Somalia Raids Were Long in the Making

U.S. military forces have long planned the operation under way in Somalia, training Ethiopian troops and gathering intelligence on the ground. They have awaited an opportunity to attack Islamist extremists there.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Pentagon is providing little information about U.S. air operations in Somalia. A spokesman has only confirmed a single air strike that targeted what was described as principal al-Qaida leadership in the east African country. But reports from Somalia say air strikes are continuing.

NPR's senior news analyst Ted Koppell joins us now. He's been talking with a senior U.S. military official with firsthand knowledge of operations in Somalia. Good morning.

TED KOPPELL: Good morning, Renee. How are you?

MONTAGNE: Fine, thank you. And what can you tell us about the military involvement in Somalia?

KOPPELL: First of all, let me tell you about what's going on, because it's not just happening on - or in the air or from the air. U.S. military forces have, of course, been down on the ground for a long time. There are about 1,400 special operations forces and Marines who've been operating out of Djibouti who have been in Ethiopia, training Ethiopian troops, and who have been on the ground, actually, in Somalia gathering intelligence.

So whereas we may have had the impression that this was sort of a quick and dirty operation, this is something that has been in the planning stages for a long time, just waiting for the appropriate moment where the targets could be hit.

MONTAGNE: And do we know who exactly is being targeted?

KOPPELL: Well, they know that there are senior members of what they call the Council of Islamic Courts. That was the Islamic group that briefly took over control of Somalia, but is now on the run again. And several members of that council are believed to have very close ties with Osama bin Laden's organization, al-Qaida.

And they believe that two or three of the members of that council were directly involved in the bombing of U.S. embassies in east Africa about eight years ago.

MONTAGNE: Now the Ethiopian army has been largely instrumental in driving the Islamists from power in Mogadishu and keeping them on the run. What is the U.S.'s position on Ethiopia's involvement in Somalia?

KOPPELL: Very much a partner. The United States, as I say, has had troops in Ethiopia, has been training those troops on the group and has been waiting for an appropriate opportunity. As that official you mentioned, the military official told me yesterday they use whatever tools they feel are most appropriate.

The point he made was that if you're operating in London, for example, you work with the cooperation and collaboration of Scotland Yard. If you're operating in Somalia, you work with the collaboration of the Ethiopian army. So this is very much a joint operation.

But by the same token, this official was careful to point out that we should not look upon this as being the opening of a new front. They want to get in, they want to get out.

MONTAGNE: Although there has been concern this past week or so expressed about a wider conflict in that area - the horn of Africa, which juts out towards the Middle East.

KOPPELL: Well, it's a reasonable concern to have, because, obviously, having achieved what has been achieved over the past few weeks - largely by the Ethiopian troops, of driving the Council of Islamic Courts out of power - the question is who's going to keep them out of power?

The Ethiopians are talking about withdrawing their forces, although I wouldn't take that too, too seriously. The Americans are saying they're hoping that the organization of African Union will be able to come in and do something, or that even the previous government may be able to resume control. That, I fear, may be whistling in the dark.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much.

KOPPELL: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppell.

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Timeline: Violence Ties U.S. and Somalia Together

Kenyan Army soldiers near the border with Somalia. Credit: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images. i i

Kenyan Army soldiers stand guard close to the border with Somalia on Jan. 7. The Kenyans guarded the border to ensure that Islamists under fire in Somalia could not cross into Kenya. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images
Kenyan Army soldiers near the border with Somalia. Credit: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images.

Kenyan Army soldiers stand guard close to the border with Somalia on Jan. 7. The Kenyans guarded the border to ensure that Islamists under fire in Somalia could not cross into Kenya.

AFP/Getty Images

Airstrikes against suspected al-Qaida targets in Somalia are the first United States military attacks in the country since a failed humanitarian mission ended in the mid-1990s. The relationship between East Africa and U.S. security has been an open question since then.

In late Jan. 1991, Somali warlords toppled the government of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. The collapse of the government, and resulting clan-based violence, led to a famine that drew international attention.

In December 1992 — the waning days of his administration — President George H.W. Bush responded by joining with the U.N. to lead a humanitarian mission to Somalia. The effort was spearheaded by American troops.

By the Fall of 1993, the humanitarian mission was entangled in the competition between Somali clans for power and resources. International efforts to bring order to the unruly country proved unsuccessful.

On Oct. 3-4, 1993, the Blackhawk Down incident took place, during a raid against the forces of warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed. The warlord's forces shot down two U.S. helicopters and killed 18 U.S. servicemen. An undetermined number of Somalis, thought to be in the hundreds, were killed in the fighting. The incident permanently turned American opinion against the intervention in Somalia.

In 1994 the U.S. began pulling out of Somalia, leaving a failed state with no central government. In the years after the pullout, the U.S. continued to watch Somalia for its potential to harbor terrorists.

On Aug. 7, 1998, the peace in neighboring Kenya, and Tanzania to the south, was shattered when simultaneous bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam killed more than 200 people, most of them locals. The bombings were linked to al-Qaida.

Among those believed by the U.S. government to be responsible for the embassy bombings was Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a native of the Indian Ocean island nation of Comoros who had moved to Kenya in the mid-1990s and married a local woman.

By Nov. 28, 2002, Fazul was believed to have been involved in two more operations in Kenya: a car bombing at a resort on the coast that killed 10 Kenyans and three Israelis and, at the same time, a failed attempt to shoot down an Israeli passenger jet.

After the attacks, Fazul took shelter in Somalia, which still lacked any government.

In 2004, with the help of the U.N., Somalia formed a transitional government. But the government failed to gain traction and was eventually overshadowed on the ground by a coalition of Islamist forces operating under the banner of the Islamic Courts Union.

On Dec. 24, 2006, Ethiopia bombed targets in Somalia in support of the transitional Somali government. Backed by foreign troops, the government of President Abdullahi Yusuf swept into Mogadishu on Dec. 29, scattering the Islamic forces across the country.

On Jan. 7, 2007, the U.S. apparently took advantage of disarray among the Islamic forces in Somalia to attack suspected al-Qaida leaders. The target, or targets, near the Kenyan border were thought to include Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, and two others involved in the 1998 embassy bombings.

From NPR and Associated Press reports.

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