WASHINGTON — A veteran CIA officer was killed in combat in Somalia in recent days, according to current and former U.S. officials, a death that is likely to reignite debate over U.S. counterterrorism operations in Africa.
The officer was a member of the CIA’s paramilitary division, the Special Activities Center, and a former member of the Navy’s elite SEAL Team 6.
The identity of the officer remained classified, and the circumstances of the killing were ambiguous. It was unclear whether the officer was killed in a counterterrorism raid or was the victim of an enemy attack, former U.S. officials said. The CIA declined to comment.
The death will lead to another star being added to the wall in the CIA’s lobby, where it memorializes its fallen. The past 20 years have placed a heavy burden on the agency, with dozens of stars bringing the total to 135.
Compared with the U.S. military, the deaths of CIA officers in combat is a relatively rare occurrence. Still, paramilitary work is the most dangerous task at the agency, and members of the Special Activities Center carry out missions as risky as those of Delta Force or SEAL Team 6.
The death of the CIA paramilitary officer comes as a draft order is circulating at the Pentagon under which virtually all of the more than 700 U.S. military forces in Somalia conducting training and counterterrorism missions would depart by the time that President Donald Trump leaves office in January.
Al-Shabab, the al-Qaida-affiliated terror group based in Somalia, remains a deadly threat and claimed responsibility this week for killing a group of U.S.-trained Somali soldiers. No Americans were killed in that attack, a military official said.
Inside the CIA, Somalia has long been considered a particularly dangerous war zone. Senior intelligence officials have debated whether counterterrorism operations there are worth the risk to American lives. Some in the agency believe that al-Shabab is at worst a regional threat to Africa and to U.S. interests there but not beyond the region.
But other counterterrorism experts believe that if left unchecked, al-Shabab could emerge as the same kind of global threat as the Islamic State and al-Qaida have been. Al-Shabab, the most active affiliate of al-Qaida, issued new threats against Americans in East Africa and in the United States this year. Members of the group were arrested while taking flying lessons in the Philippines, and others have sought to procure surface-to-air missiles.
The growing worries about the Shabab’s expanding ambitions had prompted a flurry of U.S. drone strikes in Somalia during the past two years to keep the group in check.
Covert CIA operations in Somalia are harder to track but are likely to have been stepped up alongside the drone strikes as the agency sought additional information about whom to target in such attacks.
Decisions about whether to alter U.S. counterterrorism operations in Somalia will be an early national security challenge for President-elect Joe Biden as he reviews Trump’s policies.
Still, Biden may find his options more limited as Trump considers major changes in his last weeks in office.
The Trump administration plan under discussion would not apply to U.S. troops stationed in nearby Kenya and Djibouti, where U.S. drones that carry out airstrikes in Somalia are based. They would continue to conduct counterterrorism operations against al-Shabab, according to officials familiar with the internal deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The acting defense secretary, Christopher C. Miller, announced plans last week to reduce troop levels in both Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 by January, but Pentagon officials said this week that they were still working out details of the drawdown in Somalia.
Critics said Trump’s plan to leave Somalia comes at a precarious time for the strife-weary nation in the Horn of Africa. Somalia is gearing up for parliamentary elections next month and a presidential election scheduled for early February. The removal of U.S. troops could complicate any ability to keep election rallies and voting safe from Shabab attackers. Political turmoil has also erupted in neighboring Ethiopia, whose army has battled al-Shabab.
Security inside Somalia is increasingly dire despite a sustained flurry of U.S. drone strikes and U.S.-backed ground raids against Shabab fighters, according to a report issued Wednesday by the inspectors general of the Defense and State departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“Despite many years of sustained Somali, U.S. and international counterterrorism pressure, the terrorist threat in East Africa is not degraded,” the assessment concluded. “Shabab retains freedom of movement in many parts of southern Somalia and has demonstrated an ability and intent to attack outside of the country, including targeting U.S. interests.”
The paramilitary arm of the CIA has borne the brunt of the agency’s losses since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to former officials. Officers on the CIA’s paramilitary teams conduct raids and operations in austere locations, far more dangerous missions than the kind of intelligence collection that is the backbone of the agency.
Many of them were killed in Afghanistan, where overall at least 20 people have died since the beginning of the war there. It is unclear whether other officers have been killed in Somalia in recent years.