Tuesday, October 8, 2013

In Somalia, We Have a Problem

Events over the weekend that included the capture of an al Qaeda operative in Libya and a raid in Somalia are the focus of military conversations I've been involved in since Friday night. I have nothing to add to the news in public regarding the operation in Libya. Well done to all on that action. My focus, as it has been since the early days of the blog, is with Somalia.

By now everyone has likely heard a story regarding events Friday evening local time in Somalia, but because the story has been told many different ways and the media has been running a stealth auto-correct campaign to virtually every news article posted as new facts become known, allow me to tell the story as I know it to have happened so you are keen on the details as of October 8, 2013.

In the late evening of Friday October 4, 2013 local time Navy SEALs belonging to the now famous DEVGRU, or SEAL Team 6 depending upon your preference, inserted into Somalia by small boat near the coastal village of Barawe, Somalia. The objective of the SEAL team was to capture, alive, a Kenyan insurgent named Abdukadir Mohamed Abdukadir, known by the nickname “Ikrima.” As the SEALs approached a seaside villa, the target house, they came under fire from security posted near the villa. A firefight broke out almost immediately and the SEAL team came under heavy fire. Rather than fighting a frontal assault, the team withdrew under cover of helicopter gunships back to their boats and returned to a US Navy ship offshore.


One of the most interesting aspects of the action in Somalia on Friday is that the intelligence appears to have been very good. First we have the target, Abdukadir Mohamed Abdukadir (Ikrima), who appears to be a very smart target for the US in the context of a 'capture alive' operation. Ikrima is a foreign militant in Somalia with ties to al Shabaab Central leadership including Ahmed Godane, ties to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and ties to al-Hijra - a terrorist organization in Kenya with ties to al Shabaab that is believed to have executed the recent Westgate mall attack. As a central figure he represents an intersection between foreign fighters in al Qaeda, local Somali insurgents, and al-Hijra operating in Kenya. His escape from capture Friday night means he is basically a walking dead man.

The intelligence of the location was also very good, because it turns out the reason for high security was because not only was Abdukadir Mohamed Abdukadir at the villa, but Mahad Mohamed Ali, known as “Karate,” was also there. Mahad Mohamed Ali (Karate) is the leader of Al Shabab’s Amniyat division, the intelligence wing of al Shabaab. According to the Toronto Star, there was a third leader there as well, but the name is not given. The journalist only describes the 3rd individual as Abu Hamza, which is not a name and simply means kunya or "father of," which is not helpful in identification.

Regardless, the presence of three major figures - one of which was the head of al Shabaab's intelligence wing - suggests the intelligence regarding the target villa was good. It is worth pointing out that presence of both Abdukadir Mohamed Abdukadir (Ikrima) and Mahad Mohamed Ali (Karate) in the same place would appear to validate suspicions that the Westgate attack was not only well financed, well planned, and well executed but also demonstrates some coordination between al Shabaab Central leadership and expertise across other organizations in the al Qaeda network. It certainly should trouble folks that multiple large, well resourced al Qaeda organizations were potentially coordinated in the attack at a detailed level, even if the details themselves weren't disseminated widely prior to the attack. Combining expertise and resources from across the various al Qaeda associated groups not only increases the likelihood of attacks, but increases the lethal potential of those attacks.

Environment and Geography

When Kenyan military forces invaded Somalia from the south in October 2011, the offensive was a disaster. Invading during the wet season, the Kenyan Army soon found themselves, literally, stuck in the mud. After slogging their way through the mud for eight months, Kenyan forces were formally integrated into the UN sanctioned AMISOM force in Somalia. That's another discussion for another time, but basically Kenya was granted political cover by the rest of the world for invading Somalia. Finally, in September of 2012 the Kenyan force under the AMISOM flag liberated Kismayo from al Shabaab control. The loss of Kismayo represented the recapture of the last major city stronghold al Shabaab had in Somalia.

