The American soldier killed in Southern Somalia on Friday was part of a joint operation which had been in the works for years, The Daily Beast has learned. And by the time it began, the enemy was ready and waiting.
According to a U.S. Africa Command press release, combined force of Somalis, Kenyans, and Americans was conducting a multi-day operation to liberate villages in Lower Juba from Al Shabaab control and establish “a permanent combat outpost designed to increase the span of Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) security and governance.” Al Shabaab has been waging an insurgency to create an Islamic state in Somalia since 2006. In 2012, the group pledged its allegiance to Al Qaeda.
Late Saturday, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command confirmed the identity of the soldier killed as 26-year-old Staff Sgt. Alexander W. Conrad of Chandler, Arizona. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group. His specialty was gathering human intelligence.
African Union peacekeepers and American officials have told The Daily Beast that the mission’s objective was to establish a combat outpost intended to remedy problems American and partnered forces have had holding terrain retaken from Al Shabaab.
According to locals in the area, however, the increased presence of allied forces in recent weeks put Al Shabaab militants on high alert. The militants diverted water from the Jubba River to flood the area, compelling the joint force to build the combat outpost on a piece of higher ground where they were then ambushed on Friday.
The allied offensive’s target, the Jubba River Corridor, has long been a stronghold for Al Shabaab and one of its main transit routes into and out of northern Kenya, making the capture of the area a prime objective for allied forces. But poor weather, inadequate supplies, an insufficient number of soldiers from partner forces, and a lack of buy-in among key local and African Union security officials repeatedly has delayed the ambitious allied forces plan to retake the river corridor.
According to civilians in the area around Sanguni reached by telephone, two weeks before the attack on Friday in which Staff Sgt. Conrad was killed, Al Shabaab militants had taken a number of measures to protect their terrain: they told civilians living in the area to leave, they shed their military uniforms for civilian clothing, they brought in reinforcements from surrounding villages, and they dug out the banks of the Jubba River at a village called Jii-way, dumping the dug-up earth into the shallow riverbed itself to create a pseudo-dam.
As a result, water from the river began flooding the surrounding area making it nearly impassable: farms of mango and banana trees became wetlands and fruit and vegetable prices increased five fold in the nearby city of Kismayo as the remaining farmers left their land. “They completely destroyed the nearby farms, the water reached as far as two or three kilometers from the river,” said one local leader who preferred to remain anonymous for security reasons.
With the area now a marshland – a literal quagmire – the joint force was compelled to seek higher ground to build their COP in an area two kilometers away from the central village of Sanguni. The exact spot is called “Baar” or “Baarka Sanguni”: once home to a bar run by the Italians who colonized the area and managed the farms along the Jubba River. It’s situated on a hill under the shade of mango and banana trees, and in colonial times a semicircular wall enclosed a garden where Italians and well-to-do Somalis clinked wine glasses and enjoyed a light breeze coming off the river. By the time the joint force arrived with their trucks and excavators, physical remnants of that history were long gone.
Locals in the nearby village, Jeneraal Jay, who had fled their farms when they flooded, told The Daily Beast that on Thursday morning there was a firefight between Al Shabaab militants in the area and the allied forces in Baarka Sanguni. They said one civilian, a teenage girl, was killed in the crossfire. After the exchange, some families fled to the nearby town, Jamaame.
The following afternoon at approximately 2:45 P.M. local time, the roughly 800-strong joint allied force came under small arms and mortar fire from Al Shabaab militants, according to a statement by U.S. Africa Command. During the exchange, one U.S. service member was killed and four others were injured as was one member of a partnered force.
The death of the U.S. soldier is the first U.S. combat death on the continent since the Niger ambush in October and the second in Somalia in 13 months.
It comes as the Pentagon considers drawing down counter-terrorism forces across the continent. The proposed cut is the result of a review of American commando operations in Africa following the death of four U.S. soldiers in Niger last fall and is part of a wider discussion about aligning U.S. Africa Command operations with the new National Defense Strategy, which focuses on countering threats from global powers like China and Russia. If approved, the proposed drawdown would cut the number of American commandos in Africa by as much as 50 percent over the next three years.
U.S. Africa Command has some military presence in virtually every country on the continent, and while the proposed cut would likely significantly affect countries with already small American footprints, it may not have as large an impact in places like Somalia, which pose a more immediate terrorist threat and has long been a counter-terrorism project of the U.S., according to American security officials.
The Jubba River Corridor operation was itself the result of mounting political pressure. International donors to the AMISOM peacekeeping force have wanted it to demonstrate its effectiveness, which pushed AMISOM and its partners to finally undertake the long-planned offensive, according to American and AMISOM officials.
The European Union, the main financial donor to AMISOM, is currently reviewing its longstanding commitment to the peacekeeping force in light of new financial commitments related to security in the Sahel and migration to Europe. According to the Institute for Security Studies, E.U. officials are concerned about the effectiveness of the force given its lack of major offensive action since mid-2015. Countries contributing troops to AMISOM contend that the force has not had sufficient resources to undertake significant offensives in that time.
The sporadic operations AMISOM peacekeepers have undertaken have been criticized for their ineffectiveness. In recent years a familiar pattern has emerged in offensive actions by allied forces: joint operations would retake a town for a short time, but without the resources or troops to maintain a permanent presence, they would leave after a few days, and Al Shabaab militants would return. Though the tactic disrupts Al Shabaab activity for a short time, it does not allow for large swaths of territory to be retaken from Al Shabaab and put under the control of the Somali Federal Government.
In early February, a joint force of American Special Operators, African Union Peacekeepers, and the Somali National Security Forces retook Mubarak Town, the center of Al Shabaab’s “Mogadishu Attack Network” which is used to create and move vehicle-born IEDs (car and truck bombs) from the Lower Shabelle region into Mogadishu. But a few days later, when many of the allied troops withdrew to a nearby AMISOM Forward Operating Base, Al Shabaab militants returned and threw scores of civilians in prison claiming they had passed information to the allied forces.
The Jubba River Corridor operation was supposed to remedy that sort of problem, and AFRICOM says it will continue. But Somali and AMISOM officials have expressed concern that the death of a U.S. soldier could stir the Pentagon to further restrict the operations of U.S. Special Operations Forces in Somalia, or increase the drawdown, which they say would disrupt an already fragile security situation.
“All the security players here play specific roles,” Brig. Paul Lokech, Contingent Commander of the Ugandan forces within AMISOM, told The Daily Beast. “If any of those players leave and no one else fills their role, it will leave a security gap, there’s no question.”