 U.S. Army
      Rangers killed in a botched effort to arrest a
      warlord—became an emblem of American vulnerability.
      But Mogadishu, it seems, won't be forgotten. Somalia
      is erupting in violence again. And with little
      warning, Americans find themselves once more in the
      middle of battles they only dimly comprehend—and may
      well be losing.

      Last week, for the first time since the early 1990s,
      much of the Somali capital was engulfed in bloody fire
      fights. By all accounts, a jihadist militia of the
      so-called Islamic Courts Union was gaining ground on
      an alliance of secular warlords who have received U.S.
      backing. Observers say the Union has been winning
      adherents by casting its enemies as stooges of
      Washington, especially since the U.S.-friendly
      warlords formed a group called the Alliance for the
      Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism last
      winter. The revived fighting inside Somalia—a lawless
      state on the Horn of Africa with no central
      government—has raised new questions about America's
      global war on terror, which is being fought mostly out
      of the public eye.

      For several years Somalia's three major anti-Islamist
      warlords have received U.S. cash and some equipment to
      help with intelligence operations, according to
      several unofficial sources, including John Prendergast
      of the International Crisis Group. No U.S. government
      official reached by NEWSWEEK would confirm or deny
      that the program existed. Philip Giraldi, a former CIA
      counterterrorism official who stays in touch with his
      ex-colleagues, says much of the money is funneled
      through the 1,800-man Joint Combined Task Force, based
      in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. Other reports point
      to the CIA. The warlords—Mohamed Dheere, Bashir Raghe
      and Mohamed Qanyare—have been asked to collect
      information on Muslim extremists tied to Al Qaeda. In
      one 2003 case, Dheere's men snatched an East African
      Qaeda cell member and turned him over.

      The policy has provoked dissent at both the CIA and
      the State Department, as well as in Europe. Some
      officials fear that America may be inadvertently
      creating a new jihadist haven in Somalia by generating
      an anti-U.S. backlash. Before the U.S. program began,
      the Islamists were only a small part of the
      population. "We know neither the rationale nor the
      scale of U.S. involvement; what we do see are
      consequences," says Marika Fahlen, Swedish ambassador
      and special envoy for the Horn of Africa: "The
      fighting is increasingly complex. Certain [Islamist]
      groups that were not so active in fighting before have
      become fighters." Giraldi is more blunt. "We're
      creating a new mess," he says. "Everything is tactical
      with this administration: catching a guy, catching a
      guy. I don't see that anyone has thought about the
      strategic issue of losing support."

      Washington is also spending money on "hearts and
      minds" projects in the Horn of Africa
      region—refurbishing schools and offering free health
      and dental services in some places. But those programs
      are impossible for Westerners to carry out in lawless
      Mogadishu. The question is whether the Islamists are
      gaining hearts and minds more quickly. One of the
      pro-U.S. warlords, Qanyare, denied in a phone
      interview with NEWSWEEK from Somalia that he was
      getting any U.S. money. But he said he had "contacts"
      with American agents, and was very worried about the
      inroads of the Islamists. They want "to make a
      government of their own, Taliban style," Qanyare said.
      "They feel they are strong and that this is a time
      they can do something ... They are organizing from the
      grass roots. They're organizing schools, education,
      services. They collect a lot of money from the

      The U.S. warlord-support strategy is part of a series
      of clandestine operations around the world conducted
      with little accountability back home. The broad shadow
      war is conducted by the CIA, Special Operations
      commander Gen. Doug Brown, "black ops" commander Lt.
      Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the Pentagon's
      intelligence czar, Steve Cambone, along with his
      deputy, Lt. Gen. William Boykin. The U.S. strategy of
      quietly destroying jihadist cells outside Iraq and
      Afghanistan since 9/11 has had its successes. Among
      them: the capture of Algerian terrorist Abderrazak
      al-Para in 2004, the assassination of a jihadist
      leader in Yemen by a Hellfire missile strike in 2004
      and the routing of Abu Sayyaf from Basilan Island in
      the Philippines.

      Publicly, the administration will not admit to any
      policy of aiding warlords. But officials with the Red
      Cross and other aid groups in Mogadishu report seeing
      "many Americans with thick necks and short haircuts
      moving around, carrying big suitcases," says one aid
      official whose agency does not permit him to speak on
      the record. And in recent months a diplomat critical
      of U.S. policy in Somalia, Michael Zorick, apparently
      was removed from his post in Nairobi after writing
      cables complaining about the strategy. (Zorick, who
      was moved to the embassy in Chad, could not be reached
      for comment Friday.) A political officer at the U.S.
      Embassy in Kenya, Lisa Peterson, refused to comment on
      the reasons for Zorick's departure. But she said that
      U.S. policy is under review, with State
      Counterterrorism chief Hank Crumpton currently on a
      visit to the Horn. Asked whether Zorick's dissent, and
      the current debate, were mainly about whether
      Washington might be creating more Islamist radi-cals
      than it is killing or capturing, she said, "Those are
      certainly questions that have come up."

      At CIA stations in East Africa, some agency officials
      believe the United States is being "essentially
      defrauded," says a retired CIA station chief who
      recently visited there and wanted to remain anonymous
      because he was discussing sensitive issues. "They
      think we should take a deep breath and settle down.
      We're throwing money at anybody who will say they're
      fighting terrorism." Indeed, some suspects grabbed in
      recent years by friendly militia leaders have turned
      out to be mere drifters: in one case, a hapless Iraqi
      was snatched at a cybercafé in Mogadishu, only to be
      interrogated for a month and released.

      U.S. officials say they're in an impossible spot:
      either leave Somalia to be a terrorist haven or try to
      form relationships with friendlies, even untrustworthy
      ones. "Any time you have these areas that are
      ungovernable, you have to talk to somebody inside,"
      says Gary Berntsen, the former CIA team leader who
      allied with Afghan warlords to help defeat the Taliban
      in Afghanistan in 2001. "There's no choice." But for
      an administration that professes to see building
      democracy as a solution to global terrorism, the
      warlord strategy may not advance U.S. goals.

      Some intelligence experts say the key is to keep the
      U.S. "footprint" so small that it is undetectable. "In
      the case of countering Al Qaeda, the record seems to
      suggest that less is more," says John Arquilla, an
      intelligence expert at the Naval Postgraduate School.
      "A small investment can achieve very substantial
      results, like al-Para, whereas in the Horn of Africa a
      much greater investment has been made with much
      smaller results." There may be worse results to come.

      Somali Islamists seize rival base


      New battles have broken out in the Somali capital,
      Mogadishu, killing at least 13 people.
      Militia of the Islamic Courts attacked and captured a
      garage where their rivals loyal to a group of secular
      warlords were based in the north-east.

      Earlier in the week the warlords calling themselves
      the Anti-Terrorism Alliance seized a hospital in the
      area, forcing dozens of wounded to flee.

      More than 200 people, mainly civilians, have died in
      the recent fighting.

      More about Somalia at: