Nestled in a back corner of Mogadishu’s Aden Adde International Airport is a sprawling walled compound run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Set on the coast of the Indian Ocean, the facility looks like a small gated community, with more than a dozen buildings behind large protective walls and secured by guard towers at each of its four corners. Adjacent to the compound are eight large metal hangars, and the CIA has its own aircraft at the airport. The site, which airport officials and Somali intelligence sources say was completed in April, is guarded by Somali soldiers, but the Americans control access. At the facility, the CIA runs a counterterrorism training program for Somali intelligence agents and operatives aimed at building an indigenous strike force capable of snatch operations and targeted “combat” operations against members of Al Shabab, an Islamic militant group with close ties to al-Qaeda.
As part of its expanding counterterrorism program in Somalia, the CIA also uses a secret prison buried in the basement of Somalia’s National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters, where prisoners suspected of being Shabab members or of having links to the group are held. Some of the prisoners have been snatched off the streets of Kenya and rendered by plane to Mogadishu. While the underground prison is officially run by the Somali NSA, U.S. intelligence personnel pay the salaries of intelligence agents and also directly interrogate prisoners.
The existence of both facilities and the CIA role was uncovered by The Nation during an extensive on-the-ground investigation in Mogadishu. Among the sources who provided information for this story are senior Somali intelligence officials; senior members of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG); former prisoners held at the underground prison; and several well-connected Somali analysts and militia leaders, some of whom have worked with U.S. agents, including those from the CIA.
The CIA presence in Mogadishu is part of Washington’s intensifying counterterrorism focus on Somalia, which includes targeted strikes by U.S. Special Operations forces, drone attacks, and expanded surveillance operations. The U.S. agents “are here full time,” a senior Somali intelligence official told me. At times, he said, there are as many as 30 of them in Mogadishu, but he stressed that those working with the Somali NSA do not conduct operations; rather, they advise and train Somali agents
According to well-connected Somali sources, the CIA is reluctant to deal directly with Somali political leaders, who are regarded by U.S. officials as corrupt and untrustworthy. Instead, the United States has Somali intelligence agents on its payroll. Somali sources with knowledge of the program described the agents as lining up to receive monthly $200 cash payments from Americans. “They support us in a big way financially,” says the senior Somali intelligence official. “They are the largest [funder] by far.”
According to former detainees, the underground prison, which is staffed by Somali guards, consists of a long corridor lined with filthy small cells infested with bedbugs and mosquitoes. One said that when he arrived in February, he saw two white men wearing military boots, combat trousers, gray tucked-in shirts, and black sunglasses. The former prisoners described the cells as windowless and the air thick, moist, and disgusting. Prisoners, they said, are not allowed outside. Many have developed rashes and scratch themselves incessantly. Some have been detained for a year or more. According to one former prisoner, inmates who had been there for long periods would pace around constantly, while others leaned against walls, rocking.
Once detainees are in custody, according to the senior Somali intelligence official and former prisoners, some are freely interrogated by U.S. and French agents. “Our goal is to please our partners, so we get more [out] of them, like any relationship,” said the Somali intelligence official in describing the policy of allowing foreign agents, including CIA agents, to interrogate prisoners.
Among the men believed to be held in the secret underground prison is Ahmed Abdullahi Hassan, a 25- or 26-year-old Kenyan citizen who disappeared from the congested Somali slum of Eastleigh in Nairobi around July 2009. After he went missing, Hassan’s family retained Mbugua Mureithi, a well-known Kenyan human rights lawyer, who filed a habeas petition on his behalf. The Kenyan government responded that Hassan was not being held in Kenya and said it had no knowledge of his whereabouts. His fate remained a mystery until spring 2011, when another man who had been held in the Mogadishu prison contacted Clara Gutteridge, a veteran human rights investigator with the British legal organization Reprieve, and told her he had met Hassan in the prison. Hassan, he said, had told him how Kenyan police had knocked down his door, snatched him, and taken him to a secret location in Nairobi. The next night, Hassan had said, he was rendered to Mogadishu.
“They put a bag on my head, Guantánamo style. They tied my hands behind my back and put me on a plane,” he told the former fellow prisoner. “In the early hours we landed in Mogadishu. The way I realized I was in Mogadishu was because of the smell of the sea—the runway is just next to the seashore. The plane lands and touches the sea. They took me to this prison, where I have been up to now. I have been here for one year, seven months. I have been interrogated so many times. Interrogated by Somali men and white men. Every day. New faces show up. They have nothing on me. I have never seen a lawyer, never seen an outsider. Only other prisoners, interrogators, guards. Here there is no court or tribunal.”
Gutteridge began working with Hassan’s Kenyan lawyers to determine his whereabouts. She says he has never been charged or brought before a court. “Hassan’s abduction from Nairobi and rendition to a secret prison in Somalia bears all the hallmarks of a classic U.S. rendition operation,” she says. The U.S. official interviewed for this article denied that the CIA had rendered Hassan but said, “The United States provided information which helped get Hassan—a dangerous terrorist—off the street.” Human Rights Watch and Reprieve have documented that Kenyan security and intelligence forces have facilitated scores of renditions for the U.S. and other governments, including 85 people rendered to Somalia in 2007 alone.
