WASHINGTON – The U.S. military quietly waged a campaign from Ethiopia last month to capture or kill top leaders of al-Qaida in the Horn of Africa, including the use of an airstrip in eastern Ethiopia to mount airstrikes against Islamic militants in neighboring Somalia, according to U.S. officials.
The close and largely clandestine relationship with Ethiopia also included significant sharing of intelligence on the Islamic militants’ positions and information from U.S. spy satellites with the Ethiopian military. Members of a secret U.S. Special Operations unit, Task Force 88, were deployed in Ethiopia and Kenya, and ventured into Somalia, the officials said.
The counterterrorism effort was described by U.S. officials as a qualified success that disrupted terrorist networks in the East African nation, led to the death and capture of several Islamic militants and involved a collaborative relationship with Ethiopia that had been developing for years.
But the tally of the dead and captured does not as yet include some Qaida leaders – including Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam – whom the United States has hunted for their suspected roles in the attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. With Somalia still in a chaotic state, and U.S. and African officials struggling to cobble together a peacekeeping force for the war-ravaged country, the long-term effects of recent U.S. operations remain unclear.
It has been known for several weeks that U.S. Special Operations troops have operated inside Somalia and that the United States carried out two strikes on Qaida suspects using AC-130 gunships. But the extent of U.S. cooperation with the recent Ethiopian invasion into Somalia and the fact that the Pentagon secretly used an airstrip in Ethiopia to carry out attacks have not been previously reported.
The secret campaign in the Horn of Africa is an example of a more aggressive approach the Pentagon has taken in recent years to dispatch Special Operations troops globally to hunt high-level terrorism suspects. President Bush gave the Pentagon powers after the Sept. 11 attacks to carry out these missions, which historically had been reserved for intelligence operatives.
When Ethiopian troops first began a large-scale military offensive in Somalia late last year, officials in Washington denied that the Bush administration had given its tacit approval to the Ethiopian government. In interviews over the past several weeks, however, officials from several U.S. agencies with a hand in Somalia policy have described a close alliance between Washington and the Ethiopian government that was developed with a common purpose: rooting out Islamic radicalism inside Somalia.
The Pentagon for several years has been training Ethiopian troops for counterterrorism operations in camps near the Somalia border, including Ethiopian special forces called the Agazi Commandos, which were part of the Ethiopian offensive in Somalia.
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to discuss details of the U.S. operation, but some officials agreed to provide specifics because they saw it as a relative success story. They said that the close relationship has included the sharing of battlefield intelligence on the Islamists’ positions – the result of an Ethiopian request to Gen. John P. Abizaid, then the head of the U.S. Central Command. John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence at the time, then authorized spy satellites to be diverted to provide information for Ethiopian troops, the officials said.
The deepening U.S. alliance with Ethiopia is the latest twist in the United States’ on-and-off intervention in Somalia in the past two decades, beginning with an effort to distribute food to starving Somalis and evolving into deadly confrontation in 1993 between U.S. troops and fighters loyal to a Somali warlord, Mohamed Farrah Aidid. The latest chapter began last June when the Council of Islamic Courts, an armed fundamentalist movement, defeated a coalition of warlords backed by the CIA and took power in Mogadishu, the capital. The Islamists were believed to be sheltering Qaida militants involved in the embassy bombings, as well as in a 2002 hotel bombing in Kenya.
After a failed CIA effort to arm and finance Somali warlords, the Bush administration decided on a policy to bolster Somalia’s weak transitional government. This decision brought U.S. policy in line with Ethiopia’s.
As the Islamists’ grip on power grew stronger, their militias began to encircle Baidoa, where the transitional government was operating in virtual exile. Ethiopian officials pledged that if the Islamists attacked Baidoa, they would respond with a full-scale assault.
While Washington resisted officially endorsing an Ethiopian invasion, U.S. officials from several government agencies said that the Bush administration decided last year that an incursion was the best option to dislodge the Islamists from power.
When the Ethiopian offensive began on Dec. 24, it soon turned into a rout, somewhat to the Americans’ surprise. Armed with U.S. intelligence, the Ethiopians’ tank columns, artillery batteries and military jets made quick work of the poorly trained and ill-equipped Islamist militia.
“The Ethiopians just wiped out entire grid squares; it was a Blitzkreig,” said one official in Washington who helped develop the strategy toward Somalia.
As the Islamists retreated, the Qaida operatives and their close aides fled south toward a swampy region. Using information provided by Ethiopian forces in Somalia as well as U.S. intelligence, a task force from the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command began planning direct strikes.
On Dec. 31, the largely impotent transitional government of Somalia submitted a formal request to the U.S. ambassador in Kenya asking for the United States to take action against the militants.
Abizaid called Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and told him that the Central Command was sending additional Special Operations Forces to the region. The deployment was carried out under the terms of an earlier, classified directive that gave the military the authority to kill or capture senior Qaida operatives if it was determined that the failure to act expeditiously mean the United States would lose a “fleeting opportunity” to neutralize the enemy, U.S. officials said.
On Jan. 6, two Air Force AC-130 gunships, aircraft with devastating firepower, arrived at a small airport in eastern Ethiopia.
U.S. Special Operations troops operating in Kenya, working with the Kenyan military, also set up positions along the southern border to capture militants trying to flee the country.
Off the coast, a Navy flotilla began to search for ships that might be carrying fleeing Qaida operatives. F-15Es from Al Udeid air base in Qatar also flew missions. Intelligence was shared with Ethiopia and Kenya through CIA operatives in each country. American military planners also worked directly with Ethiopian and Kenyan military officials.
On Jan. 7, one day after the AC-130s arrived in Ethiopia, the airstrike was carried our near Ras Kamboni, an isolated fishing village on the Kenyan border.
According to U.S. officials, the primary target of the strike was Aden Hashi Ayro, a young military commander trained in Afghanistan who was one of the senior leaders of the Council of Islamic Courts.
Several hours after the strike, Ethiopian troops and one member of the U.S. Special Operations team arrived at the site and confirmed that eight people had been killed and three wounded, all of whom were described as being armed. After sifting through the debris, they found a bloodied passport and other items that led them to believe Ayro was injured in the strike and probably died. Several members of the special operations team were also in Somalia at the time of the strike, one official said.
The second AC-130 strike, on Jan. 23, had another of the Islamic council’s senior leaders, Sheik Ahmed Madobe, as its target. Madobe survived and was later captured by the Ethiopians, Americans say.
U.S. officials said that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the mastermind of the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the alleged ringleader of al-Qaida’s East African cell, remains at large. Some officials caution that while the Ethiopians have said additional high-priority targets, including Abu Talha al-Sudani, a leading member of the cell, were killed in their own airstrikes, U.S. intelligence officials have yet to confirm this.
In late January, U.S. officials played a role in securing the safe passage of Sheik Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the second highest-ranking Islamist leader, from southern Somalia to Nairobi, Kenya. The exact role of U.S. involvement is still not clear, but some U.S. officials consider him to be a moderate Islamist.