The AMISOM military leadership projected expectations that with the loss of control of major cities by al Shabaab, Somalia was at a turning point. The reality is, over the past year AMISOM has done little outside of skirmishes near the towns of Burkakaba, Dinsoor, and Tieyglow - small inland towns north and west of Mogadishu. The lack of offensive military activity by AMISOM since the fall of Kismayo has been matched by a lack of offensive action by al Shabaab, which has spent the last few months in an internal power struggle that appears to have been resolved with Ahmad Godane consolidating his power over al Shabaab in Somalia.

Somalia in October 2013 looks very different than Somalia in 2011, before the Kenyan Army invaded Somalia with the objective of seizing Kismayo. The most important feature change from a military perspective is how the posture of al Shabaab's forces has changed from one of a mobile force roaming the rural country in the exercise of establishing local control to one of consolidated control in a more garrison posture. When US special forces went to Barawe, they basically ran into a garrisoned force that had fortified the city, and it is important to understand that nearly every town under the control of al Shabaab is likewise a fortified town with a garrison force.

It is very important to understand what Somalia is today compared to what Somalia was prior to the AMISOM success of liberating Mogadishu and Kismayo. Westerners often describe Somalia as an ungoverned, lawless territory with an insurgency, but on the ground in southern Somalia it is more akin to a dispersed collection of independent city states loosely affiliated with the Federal Government of Somalia in Mogadishu or a collection of smaller, independent villages under local tribal control under a very strict al Shabaab rule.

In the north with Somaliland and Puntland - both territories are officially unrecognized but self-declared sovereign, autonomous but not yet officially independent states, and are not the focus of this discussion.

Obviously Somalia is much more complicated than I can summarize in a few paragraphs, but I feel this background is necessary for discussing the broader points below that are more relevant to this audience.

US Military and Somalia

In the last week of September, USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) was sent to Djibouti to offload all elements of the 26 MEU and take on board special operations forces including the SEAL team that executed the raid this previous weekend. When a US Navy ship has it's command authority switched over to SOCOM, there are a number of details involved, particularly when it involves an amphibious ship. First, all Marine Corps equipment is offloaded - air, sea, land - everything Marine Corps is taken off the ship. Special operations forces bring it's own everything - including aviation, and there is no such thing as "Joint" in the context of terminology used elsewhere when discussing the US military. There is no such thing as a traditional COCOM command structure for these type of military operations either. Basically, when SOCOM needs something from a COCOM for assistance in situations like Somalia, they tell the COCOM what to give them. It is a one way street, and the COCOM that is supposed to run military operations is often just lucky to get a memo after the fact regarding what happened. It shouldn't be this way, but this is the way counter terrorism policy under the Obama administration works when it comes to special operations forces, some drone activities, and Cyber warfare sourced from DC.

Command authority for special operations off Somalia are directed by the Joint Staff in DC and the National Security Council, with SOCOM integrated throughout. The COCOM is a sideshow when it comes to command authority of these kind of operations.

SOCOM is bringing the tactical and operational lessons learned from Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond to Somalia, with step one being grab some bad guys for intelligence purposes. It would be a mistake to call the events of last Friday evening a failure, because failing a primary objective is not the same as a failure. The reaction by al Shabaab since the Friday night raid suggests the impacts have, in fact, been anything but a failure.

In response to the raid by US special forces it is noteworthy al Shabaab Central leadership has been remarkably quiet, despite some in western media describing the US Navy SEAL action as a failure. You would think if they saw the events of Friday night as a victory they would be out shouting as much as loud as possible. Not so, none of the major players are doing any such thing. When US special forces hit the villa with some of al Shabaab's top people inside, considerable fear and doubt was injected into the organization. The population in Barawe, through Tuesday morning in Somalia, remains in lockdown with a curfew being enforced. Reinforcements have been sent to increase the garrison there. US intelligence was ultimately too good for al Shabaab's comfort level, and it is a good bet they have spent the last few days turning their own organization inside-out trying to plug security leaks.

Putting doubt into the enemy force is a feature of US special operations.

