Fighting in the Shadows

Mogadishu is a place most Americans would rather forget. During the 1990s, the "Black Hawk Down" debacle symbolized the dangers of dabbling in far-off lands we don't understand. TV images of a half-stripped GI being dragged through the dust by gleeful Somalis--he was one of 18 U.S. Army Rangers killed in a botched effort to arrest a warlord--became an emblem of American vulnerability. But Mogadishu, it seems, won't be forgotten. Somalia is erupting in violence again. And with little warning, Americans find themselves once more in the middle of battles they only dimly comprehend--and may well be losing.

Last week, for the first time since the early 1990s, much of the Somali capital was engulfed in bloody fire fights. By all accounts, a jihadist militia of the so-called Islamic Courts Union was gaining ground on an alliance of secular warlords who have received U.S. backing. Observers say the Union has been winning adherents by casting its enemies as stooges of Washington, especially since the U.S.-friendly warlords formed a group called the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism last winter. The revived fighting inside Somalia--a lawless state on the Horn of Africa with no central government--has raised new questions about America's global war on terror, which is being fought mostly out of the public eye.

For several years Somalia's three major anti-Islamist warlords have received U.S. cash and some equipment to help with intelligence operations, according to several unofficial sources, including John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group. No U.S. government official reached by NEWSWEEK would confirm or deny that the program existed. Philip Giraldi, a former CIA counterterrorism official who stays in touch with his ex-colleagues, says much of the money is funneled through the 1,800-man Joint Combined Task Force, based in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. Other reports point to the CIA. The warlords--Mohamed Dheere, Bashir Raghe and Mohamed Qanyare--have been asked to collect information on Muslim extremists tied to Al Qaeda. In one 2003 case, Dheere's men snatched an East African Qaeda cell member and turned him over.

The policy has provoked dissent at both the CIA and the State Department, as well as in Europe. Some officials fear that America may be inadvertently creating a new jihadist haven in Somalia by generating an anti-U.S. backlash. Before the U.S. program began, the Islamists were only a small part of the population. "We know neither the rationale nor the scale of U.S. involvement; what we do see are consequences," says Marika Fahlen, Swedish ambassador and special envoy for the Horn of Africa: "The fighting is increasingly complex. Certain [Islamist] groups that were not so active in fighting before have become fighters." Giraldi is more blunt. "We're creating a new mess," he says. "Everything is tactical with this administration: catching a guy, catching a guy. I don't see that anyone has thought about the strategic issue of losing support."

Washington is also spending money on "hearts and minds" projects in the Horn of Africa region--refurbishing schools and offering free health and dental services in some places. But those programs are impossible for Westerners to carry out in lawless Mogadishu. The question is whether the Islamists are gaining hearts and minds more quickly. One of the pro-U.S. warlords, Qanyare, denied in a phone interview with NEWSWEEK from Somalia that he was getting any U.S. money. But he said he had "contacts" with American agents, and was very worried about the inroads of the Islamists. They want "to make a government of their own, Taliban style," Qanyare said. "They feel they are strong and that this is a time they can do something ... They are organizing from the grass roots. They're organizing schools, education, services. They collect a lot of money from the people."

The U.S. warlord-support strategy is part of a series of clandestine operations around the world conducted with little accountability back home. The broad shadow war is conducted by the CIA, Special Operations commander Gen. Doug Brown, "black ops" commander Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the Pentagon's intelligence czar, Steve Cambone, along with his deputy, Lt. Gen. William Boykin. The U.S. strategy of quietly destroying jihadist cells outside Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 has had its successes. Among them: the capture of Algerian terrorist Abderrazak al-Para in 2004, the assassination of a jihadist leader in Yemen by a Hellfire missile strike in 2004 and the routing of Abu Sayyaf from Basilan Island in the Philippines.

Publicly, the administration will not admit to any policy of aiding warlords. But officials with the Red Cross and other aid groups in Mogadishu report seeing "many Americans with thick necks and short haircuts moving around, carrying big suitcases," says one aid official whose agency does not permit him to speak on the record. And in recent months a diplomat critical of U.S. policy in Somalia, Michael Zorick, apparently was removed from his post in Nairobi after writing cables complaining about the strategy. (Zorick, who was moved to the embassy in Chad, could not be reached for comment Friday.) A political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, Lisa Peterson, refused to comment on the reasons for Zorick's departure. But she said that U.S. policy is under review, with State Counterterrorism chief Hank Crumpton currently on a visit to the Horn. Asked whether Zorick's dissent, and the current debate, were mainly about whether Washington might be creating more Islamist radicals than it is killing or capturing, she said, "Those are certainly questions that have come up."

At CIA stations in East Africa, some agency officials believe the United States is being "essentially defrauded," says a retired CIA station chief who recently visited there and wanted to remain anonymous because he was discussing sensitive issues. "They think we should take a deep breath and settle down. We're throwing money at anybody who will say they're fighting terrorism." Indeed, some suspects grabbed in recent years by friendly militia leaders have turned out to be mere drifters: in one case, a hapless Iraqi was snatched at a cybercafé in Mogadishu, only to be interrogated for a month and released.

U.S. officials say they're in an impossible spot: either leave Somalia to be a terrorist haven or try to form relationships with friendlies, even untrustworthy ones. "Any time you have these areas that are ungovernable, you have to talk to somebody inside," says Gary Berntsen, the former CIA team leader who allied with Afghan warlords to help defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. "There's no choice." But for an administration that professes to see building democracy as a solution to global terrorism, the warlord strategy may not advance U.S. goals.

Some intelligence experts say the key is to keep the U.S. "footprint" so small that it is undetectable. "In the case of countering Al Qaeda, the record seems to suggest that less is more," says John Arquilla, an intelligence expert at the Naval Postgraduate School. "A small investment can achieve very substantial results, like al-Para, whereas in the Horn of Africa a much greater investment has been made with much smaller results." There may be worse results to come.