New York Times
June 8, 2006
WASHINGTON, June 7 A covert effort by the Central Intelligence Agency to finance Somali warlords has drawn sharp criticism from American government officials who say the campaign has thwarted counterterrorism efforts inside Somalia and empowered the same Islamic groups it was intended to marginalize.
The criticism was expressed privately by United States government officials with direct knowledge of the debate. And the comments flared even before the apparent victory this week by Islamist militias in the country dealt a sharp setback to American policy in the region and broke the warlords' hold on the capital, Mogadishu.
The officials said the C.I.A. effort, run from the agency's station in Nairobi, Kenya, had channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past year to secular warlords inside Somalia with the aim, among other things, of capturing or killing a handful of suspected members of Al Qaeda believed to be hiding there.
Officials say the decision to use warlords as proxies was born in part from fears of committing large numbers of American personnel to counterterrorism efforts in Somalia, a country that the United States hastily left in 1994 after attempts to capture the warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid and his aides ended in disaster and the death of 18 American troops.
The American effort of the last year has occasionally included trips to Somalia by Nairobi-based C.I.A. case officers, who landed on warlord-controlled airstrips in Mogadishu with large amounts of money for distribution to Somali militias, according to American officials involved in Africa policy making and to outside experts.
Among those who have criticized the C.I.A. operation as short-sighted have been senior Foreign Service officers at the United States Embassy in Nairobi. Earlier this year, Leslie Rowe, the embassy's second-ranking official, signed off on a cable back to State Department headquarters that detailed grave concerns throughout the region about American efforts in Somalia, according to several people with knowledge of the report.
Around that time, the State Department's political officer for Somalia, Michael Zorick, who had been based in Nairobi, was reassigned to Chad after he sent a cable to Washington criticizing Washington's policy of paying Somali warlords.
One American government official who traveled to Nairobi this year said officials from various government agencies working in Somalia had expressed concern that American activities in the country were not being carried out in the context of a broader policy.
"They were fully aware that they were doing so without any strategic framework," the official said. "And they realized that there might be negative implications to what they are doing."
The details of the American effort in Somalia are classified, and American officials from several different agencies agreed to discuss them only after being assured of anonymity. The officials included supporters of the C.I.A.-led effort as well as critics. A C.I.A. spokesman declined to comment, as did a spokesman for the American Embassy in Kenya.
Asked about the complaints made by embassy officials in Kenya, Thomas Casey, a State Department spokesman, said: "We're not going to discuss any internal policy discussions. The secretary certainly encourages individuals in the policy making process to express their views and opinions."
Several news organizations have reported on the American payments to the Somali warlords. Reuters and Newsweek were the first to report about Mr. Zorick's cable and reassignment to Chad. The extent and location of the C.I.A.'s efforts, and the extent of the internal dissent about these activities, have not been previously disclosed.
Some Africa experts contend that the United States has lost its focus on how to deal with the larger threat of terrorism in East Africa by putting a premium on its effort to capture or kill a small number of high-level suspects.
Indeed, some of the experts point to the American effort to finance the warlords as one of the factors that led to the resurgence of Islamic militias in the country. They argue that American support for secular warlords, who joined together under the banner of the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism, may have helped to unnerve the Islamic militias and prompted them to launch pre-emptive strikes. The Islamic militias have been routing the warlords, and on Monday they claimed to have taken control of most of the Somali capital.
"This has blown up in our face, frankly," said John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit research organization with extensive field experience in Somalia.
"We've strengthened the hand of the people whose presence we were worried most about," said Mr. Prendergast, who worked on Africa policy at the National Security Council and State Department during the Clinton administration.
The American activities in Somalia have been approved by top officials in Washington and were reaffirmed during a National Security Council meeting about Somalia in March, according to people familiar with the meeting. During the March meeting, at a time of fierce fighting in and around Mogadishu, a decision was made to make counterterrorism the top policy priority for Somalia.
Porter J. Goss, who recently resigned as C.I.A. director, traveled to Kenya this year and met with case officers in the Nairobi station, according to one intelligence official. It is not clear whether the payments to Somali warlords were discussed during Mr. Goss's trip.
The American ambassador in Kenya, William M. Bellamy, has disputed assertions that Washington is to blame for the surge in violence in Somalia. And some government officials this week defended the American counterterrorism efforts in the country.
"You've got to find and nullify enemy leadership," one senior Bush administration official said. "We are going to support any viable political actor that we think will help us with counterterrorism."
In May, the United Nations Security Council issued a report detailing the competing efforts of several nations, including Ethiopia and Eritrea, to provide Somali militias and the transitional Somali government with money and arms activities the report said violated the international arms embargo on Somalia.
"Arms, military matériel and financial support continue to flow like a river to these various actors," the report said.
The United Nations report also cited what it called clandestine support for a so-called antiterrorist coalition, in what appeared to be a reference to the American policy. Somalia's interim president, Abdullahi Yusuf, first criticized American support for Mogadishu's warlords in early May during a trip to Sweden.
"We really oppose American aid that goes outside the government," he said, arguing that the best way to hunt members of Al Qaeda in Somalia was to strengthen the country's government.
Senior American officials indicated this week that the United States might now be willing to hold discussions with the Islamic militias, known as the Islamic Courts Union. President Bush said Tuesday that the first priority for the United States was to keep Somalia from becoming a safe haven for terrorists.
The American payments to the warlords have been intended at least in part to help gain the capture of a number of suspected Qaeda operatives who are believed responsible for a number of deadly attacks throughout East Africa.
Since the 1998 bombings of the United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, American officials have been tracking a Qaeda cell whose members are believed to move freely between Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and parts of the Middle East.
Shortly after an attack on a hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, and the failed attempt to shoot down a plane bound for Israel that took off from the Mombasa airport, both in November 2002, the United States began informally reaching out to the Somali clans in the hopes that local forces might provide intelligence about suspected members of Al Qaeda in Somalia.
This approach has brought occasional successes. According to an International Crisis Group report, militiamen loyal to warlord Mohammed Deere, a powerful figure in Mogadishu, caught a suspected Qaeda operative, Suleiman Abdalla Salim Hemed, in April 2003 and turned him over to American officials.
According to Mr. Prendergast, who has met frequently with Somali clan leaders, the C.I.A. over the past year has increased its payments to the militias in the hopes of putting pressure on Al Qaeda.
The operation, while blessed by officials in Washington, did not seem to be closely coordinated among various American national security agencies, he said.
"I've talked to people inside the Defense Department and State Department who said that this was not a comprehensive policy," he said. "It was being conducted in a vacuum, and they were largely shut out."