But the core problem still exists, and someone in the DoD needs to speak up. Somalia under al Shabaab in October of 2013 is a distributed garrison. In the history of special operations in Somalia, I am unaware of a single special operations incident in any area controlled by al Shabaab that took place in a populated town or city that didn't result in a major battle. Jessica Buchanan was in a secluded rural area nowhere near a town. Warsame was taken offshore. Indeed, every reported special operations action by every country that has been reported in the last several years took place outside a populated town or city. There should be no expectation that US special forces will successfully conduct any major operation without a major battle inside an al Shabaab controlled population center, because it has never happened.

And yet, that's apparently the new policy of the Obama administration. The US is apparently going to attempt to conduct low level military operations inside Somalia against al Shabaab forces that are postured like traditional Army forces with an expectation of success and a low profile. To protect SOCOM rice bowls, we are not going to use military forces in the region that operate under COCOM control, because SOCOM is not a joint force and in this case, insists it should not operate with the joint force. There will be no heavy forces provided by the Marine Corps available to help SOCOM if things go bad, and that is an intentional choice that the Command authority for Somalia operations - the Joint Staff in DC and the National Security Council - endorses.

It is policy to discard lessons from 1993 learned in blood in Somalia, but good luck trying to get an explanation from Susan Rice why this policy makes sense, because she is probably completely clueless smiling and nodding to her SOCOM handler oblivious to the details. The lack of experience on the President's National Security Council really does matter, and this is yet another example. Maybe General Dempsey should be asked that question, although given his leadership record, expect him to simply punt the answer to someone not picking up the phone at SOCOM.

I have long believed US special operations forces are incredible, intelligent, and always make good choices, but I have to admit I'm struggling with the policy that has been developed and is being executed by the Obama administration in Somalia in October 2013. From the outside looking in, this looks like SOCOM defending rice bowls for no reason other than defending rice bowls, and while I understand the political reluctance to use Marines in Somalia, it is very hard for me to believe the US is making the best use of Special Forces in Somalia when all of the targets of value are postured in military garrisons.

That isn't going to work.

Looking Ahead

It is going to be interesting to watch Somalia unfold over the next few weeks. I do not see a scenario where special forces find much success trying to grab useful intelligence sources from the fortified town areas al Shabaab controls, because al Shabaab knows we are coming and will have a huge numerical advantage in every fight. Does that mean President Obama will do nothing? Unlikely. The question is, how far is the President willing to go to achieve a meaningful strategic victory against al Shabaab?

Let's be honest, a drone strike on that villa Friday night would have been a huge victory for the US. It is unclear if we would have known how effective the drone strike would have been, but had the US killed Abdukadir Mohamed Abdukadir (Ikrima) and Mahad Mohamed Ali (Karate) that would have been a huge counter terrorism win for the US against al Shabaab.

Some of the instant analysis following this past weekends events suggest the President is moving away from a drone centric counter-terrorism strategy. Not so fast, because in Somalia his preferred alternative of using special operations forces on the ground isn't likely to work out well against garrisoned military forces. That is going to force a decision by the President:
  1. Increase the use of Drones in Somalia.
  2. Use the rest of the Joint Force as designed to augment special operations on the ground.
  3. Nibble ineffectively around the edges of towns and in rural areas with SOF.
If the US tries to operate SOF in the fortified, garrisoned towns al Shabaab has control of, don't expect things to go well, because history consistently says it will not. The US faces significant operational problems in Somalia if the nation is indeed serious about increasing counter terrorism operations against al Shabaab. The celebrated option this week is using special operations forces on the ground, but the reality is, Somalia is the wrong place to send in lightly armed military forces, and US history in Somalia is a story why that approach to al Shabaab is a bad idea. In Somalia to use special operations forces on the ground effectively the options are either to heavily increase the use of drone strikes to wither down enemy force, or use heavily armed Marines to augment special operations forces in reducing the threat from the garrisons.

The use of Marines and assets of the Joint Force has the potential to significantly increase civilian casualties and the likelihood of US casualties, although used in hit and run operations also give the US a much higher potential for success in significantly damaging al Shabaab. That option may not be politically possible or desirable though.

Which takes us back to contemplating the use of drones, whose demise in recent days has been widely overstated.

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