Government troops in Baidoa, Somalia, where the United States reportedly helped Ethiopia battle Islamist forces. (Michael Kamber for The New York Times )

U.S. routed Islamic militants from Ethiopia


WASHINGTON: The U.S. 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 U.S. officials.

The close and largely clandestine relationship with Ethiopia also included significant sharing of intelligence on the Islamic militants' positions and information from U.S. spy satellites with the Ethiopian military. Members of a secret U.S. 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 U.S. officials as a qualified success that disrupted terrorist networks in the East African nation, led to the death and 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 Muhammad and Fahid Muhammad Ally Msalam, whom the United States has hunted for their suspected roles in the attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

[An Ethiopian official denied Friday that U.S. troops used Ethiopia as a staging ground for attacks against Qaeda leaders, The Associated Press reported from Mogadishu, Somalia.

["This is simply a total fabrication," said the official, Bereket Simon, adviser to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.]

With Somalia still in a chaotic state, and U.S. and African officials struggling to cobble together a peacekeeping force for the war-ravaged country, the long-term effects of the recent U.S. operations remain unclear.

It has been known for several weeks that U.S. 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 U.S. 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. After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush gave the Pentagon the authority to carry out these missions, which historically had been reserved for intelligence operatives.

When Ethiopian troops first began a large-scale military offensive in Somalia late last year, officials in Washington denied that the Bush administration had given its tacit approval to the Ethiopian government.

In interviews over the past several weeks, however, officials from several U.S. agencies with a hand in Somalia policy have described a close alliance between Washington and the Ethiopian government that was developed with a common purpose: rooting out Islamic radicalism inside Somalia.

The Pentagon has been training Ethiopian troops for counterterrorism operations for several years in camps near the Somali border, including Ethiopian special forces called the Agazi Commandos, which were part of the Ethiopian offensive in Somalia.

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to discuss details of the U.S. operation, but some officials agreed to provide specifics because they saw it as a relative success story. They said that the close relationship had included the sharing of battlefield intelligence on the Islamists' positions the result of an Ethiopian request to General John Abizaid, then the head of the U.S. Central Command. John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence at the time, then authorized spy satellites to be diverted to provide information for Ethiopian troops, the officials said.

The deepening U.S. alliance with Ethiopia is the latest twist in the United States' on-and-off intervention in Somalia, beginning with an effort in 1992 to distribute food to starving Somalis and evolving into a deadly confrontation in 1993 between U.S. troops and fighters loyal to a Somali warlord, Muhammad Farah Aidid.

The latest chapter began last June when the Council of Islamic Courts, an armed fundamentalist movement, defeated a coalition of warlords backed by the CIA and took power in Mogadishu, the capital. The Islamists were believed to be sheltering Qaeda militants involved in the embassy bombings, as well as in a 2002 hotel bombing in Kenya.

After a failed CIA effort to arm and finance Somali warlords, the Bush administration decided on a policy to bolster Somalia's weak transitional government. This decision brought U.S. policy in line with Ethiopia's.

As the Islamists' grip on power grew stronger, their militias began to encircle Baidoa, where the transitional government was operating in virtual exile. Ethiopian officials pledged that if the Islamists attacked Baidoa, they would respond with a full-scale assault.

While Washington resisted officially endorsing an Ethiopian invasion, U.S. officials from several government agencies said that the Bush administration decided last year that an incursion was the best option to dislodge the Islamists.

When the Ethiopian offensive began on Dec. 24, it soon turned into a rout, somewhat to the Americans' surprise. Armed with U.S. intelligence, the Ethiopians' tank columns, artillery batteries and military jets made quick work of the ill-equipped Islamist militia.

As the Islamists retreated, the Qaeda operatives and their close aides fled south toward a swampy region. Using information provided by Ethiopian forces in Somalia as well as U.S. intelligence, a task force from the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command began planning direct strikes.

On Dec. 31, the largely impotent transitional government of Somalia submitted a formal request to the U.S. ambassador in Kenya asking for the United States to take action against the militants.

Abizaid called Defense Secretary Robert Gates and told him that the Central Command was sending additional Special Operations Forces to the region. The deployment was carried out under the terms of an earlier, classified directive that gave the military the authority to kill or capture senior Qaeda operatives if it was determined that the failure to act expeditiously meant the United States would lose a "fleeting opportunity" to neutralize the enemy, U.S. officials said.

On Jan. 6, two air force AC-130 gunships, aircraft with devastating firepower, arrived at a small airport in eastern Ethiopia.

