Talking Proud Archives --- Military

Somalia: Why is the US in combat?

Advise, Assist, Train? Maybe Find, Target and Destroy!

By Ed Marek, editor

December 17, 2018

Two fallen special forces

In the last 18 months, two US military members, both special forces, have been killed in combat in Somalia: One a Navy SEAL, the other an Army Airborne Maroon Beret (airborne). Commonly held perspectives tell us our forces in Somalia are there to train, advise, and assist Somali forces, and hang back behind those forces should a combat situation develop.

The obvious question then is, why did these men get killed in combat in Somalia? Or, perhaps more clearly, Why were US ground forces positioned in Somalia such that they ended up in combat?

SEAL Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Kyle Milliken, USN

On May 5, 2017 Navy SEAL Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Kyle Milliken, USN, 38, of Falmouth, Maine was killed in support of Somali forces operating in the small town of Baril, Somalia about 40 miles west of Mogadishu.

He was a member of SEAL Team 6 which is headquartered in Oceana, Virginia Beach, Virginia. Two others from his American team were wounded.

I have taken a wag at locating Baril, and also Daru Salaam, both villages mentioned in write-ups about the location of Milliken's mission.

If I am close, then Milliken's team was working on the edge of an area on the map shown in light olive-green color. That area was held by Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, translated "Movement of Striving (Jihadi) Youth," otherwise known as al-Shabaab. It is an insurgent and terrorist organization that has been attempting to take control of the country and convert it to an Islamic state. It has been doing that since at least 2006.

Again, taking a wag, I have tentatively located the general area on Google Earth where I think Milliken was operating. I show this image of the area only to convey the point that this is some very desolate country. However, several points apply.

First, as I said, I think Milliken's team was working on the edge of al-Shabaab controlled country. I believe that is the Shabelle River to the left (west). It is the longest river running through Somalia, 702 miles, rising from the highland area of Ethiopia to the northwest. The river is important to agriculture in Somalia. The alluvial plains of the river are said to be the breadbasket of Somalia.

Second, the team was working in an area where al-Shabaab likes to conduct offensive operations. The red arrow points to the location on this map of the attack in which Milliken was killed.

Brigadier General David J. Furness, USMC, was the commander of the Combined Joint Task Force for the Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) at the time. He said the American and Somali forces were traveling in a single group.

Furness said the Americans were on an “advise, assist and accompany” mission supporting Somali forces.

I'll show you two night missions by Navy SEALs obtained from
CGTN Africa. I am not saying these are of the mission involving Milliken. I show you them to give you a better sense for what such an operation might look like.

The Pentagon said a US helicopter carried the US-Somali group into the infiltration point. The group consisted of six Americans and about 20 Somali soldiers from Danab, the US trained special forces unit in the Somali National Army (SNA). The Pentagon said the helicopter then hung back while the force executed its operation.

Military Times reported a Somali intelligence officer said the group had targeted a building housing al-Shabaab’s Andalus radio station at a farm near Dare Salaam village. One report said the Andalus radio station had recently established this building in Bariire (Baril) as its headquarters. It has moved on several occasions around the Mogadishu area. There has been speculation the US-Somali group was trying to shut it down. Formerly located in Kismayo, the station was relocated to Jilib after Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) forces, SNA and Ras Kamboni militia took over Kismayo town. An older study with a cut-off of 2013 ranked Andalus as the 11th most listened-to station in the region. BBC is tops. The station’s programming consists of al-Shabaab propaganda.

Cristina Goldbaum, reporting for The Daily Beast, provides considerable detail on Milliken’s death. The Daily Beast is an American news and opinion website focused on politics and pop culture.The Daily Beast sent someone to Mogadishu to talk to government officials and to people who said they were in the area when Milliken was killed. I cannot say for certain but I believe she was the one in Mogadishu for the Daily Beast. Her credibility strikes me as very good.

Photo shows Somalia National Army troops conducting a raid in 2015

Goldbaum reported:

“(Milliken’s superiors) tasked him (Milliken) with finding and destroying al-Shabaab radio equipment used to broadcast propaganda and eliminating Moalin Osman Abdi Badil, an al-Shabaab leader responsible for gathering information on Somali and African Union IAU) force movements, who was believed to be camping out in Daraasalam (Dare Salaam).”

NBC report said, “Omar Mohamud Elmi, the deputy governor of the Lower Shabelle region in Somalia, said the aim of the operation was to ‘surgically target' two elements: senior members of al-Shabaab hiding in the area and a pro-al-Shabaab media station.”

