One day after Iran claimed to have brought down an advanced U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone, Public Intelligence received an Air Force report saying the drone suffers from many electronic vulnerabilities (via Jeffrey Carr at Digital Dao).
The report, Operating Next-Generation Remotely Piloted Aircraft for Irregular Warfare was published “For Official Use Only” (FOUO) in April 2011 by the U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, and addresses electronic threats to the American drone fleet.
The board found a list of problems, including communications vulnerabilities and lost communication events.
From Digital Dao:
Section 2.4.3 “Threat to Communication Links” expands on the state of vulnerabilities for [drones]:
- Jamming of commercial satellite communications (SATCOM) links is a widely available technology. It can provide an effective tool for adversaries against data links or as a way for command and control (C2) denial.
- Operational needs may require the use of unencrypted data links to provide broadcast services to ground troops without security clearances. Eavesdropping on these links is a known exploit that is available to adversaries for extremely low cost.
- Spoofing or hijacking links can lead to damaging missions, or even to platform loss.
Section 2.4.4 “Threat to Position, Navigation, and Guidance”:
- Small, simple GPS noise jammers can be easily constructed and employed by an unsophisticated adversary and would be effective over a limited RPA operating area.
- GPS repeaters are also available for corrupting navigation capabilities of RPAs.
- Cyber threats represent a major challenge for future RPA operations. Cyber attacks can affect both on-board and ground systems, and exploits may range from asymmetric CNO attacks to highly sophisticated electronic systems and software attacks.
This information is particularly interesting given the exclusive interview of an Iranian engineer by Scott Peterson and Payam Faramarzi at the Christian Science Monitor.
The CSM story says an Iranian electronic warfare specialist, and his team, overrode the drones communications systems based on information gleaned from the previously downed U.S. drones in Iran.
Once in control of the Sentinel, Iran reprogrammed the craft’s GPS coordinates to make the drone think it was landing at its home base, when actually it was setting down deep in Iran.
“The GPS navigation is the weakest point,” the Iranian engineer told the Monitor, giving the most detailed description yet published of Iran’s “electronic ambush” of the highly classified US drone. “By putting noise [jamming] on the communications, you force the bird into autopilot. This is where the bird loses its brain.”
The “spoofing” technique that the Iranians used – which took into account precise landing altitudes, as well as latitudinal and longitudinal data – made the drone “land on its own where we wanted it to, without having to crack the remote-control signals and communications” from the US control center, says the engineer.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta refused, however, to say whether the drone could have been brought down by an electronic attack.
- Exclusive: Iran hijacked US drone, says Iranian engineer – The Christian Science Monitor (csmonitor.com)
- Iran Claims They Hacked US Drone GPS System (inquisitr.com)
- Iran alleges GPS spoofing tricked CIA’s lost stealth drone – Electronista (electronista.com)
- U.S. drone hijacked by GPS hack? (news.cnet.com)
- Iran Hacked, Hijacked U.s. Drone…report (colonel6.com)
- How Iran hacked super-secret CIA stealth drone (rt.com)
Congress pins hopes of securing US border on unmanned drones
The MQ-9 Predator B, an unmanned surveillance aircraft system, is unveiled by US Customs and Border Protection at Libby Army Airfield on Oct. 30, 2006 in Sierra Vista, Ariz. (Gary Williams/AFP/Getty Images)
Teri SchultzDecember 6, 2011 06:21
LUNA COUNTY, New Mexico — Raymond Cobos, the sheriff in these parts, said the horrors of Mexico’s drug war aren’t limited to the big cities of Juarez or Tijuana, and are creeping closer and closer to the United States everyday.
Just across the border sits Puerto Palomas, a Mexican town where Americans used to go — in relative safety — to shop, eat out and seek low-cost medical procedures.
But last years things began to change. And then, Cobos said, shocking events began happening on his doorstep.