U.S. Special Operations troops operating in Kenya, working with the Kenyan military, also set up positions along the southern border to capture militants trying to flee the country.

Off the coast, a U.S. Navy flotilla began to search for ships that might be carrying fleeing Qaeda operatives.

Jeffrey Gettleman contributed reporting from Nairobi.


Abukar Albadri/European Pressphoto Agency
A woman and her child sit in the third-floor window of their Mogadishu home, which has been repeatedly shelled and was hit again on Tuesday.

A picture released 17 January 2007 by the US Air Force (USAF) shows Ethiopians from the nearby village of Bilate sitting near an Air Force C-130 Hercules deployed to Ethiopia. The US military remained silent on a press report Friday that US ground troops used Ethiopian bases to fight Al-Qaeda in Somalia, but said it would help regional allies fight terrorists.(AFP/USAF-HO/File) ... AFP/USAF-HO/File via Yahoo! News - Feb 23 11:20 AM

Ethiopia Denies U.S. Troops Staged Somalia Attacks From its Territory

Friday, February 23, 2007 | AP

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia An Ethiopian official denied Friday a report in the New York Times that U.S. troops used Ethiopia as a staging ground for attacks against Al Qaeda leaders in Somalia last month.

"This is simply a total fabrication," Bereket Simon, special adviser to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, told The Associated Press.

The Times report, published Friday, cited unnamed American sources officials from several U.S. agencies with a hand in Somalia policy as saying the U.S. soldiers used an airstrip in Ethiopia to mount strikes against Islamic militants in Somalia.

The report went on to say that the U.S. and Ethiopia relationship included the sharing of intelligence on the militants.

U.S. officials earlier acknowledged two airstrikes over Somalia in January, but had given few details. The strikes were reported to have been conducted by U.S. forces based in another Horn of Africa country, Djibouti, though officials had not confirmed that.

U.S. ships had also patrolled off Somalia's coast in search of al-Qaida members thought to be fleeing Somalia following Ethiopia's December invasion.

Meanwhile, Uganda's top defense officials arrived in Somalia ahead of a planned African Union peacekeeping deployment, a day after Islamic extremists threatened suicide attacks against Ugandan and other foreign troops, officials said Friday.

Uganda's Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga and Chief of Defense Forces Aronda Nyakairima said their forces would help train a national army and provide security to Somalia's transitional government, a Somali government minister said.

"We expect the troops to be here in two weeks," Hassan Abshir Farah, who represented the Somali government at one meeting, told The Associated Press.

Talks were held in the southern town of Baidoa on Thursday. The five-member Ugandan mission then traveled to the restive capital, Mogadishu, on Friday for further talks with Deputy Defense Minister Salad Ali Jelle to assess bases for the AU peacekeepers, their arrival date and stabilization of the country, Jelle said.

AU officials say they have more than $70 million through donations from the European Union, U.S. and Britain to pay for the Somali peacekeeping mission.

"The African Union will reimburse each troop-contributing country for the costs incurred for their troop deployments," Assane Ba, spokesman for the AU's conflict prevention department, said from its headquarters in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

The AU peacekeeping force is planned to reach a level of 8,000 troops.

The government, backed by Ethiopian troops, drove out a radical Islamic movement that had gained control of the capital Mogadishu and most of the south. The U.N. Security Council on Tuesday unanimously approved its deployment.

Ethiopian troops have started to pull out, to be replaced by the peacekeeping force, which will have to confront the growing violence that has plagued Mogadishu since the interim government took over.

An advance team of Burundian peacekeepers was scheduled to begin arriving Friday but defense official's have been unwilling to comment on the deployment.

Insurgents have staged near-daily attacks since the Islamic militants were driven out, with Mogadishu's civilian population bearing the brunt of the violence. Hundreds of families have begun fleeing the coastal city of 2 million people, and hospitals are struggling to cope with the daily influx of wounded.

Somalia has not had an effective national government since 1991, when warlords overthrew a dictator, carved the capital into armed, clan-based camps, and left most of the rest of the country ungoverned. A transitional government was formed in 2004 with U.N. help. Weakened by clan rivalries, it struggled to assert authority, leaving a vacuum the Islamic movement moved to fill.

The Islamic movement chased the warlords from Mogadishu last year and was credited with restoring order in areas of southern Somalia it controlled. But some Somalis chafed at its fundamentalist version of Islam and the U.S. and the Somali government accused it of harboring Al Qaeda suspects.