Mercenaries fighting US' war in Somalia

The State Department indirectly finances the fight against the al-Shabab, an al-Qaida ally in Somalia

Rouget, 51, a husky former French army officer, commanded a group of foreign fighters during Ivory Coast’s civil war in 2003, was convicted by a South African court of selling his military services and did a stint in the presidential guard of the Comoros Islands, an archipelago plagued by political tumult and coup attempts.

Now Rouget works for Bancroft Global Development, a private US security company that the State Department has indirectly financed to train African troops who have fought a pitched urban battle in the ruins of this city against the al-Shabab, the Somali militant group allied with al-Qaida.

The company plays a vital part in the conflict now raging inside Somalia, a country that has been effectively ungoverned and mired in chaos for years.

The fight against the al-Shabab, a group that US officials fear could someday carry out strikes against the West, has mostly been outsourced to African soldiers and private companies out of reluctance to send US troops back into a country they hastily exited nearly two decades ago.

“We do not want an American footprint or boot on the ground,” said Johnnie Carson, the Obama administration’s top State Department official for Africa. A visible US military presence would be provocative, he said, partly because of Somalia’s history as a graveyard for US missions – including the ‘Black Hawk Down’ episode in 1993, when Somali militiamen killed 18 US service members.

Still, over the past year, the US has quietly stepped up operations inside Somalia, US officials acknowledge. The CIA, which largely finances the country’s spy agency, has covertly trained Somali intelligence operatives, helped build a large base at Mogadishu’s airport – Somalis call it ‘the Pink House’ for the reddish hue of its buildings or ‘Guantanamo’ for its ties to the US – and carried out joint interrogations of suspected terrorists with their counterparts in a ramshackle Somali prison.

The Pentagon has turned to strikes by armed drone aircraft to kill al-Shabab militants and recently approved $45 million in arms shipments to African troops fighting in Somalia. But this is a piecemeal approach that many US officials believe will not be enough to suppress the al-Shabab over the long run.

In interviews, more than a dozen current and former US officials and experts described an overall US strategy in Somalia that has been troubled by a lack of focus and internal battles over the past decade. While the United States has significantly stepped up clandestine operations in Pakistan and Yemen, US officials are deeply worried about Somalia but cannot agree on the risks versus the rewards of escalating military strikes.

For months, officials said, the State Department has been at odds with some military and intelligence officials about whether striking sites suspected of being militant camps in Somalia’s southern territories or carrying out US commando raids to kill militant leaders would significantly weaken the al-Shabab – or instead bolster its ranks by allowing the group to present itself as the underdog against a foreign power.

The al-Shabab has already shown its ability to strike beyond Somalia, killing dozens of Ugandans last summer in a suicide attack that many believe was a reprisal for the Ugandan government’s decision to send troops to Somalia. Now, though, thanks in part to Bancroft, the private security company, the militants have been forced into retreat.

Several UN and African Union officials credit the work of Bancroft with improving the fighting skills of the African troops in Somalia, who this past weekend forced al-Shabab militants to withdraw from Mogadishu, the capital, for the first time in years.

Like other security companies in Somalia, Bancroft has thrived as a proxy of sorts for the US government. Based in a mansion along Embassy Row in Washington, Bancroft is a nonprofit enterprise run by Michael Stock, a 34-year-old Virginia native who founded the company not long after graduating from Princeton in 1999. He used some of his family’s banking fortune to set up Bancroft as a small land-mine clearing operation.

In recent years, the company has expanded its mission in Somalia and now runs one of the only fortified camps in Mogadishu – a warren of prefabricated buildings rimmed with sand bags a stone’s throw from the city’s decrepit, seaside airport.

The Bancroft camp operates as a spartan hotel for visiting aid workers, diplomats and journalists. But the company’s real income has come from the US government, albeit circuitously. The governments of Uganda and Burundi pay Bancroft millions of dollars to train their soldiers for counterinsurgency missions in Somalia under an African Union banner, money that the State Department then reimburses to the two African nations.

Since 2010, Bancroft has collected about $7 million through this arrangement.

Privatising war
Some critics view the role played by Rouget and other contractors as a troubling trend: relying on private companies to fight the battles that nations have no stomach for. Some US congressional officials investigating the money being spent for operations in Somalia said that opaque arrangements like those for Bancroft – where money is passed through foreign governments – made it difficult to properly track how the funds were spent.

It also makes it harder for US officials to monitor who is being hired for the Somalia mission. In Bancroft’s case, some trainers are veterans of Africa’s bush wars who sometimes use aliases in the countries where they fought. Rouget, for example, used the name Col. Sanders.

He denies that he is a mercenary and said that his conviction in a South African court was ‘political,’ more a ‘regulatory infraction’ than a crime. He added that the French government, which sent peacekeeping troops to Ivory Coast, was well aware of his activities there.

Stock, Bancroft’s president, also flatly rejects the idea that his employees are mercenaries, insisting that the trainers do not participate in direct combat with al-Shabab fighters and are supported by legitimate governments. “Mercenary activity is antithetical to the fundamental purposes for which Bancroft exists,” he said, adding that the company “does not engage in covert, clandestine or otherwise secret activities.”

One Somali official, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, said that the spy service was becoming a “government within a government.” “No one, not even the president, knows what the NSA is doing,” he said. “The Americans are creating a monster.”

In Washington, US officials said debates were under way about just how much the United States should rely on clandestine militia training and armed drone strikes to fight the al-Shabab. Over the past year, the US embassy in Nairobi, according to one US official, has become a hive of military and intelligence operatives who are ‘chomping at the bit’ to escalate operations in Somalia. But Carson, the State Department official, has opposed the drone strikes because of the risk of turning more Somalis toward the al-Shabab, according to several officials.

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