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The U.S. military carried out a strike against the leader of the militant group al-Shabab in Somalia yesterday. The counterterrorism operation targeted Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, widely known as Godane, a Kenyan native who was the alleged mastermind behind the attack on an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi last year. The Pentagon has not confirmed the outcome, but Somali officials say Godane was killed. The strike comes as U.S. has been expands its drone operations in Africa. We explore the growing U.S. counterterrorism presence in Africa.
- Craig Whitlock Pentagon and national security reporter, The Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, Operation Shakespeare, a look at how advanced military technology ends up in enemy hands. But first, yesterday, the U.S. military carried out an airstrike against the leader of the militant group, al-Shabaab in Somalia.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISomali officials are saying that the leader was killed along with seven others. But that has yet to be confirmed by the Pentagon or by American officials. But this latest operation comes as the U.S. expands its counterterrorism drone operations in Africa, including opening new bases in Niger and elsewhere.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to talk about this is Craig Whitlock. He covers the Pentagon and national security for The Washington Post. Craig Whitlock, thank you for joining us.
MR. CRAIG WHITLOCKSure thing, Kojo.
NNAMDICraig, as we said, the U.S. military carried out that counterterrorism strike yesterday against al-Shabaab in Somalia. What do we know about the operation at this point?
WHITLOCKNot very much. The Pentagon, unusually, confirmed that it actually did carry out a counterterrorism operation in Somalia. Usually they're very close-mouthed about those things. But they did acknowledge they did something yesterday. It's pretty apparent that it was a drone strike. There were no U.S. ground forces there. So it was all done from the air. It was near the Port of Barawa, which is in southern Somalia, south of Mogadishu.
WHITLOCKAnd it apparently did strike a couple of cars. The Somali militant group, al-Shabaab, acknowledges that some people were killed, but haven't said whether their leader, a fellow named Godane, is his most-commonly known name, it's unclear if he was killed or not. But he was certainly the target according to U.S. military officials.
NNAMDIGodane is a Kenyan native, correct?
WHITLOCKWe're, you know, it's a little unclear. It appears, he certainly has a Somali, or had a Somali passport of nationality. You know, it's unclear if he was born in Kenya or north Somalia, in the northern part of Somalia. But he's without doubt the emir, or leader, of al-Shabaab and has tried to make the group more of a globally-focused organization rather than a local group just focused on seizing control in Somalia.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for Craig Whitlock, give us a call at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. he joins us from studios at The Washington Post. Craig, the Pentagon is being very cautious about determining the outcome of the strike. And that's because of past experience apparently. Can you talk about that?
WHITLOCKWell, sure. I've been covering counterterrorism for a long time for the Post. And I can probably tick off several cases off my fingers in which there were drone strikes in Pakistan or Yemen, in which senior leaders were targeted. One that immediately comes to mind is Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is currently the number one leader in al-Qaida, who was targeted in Pakistan and there were reports all citing anonymous officials that he was dead. And, you know, of course he comes back to life.
WHITLOCKAnd that's also been the case in Yemen with some of the leaders of that group. There are even reports from Yemeni officials with their names attached saying that the target was killed. And of course it turned out to be wishful thinking. So in this case, I think the Pentagon, rightly so, is being very cautious about declaring what the outcome was. And the other difficult part for them is, as I mentioned, they didn't have any troops on the ground. Unlike the Osama bin Laden raid, they don't have a body, they don't have physical evidence. This was all done from the air with drones. So, you know, it's much more difficult to tell what the results were.
NNAMDIBack to the al-Shabaab leader known as Godane or Godane, is he the alleged mastermind of the al-Shabaab attack on that upscale shopping mall in Nairobi last year?
WHITLOCKThat's right, Kojo. That was a really awful event where several dozen people were killed in this shootout and siege of the mall in Nairobi that took place over several days. And really, if al-Shabaab hadn't been on the global map before, it was after that incident. They've also carried out attacks in Kampala and Uganda, made other attempts outside of Somalia. But it's always -- there's been tension within al-Shabaab, this group, as to whether it is -- should be part of the global jihad, part of al-Qaida, which it formally is, or if it's -- should be focused on fighting the Somali government and having control there.
WHITLOCKAnd people I've talked to said Godane has been very ambitious. He's tried to ally the group with al-Qaida. He has big plans for it. And that's what led to the attack in Kenya at the mall last year.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Are you concerned about extremists taking a root in Africa? Do you think drone operations are a smart approach to counterterrorism? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Or send email to email@example.com. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow. Our guest is Craig Whitlock. He covers the Pentagon and national security for The Washington Post. Craig, the U.S. is secretive about its drone operations. How have journalists been learning about this?
