Is the CIA Helping Run a Secret Prison in Somalia?

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The seal in the lobby at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, August 14, 2008. (Photo: Dennis Brack - EPA)

An interesting exposé in The Nation, the left-of-center U.S. newsweekly, explores how the CIA has participated in the running of secret detention and interrogation centers in Somalia. The article’s author, Jeremy Scahill, claims the CIA mans an operation in a “sprawling walled compound” by Mogadishu’s airport and sends out its own staff to a clandestine Somali-run prison in the basement of Somalia’s National Security Agency—all part of an “expanding counter-terrorism program” in the region.

In response, U.S. officials have been circumspect. One told CNN that the agency’s presence at interviews of suspected terrorists detained in Somalia was minimal—it perhaps occurred “one or two times.” Somalia is home to al-Shabab, an Islamist militant faction seen to have operational ties with al-Qaeda. Speaking to ABC, another U.S. official says assisting the weak Somali government in its counter-terrorism activities is “the logical and prudent thing to do.” But he denies the existence of the CIA facilities The Nation article describes. On Twitter, Scahill — whose earlier investigative work has delved into the role that Blackwater, an organization of contracted mercenaries, played in the U.S. war effort in Iraq and elsewhere — rounded on both the CNN and ABC stories, branding them “CIA spin.”

According to Scahill’s reporting, based on interviews with U.S. officials, human rights workers, lawyers, Somali politicians and analysts, the U.S. could be complicit in the possible torture of those held in the underground prison and has perhaps overseen the rendering of Somali terror suspects from Nairobi back to Mogadishu. A team of lawyers representing one man known to be in detention there paints the whole set-up as a kind of “decentralized, out-sourced Guantanamo Bay.” An article in Harpers outlines the moral tenuousness of the American position:

On the second day of his presidency, Barack Obama issued an executive order that on its face terminated the CIA’s “black site” program, which had seen the agency operate a series of clandestine overseas prisons for terrorism suspects. A few months later, on April 9, 2009, then CIA Director Leon Panetta stated that the CIA “no longer operates detention facilities or black sites,” and that the sites were being “decommissioned.” At the same time, however, the CIA was also maintaining a series of “special relationships” under which cooperating governments maintained proxy prisons for the CIA.

Whatever the depth of the involvement of the CIA and other intelligence and military agencies in Somalia, the report raises this specter of longstanding and much-loathed U.S. counter-terrorism practices in the Muslim world — policies that many hoped would fade under the Obama Administration and in the wake of the Arab Spring. Before, brutal regimes like those of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and even Muammar Gaddafi in Libya happily collaborated with U.S. agents in the arrest, secret detention and likely torture of Islamists and terror suspects. Scahill’s piece suggests not much has changed, at least in the Horn of Africa, a part of the world that has vexed American policy makers for nearly two decades.

With the war against al-Qaeda more or less won in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the theater of action has shifted rapidly over to Yemen and adjacent East Africa, one of al-Qaeda’s initial stomping grounds. The CIA conducted numerous drone strikes in Yemen and, for a while, allowed the autocratic Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to take the heat in public for these missions. But the fallout of months of protests against Saleh’s rule — Saleh is currently recovering in Saudi Arabia from injuries sustained in a rocket attack on his palace compound — brought to light the once undisclosed collusion of an authoritarian state and U.S. interests.

To be sure, real security threats do exist in the region, and al-Qaeda’s ranks in Yemen and al-Shabab’s in Somalia include a number of men born and raised in the U.S. In Somalia, the ruling government holds little sway outside Mogadishu, leaving the war-ravaged, drought-ridden, impoverished nation in the hands of a stretched international force and the militia of warlords and Islamist groups. It’s hard to imagine, in this context, that any sustained counter-terrorism operation wouldn’t have the firm guidance and support of outside actors, not least U.S. military and intelligence officials. As the spotlight on al-Shabab in Somalia grows, though, so too will scrutiny of the tactics used to fight it.