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Analysis
Intelligence, Secrecy and the Lack Thereof
Attack of the Bombastics
By ROBERT YOUNG PELTON 07/16/2011
The recent article in the Nation by Jeremy Scahill has brought a familiar Iraq and Afghanistan story to Somalia. Daring western journalists penetrating dangerous territory to discover sites even locals don't know exist in florid terms that would have made Stanley or Livingstone blush.

The short of it is that Jeremy Scahill has claimed discovery of a secret prison. He may be part of a trending influx of western journalists now proclaiming their arrival with bombastic terms and seeking flamboyant scoops. In June, Peter Greste, writing for the Telegraph, proclaimed himself " the first Western journalist to truly penetrate Somalia's badlands" and now Scahill twitters his book jacket quality photo heralding his unembedded status to the world. Although he insists he was there to investigate targeted killings (he was in the wrong city) on his first trip to Somalia, Scahill seemed more eager to promote his visit than any factual data as he distributed a pre-article photo of himself wearing sunglasses and crouching, apparently to avoid sniper fire, while his bemused Somali guards stand around and look down on him.

To be fair, western journalists in Somalia are rare compared to Afghanistan or Iraq. Most have to badger their editors to gamble on a new angle as well as justify the high cost and risk to hire security. Then they must endure the long flight to Mogadishu, the memorable heat and spartan conditions to cover what might turn out to be a non-story.

Most choose to do the AU/African Union peacekeeping (AMISOM) tour, and if they are unused to the amount of flying projectiles Mogadishu's residents live with on a regular basis, they do a fair bit of crouching and gesticulating about the dangers and business of covering the war rather than providing insight on the actual fighting. The Beeb sends in a blue kevlar-swaddled correspondent on a regular basis, but even the experienced Andrew Harding dipped into the familiar cinematic intro before getting down to reporting. Somali journalists aren't usually given the luxury of explaining just how dangerous it is.

Due to the amount of uncertainty beyond Mogadishu's greenish zone, most of the media coverage of Somalia is done from the cooler, greener hills of Nairobi. For those who can't convince their employers to send them to Mog, there always is the Kenyan-based NGO dog and pony's to Dadaab refugee camp or better yet a barely comprehensible but much cheaper sat phone interview with one of the many chatty pirate spokespeople. If you can't convince a publication to front the dough...well you can always just show up as a tourist if you need some free publicity.

The bottom line is that for most belt-tightening media organizations, Somalia is just too expensive and of little interest to the western news outlets. So if they are paying the tab you better come back with a scoop. Failing that you better have some good promo reel stuff for your next assignment. In the meantime, the real coverage of Somalia is left to underpaid and under-appreciated Somali journalists. Somalia is dangerous for western journalists and reporters should be prepared. Kidnapping incidents involving Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan remain in the profession's situational awareness. The freelancers went to visit a Mogadishu area refugee camp in August of 2008 and found themselves hostages as they returned. In the north a British writer and Spanish photographer were grabbed in November of 2008 by former president's bodyguards hired to protect them in Bosaso. Both events inspired books from each group. Although things have changed since 2008, a trickle of journos do their best to stimulate interest in the region but with little success. So Somalis welcome the investment of time and energy by any foreign journalist and will share the risks – if the goal is to provide awareness of real and meaningful events.

Secret and Torture Allegations

Google Map of Airport
Google Map of Airport
So back to the latest visit by a fustian foreign freelancer who alleges that he has discovered a secret jail and a secret airport facility. Somalia Report's research suggests that Jeremy Scahill did not visit either facility since the jail is the lower level of a well known government center and the other facility is a "sprawling walled compound" at the airport, otherwise generally called Camp Halane in the oceanfront Medina section about a kilometer away from the terminal. Based on our discussions with Somalis, these two facilities appear to be a mystery only to Scahill. In his self-promotional efforts after the article was published he now maintains these facilities are "the worst kept secret in Mogadishu". It begs the question if after a couple of days the writer himself learns that a secret site is not secret, why did the Nation even bother running the article? Why exactly didn't he visit these well known, unknown sites? If Scahill's goal was to investigate US-targeted killings, how exactly was he going to do that in ten days and from Mogadishu? Just investigating al-Shabaab's targeted killings, let alone US killings, is a full-time task for this publication. But asking rhetorical questions is playing the lazy journo game. The bottom line is there appears to be no scoop.

