The New Zealand Herald January 23, 2007
US 'lacks intelligence' for high-tech warfare
By Steve Bloomfield
NAIROBI - From a military base in the Horn of Africa once occupied by the French Foreign Legion, the United States has been fighting a secret war for the past four years.
At Djibouti's Camp Le Monier, CIA agents and special forces troops - about 1500 personnel in all - have opened a wide-ranging but little-reported front in President George W. Bush's so-called "war on terror".
This high-tech, covert battle is part of a broader US effort against suspected terrorists. It surfaces rarely, with news of an air strike on a Taleban commander in Afghanistan or an al Qaeda operative in Yemen.
Last week, the US and its allies claimed a devastating blow against a force of 150 insurgents who had been monitored as they gathered in Pakistan and who were attacked as soon as they crossed into Afghanistan.
But the most overt example of this hidden conflict came last week, with the first report that US forces based at Camp Le Monier had launched at least one deadly strike against suspected Islamist extremists in neighbouring Somalia.
The attack was aimed at al Qaeda suspects accused of carrying out the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in East Africa.
The US admitted its operation failed. Officials said "five to 10" militants were killed, but that no high-value targets were among them. Other independent reports said dozens of civilians had died in a series of air strikes.
The attack threw into fresh focus the chaotic situation in Somalia. The strike last Monday was also one of just a handful of operations carried out from Camp Le Monier that the US and the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa have made public.
"It's known as a secret war for a reason," said John Pike, a military analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, based in Washington. Of the base, he said: "It's located in a part of the world where you'd want to know if foreign fighters are suddenly arriving."
A previous insight into the sort of operations launched out of Djibouti came in November 2002, when the US dispatched an unmanned Predator drone, equipped with Hellfire missiles, from Le Monier to hunt down an al Qaeda suspect, Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi. Tracked through an intercepted mobile phone call, he was driving through the deserts of southern Yemen when a missile killed him and five colleagues.
After that attack it was speculated that the drone had been "flown" - physically operated using a joystick - either from Le Monier or CIA headquarters in Virginia.
More recently, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani, described as one of the Taleban's most senior leaders, was killed by a remarkably similar air strike in Afghanistan. The Taleban commander's car was destroyed last month on an isolated desert road in Helmand province after US forces tracked his phone.
Such coups show what 21st-century technology can do. But it has been argued that the US is too dependent on gadgetry, at the cost of "human intelligence" - eyes on the ground.
The strike in Somalia last week was based on information from the Ethiopians and the outcome is a matter of bitter dispute.
The picture painted at the beginning of the week - of a band of Islamist extremists and terrorists trapped on Somalia's border with Kenya, hemmed in by Kenyan forces securing the frontier, US Navy vessels offshore and the rapidly advancing Ethiopians and their allies - seemed by the weekend to be fanciful.
The targets of the US strike were one or more of three top suspects in the bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Nairobi: Comoros national Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Kenyan Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan and Abu Talha al-Sudani, from Sudan. It was initially reported that Mohammed had been killed, a claim later dismissed.
As has happened many times with covert US strikes, witnesses said dozens of civilians were killed in the attacks by the US and Ethiopian forces. Equally routinely, the US denied this. But Moalim Adan Osman, an elder in the village of Dhobley, told Agence France Presse: "We estimated about 100 civilians have been killed. Some are still missing. The aeroplanes have bombed large areas ... They have bombed the nomads indiscriminately."
US special forces went into the far south of Somalia to check if they had killed their targets - the first time American troops are known to have entered the country since 1993's disastrous Black Hawk Down mission, in which 18 US Army Rangers died. But it followed two years of covert missions along the Somalia-Ethiopia border, carried out with Ethiopian forces.
When these failed to locate the suspects, the Americans turned to new allies inside Somalia - the warlords who forced them out more than a decade ago. US intelligence officials visited Mogadishu several times over the past two years, giving suitcases stuffed with $100 bills to chieftains who had formed an "anti-terror coalition". But the unpopular warlords lost all support when Somalis realised who was funding them. In June, the Islamic Courts drove the US-backed forces out of Mogadishu.
The Courts proved popular, delivering a semblance of law and order. But Ethiopia was never comfortable with the possibility of a radical Islamist state on its doorstep, and the weak Somali Government was keen to prevent its rivals taking over the whole country. The US fully supported the Ethiopians' Christmas invasion.
What this somewhat chaotic episode shows is that high-tech capability requires high-quality intelligence to be effective. It also requires a more subtle US policy than simply dividing forces in failed states into good and bad.
Pointing out the pitfalls of relying on regional allies for information, especially when money is involved, a Somalia expert in Nairobi said: "The Kenyans are quite naive about the situation in Somalia, and Ethiopia is pursuing its own national interest. There is heavy emphasis on faulty intelligence. The US is being milked - that's why there were so many civilian casualties."
© Copyright 2007, APN Holdings NZ Limited