If true, those tasks involved far more than advising and assisting.

Goldbaum wrote the team approached a house at night, went in, found it vacant and left to obtain cover under a small tree down the road. She said they apparently had not seen a trench where three al-Shabaab insurgents were hiding. That said, somehow the team made its way over to the trenches and killed two al-Shabaab fighters. The third remained alive, and fired his weapon. She wrote:

“The gunfire was accurate enough to hit at least one of the special operators on the scene, likely Milliken, leaving blood spattered in front of two trenches and an imprint of a body (in the wet mud), which seemed to collapse on its left side into the soft ground, as seen by locals the following morning.

“The militant’s shots fatally wounded Milliken and led to a messy, hours-long evacuation that ended as the sun started to climb over the horizon that morning. The team left syringes, bandages, and muddy footprints that hardened in the blazing heat the following day, and the villagers of Daarasalam retraced the team’s steps, piecing together a narrative of the raid…”

The combined team killed the shooter and administered first aid to the three wounded Americans. Goldbaum also reported the combined force fingerprinted the dead insurgents for later identification.

The helicopter that delivered the team came forward, landed on the mud, making it hard to take-off, picked up the combined force, and left. NBC reported the three Americans were medevac’d to the US base at Djibouti but Milliken died from his wounds.

The Information Minister of the Government of Somalia said the mission killed four Shabaab insurgents including Maolin Osman Abdi Badi, the target reportedly tasked to Milliken. Goobjoog News, an independent privately owned news portal based in Mogadishu, reported “Information Minister Abdirahman Yarisow said the death of Badil ‘significantly disrupts the terrorist group’s ability to operate in Lower Shabelle.’ ”

The Pentagon said the team had “neutralized” the threat, which I assume refers to those who were protecting the building, believed to be about five. I did not interpret that comment to mean the team killed Maolin Osman Abdi Badi.

Capt. Jeff Davis, USN, a Pentagon spokesman, said the US forces were “a distance back” from the compound. However, several days later General Furness acknowledged the US forces were not a distance back but instead were moving “alongside” Somali forces when they were attacked.

Major Audricia Harris, USA, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon, said, “Milliken was part of a small number of US forces [who] provide training and advisory support to AMISOM (African Union Mission to Somalia) and Somali Partner forces to develop their capabilities to fight al-Shabaab and other terrorist organizations. These forces will also facilitate the coordination of US strikes with partner ground operations.”

The US African Command (AFRICOM) also said Milliken was on “an advise and assist” mission with members of the Somali National Army.

Portland Press Herald reported on May 8, 2017 that Capt. Jason P. Salata, USN, of the US Naval Special Warfare Command, sent an e-mail saying Milliken’s body had been returned to the US. CBS reported a funeral was held at Arlington for Milliken the week prior to May 28, 2017. However, the Boston Globe reported that he was buried at Arlington on June 13, 2017. I have seen a photo of his marker.

I pass this on because it took me a long time to confirm that Milliken’s body had been recovered and returned home, though I was sure in my own mind the SEALs would not have left him behind.

CNN reported this mission was a “national mission.” I believe this means Washington directed the mission. Perhaps the president had to approve the mission. The implication is that intelligence held at the national level was used to direct the mission.

Once again, the reports I have presented indicate the SEALs were involved in far more than an advise and assist mission.

Milliken was the first American military member to die in Somalia since 18 soldiers died and 73 were wounded in the Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993.

With regard to various sources saying the mission was an advise, train and assist mission, Rep. Scott Taylor, (R-Virginia), a former SEAL, commented on that kind of military operation:

“ ‘There are no boots on the ground, they are just advisers,' well we know that's BS. Of course they are all boots on the ground. I think you need to get back to using conventional forces. You certainly can't fault the operator for wanting to get into the fight. They are there, they are there on the ground with the force they are helping.”

Let’s move to the second special forces member killed in Somalia, which occurred more recently.

Staff Sgt. Alexander Conrad, USA Special Forces

On June 8, 2018 Staff Sgt. Alexander Conrad, USA, 26, of Mesa, Arizona was killed in an attack in Somalia. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne). It is an Army special forces unit. The 3rd Group is primarily responsible for operations in Africa as part of Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA). The Pentagon said he was killed by a mortar blast. His body was recovered and brought home. Four other American troops were wounded.

