February 23, 2007

Our Ethiopian Partners

Ethiopia just finished off the radical Islamists who attempted to seize control of Somalia, but that has just been their latest efforts to thwart Islamist terrorism. The US has worked closely with the Ethiopians to combat the spread of al-Qaeda in Africa, or at least we did until the New York Times reported it this morning:

The American military quietly waged a campaign from Ethiopia last month to capture or kill top leaders of Al Qaeda in the Horn of Africa, including the use of an airstrip in eastern Ethiopia to mount airstrikes against Islamic militants in neighboring Somalia, according to American officials.

The close and largely clandestine relationship with Ethiopia also included significant sharing of intelligence on the Islamic militants’ positions and information from American spy satellites with the Ethiopian military. Members of a secret American Special Operations unit, Task Force 88, were deployed in Ethiopia and Kenya, and ventured into Somalia, the officials said.

The counterterrorism effort was described by American officials as a qualified success that disrupted terrorist networks in Somalia, led to the death or capture of several Islamic militants and involved a collaborative relationship with Ethiopia that had been developing for years.

But the tally of the dead and captured does not as yet include some Qaeda leaders — including Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam — whom the United States has hunted for their suspected roles in the attacks on American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. With Somalia still in a chaotic state, and American and African officials struggling to cobble together a peacekeeping force for the war-ravaged country, the long-term effects of recent American operations remain unclear.

It has been known for several weeks that American Special Operations troops have operated inside Somalia and that the United States carried out two strikes on Qaeda suspects using AC-130 gunships. But the extent of American cooperation with the recent Ethiopian invasion into Somalia and the fact that the Pentagon secretly used an airstrip in Ethiopia to carry out attacks have not been previously reported. The secret campaign in the Horn of Africa is an example of a more aggressive approach the Pentagon has taken in recent years to dispatch Special Operations troops globally to hunt high-level terrorism suspects. President Bush gave the Pentagon powers after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to carry out these missions, which historically had been reserved for intelligence operatives.

The Bush administration had been careful to distance itself from the Ethiopian efforts in Somalia. They did not want to give the impression that the Ethiopians acted on behalf of the US in Somalia or elsewhere in Africa; in fact, at one point, they encouraged the Ethiopians to use some restraint in their pursuit of the UIC. Why? Somalia still is a touchy subject in the US, and another involvement there would not have been well received, especially with the tough situation in Baghdad.

The White House decided to give its support to the Ethiopians after the UIC appeared to gain control over the Somalian capital of Mogadishu but refrained from playing an overt role in their departure. The administration preferred to support the Ethiopians with intel and wait to see how far they could get against what looked like an entrenched Islamist movement. The lightning success of the Ethiopians surprised everyone, including the US, which had more modest hopes of just flushing the al-Qaeda elements into the open.

After the rout began, the US acted to take advantage of the flight of the Islamists. We sent special forces into the region and attacked Ras Kamboni in coordination with the Ethiopians, and we got two of our targets. Aden Hashi Ayro, a young military commander trained in Afghanistan, likely died in the attack, and another of the Islamic council’s senior leaders, Sheik Ahmed Madobe, nearly died in a second attack. He was later captured by the Ethiopians. We appear to have missed Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the mastermind of the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

It is an example of the success achieved by the Bush administration that the Ethiopian partnership put to flight an Islamist terrorist-based regime in Mogadishu. Will there be more? Not if the New York Times keeps exposing them on their front pages. Not if members of the administration keep leaking them to the New York Times, either.


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