“We saw the violence first-hand: the bodies, the tortures, the decapitations. People going to church found three heads displayed there in the plaza,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be any single town anywhere of any prominence in Mexico that hasn’t had at one time a series of horrible criminal events in which people have been murdered, tortured, mutilated.”
Now fear is growing that such violence will spill over onto American soil and some officials are hoping that an increased reliance on unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, will help stem the tide.
More from GlobalPost: Complete coverage of the Drone Wars
Although the number of Mexicans illegally crossing into the United States is declining, the potential for drug-related violence — especially as an ongoing war among Mexican drug cartels continues to spiral — has reestablished border security as a hot-button issue, and made the use of drones along the border ever more popular.
The Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, commonly known as the Drone Caucus, is a congressional group that works to promote the use of drones both domestically and abroad. It has doubled its membership since January while the number of drones used on the border to track illegal immigrants and drug activity has also steadily increased.
A bipartisan group formed in 2009, the Drone Caucus argues that UAVs are a peerless asset whose use should be amplified not only in weaponized strikes against extremists abroad, but also for the surveillance and tracking of those trying to breach US borders.
Drones now troll the southern border from California to Louisiana, and the northern border from Washington to Minnesota. With a potential flight time of more than 20 hours, the drones make it feasible to cover vast expanses of difficult terrain, while “pilots” split the shifts on the ground.
The first Predator drone was assigned to the southwest border in 2005. Four more soon followed, with the fifth delivered in October to the Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, in the district of Rep. Henry Cuellar, who is a co-chair of the Drone Caucus. A sixth will soon arrive in Sierra Vista, Ariz., and two more monitor the northern border out of North Dakota’s Grand Forks Air Force Base.
More from GlobalPost: Are the drone wars legal?
Maj. Gen. Michael Kostelnik, a retired Air Force pilot who has been working with unmanned technology since the 1990s, said that in his current post as assistant commissioner for the US Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Air and Marine, the drones could prove an invaluable tool.
“If you look at how important the UAVs have been in defense missions overseas,” Kostelnik said from Washington, DC, “it’s not really rocket science to make adjustments for how important those things could be in the homeland for precisely the same reasons.”
Other than the fact that border patrol aircraft do not carry weapons — and despite the presidential campaign rhetoric, Kostelnik said they don’t intend to weaponize them — the units are identical to those used in Pakistan and elsewhere in terms of intelligence collection and real-time interdiction support for agents on the ground.
Tucson Border Patrol Division Chief John Fitzpatrick said it was difficult to put into numbers just how valuable the drones could be for border security.
“Whenever the aircraft shows up, the agents on the ground are more successful and more efficient in what they do,” he said. “It gives us a lot of capabilities we didn’t have before.”
He acknowledged that there was some discomfort with the technology from people living in the area, who worried that the government would be looking into their backyards.
More from GlobalPost: The rationale behind the Drone Wars
“We reassure them there’s accountability in everything we do,” Fitzpatrick said.
For now, supply appears to be outweighing the need and on Capitol Hill, the Drone Caucus appears to be in overdrive. The last three UAVs purchased for border patrol — at a price tag of $32 million from the 2010 budget — were not even requested by Customs and Border Protection, according to an official from the Department of Homeland Security who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Congress sent no extra money for missions or maintenance, despite reports that planes already in service remain grounded at times due to a shortage of pilots, spare parts and other logistical restraints.
Customs and Border Protection reported that drones have been responsible for the apprehension of 7,500 illegal immigrants since they began operating six years ago — a tiny fraction of the total number of arrests that have been made over the same period. Using other means, in six years, the agency has apprehended almost 5 million people.
T.J. Bonner, head of the National Border Patrol Council, a labor union representing border patrol agents, said the low numbers prove that money is better spent on manned aircraft and boots on the ground.
More from GlobalPost: The people behind the drones
“People play with the facts around this stuff,” Kostelnik said with frustration, acknowledging that high-profile, targeted killings overseas have politicized even unweaponized missions.