WHITLOCKYou know, that's a good question, Kojo. And yeah, they sure have been secretive. You know, with other military operations, if you have a manned fighter aircraft or something like that, they're pretty open about it. But anything to do with drones and -- even if it's not technically classified, they just, you know, it's, you know a forbidden topic for them to acknowledge very often. So, you know, we kind of dig into bits and pieces. Sometimes it's just interviewing people.
WHITLOCKWe had a story today about a new drone base that's being set up in the Sahara in the country of Niger. And, you know, the U.S. already has a base there, but this is a second one they're preparing to open. And found out about that with public records, because, for instance, the Pentagon had put out contract bids for aviation fuel at a city called Agadez in the middle of the Sahara Desert.
WHITLOCKAnd then there were also separate contract solicitations earlier this year to pave the runway. So those were public records. But they didn't say the word, drone, with it. But they were pretty big clues as to what was going on. And that led to the rest of our reporting. And we were able to confirm it finally on the record with the Pentagon's Africa Command that this is in fact in the works.
NNAMDIIt's not clear whether there were U.S. commandos on the ground, but it is my understanding that the U.S. partnered with Somali forces in this operation. And the U.S. has around 100 special operations forces operating around the country. Can you talk about the U.S. presence in Somalia?
WHITLOCKYeah, it's another shadowy topic that the U.S. military is reluctant to talk about. You know, 100, I think, is sort of a stab in the dark as far as the number of commandos who may be on the ground at any given time. I think the numbers fluctuate. We don't know if it's more or fewer than that at any given time. The Pentagon did acknowledge publically last year that they set up a coordination cell, as they called it, in Mogadishu, the capital. And they sent a few liaison officers there.
WHITLOCKThat's the first time they've acknowledged having -- stationing or deploying troops to Somalia on a regular basis since the Black Hawk Down incident more than two decades ago, where of course -- when the U.S. sent Green Berets and others to Mogadishu to help with the U.N. mandate when the country was falling apart. And a helicopter was shot down and a number of U.S. Special Forces were killed. So it's a very touchy subject, especially in Somalia, given the history of U.S. military casualties there.
NNAMDIThe U.S. frequently conducts surveillance using drones. But this was an airstrike. Is that -- would that be a departure?
WHITLOCKNot necessarily. What they often do over Somalia are conduct drone flights with these very powerful sensors or cameras onboard, in which they're looking for people, watching for people, gathering intelligence. You know, these are spy aircraft, but they're drones. So they don't have pilots in them. They can stay aloft for up to 24 hours at a time. And the U.S. has two drone bases that border Somalia. One is in a small country called Djibouti, which is on the Horn of Africa, on the Gulf of Aden, right across from Yemen. They have a big military base there, lots of drones. They also have a smaller operation in Ethiopia in a southern town called Arba Minch, where they have a small number of drones that operate out of an Ethiopian airport.
WHITLOCKThose drones, as far as we know, are all unarmed -- the ones from Ethiopia. They're just surveillance only. The ones from Djibouti can be armed. It's very easy to add a missile on to them and they can be used if necessary. But in general, the Pentagon is conducting routine surveillance flights with drones over Somalia. It's unusual that they actually carry out airstrikes there. It's much rarer than, for instance, in Yemen or Pakistan or places like that. But occasionally, if they do have a leader who they say is a threat to the United States, who's a big fish in their sites, they will launch a missile with a drone. And this was another case like that apparently.
NNAMDISpeaking of that leader, Godane, I think that's what Abdul in Silver Spring, Md., wants to talk about. Abdul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ABDULHi, Kojo. Hello, everybody. Godane is from Somalia, so I just want to make that clear. The second thing is there are differences way beyond a one-man show. This is a big group, a big movement. They can easily select a leader either tomorrow or before next week. But we don't even have a body yet. So how can we be sure that he is killed? Those are the two comments I just want to make. But there -- but we should not be any enthusiastic (sic) here, because like I said, this is a big group, it's a big movement. They have a lot of followers. A lot of them even are die-hard followers. And they can easily choose a leader tomorrow or next week.
NNAMDICraig, we're talk...
ABDULAnd, you know, we don't even have a body. So we don't know whether he's dead or not.
NNAMDICraig Whitlock, the U.S. has been accused in the past of going after trophies. We get a big name, we get a big leader, and we don't realize that the movement is much bigger than that leader. In this case, what would you say?
