WASHINGTON – A veteran CIA officer has been killed in action in Somalia in recent days, according to current and former U.S. officials, a death that is likely to reignite debate over U.S. counterterrorism operations in Africa.
The officer was a member of the CIA’s Paramilitary Division, Special Activities Center, and a former member of the Navy’s elite SEAL 6 team.
The identity of the police officer was kept confidential and the circumstances of the murder were ambiguous. It is not known whether the officer was killed in a counterterrorism raid or was the victim of an enemy attack, former US officials said. The CIA declined to comment.
Death will result in the addition of another star to the wall in the CIA lobby, where it will commemorate his fall. The past 20 years have put a heavy burden on the agency, with dozens of stars bringing the total to 135.
Compared to the US military, the death of CIA officers in combat is a relatively rare occurrence. Yet paramilitary work is the agency’s most dangerous task, and members of the Special Activities Center carry out missions as risky as those of the Delta Force or SEAL Team 6.
The death of the CIA paramilitary officer comes as a draft order circulates in the Pentagon under which almost all of the more than 700 US military forces in Somalia conducting training and counterterrorism missions are said to leave before President Trump leaves office in January.
The Shabab, the Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group based in Somalia, remains a deadly threat and this week claimed responsibility for the murder of a group of Somali soldiers trained in the United States. No Americans were killed in the attack, a military official said.
Within the CIA, Somalia has long been viewed as a particularly dangerous war zone. Senior intelligence officials debated whether the counterterrorism operations were worth the risk to American lives. Some members of the agency believe that Shabab is at worst a regional threat to Africa and US interests there, but not beyond the region.
But other counterterrorism experts believe that if left unchecked, Shabab could emerge as the same type of global threat that Islamic State and Al Qaeda have been. The Shabab, the most active affiliate of Al Qaeda, this year launched new threats against Americans in East Africa and the United States. Members of the group were arrested while taking flight lessons in the Philippines, and others sought to acquire surface-to-air missiles.
Growing concerns over Shabab’s growing ambitions had sparked a wave of US drone strikes in Somalia over the past two years to keep the group under control.
CIA covert operations in Somalia are more difficult to track, but they have likely been stepped up in parallel with drone strikes as the agency sought additional information on who to target in such attacks.
Decisions on whether to change U.S. counterterrorism operations in Somalia will be an early national security challenge for President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. as he reviews Mr. Trump’s policies.
Nonetheless, Mr Biden might find his options more limited as Mr Trump contemplates major changes in his final weeks in office.
The Trump administration’s plan under discussion would not apply to US troops stationed around Kenya and Djibouti, where US drones carrying out airstrikes in Somalia are based. They would continue to carry out counterterrorism operations against the Shabab, according to officials familiar with the internal deliberations who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller last week announced plans to reduce troop strengths in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 by January, but Pentagon officials said this week they were still working on the details of the Somali withdrawal.
Critics have said Mr Trump’s plan to leave Somalia comes at a precarious time for the conflict-exhausted nation in the Horn of Africa. Somalia is gearing up for legislative elections next month and a presidential election slated for early February. The withdrawal of US troops could complicate any ability to protect electoral rallies and the vote from Shabab assailants. Political unrest also erupted in neighboring Ethiopia, whose army fought the Shabab.
Security inside Somalia is increasingly difficult despite a sustained wave of US drone strikes and US-backed ground raids against Shabab fighters, according to a report released by departmental inspectors general on Wednesday. Defense and State and the United States Agency for International Development.
“Despite many years of sustained Somali, American and international counterterrorism pressure, the terrorist threat in East Africa has not worsened,” the assessment concludes. “Shabab retains freedom of movement in many parts of southern Somalia and has demonstrated its ability and intention to attack outside the country, including targeting US interests.”
The paramilitary wing of the CIA has borne the brunt of the agency’s losses since the September 11, 2001 attacks, according to former officials. The officers of the CIA paramilitary teams conduct raids and operations in austere places, missions far more dangerous than the kind of intelligence gathering that is the backbone of the agency.
Many of them were killed in Afghanistan, where at least 20 people have died since the start of the war. It is not known if other officers have been killed in Somalia in recent years.