When asked what help he needed most back in Luna County, Sheriff Cobos said he would prioritize “boots on the ground,” but wouldn’t object to a little unmanned help.
Unlike Texas and Arizona, New Mexico doesn’t have a facility to receive data from drones, so it has had to rely primarily on a low-tech approach — manually tracking known routes with a night-vision scope, searching abandoned houses and sidling along the border, watching for Mexicans climbing and jumping off the 12-foot high border fence.
The other states are “banging their drums while we’re using a popsicle stick,” Cobos said about New Mexico.
“Sooner or later the cartels are going to say, ‘Hey, why aren’t we utilizing this space? Why are we trying to shove it through Arizona and Texas?’” he said. “The possibility [there’s] going to be a catastrophic civil war in Mexico is pretty high, and I have to face the probability that at some point I have to deal with it.”
- US farm drama: Predator drone assists an arrest (mb50.wordpress.com)
- Local cops using Predator drones to spy on Americans in their own backyards | Mail Online (worldwright.wordpress.com)
- Drones cleared for domestic use across the US (rt.com)
- Border Patrol Constructing Unmanned Texas Border Crossing (maboulette.wordpress.com)
- How the Drone Warfare Industry Took Over Our Congress (alternet.org)
- Feds Use More Predator Drones To Secure Southern Border (huffingtonpost.com)
- Prison Planet.com ” Drones Officially Take Flight For Domestic Law Enforcement (gunnyg.wordpress.com)
This week, a member of Iran’s National Security Committee intimated that Iran would soon demonstrate that it could close the Strait of Hormuz to oil tanker traffic. Paryiz Saryari, a member of Iran’s sham parliament, added this bit of rhetorical fire: “If the world wants to make the region (i.e., Iran) insecure, we will make the world insecure.”
The Strait of Hormuz connects the oil-rich Persian Gulf region to the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. Closing the Strait to shipping effectively imposes a naval blockade on the Arab states along the Gulf’s littoral. That’s grim, for it amounts to waging war on several US allies, including Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
It gets grimmer. On any given day, some 30 percent of the globe’s seaborne oil supply sails through the geographic choke-point; thus closing the Strait threatens international energy security.
Missiles and mines bolster Saryari’s bombast. Iran possesses sufficient military forces to seal the channel. Anti-ship mines, high-speed anti-ship missiles and torpedoes pose the biggest problems. Iran also has a few submarines. Strikes by suicide aircraft and swarm attacks by suicide speedboats are possible.
Yes, this is a grim scenario, and in the looming future grimmer still, once Iran’s Khomeinist despots possess nuclear weapons — which they don’t, not yet … we hope.
Cynics argue that the ayatollahs’ cynicism, which is as amply evident as is their corruption, will keep Hormuz open. Immediately following Saryari’s threat, world oil prices spiked three to four dollars. Iranian government oil traders, given a heads-up that the verbal threat was coming, could have made millions, with the cash lining a Revolutionary Guard officer’s pocket, or an ayatollah’s robe, or going into an account to illicitly purchase nuclear weapon detonators.
An uncertain logic undergirds this cynical read. The ayatollahs know that actually closing the strait amounts to a self-blockade. Iran’s major oil-exporting seaports lie on the Persian Gulf (e.g., Kharg Island). The regime buys what domestic peace it enjoys with oil money. Choke the strait, and the ayatollahs strangle themselves. So they won’t do it, if economic logic overrides theological millenarianism.
Economic logic, however, does not guide the ayatollahs’ nuclear quest. If they ditched their nukes, sanctions would end and the threat of U.S. or Israeli attack would drastically diminish. Yet the centrifuges continue to spin; so do threats to annihilate Israel. Last month, Iran threatened to attack missile defense radar sites in Turkey.
The grim consequences of closing Hormuz are why Western and Persian Gulf Arab militaries are prepared to defend the strait, break any Iranian blockade and clear the strait of mines.
