MANDA BAY NAVAL BASE, Kenya—The C-12 twin-engine turboprop drops through a break in the clouds, and Kenya’s tropical Lamu Archipelago, surrounded by coral-green waters, emerges like a lost continent. Cuticles of virgin white beach line a jungle that stretches back into the country’s interior. Banking, the pilot spots a short airstrip cut out of the foliage. The station below is one of the remotest outposts in an expanding U.S. network of staging bases in Africa. The clouds close when the rainy season arrives in mid-March, and Manda Bay can go for weeks, even months, without so much as a mail drop. The C-12 touches down on an unlit runway and stops.
Out comes Maj. Gen. Ralph Baker, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa. The organization was once a sleepy command focused on digging wells and liaising with local militaries. Now CJTF-HOA is remaking itself into a counterterrorism force bent on defeating transnational extremist groups in a region the size of America’s Eastern Seaboard. Baker is here on a hot January day to inspect a forward operating site crucial in his campaign to help destroy the terrorist group al-Shabaab in Somalia. American policymakers are already talking about how these battles offer a model for the fight against other Qaida affiliates in Africa.
Waiting on the tarmac is Lt. Carl Chase, who leads a detachment of Navy Seabee engineers who have been working round-the-clock shifts for months to finish a runway extension before the rainy season arrives. Once completed, it will allow larger aircraft like C-130s to land and supply Americans or African Union troops. Baker climbs into Chase’s SUV and rides down the long asphalt road lined with baboons the size of teenagers. (A viral video shows two Marines playfully trying to put a T-shirt on one such neighbor. Both ended up in the hospital. “Other than car wrecks, close encounters with the wildlife is the top cause of injury to my people in Africa,” the general says.)
Entering the base, Baker’s convoy passes black-clad Kenyan antiterrorism commandos mustering in the sun. Farther on, it glides by a platoon of Kenyan Special Boat Forces trained by U.S. special operations forces to deploy on inflatable, rigid-hull boats. They are learning repackaged lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, including countering IEDs, gathering intelligence, and marksmanship. “We’ve seen that enhanced training pay big dividends,” a senior U.S. officer says.
In fact, many African Union troops battling Shabaab militants in Somalia have been trained, equipped, and sustained by an international coalition led by the United States and coordinated through the State Department and CJTF-HOA. Last summer, for instance, Kenyan rangers trained by American Green Berets ran joint exercises with the Kenyan boat forces here. In September, armed with operational doctrine right out of the U.S. special forces handbook, they made an amphibious landing at the Somali port city of Kismayo and quickly routed Shabaab insurgents from their last urban stronghold—denying the terrorists a key port of resupply from the Arabian Peninsula.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. officers honed the tactics they teach here (Baker did several combat tours in Iraq), Americans led the fight against terrorists and insurgents. But in Washington, policymakers are now focused on shaving budgets and bringing home troops. And, Baker says, “there are not a lot of governments who want a big U.S. military footprint in their countries.” So Pentagon strategists need a cheaper way to fight militant Islamists—many of them operating, unmolested, in Africa—who would unseat our allies or attack our homeland.
In Africa, they think they’ve found it. The call it the “train, assist, and enable” model, and they’re testing it on a large scale. The officials teach the counterterrorism lessons learned in the last decade to foreign militaries, empower them with U.S. capabilities such as intelligence-gathering, and then let the African militaries police their own backyards. “That doesn’t mean the United States will never again intervene militarily in another country with boots on the ground,” Baker says. “But the more proactive we are in engaging with foreign partners, and the more predictive we are in identifying common threats, the less likely a future U.S. intervention will be necessary.” U.S. officials here call this “African solutions to African problems.” Which is convenient, because borderless Islamist militants are also American problems. This model represents a new style of American war-fighting for an era of austerity. Call it leading from the shadows.
