America’s Stealth Presence in Somalia

Andrew Cochran termed last night’s attacks on al Qaeda targets there the “first publicly acknowledged military action against Somalian territory since 1993.”

His Counterterrorism Blog cohert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross reports for PajamasMedia, though, that “publicly acknowledged” is the key:

U.S. ground forces have been active in Somalia from the start, a senior military intelligence officer confirmed. “In fact,” he said, “they were part of the first group in.”

These ground forces include CIA paramilitary officers who are based out of Galkayo, in Somalia’s semiautonomous region of Puntland; Special Operations forces; and Marine units operating out of Camp Lemonier in Djibouti.

The presence of U.S. airpower in Somalia became public knowledge yesterday when CBS News reported that an AC-130 fixed-wing gunship carried out a strike against suspected al-Qaeda members in southern Somalia. Unmanned aerial drones kept the targets under surveillance while a gunship operated by the U.S. Special Operations Command flew from its base in Djibouti to the southern tip of Somalia.

America supported Ethiopia and the UN-recognized secular government of Somalia because of the ICU’s ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The ICU is led by al-Qaeda ally Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. The ICU gave refuge to three al-Qaeda terrorists believed responsible for the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, which claimed the lives of twelve American diplomats and 212 Africans. The ICU operated seventeen terrorist training camps inside Somalia. Finally, some one thousand foreign fighters came to Somalia to train or teach at those camps.

It’s amazing that we’ve managed to do this surreptitiously in a climate where seemingly everything leaks to the press. It also gives some small lie to the notion that, with America’s forces bogged down in Iraq, we’ve taken our eye off the ball with al Qaeda. It would seem that we are maintaining an aggressive posture on that front.

UPDATE: Marc Lynch thinks the way this was carried out could be self-defeating.

Seeing the CNN feed on al-Jazeera like that is a nice graphic demonstration of how far media globalization has gone.   But more important is the origin of the images themselves.  That CNN actually got live images of the US airstrike is kind of remarkable – was it not a secret mission?   Did CNN just happen to have cameras hanging around a suspected al-Qaeda base in Somalia?   Or was the strike meant for public consumption, and the US military wanted the cameras to capture it?

If the latter, all I can say is “huh”… because the emerging press coverage of US military support for Ethiopia, along with these images of a direct US airstrike inside Somalia, are nicely feeding the al-Qaeda narrative placing Somalia within the wider framework of American assaults against Islam:  “I am here calling upon the Muslim ummah in Somalia to resist in this new battlefield of the Crusader’s war, which is launched by America, its allies, and the United Nations against Islam and the Muslims,” as Ayman al-Zawahiri’s most recent short tape put it.    Wouldn’t it have made sense to try and combat that narrative, and keep the United States out of the Somalia issue as much as possible, rather than highlight the American role and confirm the al-Qaeda narrative?

Perhaps. Then again, we have our own narrative at stake as well: If you are a state sponsor of al Qaeda, your government and your territory is not safe. It’s not particularly helpful to pretend that al Qaeda and its Islamist cohorts are not a major part of the narrative if, in fact, it is.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Guns and Gun Control, Iraq War, Military Affairs, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Stormy70 says:

    There have been drips of info in articles about our activities in the Horn of Africa,mainly in the British and Arab papers, but it has flown under the radar here in America. The MSM looks for the big, shiny things and ignores the rest. This is not a surprise if you are actually reading more than the Times or the Post.

  2. Brian J. says:

    Against Somalian territory? What does that mean? We’re fighting the earth?

  3. Bithead says:

    We’ve seen the left bemoaning the state of thiings in that country for a long time now… going back to Clinton and before.

    So, turns out we were already there, and taking action.

    Now, guess who complains?

  4. Cruiser says:

    I disagree with Marc Lynch. We have been suffering setbacks in the War on Terror (until this Somalia operation), in part, because of the perception that the US had become timid. This helps correct that perception. The Islamists (and their supporters) need to know that we will mete-out wholesale death upon them wherever they congregate anywhere in the world. Aside from eliminating numbers of them, it keeps their heads down – making efforts to plan and communicate much more difficult for the ones that survive.

    Additionally, while the release of the information may make the Ethiopian military look less impressive without us, imagine the perception from other countries: If you stand with the US, we can (with little effort) make your military practically superhuman; if you stand against the US, they may turn the military of a neighbor (take note Syria) into the object of your destruction.

    I think the benefits of revealing it outweigh the downside.

    Also, Somalia was already becoming Jihadi central without our open involvement. Announcing our involvement does not make much difference.

  5. cealkin........... says:

    Sure, ships off the coast and an article about navy corpsman in a police station in Iraq and everyone screams seals are in Africa. It’s all those bloggers from Aces and Malkin………..

    They are pleasing Africom and later they’ll change their mind.

  6. Wayne says:

    The CNN feed on al-Jazeera is suspicious since CNN isn’t running it on there website. Could be a rehash video of a past event. CNN also refer to Helicopter gunships strikes when it was a AC-130 aircraft.

    I have mention Northern Africa in many of my post in the past. The build up there has not been a secret but many of the operations are. It is tempting to go into some details but I won’t. I have concern that if it gets into the press too much, then it will make it much more difficult for the US to do the job. A major increase has been going on for about as long as the preparation for Iraq War. It is just the press haven’t been crawling up the military backside there. Therefore they can let the operations take its course. Just like Central and South America, it’s a very long process and Americans are not known for their patience. Ideally in most SF operations, it is best if their involvement never make it into the news. Not that they do anything wrong but when there something in the press then politicians want to stick their fingers in it and make political pointsu sually resulting in screwing things up.

  7. Wayne says:

    Another news site said there was a second unconfirmed air strike with suspected two American helicopters.

  8. cin........... says:


    What is a CIA paramilitary type? Plame? Seals? The analysts all went to DOD(DIA), so are the operations officers the same as CIA and DOD or did the DOD DIAs get the same powers as the CIA operations officers and is that power just domestic like CIA or the same as DIA working overseas or now like the CIA operations officers working domestically?

    The press is going to want to know how to deal with these new Plames.

  9. Wayne says:


    You are jumping all over the place. Analyst and Operation officers are two different beasts in both the CIA and DIA. CIA paramilitary has former SOF military personnel but also draw personal from various resources. They do not have the restrictions or protections of similar military personnel. They do perform certain security operations that would not be politically advisable for a military unit. My knowledge of exactly what else they do is limited so I won’t into it which I wouldn’t do anyway.