To glimpse America's secret war in Africa, you must bang with a rock on the iron gate of the prison in this remote port in northern Somalia...
BERBERA, Somalia — To glimpse America’s secret war in Africa, you must bang with a rock on the iron gate of the prison in this remote port in northern Somalia. A sleepy guard will yank open a rusty deadbolt. Then, you ask to speak to an inmate named Mohamed Ali Isse.
Isse, 36, is a convicted murderer and jihadist. He is known among his fellow prisoners, with grudging awe, as “The Man with the American Thing in His Leg.”
That “thing” is a stainless-steel surgical pin screwed into his bullet-shattered femur, courtesy, he says, of the U.S. Navy. How it got there — or more to the point, how Isse ended up in this crumbling, stonewalled hellhole at the uttermost end of the Earth — is a story that the U.S. government probably would prefer to remain untold.
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That’s because Isse and his fancy surgery scars offer what little tangible evidence exists of a bare-knuckled war that has been waged silently, over the past five years, with the sole aim of preventing anarchic Somalia from becoming the world’s next Afghanistan.
“Your government gets away with a lot here,” said the prison warden, Hassan Mohamed Ibrahim, striding about his antique facility with a pistol tucked in the back of his pants. “In Iraq, the world is watching. In Afghanistan, the world is watching. In Somalia, nobody is watching.”
It is a standoff war in which the Pentagon lobs million-dollar cruise missiles into a famine-haunted African wasteland the size of Texas, hoping to kill lone terror suspects who might be dozing in candlelit huts.
It is a covert war in which the CIA has recruited gangs of unsavory warlords to hunt down and kidnap Islamic militants and — according to Isse and civil rights activists — secretly imprison them offshore, aboard U.S. warships.
Mostly, though, it is a policy time bomb that will be inherited by the incoming Obama administration: a little-known front in the global war on terrorism that the U.S. appears to be losing, if it hasn’t already been lost.
“Somalia is one of the great unrecognized U.S. policy failures since 9/11,” said Ken Menkhaus, a leading Somalia scholar at Davidson College in North Carolina. “By any rational metric, what we’ve ended up with there today is the opposite of what we wanted.”
What the Bush administration wanted, when it tacitly backed Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in late 2006, was clear enough: to help a close African ally in the war on terror crush the Islamic Courts Union. The Taliban-like movement emerged from the ashes of more than 15 years of anarchy and lawlessness in Africa’s most infamous failed state, Somalia.
At first, the invasion seemed an easy victory. By early 2007, the Courts had been routed, a pro-Western transitional government installed, and hundreds of Islamic militants in Somalia either captured or killed.
But over the past 18 months, Somalia’s Islamists — now more radical than ever — have regrouped and roared back.
On a single day last month, they flexed their muscles by killing nearly 30 people in a spate of bloody car-bomb attacks that recalled the darkest days of Iraq. And their brutal militia, the Shabab, or “Youth,” today controls much of the destitute nation, a shattered but strategic country that overlooks the vital oil-shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden.
Even worse, Shabab’s fighters have moved to within miles of the Somalian capital of Mogadishu, threatening to topple the weak interim government supported by the U.S. and Ethiopia.
Meanwhile, in the midst of a killing drought, more than 700,000 city dwellers have been driven out of bullet-scarred Mogadishu by the recent clashes between the Islamist rebels and the interim government.
Somalia’s hapless capital has long been considered the Dodge City of Africa — a seaside metropolis sundered by clan fighting ever since the nation’s central government collapsed in 1991. That feral reputation was cemented in 1993, when chanting mobs dragged the bodies of U.S. Army Rangers through the streets in a disastrous U.N. peacekeeping mission chronicled in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.”
The airport — the city’s frail lifeline to the world — is regularly closed by insurgent mortar attacks despite a small and jittery contingent of African Union peacekeepers.
Foreign workers who once toiled quietly for years in Somalia have been evacuated. A U.S. missile strike in May killed the Shabab commander, Aden Hashi Ayro, enraging Islamist militants who have since vowed to kidnap and kill any outsider found in the country.
Today most of Somalia is closed to the world.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way when the U.S. provided intelligence to the invading Ethiopians two years ago.
The homegrown Islamic radicals who controlled most of central and southern Somalia in mid-2006 certainly were no angels. They shuttered Mogadishu’s cinemas, demanded that Somali men grow beards and, according to the U.S. State Department, provided refuge to some 30 local and international jihadists associated with al-Qaida.