PROMISE AND MENACE
Little more than a decade ago, much of Africa seemed wracked by a fever of despair—civil wars, corrupt governance, crushing poverty, and rampant disease (Economist cover from 2000: “The Hopeless Continent”).
Now the optimism of commerce has taken over in the traffic-snarled streets of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, with its brightly colored buildings and countless street vendors hawking everything from soccer balls to CDs to wooden carvings. It has taken over in the picket line of massive container ships stretching from the port of Mombasa, Kenya, to the horizon. It has taken over on shopping-mall esplanades and modern six-lane highways (courtesy of the “China Road” construction company) in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. You can feel it coursing through the multinational crowds in the busy airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Despite enduring corruption and poverty that has most Africans living on less than $2 per day, seven of the 10 fastest-growing countries in the world are on this continent. Foreign investment has soared tenfold over the past decade. Mobile-phone use exceeds that of Europe or the United States. According to the International Monetary Fund, Africa’s average annual economic growth is already about the same as Asia’s, at nearly 6 percent. And democracy is finally taking root (Economist cover from 2011: “Africa Rising”).
But just as economic forces are shifting toward this continent, so are Islamist ones. Al-Qaida’s affiliates appear to have pivoted their attentions to North Africa and the Middle East after the core leadership was decimated in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Syria, al-Nusra Front, an Islamic extremist group with close ties to the master bomb-makers of al-Qaida in Iraq, has emerged as perhaps the most brutal and successful rebel faction battling Bashar al-Assad. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula captured broad swaths of territory in Yemen last year in the chaos that followed the Yemeni president’s Arab Spring resignation.
Meanwhile, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which emerged from Algeria’s civil war of the 1990s, has made $90 million over the past decade from drug smuggling and kidnapping. It was linked to the Benghazi consulate attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens last September; the assault on a natural-gas complex in Algeria in January that killed or captured dozens of foreign oil workers, including three Americans; and the seizure of Northern Mali by a loose confederation of Islamic extremists, criminal groups, and Tuareg mercenaries. Altogether, U.S. officials say, the situation bears an unfortunate resemblance to Afghanistan in the 1990s, which bred the Taliban (Economist cover from January: “Afrighanistan”).
Now American officials want to help other African governments fight back, as they have in Somalia. They’ve offered pre-deployment training for nations willing to send troops to Mali, as well as air transport, midair refueling, and intelligence to French troops rushed there to counter an offensive launched by Islamic extremists. U.S. Africa Command has already launched a new drone base in nearby Niger. And American officials are reportedly considering a plan to share intelligence from surveillance drones with Algeria to help it target Islamic militants there and across the border in Mali.
A Niger base would extend the constellation of drone bases in East Africa that already reportedly includes Djibouti, Arba Minch in Ethiopia, and the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. Incoming Africom Cmdr. Gen. David Rodriguez told a Senate panel last month that the U.S. military needs to increase intelligence-gathering in Africa by a factor of 15 to counter the continent’s growing terrorist threat. And Defense officials think they know how.
Just a few years ago, al-Shabaab controlled a large part of Somalia, including much of Mogadishu, said Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson, speaking recently at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. It offered refuge to the Qaida cell responsible for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 sailors. Al-Shabaab was waging a war that had killed more than 1 million Somalis.
“Today, African peacekeepers and Somali security forces have rolled al-Shabaab out of every major Somali city, and for the first time in two decades Somalia has a representative government,” Carson said. The U.S. strategy “turned one of Africa’s most enduring and intractable and hopeless conflicts into a major success story.” So it’s little wonder he and his counterparts point to the “Somalia model” as a strategy for other African countries in crisis.
THE SOMALIA MODEL
In 2008, when Congress established Africom—the Pentagon’s newest geographic command, with responsibility for all of the continent except Egypt—skittish diplomats at the State Department didn’t think it should be based in Africa. They worried it would “militarize” U.S. foreign policy on the continent. So the Pentagon headquartered the command in Stuttgart, Germany, and the office spent its early years mostly on benign confidence-building measures: civil-affairs projects and joint military exercises.