USAF HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters such as shown here flew in to the scene and evacuated the wounded and Conrad. Reports say the Pavehawks were pre-positioned at Kismayo in the Jubaland region. A C-103J Hercules airlifted the wounded to Nairobi, Kenya where they were transferred to a civilian hospital. Furthermore, an USAF KC-135R tanker moved them to another medical facility, either at Djibouti or Lanstuhl, Germany. Reuters reported, “Although one of the wounded Americans did not receive additional care after being treated in the field, the other three and the wounded local soldier were medically evacuated for follow-up care.”

I believe Conrad died after the initial evacuation.

Conrad’s loss was the first in Somalia since the loss of Milliken. The U.S. troops were said to be providing “advice, assistance and aerial surveillance” during the mission.

About 800 Somali and Kenyan forces, with support from U.S. troops, were conducting a multi-day operation in the Jubaland region about 220 miles southwest of Mogadishu when the attack occurred. I do not believe all 800 troops were involved in the attack that killed Conrad, but instead were spread out with varied objectives.

In 2006, Islamist terrorists gained control over most of this region. Following that the region went through considerable political turmoil. Christopher Anzalone, writing, "Black Banners in Somalia: The State of al-Shabaab’s Territorial Insurgency and the Specter of the Islamic State" published in March 2018 by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point said:

"Militarily, the jihadi-insurgent group retains significant capabilities to launch a range of attacks targeting both military and 'soft' targets, including major suicide-vehicle bombings inside the most secure areas of the country such as central Mogadishu. In 2017, the group also overran a number of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali government military bases and forcefully reasserted itself in the northern Puntland region."

AFRICOM said the mission that included SSgt. Conrad was to “clear al-Shabaab from contested areas, liberate villages from al-Shabaab control, and establish a permanent combat outpost designed to increase the span of Federal Government of Somalia security and governance.”

While Conrad may have been advising, assisting and providing surveillance, mission planners had to know he would likely be involved in the thick of combat.

Spencer Ackerman reported for The Daily Beast that the overall mission was designed to take back territory along the Jubba River in order to build a “rugged joint base near Kismayo in southern Somalia. The intent was for Somali forces to man the combat outpost the Green Berets are building.”

Ackerman reported further that AFRICOM was in charge of the overall combat mission. This is an important point. Keep it in mind.

Reports I have seen said Conrad was participating in Operation Octave Shield. The overall campaign against the al-Qaeda network and other terrorist organizations in East Africa was named Operation Enduring Freedom - Horn of Africa (OEF-HOA). Octave Shield was used as the codename for operational activities supporting that campaign.

Harun Maruf reported for Voice of America (VOA) on June 11, 2018 that US, Kenyan and Somali forces had set up a combat outpost about one mile north of the town of Bar Sanguuni, Lower Jubba region, shown by the red circles on the map above. The report added that the insurgents fired four mortar rounds at the outpost from the other side of the Jubba River. Shrapnel reportedly hit Conrad in the chest while the other Americans were hit in the legs. The insurgents also fired heavy machine guns. Apparently the attack was complex for al-Shabaab in that its fires were coordinated. The outpost was apparently placed in an open space because of flooding.

Bar Sanguuni is now referred to as a Somali military base. I have seen reports saying the 3rd Group team, in Army nomenclature known as Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA), was working with a partner force to build a Forward Operating Base (FOB) near the village.

Bar Sanguuni village is just southwest of Jamaame, both on the Jubba River. This photo has been presented by Al-Shabaab and published by The Long Was Journal. The caption says those troops are in the middle of the FOB that was being built. Al-Shabaab attacked the base on July 23, 2018. A government spokesman confirmed to BBC that "Somali militants had seized the base, before (government) soldiers retook it after heavy fighting.

I'm going to take a few liberties here and do some informed speculation.

Let's go to a Google image of the area. Harun Maruf reported for Voice of America (VOA) that the location of the attack was just one mile north of Bar Sanguuni and close enough to the river that al-Shabaab fighters could launch mortar attacks against it, lobbing them across the Juba River. I believe this Google image meets that criteria. Perhaps most important, note the straight-up walls around the compound, which match the al-Shabaab photo I just showed you.

While searching Google Earth imaging, I could find no other design like this, not even close. In fact, for me this stood out like a sore thumb. I believe this is the outpost that was being set up at which Conrad was killed. This image was taken in 2016.

One Somali officer said, “We know their (al-Shabaab’s) locations and numbers, they know our movements, it’s an open secret.”

Two fallen special forces
The threats presented by Somalia
US policy review
Regional players enter the scene - The birth of AMISOM
AFRICOM: Under the radar
Maritime security - Efforts to secure the waterways
So what is the plan?
Postscript: "The Compound"