In the last year, Somali terror group Al Shabab has spread from the Lower Shabelle region back into Mogadishu, a city struggling to rebuild after decades of open warfare. Al Shabab’s brazen daylight suicide bombings and coordinate gun attacks target the fledgling government’s political and judicial infrastructure. Civilians get caught in the crossfire.
But the Somali government and its U.S. backers are hitting back.
Following months of rumor and innuendo, Somali president Hassan Sheikh Mohamed leaked some very encouraging news. Somalia has a new counterterrorism force—the Gaashan, which translates as “the shield.” The 150—so far—Gaashan commandos got some of the best training in the world, thanks to America’s own CIA and Special Operations Command.
The Gaashan has become a “fundamental part of Somalia’s security and intelligence architecture,” a former Somali chief of staff said.
On April 14, 2013, an Al Shabab commando unit blasted the Benadir regional court complex, killing 29 people. The smoke was still furling from the burning compound when Al Shabab launched another coordinated attack along the main road heading toward Mogadishu’s Aden Adde International airport. A remote-detonated vehicle born improvised explosive device struck a convoy of Turkish aid workers, killing a Somali driver.
The Somali government was fed up. On April 20, Interior Minister Abdikarim Hussein Guled announced that a Somali special forces unit would patrol the streets of Mogadishu.
Enter Alpha Group, the apparent first component of the new Gaashan. Some sources also refer to Alpha Group as the Danab, which means “lightning.” “This is a 150-person unit that we believe can become a source of future leadership for the entire army,” U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman said in June.
We don’t know much about Alpha Group, but we reasonably can conclude that the CIA trained it. Alpha Group should be capable of direct assaults on terrorist facilities and time-sensitive interdictions of terrorists on the move. It likely can protect VIPs.
Alpha Group probably knows how to use human intelligence sources on the ground as well as how to intercept cell phone communications.
The Americans no doubt have also trained Alpha Group in Sensitive Site Exploitation. That is, the commandos can quickly enter a terrorist compound and grab all the right papers, computers and cell phones in order to get the maximum intel.
The group’s intelligence capabilities could help it plan direct assaults or snatch-and-grab ops, whereby the commandos capture terrorists for interrogation.
Alpha Group apparently lives on the Gaashan compound at Aden Adde International Airport in Mogadishu. Somali intelligence officials have confirmed that the CIA also maintains a significant presence at the same compound.
The U.S. government confirmed Alpha Group’s existence in October 2013, shortly after Al Shabab attacked the Westgate mall in Nairobi, killing 67 people. “The Defense Department maintains a small presence in Somalia primarily to co-ordinate U.S. efforts to counter the threat from Al Qaeda and Al Shabab with related efforts to the international community,” a Pentagon spokesman said.
A five-person U.S. military coordination cell reportedly deployed to Somalia in October, according to The Toronto Star. There are 120 Americans in Somalia in a training role, U.S. Africa Command revealed. Sherman said that Washington has spent $170 million in recent years training Somali troops.
A hundred miles from Mogadishu, just outside the city of Wanlaweyn, lies Somalia’s second biggest airport. Baledogle airport is about what you would expect. Tan sand atop reddish-brown dirt. Wind whips up dust devils. There’s nothing as far as the eye can see.
The airfield’s Runway 22 is more than long enough to support C-130 transports. Runway Four looks damaged, but it could launch and land drones. It’s the perfect place for a U.S. Special Forces A-Team to set up a secret training camp. There are allegedly a thousand Somali recruits at the base.
The Green Berets are America’s main practitioners of Foreign Internal Defense—the process of training native troops to fight for their own countries. FID identifies and prepares recruits to become effective fighters. Done right, FID also trains trainers … so that the native force can continue to recruit and sustain itself.
Finally, the Americans will take on an advisory role, where they either accompany their foreign counterparts on live operational missions—or stay within the compound and assist the operation via radio.
The success of the first 150 Gaashan/Alpha Group/Danab commandos could have a profound effect. No doubt Gen. James Linder, commander of U.S. Africa Command’s Special Operations Forces, is considering sending in more A-Teams to help stand up more Somali commando units.
It’s the start of Somalia’s new American-made army. With competent troops leading from the front and American advisers not far behind, Mogadishu’s renewed war on Al Shabab could be just beginning.