It would soon be tested. In the summer of 2009, Carson and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met the president of a transitional, U.N.-backed Somali government in Nairobi. The Americans doubted whether Sharif Sheik Ahmed would fight hard-line Islamist groups led by al-Shabaab, which had broken away from his own governing body, the Islamic Courts Union (a previous rival to the transitional government). The confab with Ahmed was tense. After the meeting, Clinton gave Carson two directives. “She told me not to the let the transitional government fall, and not to let al-Shabaab win,” Carson says. “Well, I didn’t sleep easily that night.”
Understandably so. By 2010, it was clear that Africom wasn’t organized or adequately prepared to handle the growing threat. The Pentagon was focused on getting troops out of Iraq and deploying them to Afghanistan, but in East Africa and the Middle East, Qaida-linked groups were gaining strength. Yemen’s AQAP launched the underwear-bomb plot to down a Christmas Day passenger flight over Detroit and an effort to smuggle bombs in printer cartridges on U.S.-bound cargo planes. In May 2010, FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress that AQIM “currently represents the top counterterrorism threat to the nation.”
The situation in Somalia was arguably even more perilous. Al-Shabaab had beaten back Ethiopian forces there to support the transitional government and boxed African Union peacekeepers into a few square blocks in downtown Mogadishu. The group was also recruiting Somali-Americans, primarily from the Minneapolis area (Shirwa Ahemed became the first American to participate in a suicide attack as part of a Shabaab operation in 2008), raising fears that these trainees might eventually be dispatched to attack the United States. Meanwhile, Somali pirates had collected some $150 million in ransoms from international shipping companies. Qaida deputy Ayman al-Zawaihiri trumpeted al-Shabaab’s gains in 2010 as “a step on the path of victory of Islam” and hinted that the two terrorist groups would merge.
That fall, timed to Ramadan, al-Shabaab sought to consolidate its victory with a military offensive. American officials feared that thousands of African Union troops might need to be evacuated from Mogadishu—echoing the 1993 U.S. evacuation after the Black Hawk Down debacle—so Africom began to develop contingencies. Senior staff there realized they needed a new campaign plan for Somalia, as well as forward staging bases to execute it. The plan would draw heavily on lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. forces had mentored local security forces and honed intelligence-driven counterterrorism operations.
But in Africa, the U.S. military was not the dominant player. The plan required buy-in from sensitive African governments whose troops were fighting inside Somalia; a certain humility from U.S. military officers; and coordination with the State Department, the lead agency in a program called ACOTA, militaryspeak for African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance. Carson and other Africa hands at the State Department also had to recalibrate a testy and sometimes standoffish relationship with Africom.
And, finally, the plan could not rely on U.S. boots on the ground, expensive equipment transfers, or large bases. All of these demands pointed to a former French Foreign Legion outpost in the tiny country of Djibouti, which was about to become the improbable home to America’s new counterterrorism model.
When U.S. troops arrived at Camp Lemonnier shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, they formed hunting parties to track down packs of hyenas that roamed the base. Now, it teems with bulldozers and work crews giving it a $1.4 billion face-lift that includes a new special-operations facility to support missions in Yemen and Somalia. (Nevertheless, on hot nights, the stench of burning camel carcasses from an adjacent dump still sends occupants scurrying inside.) As the headquarters for CJTF-HOA, Camp Lemonnier is the Pentagon’s only real toehold on the African continent—and the military is digging in for an extended stay.
Inside the Joint Operations Center, the chief operations officer for CJTF-HOA points to a map to explain why. His finger rests on the nearby Bab el-Mandeb, or Gate of Tears, a strategic shipping choke point and one of the most trafficked waterways in the world. U.S. Marines first established CJTF-HOA after the 9/11 attacks, he explains, to protect ships supplying the Afghanistan invasion. “We’re also in very close proximity to both Yemen and Somalia, two of the world’s most unstable countries and hosts to two major al-Qaida affiliates,” he adds. “So our location makes this one of the most strategically important bases in the world.”