The grim consequences of Iran’s regime acquiring nuclear weapons are why U.S. spy drones scrutinize Iranian nuclear facilities and why mysterious bomb blasts (Mossad at work?) plague Iranian labs. It appears the Obama administration has finally understood that negotiations and sanctions won’t halt the quest and that the Bush administration was right — the ayatollahs are hellbent on nukes. So the Obama Administration has decided to wage a covert war on Iranian nuclear capabilities.
That alone, however, does not explain the desperate quality of Iran’s recent belligerency. Domestically, the regime survives by threatening its people with its street thugs and secret police. Syria’s dictatorship (an Iranian ally) has failed to crush its rebels with these brutal tools.
That seeds desperation in Tehran, but Tunisia may be a bigger source of concern.
As Hussein Ibish noted at NOWLebanon.com, recent “bickering” among Tunisian parliamentarians was delightful because “there was no monarch, no dictatorship, no junta or oppressive military, no killings, no militias, no riots and no hint of civil conflict, foreign interference or invasion” present. Another democracy is emerging in a culturally Islamic society. It’s fragile, but for Iran’s tyrants, it is to be feared
- Iran To Practice Closing Strait Of Hormuz (mb50.wordpress.com)
- Oil surges on speculation of supply disruption, U.S. stimulus (mb50.wordpress.com)
- Iranian Official Threatens Military Drill Sealing Off the Strait of Hormuz (foxnews.com)
- Oil Prices Jump on Threat from Iran (247wallst.com)
- Oil: Iran’s Hormuz Strait Threats Could Wreak Global Economic Havoc (forbes.com)
- Do We Have The Will? (garnetspy.com)
A US family has been arrested with the help of a Predator drone, after a search for a missing cow did not go to plan.By “drone” we do mean military reconnaissance and assault flying machine used by the US Army and the CIA, mostly abroad.
This is the first time in American history that an unmanned aircraft has been used to assist police in making an arrest on US soil. To be precise, this is the same Predator drone that the US army uses in military missions across Afghanistan, Pakistan and any other theater of US-inspired conflict.
The drone was called to the rescue when… six cows went missing in North Dakota.
Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke went searching for them on the Brossart family farm, armed with a warrant. Next thing he knew, he was chased off by three armed men – Alex, Thomas and Jacob Brossart.
Next thing they knew – a mini army and a Predator B drone have been called in.
State Highway Patrol, a regional SWAT team, a bomb squad, ambulance, deputy sheriffs from three other counties and a drone arrived at the scene, reports the Los Angeles Times. The drone was on its way back to its hangar from a mission on the US-Canadian border, and since it had fuel left in its tank, the pilot agreed to send it to the farm.
The drone circled the farm while Janke and other officers watched live thermal images from the comfort of their van. Once the suspects had been spotted and it was confirmed that they were not armed, police moved in and arrests were made. A property search turned up two rifles, two shotguns, assorted bows and a samurai sword, reports the Los Angeles Times.
The missing cows have been found too.
A total of five people were arrested – Rodney Brossart, his sons Alex, Thomas and Jacob and their sister Abby. All face a total of 11 felony charges. Later they were all released on bail.
Earlier this year, Janke attended a briefing on how Customs and Border Protection drones can assist police, and when an opportunity presented itself, he called for the unmanned aircraft.
In November, the Federal Aviation Administration had been considering rules that would bring the controversial aircraft into the country.And voilà! Here they are.
According to the Department of Homeland Security’s website, the government has already been using drones domestically for several years, but mostly keeps mum on their missions, saying only that they are regularly used for “support of disaster relief efforts.”
But with missile-equipped drones causing thousands of deaths overseas, the introduction of a drone program Stateside could be detrimental to America as it would mean the government considered its own territory a war zone.
“It’s going to happen,” Dan Elwell, vice president of civil aviation at the Aerospace Industries Association, toldthe Times. “Now it’s about figuring out how to safely assimilate the technology into national airspace.”
