U.S. Used Base in Ethiopia to Hunt Al Qaeda in Africa
By MICHAEL R. GORDON and MARK MAZZETTI
Published: February 23, 2007
WASHINGTON, Feb. 22 — The American military quietly waged a campaign from
Ethiopia last month to capture or kill top leaders of Al Qaeda in the Horn
of Africa, including the use of an airstrip in eastern Ethiopia to mount
airstrikes against Islamic militants in neighboring Somalia, according to
The close and largely clandestine relationship with Ethiopia also included
significant sharing of intelligence on the Islamic militants’ positions and
information from American spy satellites with the Ethiopian military.
Members of a secret American Special Operations unit, Task Force 88, were
deployed in Ethiopia and Kenya, and ventured into Somalia, the officials
The counterterrorism effort was described by American officials as a
qualified success that disrupted terrorist networks in Somalia, led to the
death or capture of several Islamic militants and involved a collaborative
relationship with Ethiopia that had been developing for years.
But the tally of the dead and captured does not as yet include some Qaeda
leaders — including Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam —
whom the United States has hunted for their suspected roles in the attacks
on American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. With Somalia still in a
chaotic state, and American and African officials struggling to cobble
together a peacekeeping force for the war-ravaged country, the long-term
effects of recent American operations remain unclear.
It has been known for several weeks that American Special Operations troops
have operated inside Somalia and that the United States carried out two
strikes on Qaeda suspects using AC-130 gunships. But the extent of American
cooperation with the recent Ethiopian invasion into Somalia and the fact
that the Pentagon secretly used an airstrip in Ethiopia to carry out attacks
have not been previously reported. The secret campaign in the Horn of Africa
is an example of a more aggressive approach the Pentagon has taken in recent
years to dispatch Special Operations troops globally to hunt high-level
terrorism suspects. President Bush gave the Pentagon powers after the Sept.
11, 2001, attacks to carry out these missions, which historically had been
reserved for intelligence operatives.
When Ethiopian troops first began a large-scale military offensive in
Somalia late last year, officials in Washington denied that the Bush
administration had given its tacit approval to the Ethiopian government. In
interviews over the past several weeks, however, officials from several
American agencies with a hand in Somalia policy have described a close
alliance between Washington and the Ethiopian government that was developed
with a common purpose: rooting out Islamic radicalism inside Somalia.
Indeed, the Pentagon for several years has been training Ethiopian troops
for counterterrorism operations in camps near the Somalia border, including
Ethiopian special forces called the Agazi Commandos, which were part of the
Ethiopian offensive in Somalia.
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to discuss details of the
American operation, but some officials agreed to provide specifics because
they saw it as a relative success story. They said that the close
relationship had included the sharing of battlefield intelligence on the
Islamists’ positions — a result of an Ethiopian request to Gen. John P.
Abizaid, then the commander of the United States Central Command. John D.
Negroponte, the director of national intelligence at the time, then
authorized spy satellites to be diverted to provide information for
Ethiopian troops, the officials said.
The deepening American alliance with Ethiopia is the latest twist in the
United States’ on-and-off intervention in Somalia, beginning with an effort
in 1992 to distribute food to starving Somalis and evolving into deadly
confrontation in 1993 between American troops and fighters loyal to a Somali
warlord, Mohammed Farah Aidid. The latest chapter began last June when the
Council of Islamic Courts, an armed fundamentalist movement, defeated a
coalition of warlords backed by the Central Intelligence Agency and took
power in Mogadishu, the capital. The Islamists were believed to be
sheltering Qaeda militants involved in the embassy bombings, as well as in a
2002 hotel bombing in Kenya.
After a failed C.I.A. effort to arm and finance Somali warlords, the Bush
administration decided on a policy to bolster Somalia’s weak transitional
government. This decision brought the American policy in line with
As the Islamists’ grip on power grew stronger, their militias began to
encircle Baidoa, where the transitional government was operating in virtual
exile. Ethiopian officials pledged that if the Islamists attacked Baidoa,
they would respond with a full-scale assault.
While Washington resisted officially endorsing an Ethiopian invasion,
American officials from several government agencies said that the Bush
administration decided last year that an incursion was the best option to
dislodge the Islamists from power.
When the Ethiopian offensive began on Dec. 24, it soon turned into a rout,
somewhat to the Americans’ surprise. Armed with American intelligence, the
Ethiopians’ tank columns, artillery batteries and military jets made quick
work of the poorly trained and ill-equipped Islamist militia.
“The Ethiopians just wiped out entire grid squares; it was a blitzkrieg,”
said one official in Washington who had helped develop the strategy toward
As the Islamists retreated, the Qaeda operatives and their close aides fled
south toward a swampy region. Using information provided by Ethiopian forces
in Somalia as well as American intelligence, a task force from the
Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command began planning direct strikes.
On Dec. 31, the largely impotent transitional government of Somalia
submitted a formal request to the American ambassador in Kenya asking for
the United States to take action against the militants.
General Abizaid called Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and informed him
that the Central Command was sending additional Special Operations forces to
the region. The deployment was carried out under the terms of an earlier,
classified directive that gave the military the authority to kill or capture
senior Qaeda operatives if it was determined that the failure to act
expeditiously meant the United States would lose a “fleeting opportunity” to
neutralize the enemy, American officials said.
On Jan. 6, two Air Force AC-130 gunships, aircraft with devastating
firepower, arrived at a small airport in eastern Ethiopia. American Special
Operations troops operating in Kenya, working with the Kenyan military, also
set up positions along the southern border to capture militants trying to
flee the country.
A Navy flotilla began to search for ships that might be carrying fleeing
Qaeda operatives. Support planes were deployed in Djibouti. F-15Es from Al
Udeid air base in Qatar also flew missions. Intelligence was shared with
Ethiopia and Kenya through C.I.A. operatives in each country. American
military planners also worked directly with Ethiopian and Kenyan military
On Jan. 7, one day after the AC-130s arrived in Ethiopia, the airstrike was
carried our near Ras Kamboni, an isolated fishing village on the Kenyan
According to American officials, the primary target of the strike was Aden
Hashi Ayro, a young military commander trained in Afghanistan who was one of
the senior leaders of the Council of Islamic Courts.
Several hours after the strike, Ethiopian troops and one member of the
American Special Operations team arrived at the site and confirmed that
eight people had been killed and three wounded, all of whom were described
as being armed. After sifting through the debris, they found a bloodied
passport and other items that led them to believe Mr. Ayro was injured in
the strike and probably died. Several members of the Special Operations team
were also in Somalia at the time of the strike, one official said.
The second AC-130 strike, on Jan. 23, had another of the Islamic council’s
senior leaders, Sheik Ahmed Madobe, as its target. Mr. Madobe survived and
was later captured by the Ethiopians, Americans say.
American officials said that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the mastermind of the
1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the alleged ringleader of Al
Qaeda’s East African cell, remains at large. Some officials caution that
while the Ethiopians have said additional “high-priority targets,” including
Abu Talha al-Sudani, a leading member of the cell, were killed in their own
airstrikes, American intelligence officials have yet to confirm this.
In late January, American officials played a role in securing the safe
passage of Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the second-highest-ranking Islamist
leader, from southern Somalia to Nairobi, Kenya. The exact role of American
involvement is still not clear, but some American officials consider him to
be a moderate Islamist.