Massive military base buildup suggests the U.S. shadow war in Somalia is only getting bigger

The U.S. military is dramatically expanding its operations at a former Soviet air strip in Somalia, constructing more than 800 beds at the Baledogle base, VICE News has learned. The construction at the secretive base marks the latest example of America’s growing and controversial shadow war in Africa.

Baledogle’s expansion is one part of what appears to be a massive U.S. military infrastructure development project in the Horn of Africa country that will see at least six new U.S. outposts built this year, according to multiple defense contractors who spoke to VICE News.

The buildup coincides with an aggressive escalation by U.S. forces in their fight against al Qaida-linked al-Shabaab. U.S. Africa Command (known as AFRICOM) now has more than 500 U.S. military personnel in Somalia, according to a spokeswoman, a dramatic increase from 2016, when AFRICOM only acknowledged 50 American troops on the ground.

And since January 2017, U.S. forces have conducted at least 48 airstrikes in Somalia, compared to 14 in 2016 and 11 in 2015, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based watchdog organization.

Access to Baledogle is highly restricted, but American contractors and Somali security officials with knowledge of the project told VICE News the construction work began last June, soon after Somalia officially declared war on the insurgency group al-Shabaab. AFRICOM wouldn’t comment on specific base sizes, but it confirmed that Somalia now has the third-largest concentration of U.S. DOD personnel on the continent, after Djibouti and Niger.

Baledogle — or “B-dog” as it’s colloquially referred to by the Americans in Somalia — has long been a forward operating base on the plains of Southern Somalia, a bumpy, 40-minute propeller plane ride from Mogadishu or a days-long drive through terrain littered with IEDs. Until recently just a few dozen American personnel worked in secrecy there alongside African Union Peacekeepers and Somali National Army Special Forces.

But over the past year, yellow Caterpillar excavators and compactors have flooded the grounds and rickety secondhand trucks carrying petrol and equipment have bumbled their way daily into the base’s gates. Mounds of red earth have been flattened and tan tents erected in their place.

According to the scope of work seen by VICE News, the Department of Defense funded the construction of at least 208 of these beds through the U.S. Army’s Logistical Civil Augmentation Program. The other 600 beds are being constructed under the Department of State’s Africa Peacekeeping Program, according to one contractor with knowledge of the project.

“The size of the Baledogle has doubled in the last year. There are many more Americans here now, and planes are coming in every day to the base,” one Somali soldier stationed at the base said on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

Military leaders have kept a tight lid on U.S. activity in Somalia, but the recent flood of American resources into the country suggests a deepening involvement beyond the counterterror mission against al-Shabaab. Increasingly, experts and contractors familiar with military activities say, the U.S. is setting its sights on building up Somalia as another key strategic location for American military activity in Africa and the Middle East.

An explosive escalation

Last year, the Trump administration removed several Obama-era restrictions on airstrikes, including interagency vetting prior to each strike and a requirement that every target must pose a direct threat to American lives. Trump also designated parts of Somalia as “areas of active hostilities,” meaning that U.S. Special Operations Forces now have the authority to go on the offensive to target members of al-Shabaab and ISIS.

Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the head of AFRICOM, told lawmakers in March that even though his forces had “turned up the heat in the last few months” in their fight against al-Shabaab, the U.S. was gearing up for a long fight ahead.

“It’s going to be slow, there is no doubt about it,” Waldhauser said. “I’ve said on several occasions you measure progress in Somalia by eighths of an inch, not by yardsticks or rulers.”

Waldhauser’s mandate grants him relative freedom to achieve those goals. AFRICOM conducts its counterterror operations across the continent under Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the congressional legislation passed in the wake of 9/11 that grants the military sweeping power in its war on terror. And in Somalia, the U.S. military has been careful to frame its mission under its broad definition of counterterror, claiming that al-Shabaab leaders have strong links to al Qaida as the reason for going after the terror group. But recent al-Shabaab defectors have cast doubts on the extent to which al-Shabaab maintains ties to al Qaida today, and the threat the group poses outside of Somalia.

“Al Qaida offered us strategic advice, media advice, and technical approaches, but many of the the al Qaida officials in charge of working with us have been killed in Yemen, so the link is weaker now,” one recent mid-level defector told VICE News.

The same post–9/11 authorization has been used to justify the expanding presence of U.S. Special Operations Forces across Africa. In 2006, just 1 percent of all U.S. commandos overseas were deployed to Africa. But by 2017, it jumped to 17 percent, meaning there are more U.S. Special Operators on the continent than anywhere else in the world outside the Middle East. Today these operators are carrying out almost 100 missions at any given time in at least 20 African countries, according to an internal military report uncovered by VICE News last year.

To support these troops, the U.S. has quietly been building a series of outposts across Africa. AFRICOM has long maintained that its base in Djibouti, Camp Lemmonier, which is home to roughly 4,000 U.S. personnel, is the only permanent forward operating base on the continent, yet in April 2017 it admitted to having 46 U.S. outposts in Africa, 15 of which are designated “enduring locations.”

