In a new investigative report published by The Nation magazine, independent journalist and Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill reveals the CIA is using a secret facility in Somalia for counterterrorism as well as an underground prison in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. Scahill says the CIA is training a new Somali force to conduct operations in the areas controlled by the militant group, Al Shabab, and in Mogadishu. While a U.S. official told The Nation that the CIA does not run the prison, he acknowledged the CIA pays the salaries of Somali agents. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: As famine and drought grip Somalia in what’s being called the worst humanitarian disaster in the world right now, The Nation magazine has revealed the CIA is greatly expanding its covert operations inside Somalia. Following an in-depth, on-the-ground investigation inside Mogadishu, the magazine revealed the agency has set up a secret counterterrorism training base at the international airport in Somalia, where it’s training an indigenous Somali force to conduct targeted combat and capture operations against members of Al Shabab, the militant group with close ties to al-Qaeda.
The Nation has also revealed the CIA is using a secret underground prison in the basement of Somalia’s National Security Agency. While a U.S. official told The Nation that the CIA does not run the prison, he acknowledged the CIA pays the salaries of Somali agents. Some of the prisoners in the prison have been snatched on the streets of Nairobi, Kenya, and rendered to Mogadishu.
The revelations come as the Joint Special Operations Command, known as JSOC, has increased its targeted killing operations inside Somalia. On June 23rd, JSOC forces targeted an alleged Shabab convoy and then landed inside Somalia to collect the bodies.
We’re joined now by Jeremy Scahill, the national security correspondent for The Nation magazine. He has just returned from Mogadishu, Somalia. He’s a longtime Democracy Now! correspondent. His story in this week’s Nation magazine is called "The CIA’s Secret Sites in Somalia."
Jeremy, talk about what you found in Somalia.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I traveled to Somalia with Rick Rowley from Big Noise Films. He’s a filmmaker. And we were there for about 10 days. And we were investigating the institution of targeted killing that is increasingly present in the U.S. national security strategy, particularly under President Obama. And when we arrived in Mogadishu, within days, we discovered that the CIA had just finished construction of a pretty massive compound at the Aden Adde International Airport in Mogadishu. And the compound, which is not even hidden in plain sight—it’s just in plain sight—looks like a gated community. It has about a dozen buildings inside of it, brand new. It’s a walled compound with guard posts at all of its—at each of its four corners. It’s right on the banks of the Indian Ocean. And then next to it there are six or eight small hangars. And the CIA also has its own aircraft there.
I was able to track down a senior Somali intelligence official and began the process of investigating this facility. And what I discovered is that the CIA is training what was described to me as an indigenous strike force, members of Somalia’s National Security Agency, its intelligence division, to conduct operations in the areas controlled by the Shabab in Mogadishu. And, you know, the situation is very fluid, but the Shabab control a huge portion of Mogadishu. And the internationally recognized government controls about 30 square miles of territory. When I asked a very prominent businessman who works in the port of Mogadishu who controls the rest, he said the Shabab government, and referred to it as such. And everyone says that if the 9,000 troops from Uganda and Burundi that are there as part of the African Union were to pull out, that the Shabab would take over in minutes, if not seconds. And so, we discovered that the CIA was expanding its operations there.
But then I also met a man who claimed that he had been held in an underground prison in the basement of the National Security Agency, which is one of the facilities where the CIA has its personnel, and it’s literally behind the presidential palace in Villa Somalia, which is the semi-fortified area where Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, the U.S.-backed government, is based. And he described to me that he had seen prisoners inside of this and talked to prisoners inside of this basement dungeon who had been there for 18 months or more. There were people that he described as young boys inside the prison, old men, described infestation of bedbugs and mosquitoes, no windows. Prisoners are never allowed to see the light of day, and people are literally going crazy in the basement of this prison. And he said that he had seen both U.S. and French agents, white men, interrogating prisoners, and that some of the prisoners claimed that they had been snatched in neighboring Kenya and brought, rendered, to Somalia. And so, I started that investigation, and more sources came forward when I was in Mogadishu to describe this and confirmed that CIA personnel and possibly U.S. military intelligence personnel are interrogating prisoners held in that basement facility.