- You: Predator drone spy plane used in civilian arrests (latimes.com)
- Report: US drones helping local police (usnews.msnbc.msn.com)
- Ethics inquiry targets chief of drone program (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- DHS Doesn’t Want Its New Spy Drones (wired.com)
- Ex-CIA chief acknowledges open secret: Drones (vancouversun.com)
By Sean D. Naylor – Staff writer
Posted : Monday Dec 5, 2011 11:36:03 EST
There was clearly something suspicious about the two western-looking “civilians” and their interpreter who the Ethiopian security forces were questioning.
For a start, they were in Ethiopia’s bandit country — near the town of Fiq in the Ogaden region that borders Somalia. Secondly, they claimed to be working for the Red Cross, but a quick check of their persons turned up sidearms, which the Red Cross forbids its personnel from carrying. By the time the “civilians” admitted they were U.S. military personnel, the damage had been done. They were on their way to an Ethiopian jail, and an international incident was brewing.
The Ogaden incident, which occurred between March 2007 and March 2008 (sources were unable or unwilling to be more specific), infuriated not only the Ethiopian government but also U.S. intelligence, military and diplomatic leaders in the region.
The Secret War
The episode was one of several irritants in U.S.-Ethiopian relations after Ethiopia’s December 2006 invasion of Somalia. Others included revelations in the U.S. press about AC-130 gunship missions being flown out of Ethiopia and a general reluctance on the Ethiopians’ part to cooperate too closely with U.S. forces in Somalia. Nonetheless, U.S. and Ethiopian special operations forces continued to work together in very small numbers until Ethiopia withdrew from Somalia in January 2009.
The U.S. military personnel whom the Ethiopians took prisoner in the Ogaden were human intelligence soldiers working for Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa’s intelligence directorate. They were authorized “to go out beyond the wire,” said retired Marine Maj. Gen. Timothy Ghormley, the U.S. Central Command chief of staff at the time, who had previously commanded CJTF-HOA, based in Djibouti.
They were not supposed to be undercover, according to Ghormley.
“They’re completely overt,” he said. “They’re supposed to identify themselves as U.S. service members.”
But a senior intelligence official, also familiar with the episode, used different terminology.
“It was a clandestine operation,” the official said. The troops weren’t in uniform, “but … if they were detained they would be able to say, ‘We’re members of the U.S. military,’ so somebody could get them the hell out of there.”
The soldiers’ first mistake was venturing into an area they’d been expressly forbidden from entering, Ghormley said. “They went where they’re not supposed to, they went up near Fiq, and going up into the Fiq area was probably not the brightest thing in the world to do,” he said.
“We said, ‘Don’t go into those regions until we can verify the security and safety,’” said a State Department official. “And they ignored it completely. They put themselves at risk.”
The soldiers risked capture by ethnic Somali guerrillas who “don’t like Americans,” the official said. “They would have killed them.”
But the soldiers’ biggest error was to tell Ethiopian troops who confronted them they were members of a Red Cross team, Ghormley said.
“The colossal mistake they made — the final mistake they made — was concocting a cover story,” he said. “It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, from what I understand.”
The pretense didn’t last long.
“The Ethiopians found pistols on them,” instantly invalidating the cover story, Ghormley said. “With that, they were determined to be hostile, and when they finally did tell the Ethiopians who they were and what they were, the Ethiopians were just kind of ticked off. So they decided they would bring them in.”
The soldiers were detained for “roughly” 10 days, the senior intelligence official said.
“They were probably held 48 hours, maybe, not much longer than that,” he said.
Nevertheless, high-level diplomatic and military pressure was required to get the men released, sources said.
“It took the ambassador, it took the CENTCOM commander [Adm. William Fallon], it took the State Department to get involved,” the intelligence official said.
“An incident occurred in which a couple of guys were detained,” said Fallon, who retired in 2008. “They were using poor judgment to go to a place they shouldn’t have been, [which was] not authorized and not sanctioned and not smart.”