Hassan’s lawyers are preparing to file a habeas petition on his behalf in U.S. courts. “Hassan’s case suggests that the United States may be involved in a decentralized, outsourced Guantánamo Bay in central Mogadishu,” his legal team asserted in a statement to The Nation. “Mr. Hassan must be given the opportunity to challenge both his rendition and continued detention as a matter of urgency. The United States must urgently confirm exactly what has been done to Mr. Hassan, why he is being held, and when he will be given a fair hearing.”
The underground prison where Hassan is allegedly being held is housed in the same building once occupied by Somalia’s infamous National Security Service (NSS) during the military regime of Siad Barre, who ruled from 1969 to 1991. The former prisoner who met Hassan there said he saw an old NSS sign outside. During Barre’s regime, the notorious basement prison and interrogation center, which sits behind the presidential palace in Mogadishu, was a staple of the state’s apparatus of repression. It was referred to as Godka, “the Hole.”
“The bunker is there, and that’s where the intelligence agency does interrogate people,” says Abdirahman “Aynte” Ali, a Somali analyst who has researched the Shabab and Somali security forces. “When CIA and other intelligence agencies—who actually are in Mogadishu—want to interrogate those people, they usually just do that.” Somali officials “start the interrogation, but then foreign intelligence agencies eventually do their own interrogation as well, the Americans and the French.” The U.S. official said that U.S. agents’ “debriefing” prisoners in the facility has “been done on only rare occasions” and always jointly with Somali agents.
In the 18 years since the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident in Mogadishu, U.S. policy on Somalia has been marked by neglect, miscalculation, and failed attempts to use warlords to build indigenous counterterrorism capacity, many of which have backfired dramatically.
Today, Somali government forces control roughly 30 square miles of territory in Mogadishu thanks in large part to the U.S.-funded and -armed 9,000-member African Union force, known as AMISOM. Much of the rest of the city is under the control of the Shabab or warlords. Outgunned, the Shabab increasingly has relied on the linchpins of asymmetric warfare—suicide bombings, roadside bombs, and targeted assassinations. The militant group repeatedly has shown that it can strike deep in the heart of its enemies’ territory
In an interview with The Nation in Mogadishu, Abdulkadir Moallin Noor, the minister of state for the presidency, confirmed that U.S. agents “are working with our intelligence” and “giving them training.” Regarding the U.S. counterterrorism effort, Noor said bluntly, “We need more; otherwise, the terrorists will take over the country.”
It is unclear how much control, if any, Somalia’s internationally recognized president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, has over this counterterrorism force or if he is even fully briefed on its operations. The CIA personnel and other U.S. intelligence agents “do not bother to be in touch with the political leadership of the country. And that says a lot about the intentions,” says analyst Abdirahman “Aynte” Ali. “Essentially, the CIA seems to be operating, doing the foreign policy of the United States. You should have had State Department people doing foreign policy, but the CIA seems to be doing it across the country.”
While the Somali officials interviewed for this story said that the CIA is the lead U.S. agency on the Mogadishu counterterrorism program, they also indicated that U.S. military intelligence agents are at times involved. Asked if they are from the elite U.S. counterterrorism force, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), or the Defense Intelligence Agency, the senior Somali intelligence official responded, “We don’t know. They don’t tell us.”
On June 23 the United States reportedly carried out a drone strike against alleged Shabab members near Kismayo, 300 miles from the Somali capital. A JSOC team reportedly swooped in on helicopters and reportedly snatched the bodies of those killed and wounded. The men were taken to an undisclosed location. On July 6 three more U.S. strikes reportedly targeted Shabab training camps in the same area. Somali analysts warned that if the U.S. bombings cause civilian deaths, as they have in the past, they could increase support for the Shabab.
Asked in an interview with The Nation in Mogadishu if U.S. drone strikes strengthen or weaken his government, President Sharif replied, “Both at the same time. For our sovereignty, it’s not good to attack a sovereign country. That’s the negative part. The positive part is you’re targeting individuals who are criminals.”
A week after the June 23 strike, President Barack Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, described an emerging U.S. strategy that would focus not on “deploying large armies abroad but [on] delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten the United States.” Brennan singled out the Shabab, saying, “From the territory it controls in Somalia, Al Shabab continues to call for strikes against the United States,” adding, “We cannot and we will not let down our guard. We will continue to pummel al-Qaeda and its ilk.”
Jeremy Scahill, a Puffin Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute, is The Nation’s national security correspondent. Excerpted from The Nation (Aug. 1, 2011), a progressive publication that weighs in weekly on politics, arts, and culture. www.thenation.com
Have something to say? Send a letter to email@example.com. This article first appeared in the January-February 2012 issue of Utne Reader.