WHITLOCKWell, I think those are very good comments. Abdul from Silver Spring is right. They don't have a body yet. We don't know what the outcome was. And certainly, al-Shabaab is a broad movement. They had control of most of Somalia for a number of years. They've been losing territory and strength the past few years. But it's still a, you know, a very considerable force to be reckoned with. That said, I think Godane has been their emir or leader for several years.
WHITLOCKAnd while it certainly wouldn't be difficult to replace him, the question would be, would the successor orient al-Shabaab to more of a global agenda where it's launching attacks elsewhere in the region or even perhaps against American interests? Or would it be someone who would return al-Shabaab to its previous roots, which were mostly concerned with gaining power and influence in Somalia -- more of a nationalist movement?
NNAMDIAbdul, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think drone operations are a smart approach to counterterrorism? Craig, this counterterrorism strike comes as the U.S. military expands its presence in the region. The Pentagon is set to open a drone base in a remote part of the Sahara. Can you talk about that and why it's significant?
WHITLOCKWell, sure, Kojo. I mean, that's what I was alluding to earlier.
WHITLOCKWe had another story today about this new drone base in the works in Niger. And I think most Americans would go, you know, what the heck is the U.S. military doing in the middle of the Sahara? Why are these drone bases popping up all over? This is the -- well, there's two -- they have drones in Chad in West Africa where they're using them to -- surveillance drones to look for those Nigerian girls who've been kidnapped by Boko Haram. They have a drone base in the capital of Niger, Niamey, where they were being used to conduct surveillance -- not airstrikes, but surveillance over northern Mali, that country which had been having, you know, on the verge of civil war last year.
WHITLOCKAnd they -- as I mentioned earlier, they have a drone base in Ethiopia, one in Djibouti. So, you know, they're all over the place now. And I think most people, you know, either aren't aware or have been slow to recognize that these are small bases with maybe just a few drones at each. These aren't like a major...
NNAMDIAre most of those drones unarmed?
WHITLOCKYes, except for Djibouti, as far as we know, they're all unarmed. So these are all for surveillance. Now that said, if the Americans had a target, a terrorist suspect who they wanted to kill, it would be very easy to arm these drones. But for now, except for Djibouti which is the biggest base in Africa, they're all unarmed.
NNAMDIThe U.S. is working closely with the French in this region, it's our understanding. Can you talk about that and what that cooperation looks like?
WHITLOCKSure, Kojo. Over the last year-and-a-half the U.S. military's been working hand in glove with the French in West Africa against a group called al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. It's an al-Qaida group in north and west Africa affiliated with the main al-Qaida group. And this is the group that has destabilized Mali. It is also active in Libya and elsewhere in the region with countries that, you know, don't have very strong government control over their borders.
WHITLOCKAnd the French, of course this is their -- they were the colonial power in this part of the world so they have very detailed knowledge of local culture, local politics. But they lack some of the military capabilities that the pentagon has such as drones and other surveillance aircraft. Now the French actually have been buying drones from the United States. They have a few of them which they are also flying from Niger from the Sahara. But the Pentagon of course is much more practiced at this. And so they've been sort of cooperating and working alongside each other, sharing information and trying to put forces nearby the other and make sure they're not duplicating what they're doing there.
NNAMDIAnd drones have become a critical aspect of U.S. military operations, Craig. In terms of resources, is there any issue with where and how they're being deployed?
WHITLOCKWell, the first issue is you need generally to have the local government give permission. So in all of these countries in Africa that I've mentioned, the local government would've had to give permission or an invitation of some sort for the Americans to operate there. And sometimes they set down conditions, like they may say, okay, you can conduct surveillance with the drones but we don't want you to be firing missiles with them. Or, for instance, we want you to share the intelligence with us.
WHITLOCKAnd that can be complicated sometimes because some of these countries aren't Jeffersonian democracies. And the U.S. has to be careful about intelligence or surveillance or targeting information that it might share with the local government if they may turn around and use that information to target political enemies or opponents as opposed to, you know, suspected international terrorists.
WHITLOCKSo it is a complex arrangement at times. And certainly you have to take the popular reaction into play. You know, are people going to be upset locally to find out that the Pentagon is flying drones from their countries and what they're going to do with them? And so the Pentagon is always worried about potential popular backlash. So far we haven't seen that to the point in Africa where it's forced them to pull out but it's always a concern.
NNAMDICraig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security for the Washington Post. Craig, thank you so much for joining us.
WHITLOCKThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAt this hour the Associated Press is reporting that an internet video purporting to show the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff by the Islamic state group known as ISIS or ISIL, has surfaced online. You can stay tuned to NPR for more on this developing story. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, Operation Shakespeare, a look at how advanced military technology ends up in enemy hands. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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