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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

America’s Boots on the Ground in Somalia

How the United States has covertly aided Ethiopia’s fight against the Islamic Courts Union.
by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross for Pajamas Media

The al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic Courts Union’s (ICU) rapid retreat in the face of Ethiopia’s military campaign in Somalia has puzzled many observers. How could the Ethiopians roll up the jihadists so quickly? Pajamas Media has learned that one significant factor is that U.S. air and ground forces covertly aided the Ethiopian military since its intervention began on Christmas day.

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.

Ethiopia intervened when the ICU began a push to eliminate Somalia’s transitional federal government from its stronghold in the south-central Somali city of Baidoa.

Pajamas Media previously reported that Ethiopia’s use of helicopter gunships capable of targeting the Islamic Courts Union’s ground forces was a decisive factor in the army-to-army fighting against the ICU. A senior military intelligence source says that some of the gunships earlier described as Ethiopian were in fact U.S. aircraft. This has been confirmed by Dahir Jibreel, the transitional government’s permanent secretary in charge of international cooperation, who said that U.S. planes and helicopters with their markings obscured have been striking targets since December 25.

Given late breaking developments, SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw was unavailable for comment at press time.

Jibreel said that the U.S. and Ethiopia planned this military incursion for several months. He said that he saw U.S. military planes and soldiers at Wajer, a strategic airstrip in Kenya, in October 2006.

Asked about the revelations of early U.S. support for the Ethiopian intervention, Jibreel said, “We believe that the United States was very helpful in defeating the al-Qaeda-guided and al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Courts Union, and the foreign fighters who were essentially Eritreans, global jihadists, and Ethiopian opposition groups.”

The ground forces have been serving in the role of military advisors. Their duties include identifying ground targets for the Ethiopian air force.

“The goal is to take the ICU apart so they don’t come back,” a military intelligence source said. Sources within the U.S. military, intelligence community, and Somalia’s transitional federal government are concerned that the ICU will mount an insurgent fighting campaign if it is not eviscerated.

American naval vessels, including the USS Ramage and USS Bunker Hill, are patrolling off Somalia’s shores to prevent foreign fighters from arriving to join forces with the ICU and to stop terrorists from escaping.

A military intelligence source tells Pajamas Media that ground forces in Somalia and naval vessels offshore are “almost certainly” coordinating to stop fleeing terrorists; when the ground forces drive terrorists to the shore, the vessels target them.

The critical area for dismantling the ICU is the coastal town of Ras Kamboni, near the Kenyan border. Ras Kamboni is well fortified. The ICU’s predecessor, al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya, fled to Ras Kamboni after Ethiopia intervened militarily in the mid-1990s. A large number of ICU fighters have massed in Ras Kamboni, seemingly planning to regroup there before beginning an insurgent campaign.

The transitional federal government and Ethiopian forces, in turn, are attempting to seal off the area around Ras Kamboni to trap ICU fighters there.

Pajamas Media has learned that there have been high-level communications between ICU affiliates in Ras Kamboni and al-Qaeda’s central leadership. A senior military intelligence officer told Pajamas Media that Ayman al-Zawahiri’s January 5 tape calling for his followers to flock to Somalia to fight alongside the ICU was a result of a plea by a well-connected terrorist figure in Ras Kamboni, most likely Abu Talha al-Sudani, the head of al-Qaeda’s East Africa operations.

High-level communications between Ras Kamboni and al-Qaeda’s central leadership was confirmed by Jibreel. “We are aware of it, and we have informed U.S. agencies of this fact,” he said.

Drawing an analogy, the intelligence source said, “Unless you know someone, you can’t just call up the White House and get the president on the phone.” Al-Qaeda is extremely hierarchical. Yet the pleas from Ras Kamboni not only reached Zawahiri, but also quickly elicited a call from him for jihad in Somalia.

It may be difficult for the cordon to secure the capture or killing of significant ICU leaders, in part because the Kenyan police—who are being counted on to apprehend fighters who are running in their country’s direction—are notoriously corrupt.

If ICU fighters reach Kenya, they will try to hide in Muslim enclaves there. Muslims make up 15% of Kenya’s 35 million population. Many of those Muslims are Somali refugees. The ICU could blend in among their former countrymen, whom they made homeless.
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