“The Ethiopians were good about it,” but the fiasco had long-term consequences, the intelligence official said.
The soldiers had been carrying a lot of information about U.S. intelligence operations in the region that was instantly compromised.
“All their documentation, papers, notepads, military stuff were collected [by the Ethiopians],” the State Department official said.
“It was like amateur hour, this team that got rolled up,” the intelligence official said. “There was information that they had that they should not have been carrying … It gave away techniques and procedures that we couldn’t afford to do, because we knew at that time that al-Qaida was building up its capability in Somalia and that was why we were trying damn hard to get into Somalia with really sensitive collection.”
The incident “put a spotlight on everything” U.S. intelligence was doing in the Horn, the official said. “It became a big deal and it actually hurt us, I would say, for a couple of years … around the region.”
Military intelligence operations now had to be coordinated through the CIA.
“That coordination just dried up,” the official said.
Fallon disputed that interpretation.
“It was certainly not helpful, and it caused a lot of anxiety. But at the end of the day, there was no major damage done,” he said.
(Hilary Renner, spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, and Simon Schorno, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, each declined to comment on the episode. The Ethiopian Embassy in Wash
ington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.)
Ethiopia’s withdrawal from Somalia ended neither the war in that country nor the U.S.’s role in it.
Although the Ethiopian invasion had quickly ousted the Islamic Courts Union from Mogadishu, a hard-line Islamist faction called al-Shabaab (the Youth) soon emerged to battle the Ethiopians, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government and the African Union peacekeeping force that replaced the Ethiopians.
Since then, and particularly during the past six months, the pace of U.S. operations appears, if anything, to have accelerated as an increasing number of actors are drawn into the war in Somalia.
• On Sept. 14, 2009, a U.S. special operations helicopter raid killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a senior al-Qaida in East Africa figure.
• On April 19, 2011, the U.S. captured Somali national and al-Shabaab member Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, 25, as he crossed the Gulf of Aden on a ship to Yemen from Somalia. The U.S. held Warsame, who allegedly has links to Yemen’s al-Qaida branch, for two months on a Navy ship before flying him to the U.S.
• On June 7, TFG forces killed Harun Fazul, the most-wanted al-Qaida figure in East Africa, when he mistook their roadblock in Mogadishu for an al-Shabaab position.
• On June 23, U.S. drones struck al-Shabaab targets near Kismayo.
• On July 6, there were reports of airstrikes in Lower Juba, the southernmost region of Somalia, according to the website SomaliaReport.com.
• In early August, under increasing military pressure from the TFG forces backed up by 9,000 African Union peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi, al-Shabaab announced its withdrawal from Mogadishu.
• On Sept. 15, there were more airstrikes on an al-Shabaab training camp in Taabta in Lower Juba, according to SomaliaReport.com.
• On Sept. 21, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. is building a “ring of secret drone bases” including facilities in Ethiopia, the Seychelles and “the Arabian Peninsula.”
• On Sept. 23, airstrikes hit al-Shabaab’s main camp at the Kismayo airport.
• On Oct. 4, an al-Shabaab truck bomb killed an estimated 65 people in Mogadishu.
In mid-October, Kenya’s military began a substantial incursion into southern Somalia, which has since bogged down short of the port of Kismayo. By late November, there were reports that Ethiopia had again sent forces into Somalia in support of the Kenyan invasion. The New York Times quoted U.S. officials Oct. 21 saying the Kenyan action had taken them by surprise and there were no U.S. military advisers with the Kenyan force. Even if that is the case, U.S. officials say the secret war in the Horn of Africa is by no means over.
Looking back, U.S. officials are divided over what they achieved in the Horn in the years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Successes were rare in the early years of the campaign against al-Qaida in East Africa. The only al-Qaida fighters known to have been killed between 2001 and 2005 were a bodyguard who blew himself up to enable Harun Fazul to escape Kenyan security forces in 2003 and another “minor player” who died of wounds received when Kenyan police seized him, said an intelligence source with long experience in the Horn.