The presence of the CIA (and other intelligence employees from other countries) has never been secretive nor even hidden from the world. Anyone who knows of the 1998 bombing attacks against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania has been keenly aware of the aggressive program to capture or kill the East Africans and global jihadi network behind it. The 2006 Ethiopian invasion to dislodge the Islamic Courts was a very public, secret operation. Before that if you hadn't heard of special operations troops supported by the OGA in Somalia during Black Hawk Down then you may have been in a secret jail for three decades. In short, ever since the Agency publicly threw its glove down in Afghanistan in late fall of 2001 they have maintained a very frank, public profile of its aggressive agenda: Find terrorists, support governments who hunt terrorists, and use whatever means necessary to bring them to justice.

There are about 20 cleared American employees that work around the base near the airport. There are also many contractors who support the UN operations who live there. At one point the mayor of Mogadishu complained there were around 30 foreign contracting companies based at the airport. There is an unknown larger group of TFG-related staff and an even larger group of "assets" in the cities of Mogadishu and Kismayo who support intel activities. Along the border and in the midst of the fighting is a larger world of Ethiopian, ASWJ and supportive clans who work together to oust al-Shabaab. Usually Somalis are the ones who help the Somali intelligence service track down al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, suspected killers and potential terrorists. There are also training and intel gathering bases in Somaliland and Puntland. Neither are secret or that controversial. Once again Somalia is a known haven for insurgent groups, kidnappers and individuals known to have killed civilians and government officials. The intelligence network goes back to the early 90's when the US recruited Somalis to support international efforts to protect international aid for Somalis.

Besides the gilding of his non-discoveries, the point Scahill tries to make in his original is that there is torture going on and that extraordinary rendition of a Kenyan into Somalia was done so that the victim could be interrogated by CIA officers. In response to Scahill's accusation, the CIA publicly stated that they had been involved in some interrogations. But if Scahill's logic holds that the Agency has its own fleet of planes and has no problem renditioning suspects, there is no need for government employees to journey all the way to Mogadishu to question detainees. Journalistic logic would dictate that, like most prison inmates who claim innocence, the suspect should have been grilled a little harder. Even Scahill backpedaled on this unproven claim in subsequent interviews stating flatly that he does not have the journalistic accepted proof of torture.

Scahill accuses the CIA of torture based on the singular allegations of 25ish Kenyan named Ahmed Abdullahi Hassan, who apparently has legal representation via a human rights group and a Kenya legal team (directly conflicting his claims of not having a lawyer). We are supposed to believe that this poor man was snatched from Nairobi, endured months of torture and of course, is innocent. Scahill is a long-time champion of the common man and typically chooses contractors, corporations, the wealthy or government as the black-hatted abusers. In this case, he may be picking the wrong fight. His other anonymous sources to engender outrage at Hassan's treatment sound no more convincing than the usual qat-fueled chatter that passes for news in Bakara's market stalls. The troubling question of the CIA engaging in secret prisons, extrajudicial rendition and torture either directly or via proxies is an important story worthy of much more effort than expended in this attempt.

As for his claims of torture in the newly discovered secret prison: "I don't have any information I can report that there is torture taking place". So The Nation has reversed their own claims of torture and can't quite figure out where that prison is. Furthermore, Scahill's conversation with Hassan is never clearly sourced nor do we clearly understand the genesis of his outrage. It appears even to the casual reader that Hassan might be exactly the kind of killer we would want snatched, bagged and confined until authorities fully comprehend his agenda.

Al-Shabaab is a group known for its cold blooded murder of civilians in Somalia and Uganda. Their brutal treatment of Somalis and constant threats to kill civilians and westerners...just like Jeremy Scahill... should be part of the focus of any crusading human rights journo obsessed with targeted killings. This does not mean that we should support the abuse of innocent civilians by government, but it means that Scahill seems to infer that people in prison are being abused by the CIA when it appears (based on our direct conversations and photos of the TFG soldiers arrested for killing civilians incarcerated there) it might actually be the people inside the prison who were abusing people. Hassan specifically was grabbed in Eastleigh in Nairobi in the spring of 2009 and coincidently his alleged Yemeni/Kenyan al-Qaeda boss, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, was killed just outside of Mogadishu by special operations teams only a few months later. Hassan apparently lost a leg fighting in Mogadishu. It seems Hassan may not be the poor victim Scahill is making him out to be.

Somalia Report invites Scahill to apply equal zeal in investigating the jailing and torture of elders and civilians by al-Shabaab and any number of unsolved murders on innocent civilians by this group.

Based on the casualty list from the recent airstrikes in Somalia and around the world, it would seem that the CIA, JSOC and even TFG forces might be killing some of the right people and that al-Shabaab might be killing many of the wrong people.

CIA right or wrong?

