WASHINGTON – A CIA veteran officer has been fighting in Somalia in recent days, current and former U.S. officials say the death is likely to revive the debate over U.S. counterterrorism operations in Africa.
The officer was a member of the CIA paramilitary division, the Special Activities Center, and the Navy’s elite SEAL 6th team.
The officer’s identity remained secret, and the circumstances of the murder were ambiguous. It was unclear whether the officer had been killed in a counter-terrorism raid or had been the victim of a hostile attack, former U.S. officials said. The CIA did not want to comment.
Death leads to another star being placed on the wall in the CIA lobby, where he is remembered for his fallen. The last 20 years have placed a heavy burden on the agency, with dozens of stars bringing in the total value 135.
Compared to the U.S. military, the deaths of CIA officers in combat are relatively rare. Nevertheless, paramilitary work is the most dangerous task at the agency, and members of the Special Activities Center perform the same risky tasks as the Delta Force or the SEAL Team 6.
The death of a CIA paramilitary officer occurs when a draft decree is circulating at the Pentagon that virtually the more than 700 U.S. military forces in Somalia will conduct training and counter-terrorism missions before President Trump leaves January.
Somali-based Shabab, a terrorist group belonging to Qaeda, remains a deadly threat and took responsibility this week for killing a group of American-trained Somali soldiers. No Americans died in the attack, a military official said.
Inside the CIA, Somalia has long been a particularly dangerous war zone. Senior intelligence officials debated whether it was worth risking the lives of Americans in counter-terrorism operations. Part of the agency believes Shabab is, at worst, a regional threat to the interests of Africa and the United States there, but not outside the region.
However, other counterterrorism experts believe that if left unchecked, Shabab could become as global a threat as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Shabab, Al Qaeda’s most active subsidiary, has issued new threats against Americans in East Africa and the United States this year. Members of the group were arrested while holding flight lessons in the Philippines and others sought to obtain ground-to-air missiles.
Due to growing concerns about Shabab’s growing aspirations, U.S. drone strikes in Somalia have braked the group rapidly over the past two years.
The CIA’s covert operations in Somalia are harder to track, but they were probably intensified along with the drone strikes as the agency sought more information on who to target during such attacks.
Decisions on whether to change U.S. counterterrorism operations in Somalia pose an early national security challenge to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. as he reviews Mr. Trump’s policy.
Nevertheless, Mr. Biden may find his options more limited as Mr. Trump has been considering significant changes in recent weeks.
The Trump administration plan under discussion would not apply to U.S. troops stationed in nearby Kenya and Djibouti, where U.S. drones carrying out air strikes are located in Somalia. According to anonymous officials familiar with internal deliberations, counter-terrorism operations continue against Shabab.
Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher C. Miller announced plans last week to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 by January, but Pentagon officials said this week that details of the Somali recall are still being worked out.
Critics say Mr Trump’s plan to leave Somalia comes at an uncertain time for a nation tired of the strife in the Horn of Africa. Somalia is preparing for next month’s parliamentary elections and the presidential elections scheduled for early February. Removing U.S. troops could make it harder to keep election rallies and voting safe from Shabab attackers. Political turmoil also erupted in neighboring Ethiopia, whose army fought with Sababa.
Defense within Somalia is growing horrific despite U.S. drone strikes and U.S.-backed land robberies against Shabab fighters, according to a report released on Wednesday by Chief Inspectors of the Department of Defense and the United States Agency for International Development.
“Despite many years of persistent counter-terrorism pressure in Somalia, the United States and internationally, the terrorist threat in East Africa is not deteriorating,” the evaluation concluded. “Shabab retains freedom of movement in many parts of southern Somalia and has demonstrated its ability and intent to attack outside the country, including in the interests of the United States.”
Former officials say the CIA paramilitary arm has borne most of the agency’s losses since the September 11, 2001 attacks. CIA paramilitary officers carry out raids and operations in strict locations, far more dangerous missions than the agency’s backbone intelligence collection.
Many of them have been killed in Afghanistan, where at least twenty have died since the start of the war there. It is unclear whether other officers have been killed in Somalia in recent years.