We found one man, in particular, the case of one man, in particular, named Ahmed Abdullahi Hassan, who was a 25- or 26-year-old Kenyan of Somali descent, but he’s a Kenyan citizen, who was snatched from his home in July of 2009. And his lawyers allege that he was rendered to Somalia, and they said that it had all the hallmarks of a U.S. rendition. So I investigated that case, and what I learned—and, in fact, what—I can’t say where the U.S. official worked, because they wouldn’t allow us to report it, but let’s just say a U.S. official very familiar with these operations acknowledged the case of Ahmed Abdullahi Hassan, said to me directly, "The U.S. did not render him." And I said, "Well, we’re not alleging that the U.S. rendered him. We’re alleging that the Kenyans rendered him." You have to understand, in 2007 alone, the Kenyans rendered 85 Somalis—or, excuse me, 85 people from Kenya to Somalia on behalf of the U.S. and other governments, including Ethiopia. So there is a long pattern here of the U.S. using proxy forces such as the Kenyans to do these renditions. So, the U.S. doesn’t have to put them on a plane itself. But the U.S. official acknowledged that the U.S. provided the Kenyans with the intelligence that led to Hassan, quote, "being taken off the streets." So, the U.S. is playing semantics with this. It’s clear that they made it abundantly clear they wanted him removed from the game, and he was swiftly abducted, hooded, taken to Wilson Airport, and then rendered to Mogadishu. This man was identified in an intelligence report, that’s believed to be a U.S. intelligence report, that was leaked by Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit—he was identified as "the right-hand man" of Ali Nabhan, who was one of the most wanted suspects regarding East Africa that the U.S. was pursuing. He was wanted for questioning over his alleged connection to the 2002 bombings in Kenya that targeted a hotel and an Israeli aircraft that was parked at the airport in Mombasa. Two months after Hassan was snatched off the streets of Kenya, President Obama authorized his first targeted killing in Somalia and killed Ali Nabhan, the man that Hassan was allegedly the right-hand man to. So, the U.S. role in that case seems very, very clear.
As far as the interrogations go inside of this basement prison, the U.S. official that was made available to me for this story said that the U.S. does not directly interrogate prisoners, we jointly "debrief" suspects with Somali agents present—again, it’s all a semantic game—and insisted that it’s only happened a few times in the past year.
AMY GOODMAN: And what is the significance of this?
JEREMY SCAHILL: In January of 2009, President Obama signed a series of executive orders that were intended to end the practices that President Bush and Vice President Cheney had implemented in the war on terror that candidate Obama had denounced on the campaign trail: torture, secret prisons, renditions. And CIA Director Leon Panetta said in April of 2009 that the U.S. was in the process of decommissioning all of its secret prison sites. Two months later, Hassan is rendered to a secret prison in Somalia.
AMY GOODMAN: Is it your sense that, for example, the ICRC, the International Red Cross, knows about this, is going in and visiting the prisoners?
JEREMY SCAHILL: There’s no Red Cross in Mogadishu. There’s no one in Mogadishu. There’s no—there’s no aid agencies. No one will go there. Prison visits? No, there’s not even a, you know, food distribution program that has any Westerners on the ground. They just—all of the white Westerners are hiding inside of AMISOM’s compound, the African Union compound, and Mogadishu is left to suffer completely. It is the most horrifying scene I have ever seen in my life. The prisoners held there, not only do they not see the Red Cross, they are not ever presented with charges. There is no court system to speak of at all in Mogadishu.
And, you know, the U.S. can say—can talk until it’s blue in the face about how this isn’t a secret U.S. prison, and at the same time confirm that they pay the salaries of the people that run those prisons and are running Somalia’s intelligence. It was described to me how the CIA does not trust the Somali government, which is regularly denounced by the U.S. as corrupt and unable to control its own territory. So they literally, every month, the CIA lines up the Somali agents and pays them $200 in cash. So, how is it that you can say, "This isn’t our secret prison. We’re just there"? And, you know, CNN gets spun by the CIA yesterday, after my story comes out, and they say, "Well, the Somalis assure us that they’re treating the prisoners humanely." You’re paying their salaries. You know, that is using that site, at a minimum.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, you write, "The CIA presence in Mogadishu is part of Washington’s intensifying counterterrorism focus on Somalia, which includes targeted strikes by US Special Operations forces, drone attacks and expanded surveillance operations."
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Well, as I said, President Obama has made Somalia and Yemen major focus points of his continuation the Bush-era doctrine that the world is a battlefield and we have the right to kill anyone that we deem to be a terrorist at any time that we want in any country around the world, started his targeted killing operation authorizations, as far as we know, in September of 2009.
And just in the past month, there have been a number of U.S. strikes inside of Somalia. There was the June 23rd strike that you mentioned where strikes were conducted against a convoy that allegedly was headed by Shabab members, and then JSOC forces land on the ground and collect the bodies. They did the same thing with the Ali Nabhan hit in 2009. JSOC landed inside the country and took his body for verification. Then—that it was him. Then, on July 6th, there were three more U.S. strikes in another area of Somalia called Kismayo, which is about 300 miles away from Mogadishu. And you have—I also was told by a very senior Somali official—and I’m going to be writing about this in the coming weeks—that JSOC actually has forces on the ground that are directly targeting Shabab, not just flying in and hitting them, but actually on the ground onducting operations.
