No Comment — July 14, 2011, 3:22 pm

The CIA’s Secret Prison in Somalia

The Obama Administration’s recent decision to charge a Somali militant named Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame with crimes in a federal court in Manhattan has focused a good deal of attention on American intelligence operations in the Horn of Africa. Somalia is still viewed as the quintessential failed state, and it has been cited by American analysts as a breeding ground for Islamist militants. The U.S. government has made no secret of the special attention it devotes to the country, but it has been remarkably short on details about what that attention entails. Much of this knowledge gap has now been filled in by a remarkable piece of reporting from The Nation‘s Jeremy Scahill.

Nestled in a back corner of Mogadishu’s Aden Adde International Airport is a sprawling walled compound run by the Central Intelligence Agency. Set on the coast of the Indian Ocean, the facility looks like a small gated community, with more than a dozen buildings behind large protective walls and secured by guard towers at each of its four corners. Adjacent to the compound are eight large metal hangars, and the CIA has its own aircraft at the airport. The site, which airport officials and Somali intelligence sources say was completed four months ago, is guarded by Somali soldiers, but the Americans control access. At the facility, the CIA runs a counterterrorism training program for Somali intelligence agents and operatives aimed at building an indigenous strike force capable of snatch operations and targeted “combat” operations against members of Al Shabab, an Islamic militant group with close ties to Al Qaeda.

As part of its expanding counterterrorism program in Somalia, the CIA also uses a secret prison buried in the basement of Somalia’s National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters, where prisoners suspected of being Shabab members or of having links to the group are held. Some of the prisoners have been snatched off the streets of Kenya and rendered by plane to Mogadishu. While the underground prison is officially run by the Somali NSA, US intelligence personnel pay the salaries of intelligence agents and also directly interrogate prisoners.

Scahill proceeds to unfold, through an array of first-hand accounts, a convincing picture of the site’s prison, training operation, and intelligence-gathering operation, which draws on human, signals, and satellite sources. He pays particular attention to the prison, detailing its conditions and its absence of legal process and rights. Indeed, its very existence is a point of special concern.

On the second day of his presidency, Barack Obama issued an executive order that on its face terminated the CIA’s “black site” program, which had seen the agency operate a series of clandestine overseas prisons for terrorism suspects. A few months later, on April 9, 2009, then CIA Director Leon Panetta stated that the CIA “no longer operates detention facilities or black sites,” and that the sites were being “decommissioned.” At the same time, however, the CIA was also maintaining a series of “special relationships” under which cooperating governments maintained proxy prisons for the CIA.

Glenn Carle’s recent book, The Interrogator, whose early chapters play out in Rabat, described in some detail how the CIA worked with Moroccan intelligence to maintain a detentions program there. In Carle’s account, the CIA “snatched” an Afghan citizen off the streets of Dubai and packed him onto a rendition flight to Morocco, where he was held by the Moroccans on behalf of the CIA. Morocco had no genuine interest in the prisoner, so when the CIA decided to move him to its Salt Pit prison north of Kabul, the Moroccans simply turned him over to a different CIA renditions team. The CIA was paying, and it was providing the facilities, security, and material support.

Similar arrangement appear to have been in place in Jordan and Egypt: Egyptian criminal investigators are currently investigating allegations of torture connected with a similar program the CIA maintained in and around Cairo with Egyptian intelligence. The New York City Bar has labeled this system “torture by proxy” because of the methods used, with apparent CIA approval (if not encouragement), by the host intelligence agents. The Moroccan, Egyptian, and Jordanian sites may not have been black, but they were at least charcoal gray.

Scahill’s report raises important questions about the role torture and other abusive practices might be playing at the gray site in Mogadishu, and about whether the CIA is using a proxy regime there to skirt Obama’s executive order. The bottom line, Scahill told me, is that “the U.S. is actively using a secret prison in Somalia where suspects are held with no access to lawyers, courts, due process, the Red Cross, or any remedy to contest their imprisonment.” On Wednesday, a Red Cross representative in Mogadishu acknowledged that the organization hadn’t previously known about the CIA’s prison, and that its representatives hadn’t been invited there for an inspection. Such an omission would be a violation of Obama’s order, which ensures Red Cross access, except the pretense of Somali control presumably allows the CIA to avoid complying.

Scahill highlights the case of a Kenyan seized in his homeland and carted off to Mogadishu by Kenyan agents acting on U.S. intelligence. On Tuesday, the ACLU furnished details about another, equally disturbing case involving Amir Meshal, a U.S. citizen from New Jersey who was in Somalia in 2006 when violence erupted. Meshal says that after he fled the violence by boat to Kenya, he was picked up and placed on a rendition flight back to Mogadishu, where he was placed in a prison called “the cave,” which bears notable similarity to the facility Scahill describes. Meshal was able to identify American FBI agents involved in the process, and he claims they repeatedly threatened him with torture.

The Meshal allegations suggest that U.S. intelligence operations in Mogadishu have had a prison component since at least 2007. Taken alongside Scahill’s account, it would appear that after the Obama presidency commenced, considerable further investment was made in the Mogadishu CIA site, and no effort was taken to shut it down — instead, the emphasis was on creating the aura of local control.

President Obama pledged when he signed his executive order that the United States would win the struggle against terrorism “in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals.” The latest report from Mogadishu shows that his order has instead been interpreted very narrowly, leaving CIA proxy-prison regimes in place. The result is a considerable gap between the values Obama articulated on the campaign trail and in his speeches, and those of the nation’s clandestine services under his leadership.

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