But the Islamic Courts Union’s turbaned militiamen had actually defeated Somalia’s hated warlords. And their enforcement of Islamic religious laws, while unpopular among many Somalis, made Mogadishu safe to walk in for the first time in a generation.
When the Islamic movement again strengthened, Isse, the terrorist jailed in Berbera, was a pharmacy owner from the isolated town of Buro in Somaliland, a parched northern enclave that declared independence from Somalia in the early 1990s.
Radicalized by U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, he is serving a life sentence for organizing the killings of four foreign aid workers in late 2003 and early 2004. Two of his victims were elderly British teachers.
Sources say Isse was snatched in 2004 by the U.S. after fleeing to the safe house of a notorious Islamist militant in Mogadishu.
The job was done by Mohamed Afrah Qanyare, a warlord in a business suit, who said four years ago his militia helped form the kernel of a CIA-created mercenary force called the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism in Somalia.
The unit cobbled together some of the world’s most violent, wily and unreliable clan militias — including gangs that had attacked U.S. forces in the early 1990s — to confront a rising tide of Islamic militancy in Somalia’s anarchic capital.
Isse was wounded in the raid, according to Qanyare, now a member of Somalia’s weak transitional government who divides his days between lawless Mogadishu and luxury hotels in Nairobi. Matt Bryden, one of the world’s leading scholars of the Somali insurgency who has access to intelligence regarding it, confirmed the account. They say Isse was then loaded aboard a U.S. military helicopter summoned by satellite phone and was flown, bleeding, to an offshore U.S. vessel.
Navy doctors spliced a steel rod into Isse’s bullet-shattered leg, according to defense lawyer Bashir Hussein Abdi. Every day for about a month afterward, Isse’s court depositions assert, plainclothes U.S. agents grilled the bedridden Somali at sea about al-Qaida’s presence. The CIA never has publicly acknowledged its operations in Somalia. Agency spokesman George Little declined to comment on Isse’s case.
In June, the British civil-rights group Reprieve contended that as many as 17 U.S. warships may have doubled as floating prisons since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Calling such claims “misleading,” the Pentagon has insisted that U.S. ships have served only as transit stops for terror suspects being shuttled to permanent detention camps such as the one in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
In a terse statement, Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet that patrols the Gulf of Aden, said only that the Navy was “not able to confirm dates” of Isse’s imprisonment.
For reasons that remain unclear, he was later flown to Camp Lemonier, a U.S. military base in the African state of Djibouti, Somali intelligence sources say, and from there to a clandestine prison in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Isse and his lawyer allege he was detained there for six weeks and tortured by Ethiopian military intelligence with electric shocks.
Security officials in neighboring Somaliland confirmed that they collected Isse from the Ethiopian police at a dusty border crossing in late 2004. “The Man with the American Thing in His Leg” was interrogated again. After a local trial, he was locked in the ancient Berbera prison.
The CIA’s anti-terror mercenaries in Mogadishu may have kidnapped a dozen or more wanted Islamists for the Americans, intelligence experts say. But their excesses ended up swelling the ranks of their enemy, the Islamic Courts Union militias.
“It was a stupid idea,” said Bryden, the security analyst. “It actually strengthened the hand of the Islamists and helped trigger the crisis we’re in today.”
Somalia’s 2 million-strong diaspora is of greatest concern. Angry young men, foreign passports in hand, could be lured back to the reopened Shabab training camps, where instructors occasionally use photocopied portraits of Bush as rifle targets.
Some envision no Somalia at all.
With about $8 billion in humanitarian aid fire-hosed into the smoking ruins of Somalia since the early 1990s — the U.S. will donate roughly $200 million this year alone — a growing chorus of policymakers is advocating that the failed state be allowed to fail, to break up into autonomous zones or fiefdoms, such as Isse’s home of Somaliland.
But there is another possible future for Somalia. In Bosaso, a port 300 miles east of Isse’s cell, thousands of people swarm through the town’s scruffy waterfront seeking passage across the Gulf of Aden to the Middle East. Dressed in rags, they sleep by the hundreds in dirt alleys and empty lots. Stranded women and girls are forced into prostitution.
“You can see why we still need America’s help,” said Abdinur Jama, the coast-guard commander for Puntland, the semiautonomous state encompassing Bosaso.
A military think tank at West Point studying Somalia concluded last year that, in some respects, failed states were admirable places to combat al-Qaida, because the absence of local sovereignty permitted “relatively unrestricted Western counterterrorism efforts.”