A contingent of about 20 lightly armed U.S. Marines landed May 3 in the northwestern Somali port town of Maydh, Somali Assistant District Commissioner Ali Abdi said May 5. Based on reports he received, Abdi said the Marines showed photographs to local residents, saying they were pictures of militants the team is trying to capture. The Somali Interior Ministry declined to comment on the reports. Beyond the reported Marine sightings, several other similar reports surfaced of U.S. movement in Somali port cities around the Gulf of Aden over the past several days. Reuters reported May 5 that three U.S. vessels, including one helicopter carrier, were seen in the port city of Laasqoray, where Marines questioned area fisherman about local shipping patterns. U.S. helicopters also were sighted in the port city of Berbera flying low over infrastructure such as docks, a fuel depot, former barracks and an airport. At first glance, the reports confirm previous STRATFOR assessments of the situation in the region. That U.S. military anti-terrorism operations are indeed going on inside Somalia would come as no surprise. The 1998 attacks against the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, increased concerns that terrorists are using the Horn of Africa as a training ground and safe haven, away from areas under closer scrutiny. Government and security problems
in northern Somalia have created an environment conducive to cultivating a hidden militancy. The northern portion of Somalia, although bitterly disputed among the factions involved, also contains areas of relative stability that could easily be exploited as a transit corridor and hiding place. STRATFOR has reported that operations inside countries in the Horn, including Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Yemen, are carried out by the Djibouti-based Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa under the radar
and out of the public eye. If the operations did occur, they likely were little different from any other operation previously conducted in the area — except this time, word leaked out. The story took a turn May 6, however, when Maj. Gen. Samuel Helland, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, publicly denied Abdi's claim, saying those reporting the sightings likely confused those involved with a Marine Expeditionary Unit that performed training exercises in the area in late April. "There were no Marines ashore," he said directly. Although we make every attempt to avoid overt cynicism, STRATFOR is not naive enough to believe governments always tell the truth. However, when a commander steps in front of the cameras and attaches his name to a statement that could carry severe international repercussions — rather than sending his press officials to dance around the issue or say they cannot comment on such reports — the statement likely is true. The question, then, is: Who, if anyone, was sighted in Somalia? There are several possible answers. First, the possibility that U.S. soldiers were operating in the Horn during this time period — perhaps outside the command of the Combined Joint Task Force — cannot be completely eliminated, although considering the vehement denials, this is not a likely option. Second, the people showing photographs to local residents might have been mistaken for American military personnel, perhaps because they spoke English or had — or appeared to have — U.S. military equipment. A significant number of bounty hunters and/or mercenaries roam the world intent on capturing wanted terrorists for the reward money —as much as $25 million for the capture of Osama bin Laden. As terrorists have been known to pass through or seek safe haven in Somalia, it is possible a trail had led the bounty hunters to Somalia. It also is possible that people affiliated with the U.S. government — but not within the military — are seeking terrorists in Somalia. From a commercial standpoint, the presence of mercenaries also is easy to understand, especially near the port of Berbera. STRATFOR has addressed the geopolitical significance
of many countries in the region, but the area also is significant from a commercial standpoint. Piracy, a worldwide problem for shippers
, also affects the Horn of Africa, which after a quiet spell, has been hit by pirates three times since March. Bounty hunters and mercenaries might also be hired by insurance or transport companies to seek out pirates — rather than terrorists — who have taken shelter in the Somali port cities. Another possibility is that whoever gave the information to Abdi was lying. It is unclear why the region's assistant district commissioner spoke to reporters when the Interior Ministry refused to comment. This could be nothing more than a case of Abdi not understanding the implications of speaking with a reporter whose stories are published internationally, or of Abdi wanting to see his name in the international media. If the stories are true, however, it is possible that Abdi has an axe to grind against the United States or the Somali government, and chose to use this opportunity to send his message. Abdi might have objections to the presence of those who supposedly were flashing pictures, or is angry because they refused to compensate him. Abdi also could be interested in maligning the already-unstable Somali government, still in exile in Nairobi. In light of Somalia's draw — both for the U.S. military and bounty hunters — it is not impossible that Americans really were sighted in the country in recent days. If they have chosen to enter the country, however, they are not saying why.