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The Washington Post and other news sources suddenly have discovered drones operating over Somalia due to a government cable leaked by Wikileaks. This is not news but it is part of the U.S. government's campaign to further promote the idea of a clean remote control war in a region that is famous for proving war to be otherwise.
Somalia Report investigated the Horn of Africa drone program in July and covered the program in depth. The article pointed out that it was actually a lack of long range drones that was hampering their deployment and there are more to come. There has also been a significant lack of targets since Fazul Abdullah Mohammed was killed at a roadblock. Al-Shabaab has been proud of their link to al Qaeda but the demise of their Kenyan bagman was the first step in their current territorial and influence shrinkage from Mogadishu. Despite the need to make it look like a clean drone war, the campaign against al Qaeda continues to be an ugly proxy ground war with armed militias, training programs using contractors, money shoveled to poor neighboring countries and a patch network of local informants on the ground.
The program in the Seychelles began in 2009 and introduced the MQ9 Reaper made by a division of General Atomics in San Diego. The U.S. company is an well known nuclear technology company that has hit the jackpot with just the right mix of range, opticals, payload and technology. The Reaper provides twice the range and speed of the Predator and up to ten times the payload of the smaller drone. Drones allows remote operation, the ability to hover over Southern Somalia and the ability to strike with missiles if needed. It dramatically reduces the cost of having an aircraft carrier offshore or a land based operation capable of supporting fighters. Predators need 2000 ft to take off and can also be operated from carriers. But they are just one small part of an operation. Lethal drones will not be used in anti-piracy operations for legal reaons, and a traditional navy will be required to police the seas.
Although the first current Predator systems were used in Bosnia in the mid 90's, the MQ9 is the singular reason why drone programs have taken off and been pushed into the headlines. For around $54 million you get basic Reaper package that includes four drones, a ground control system and a data distribution terminal. There are also costs for crew, maintenance and security support elements. For example the Reaper can be operated from Camp Lemonier, Camp Simba or the Seychelles. They can be run by contractors, linked into a network to support a wide variety of programs and when an attack is required they provide "persistence presence" and smart weapons to reduce innocent victims.
The first Predators had to be very close to the targets with a range of around 400 nautical miles, the Reaper expands that to 3200nm. The only limitation is how fast General Atomics Aeronautical Systems can make them. The first Reaper was delivered in 2007 and the military's appetite and budget for the Reaper has been undiminished.
Drones allow the assassination of selected targets. For the most part these are faceless, nameless people far away from the media or public knowledge. This is politically beneficial since no Americans are required to be in combat but yet lethality can be delivered to targets. Once a strike is delivered it is assumed that the person and collateral innocent victims was deserving of death. So far there has been little pushback to the deployment of drones in the HOA and AFRICOM's view of "do no harm" has not been jeopardized by the use of the Reapers to monitor anti piracy efforts from the Seychelles. However AFRICOM does have terrorism in its list of applications and as of June JSOC's hunter killers have been quietly tucked up inside the brass bloated command.
On April 6th shortly after the exploitation of data from captured al qaeda cel phones and laptops, three dozen al shabaab members were killed. On June 24th, helos from Camp Simba took out a Shabaab convoy 4 days later another attack occurred in Taabta village in the Afmadow District of Lower Juba. Despite the assumption that the Reapers will be used to conduct this covert war, they are only a support element. The difference is they just want the public to believe there is a remote control war going on in Somalia. The real reason is that drones distract people from the ugly business of ground warfare
Much Grittier On The Ground
Much of the U.S. support for the fighting in Somali flows in a circuitous manner. There are hard points like the Agency contract to train the Puntland Intelligence security forces (a polite name for a government sanctioned militia). They are easy to spot with their Toyota Hilluxes, over gunned (12.7 and 50cal Brownings) and mix of AKs and M4s. The intelligence services are feared and not liked by the locals. None would go on record but the consensus is that you invite a lot of bad things if you discuss the American trained locals in public. Somalia Report will provide more coverage of the U.S training program but for now we can confirm that American and other western based contractors are training security forces inside Somalia from fortified bases in Mogadishu, Hargeisa and Bosaso. Intelligence is being gathered for air sorties using intercepts and good old fashioned informant networks (many left over from the U.S. presence in the early 90's) as air strikes are planned using a regional fusion centers, and Americans special operations teams land on the ground for exploitation of captured data.
Anti-terrorism operations are run in the south from Camp Simba, the north in Camp Lemonnier, Ethiopia's Dire Dawa in the West and aerial, naval and electronic warfare from Yemen to Tanzania is conducted far away from the media. Ethiopia uses U.S. and regional partner money to arm, train and support militias like ASWJ and white side support for Uganda's intervention via AMISOM successfully masks the United States military efforts in the region
It should be noted that although Somalia Report first reported drone strikes due to our correspondent's inability to find any aerial presence (it could also have a navy missile strike, but that was considered unlikely) the first official confirmation of a drone strike in Somalia was actually communicated via a DoD leak to the same Washington Post that wrote the Reapers in Seychelles article - the same aircraft that than been in place for two years. The use of lethal force to kill Somalis by remote control from bases Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, the Seychelles and offshore in a regional war is of questionable value to U.S. security but drones have become the most politically acceptable and risk adverse way of killing people. They also appear to have the questionable ability to make the public think that the ugly business of war is not being conducted on the ground. Bluntly put, there is much more to the United States efforts in the region than the sexy use of drones. Somehow the use of drones from a island resort makes this phase on the war on terror more palatable to the public.