But I have to say, though, that while we can talk about the expanded presence of the CIA and this counterterrorism program, as far as the Somali agents are concerned, it’s been a tremendous failure. The only time that they’ve attempted a targeted operation inside of a Shabab-controlled area in Mogadishu was late last year, and it was described to me as a categorical disaster, where the Somali agents were killed, and they haven’t tried another operation since. So I think that the CIA is certainly operating in what is perhaps the most dangerous and unstable environment that it operates in, and we’re clearly increasing the amount we’re spending on it and the amount of personnel that we’re allocating to it, but to what effect is really unclear.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, AP reported this: "A federal judge reacted skeptically [...] to the Obama administration’s request to dismiss a lawsuit by an American citizen who says he was held in Africa for four months and allegedly interrogated more than 30 times by U.S. officials." Amir Mohamed Meshal, a Muslim man living in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, said "he was subjected to unlawful rendition from Kenya to Somalia and Ethiopia carried out at the behest of U.S. officials."
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. If that case is from 2007, the story there was that the United States backed an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia to unseat a coalition of groups that called themselves the Islamic Courts Union that had taken control of Mogadishu, defeating the CIA’s warlords, who operated effectively as a death squad. And they brought some semblance of order to Mogadishu. They were ruthless, but they brought order to Mogadishu and were widely seen as the sort of most stable people that had taken power since the regime of Siad Barre was brought down in 1991 and then the Black Hawk Down incident happened. And the U.S., of course, you know, took a position, under the Bush administration, that an Islamic government was not acceptable, and they backed an Ethiopia invasion, and then JSOC went in and also did targeted killing operations.
So, many Somalis began to flee the Ethiopian invasion. And the Kenyans, in particular, along with the Ethiopians, started just mass renditions, where they were snatching people off the streets and then sending them to either Mogadishu or another area of Somalia, where there was a secret prison, called Baidoa. I interviewed a former Islamic warlord who JSOC tried to kill in 2007. He was then abducted by Americans inside of Somalia and rendered to Ethiopia and held by the Ethiopians for two years. Despite the fact that the U.S. backed this invasion that really radically worsened the situation, the current president of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, is a former leader of the Islamic Courts Union, and he now is backed by the United States. So, you know, it all comes full circle. And U.S. policy has, if anything, strengthened the role of Al Shabab, who—they were minor players within this Islamic Courts Union. The U.S. and Ethiopian response made them the premier militants on the block.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, then come back and also talk about the famine that is engulfing Somalia, the drought. Jeremy Scahill with us. "The CIA’s Secret Sites in Somalia" is his exposé in The Nation magazine this week. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re with Jeremy Scahill. In a moment, we’re going to go to Nairobi, Kenya, where we’ll be speaking with a representative of the ICRC. But Jeremy Scahill, talk about Warsame.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, when Admiral McRaven, who was the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, appeared before the Senate for his confirmation hearings to become head of U.S. Special Operations Command, he mentioned that the U.S. military was holding certain prisoners near Somalia and Yemen on naval ships. And then, the next week after—this was in July, in early July—the next week after McRaven made that statement, the U.S. announced that it had transferred a Somali man who had been captured in a boat between Yemen and Somalia and taken him back to the United States, to New York, and they charged him with terrorism-related charges. And this has ignited a debate about the Obama administration’s stated policies regarding the legality, or lack of stated policies, regarding the legality of holding prisoners incommunicado, as Warsame was for two months, with no access to lawyers or the Red Cross, and then charging them in U.S. courts. The Center for Constitutional Rights put out a series of questions for the Obama administration to answer about why this is legal and why you’re allowed to hold these kinds of prisoners on naval ships without any access to due process whatsoever, especially if you’re going to then charge them in civilian courts in the United States.
The other issue that’s raised by this, though, is the case I’ve been talking about, this Ahmed Abdullahi Hassan. His lawyers are preparing to file a habeas petition in the U.S. alleging that the U.S. is aware of his whereabouts and has access to him in this basement prison in Somalia. And it’s going to be another challenge, not to President Bush, but now to President Obama, on the assertions being made by the executive branch regarding their ability to simply just hold indefinitely anyone that they believe to be a threat.
AMY GOODMAN: And how does the so-called war on terror in Somalia, though President Obama is no longer calling it "the war on terror," fit into the bigger picture of U.S. operations in Yemen, in—well, throughout the area?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Well, I mean, these are the new battlegrounds for President Obama’s interpretation of how to fight the war he dare not call "the war on terror" anymore, although they constantly imitate all of the policies of Bush and take them even further. John Brennan, the President’s top counterterrorism adviser a few weeks ago laid out what he called the new U.S. strategy, which is going to rely less on large conventional forces and occupying nations and more on what he called "surgical targeted strikes" against individual terrorists. And so, the U.S. has been dramatically increasing its involvement in both Yemen and Somalia and has asserted the right to kill people in those countries without coming forward and saying, "This is the law under which we’re doing this." And there’s a lot of questions being raised in the human rights and the civil liberties community about this deafening silence in Congress. Almost no one in Congress will touch this at all.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re with Jeremy Scahill, investigative reporter, Democracy Now! correspondent, has done a major exposé for The Nation magazine on "CIA’s Secret Sites in Somalia."