The most well-known outpost in this expansion is the new $110 million American drone base currently being built in Agadez, Niger, though it attracted attention only after the deaths of four U.S. Special Operations in the country last year. Niger Air Base 201 is expected to be up and running by 2019, when it will be home to fighter jets and MQ-9 reaper drones with surveillance and striking capabilities that can reach a number of West and North African countries. Currently 800 U.S. military personnel are deployed to Niger, where they are fighting al Qaida and the Islamic State group.

Total control

AFRICOM’s primary mission is to support local forces in their fight against al-Shabaab, Waldhauser said. “The engagements of the operations are conducted primarily by the partner force, with our support in a background role,” Waldhauser told lawmakers recently.

But in practice, these forces rely heavily on U.S. Special Operators in conceiving, planning, and carrying out operations, casting doubt on their ability to work without U.S. support. This sort of dynamic has courted controversy for AFRICOM. Last year a Navy SEAL was killed by al-Shabaab while “assisting partner forces,” according to AFRICOM. And months later, four Special Forces soldiers were killed while providing “advice and assistance” to local forces in Niger.

This is to be expected when working alongside local partners, said Luke Hartig, a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council during the Obama administration. “Anywhere that we’re engaged in these operations, their sustainability and the ability of partner forces to operate independently is often questioned, and often we don’t have a positive assessment of their ability to do that,” Hartig told VICE News.

And when it comes to Somalia, the U.S. is deeply involved with many partner forces. Today, U.S. operators are training the Somali National Army’s special forces known as Danab and the Somali National Intelligence Security (NISA) known as Gaashaan and Waran. The latter two groups, which also receive training from the CIA, have grown significantly in recent years, VICE News has learned, rousing alarm among local officials.

Waran has grown to over 300 agents, while Gaashaan now counts roughly 400. That’s a significant increase from 2010, when 40 men and three officers from the Somali National Army were taken to the U.S. to be trained as a quick-reaction force that could respond to al-Shabaab attacks in Mogadishu.

Somali security officials told VICE News that both forces’ mandate has expanded along with their ranks. According to those officials, Gaashaan is now part of a secretive unit known as Task Force, which targets high-value al-Shabaab members. This goes far beyond the forces stated mission of guarding NISA bases. In fact, Gaashaan agents are so closely managed by American forces that they only leave American quarters inside Mogadishu’s green zone for the Somali weekend, these officials said.

The U.S. has similarly expanded the ranks of Danab into several battalions operating across the country. Somali officials told VICE News that Danab is now composed of several battalions and is split into two units: the “Counter Terrorism Unit” based in Baledogle, which conducts operations primarily with the Marines; and the “Mechanized Unit” based in Mogadishu, which conducts operations with Special Operations Command Forward, an American joint Special Operations Command.

Both forces have been instrumental in U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Somalia, but their growing ranks is stirring concern. Somali security officials and politicians question their loyalty to and reliance on the U.S. military — perhaps over the Somali federal government, which, after decades of civil war and destabilization resulting from the al-Shabaab insurgency, has readily accepted American military support to fight the terror group no matter the terms.

Multiple former Somali security and political officials described a power dynamic in which American officials can threaten to withhold funding or push for the firing of Somali officials who challenge their authority. They also sometimes use U.S.-trained Somali forces without the approval or oversight of their Somali counterparts.

“The power relationship is one that favors the Americans; they have the upper hand, they have the bargaining chip to do whatever they want to do,” former Somali Internal Security Minister Abdirisak Omar Mohamed told VICE News.

AFRICOM insisted that Somalia’s government maintained control over their respective forces. “Command and control of Somali National Army (SNA) units is the responsibility of the Federal Government of Somalia, and it has has unilateral discretion to manage personnel within the SNA through their own chain of command,” AFRICOM spokeswoman Samantha Reho told VICE News.

Waldhauser has said that the goal of the joint U.S.-Somali military activity is to disrupt al-Shabaab operations and thereby create space for state-building necessary to lasting security Somalia. But without similar investment in political solutions, it’s unclear what long-term results increased military investment can yield.

“Al-Shabaab is still the most viable alternative to the government,” said Tricia Bacon, a former State Department counterterrorism expert currently researching Somalia. Al-Shabaab remains dominant in much of Southern Somalia, and as long as the group continues to provide public goods and services, she says, their operations may be disrupted but “the source of the group’s strength is still as strong as ever.”

With African Union Peacekeepers planning to withdraw from Somalia by 2020, U.S. forces and their Somali counterparts are expected to continue playing a critical role in providing security throughout the country. Yet security officials question Somalia’s ability to secure the country on its own, and worry the task will fall on the U.S. military and its already overstretched special operators.

The looming possibility of a yearslong quagmire has earned Somalia a nickname among military officials and locals: “People call Somalia Africa’s Afghanistan,” said one State Department contractor.

By Christina Goldbaum

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