To roll back al-Shabaab and transform CJTF-HOA into a counterterrorism-focused command, Africom’s commander, Gen. Carter Ham adopted the “East Africa Campaign Plan,” ceding to Baker responsibility for coordinating all U.S. military activities in East Africa. Ham also made the organization a “supported command,” which means that, in requesting equipment and troops here, the individual armed services answer to Baker. In turn, Baker and his staff devised a program with two major pillars: training African Union troops to a higher standard and developing state-of-the-art ISR—intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance—capabilities to gain a granular understanding of the Somalia battle space. (It would share its findings with East African members of AMISOM, the African Union mission.)
The Horn of Africa task force assessed the troops of every African country that contributed them to AMISOM, including Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya, and Uganda (Ethiopian troops in Somalia coordinate with AMISOM but are not part of its unified command). American trainers—increasingly, special operations forces and active-duty units—identified weaknesses and addressed their mentorship programs to those vulnerabilities. Military-to-military efforts with African Union countries shot from just 15 in 2008 to 140 in 2012.
“Each country in Africa is unique, and we have to be very aware and respectful of their national aspirations while helping their security forces build operational and institutional capabilities,” says Navy Capt. Peter Haynes, the director of strategy and plans for CJTF-HOA. Unlike in Iraq and Afghanistan, he notes, Americans are not in the lead. They have to work through the State Department and African governments, which are not interested in a leader-follower relationship. “That requires a peer-to-peer relationship that doesn’t always come naturally to the U.S. military. It takes a humble mind-set.”
The partnership works this way: The United States and its (mostly European) partners provide the expertise and money; Africans provide the fighters. That approach drives the Humanitarian Peace Support School outside of Nairobi. African troops embarking for Somalia receive “pre-deployment” training at the school, where the United States paid to build replicas of a rural village and a town square for realistic tactical exercises. According to State Department sources, once they leave the school, many AMISOM troops fly into Somalia aboard U.S.-funded aircraft, where they will be equipped with U.S.-supplied armored personnel carriers, body armor, and night-vision equipment. African tacticians also use U.S.-supplied intelligence, including reconnaissance from Raven unmanned drones. Once in-country, they fight alongside Somali National Army troops that draw a salary from Uncle Sam. If wounded, African Union troops will very likely be evacuated aboard U.S.-funded medevac flights.
“AMISOM troops are experiencing the same counterinsurgency fight in Somalia that the U.S. troops experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Col. G.M. Gitonga, commandant of the Kenyan Humanitarian Peace Support School. With the help of U.S. mentors and trainers, along with a multinational group of civilian contractors, the school offers courses in countering improvised explosive devices; logistically sustaining an expeditionary force in the field; and establishing chain-of-command relationships in a multinational force. “If you go to any conflict on the continent where African troops are deployed,” Gitonga says, “most of them were trained here with significant U.S. support.”
EYES IN THE SKY
On the military side of Djibouti’s low-tech international airport are clues to another part of CJTF-HOA’s East Africa campaign plan. There on the taxiway sit U.S. MQ-1 Predator drones. The airport’s single runway also accommodates F-16 fighters and HH-60 helicopters; French Mirage jets and Puma choppers; and Japanese P-3 Patrol aircraft. Since 2010, the pace of aviation here has more than tripled, overburdening air-traffic controllers. (Sixteen Predator drones have been deployed to Djibouti since 2010, and five of them have crashed in roughly the past year, according to a report by The Washington Post.)
Surveillance is key to the mission. At the city’s port, a tiny Djiboutian navy of a few hundred sailors operates a sophisticated radar and video reconnaissance network courtesy of the United States, the better to monitor shipping through the Bab El-Mandeb. At a dusty, desert police station on the Djibouti-Somali border 15 miles inland, groups of men sit chewing stimulant khat leaves near a massive surveillance tower funded by the United States to peer inside Somalia. It is the largest man-made structure in the country.