It is an uncomfortable position (for readership reasons) for the media to support intelligence activities, military violence and even subterfuge by government agencies. It is also equally uncomfortable (for safety reasons) to send journos to tell the truth about groups like al-Shabaab, which have been publicly and violently opposed to aid organizations, journalism, western influence and even hand-to-mouth commerce by ordinary Somalis. Even a casual visitor to Mogadishu will not find many Somalis who support the use of al-Shabaab's IED's, public executions or amputations. Scahill's report is remarkably free of candid conversations with ordinary Somalis about the full spectrum of abuse they endure. Where exactly is the Nation's outrage at the single most violent and abusive group in Somalia?

Somalia Report sent its journalists out to see if they could support or add to the claims made by Scahill's after his ten-day junket. The compound at the airport was the easiest. There is an intelligence support and training compound at the airport. There are others around the city, including one a few yards from his "secret prison". These facilities are only secret if Scahill doesn't know about it.

There are a number of Americans and foreigners working at the airport. It is the UN that is now enjoying new facilities recently built. A quick view of Google Maps shows two tiny hangers blanked out and recent maps prepared by Somalia Report show a large contractor compound. More recent satellite photos are available from vendors like Ikonos and even photos by our journalists. Even Scahill insists he could see the facility from his landing aircraft. So could it be that this facility is not secret?

There is a contingent of about two dozen Americans that work with the Somali intelligence service who try to get information on terrorist activity using direct investigations and paid assets. The French are active as well and Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, off shore air and navy along with JSOC related assets in Kenyan bases provide support for logistics, electronic eavesdropping and intelligence. Once again, recent Predator and air strikes in the south are clear indicators that there is an active intelligence and support network at work in Somalia. Directly contradicting Scahill's follow-up claim that there isn't a single intelligence asset amongst al-Shabaab.

What about the secret prison?

Prison Entry
Prison Entry

The Somali Deputy National Security and Interior Minister was the first to downplay the issue saying that there is nothing like a CIA run underground prison. They are correct. Yes there is a prison but it is not secret and it is below the presentation hall on the west side of Villa Somalia making it both above and below ground due to the hilly nature of Mogadishu. The government building houses the TFG, AMISOM soldiers, a clinic and vendors. There is a crude dummy out front to draw al-Shabaab sniper fire, and about a dozen soldiers sitting around in the shade chatting. When Somalia Report visited the prison there were TFG soldiers being brought in for murdering civilians. Once again it is the government prison within the government compound and neither secret or unapproachable. Scahill could have easily visited the prison to check out his claims.

Secret Compounds?

Ibrahim Isaak Yarow, the deputy minister, is the most senior TFG official to address the issue with Somalia Report complaining that it is hard to access the airport, and more so the area in question. Passengers who fly out must wait while a crane lifts a concrete barrier to let them pass, inside private security employees from Uganda operate the x-ray machines and airport security. With a history of suicide bombers directly targeting TFG and western support facilities it is understandable that they are difficult to access but Scahill's bragging of his un-embedded status and clear agenda, it would logically make it difficult for him to officially visit many sensitive locations. Somalia Report regularly visits prisons, government offices, NGO's, foreign contract sites with the understanding that criticism is allowed but please do not publicly provide the ability for an attack by a hostile party. Scahill seems intent more on exposing exact location of facilities where Somalis are trained and housed and then criticizing the donors for not keeping them secret.

There are several new buildings being erected within the airport compound that are meant to house UN offices and other international relief aid centers. The UN was under increasing pressure to move their employees to Mogadishu. There has been an influx of contractors, notably employees of Tim Spicer's Aegis, which provides security for the UN, deminers, trainers and support staff. Clearly security is a major concern and access reflects that need to protect lives. There is however a open invitation to accredited media by the UN, but not by intelligence agencies. Scahill's follow-up fact checking with the Agency (who confirmed that they sometimes support interrogations) was met with twitter outrage: "Now the CIA is just straight up lying about my Somalia story".

Surely even the most neophyte journalist understands that a clandestine agency is not in the business of providing open access to classified and sensitive sites. Scahill's inability to actually locate his secret prisons or buttress his accusations of torture with fact do not equal being right. Nor does the CIA's acknowledgment of their support of Somali intelligence activities make them wrong.

"2011 has witnessed many Americans coming to Somalia and we are always told that they are here on the behalf of the UN," a senior airport security official told Somalia Report.

"They are all welcomed by AMISOM and are taken to the AMISOM Halane base camp. From there we have no idea where they vanish to," added the source.

As for Scahill's defense of his accusations: "The story is 100% true".