But top-flight intelligence wasn’t enough; the United States also needed a way to put it to work for African forces. The answer was the Africa Data Sharing Network. Using outdated and surplus computers donated by the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service, officials equipped African Union officials in Somalia with a secure data network that can access U.S. surveillance imagery scrubbed to avoid compromising sources and methods. African intelligence analysts have been taught how to discern the strength and position of Shabaab forces from the images. “It was like turning on a lightbulb in a dark room, because suddenly the AMISOM forces were aware of who and what was moving all around them,” said Air Force Col. James Clark, the director of C-4 systems (command, control, computer, and communications) for CJTF-HOA. “At that point … operations against al-Shabaab improved by a whole order of magnitude.”
A third, unseen and unspoken, pillar of the U.S. campaign is direct targeting of Shabaab leaders. Although U.S. sources refused to comment on these attacks, which are carried out by the special operations forces at Camp Lemonnier, the United States conducts the same kind of targeted-killing strikes here—reportedly by drone and special operations teams—that it does in Pakistan and Yemen. According to The Long War Journal, one of the most authoritative sources on these operations, the United States was responsible for a May 2008 air strike that killed Sheik Aden Hashi Ayro, the military commander of al-Shabaab; a helicopter-borne raid in September 2009 that killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a senior Qaida operative behind the 1998 embassy bombings and an architect of the Shabaab-Qaida merger; a June 2011 Predator strike on a Shabaab training camp outside of Kismayo; and a January 2012 Predator strike that killed Bilal al-Berjawi, a British citizen who served as a senior Qaida-Shabaab leader.
Al-SHABAAB IN RETREAT
As it turned out, al-Shabaab’s 2010 Ramadan offensive—launched to take Somalia from African Union forces and the transitional government—was its high-water mark. AMISOM had significant casualties but held its ground in Mogadishu, and with improved training and intelligence it began a counteroffensive in the summer of 2011 that expelled Shabaab fighters from the capital. As is often the case with Islamist extremists, al-Shabaab had overplayed its hand by enforcing strict Islamic law on a moderate religious culture. It lost support throughout the country.
Alarmed by the near-disaster of 2010, Africa experts at the State Department launched their own diplomatic counteroffensive, coordinating with European allies and the United Nations to cough up cash and other aid to troop-contributing countries in the African Union. They also reached out to political players inside Somalia to ensure AMISON’s battlefield momentum matched progress toward a functioning government. By late summer of 2012, when the Kismayo raid by U.S.-trained Kenyans dislodged Shabaab insurgents, the Somalis had formed a constituent assembly, chosen a parliament, elected a president, and were about to write a constitution.
“Tremendous energy was put into reaching out to Somalia political actors and getting the government functioning again in what had been essentially a failed state,” says Ambassador James Swan, the U.S. special representative for Somalia, at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya. The Somalia model meant getting the internal politics right. Not coincidentally, while Baker was visiting Manda Bay in January, the Somali president, Hassan Sheik Mohamud, was receiving a state welcome in Washington. It was the first time since 1991 that the United States actually recognized a government of Somalia. “Without progress on the domestic political front, it’s very hard to counter the rhetoric and propaganda of the terrorists,” says Swan. “It really has been a remarkable turnaround.”
Arguably, it was the failure of politics and inadequate institution-building that doomed initial efforts to create reliable security forces in Mali, where a U.S.-trained officer precipitated the current crisis by leading a military coup last year. Some U.S.-trained military units even defected to the side of the Islamic extremists in the north. So the Pentagon is bringing online a new drone base in nearby Niger, and Africa experts at the State Department will look for local actors to steer the country back toward democracy. By all indications, the Somalia model will get its second test. The next front in the shadow war beckons.
This article appears in the March 9, 2013, edition of National Journal as Leading From the Shadows.