During that period, warlords paid by the CIA helped render “seven or eight” al-Qaida figures out of Somalia, the source said. But although the U.S. focus was on rendering, rather than killing, members of al-Qaida in East Africa, this presented its own challenges.
“The big problem was, what do you do with one of these guys” once he had been captured, a senior military official said. That was “the $100,000 question.”
The U.S. was reluctant to put its captives on trial.
“All the evidence [against the al-Qaida figures] is intelligence,” the official said. “So unless you want to give it up … we have a problem with [that] based on sources and methods.”
Normal procedure was for the warlords to capture the targets, who were then transferred to Djibouti, processed and sent on from there, according to the intelligence source. As for their ultimate destinations, “the only ones I knew were sent to the ‘Salt Pit’ in Afghanistan,” the source said. The “Salt Pit” is the name of a CIA clandestine prison — sometimes referred to as a “black site” — north of Kabul.
Most sources Army Times interviewed said Operation Black Hawk — the CIA-led campaign against al-Qaida in East Africa — had a direct impact on the terrorist network’s efforts in the Horn. Black Hawk was a success, said the intelligence source with long experience in the Horn, because the al-Qaida cell “was certainly degraded, perhaps eviscerated.” In addition, the source said, “we believed we were able to foil several [al-Qaida] operations” along the lines of another embassy bombing or a plane attack.
However, even as he focused tightly on the manhunt and the renditions, John Bennett, the CIA’s station chief in Nairobi in the 2002-03 time frame and now the head of the Agency’s National Clandestine Service, had his doubts about that approach, the intelligence source said.
“Bennett always felt that [by focusing on rendition] you weren’t getting at the larger problem,” the source said.
Always interested in getting at how al-Qaida was targeting U.S. interests in the region, Bennett wanted to go after al-Qaida’s network and finances, the source added. (Bennett declined an interview request.)
“We rarely stepped back to ask, ‘What does this thing really look like, and so what?’” the source said. “Not because we didn’t think about it but because we went after what we knew.”
U.S. efforts were complicated by the fact that there were “two proponent agencies” for the war on al-Qaida in the Horn — U.S. Special Operations Command (higher headquarters for Joint Special Operations Command, whose elite operators were heavily involved in the Horn) and the CIA — according to the intelligence source. This created friction between the CIA and JSOC during the early years of the campaign, the source said. The Horn was what the source described as “a Title 50 environment,” meaning it was not considered a combat theater. (Title 50 is the section of the U.S. Code dealing with covert intelligence issues, while Title 10 deals with the armed services, including clandestine military operations.)
Operating out of a sovereign nation — Kenya — in a Title 50 environment meant “we had to let the Kenyans in on anything short of a covert operation,” leaving some JSOC “shooters” eager for more aggressive action “very frustrated,” the source said.
“Nairobi is a good example of JSOC wanting to come in and conduct operations — let’s say a Little Bird [helicopter] strike against a target in the tri-border area of Somalia-Ethiopia-Kenya,” the source said. “More than one [JSOC] O-6 came through Nairobi and said, ‘We can do whatever we damn please.’” The source noted that “at the time SOCOM and JSOC were accustomed to working in Title 10 environments” such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where the rules governing combat action were much looser.
Assessing the threat
No U.S. military personnel have died in combat in the Horn since 9/11, which the senior intelligence official described as “amazing.” But despite the low cost in American blood, some special operators question whether the U.S. effort there has been worth the risk.
“I never thought any of the African targets were important,” said a special operations officer. “They don’t show a direct threat to the homeland. They don’t have the ability to project.”
He dismissed the argument that Somali immigrants to the U.S. who have returned to fight for al-Shabaab represent a threat to the homeland.
“Can you show me intelligence that shows that that network is posing a direct threat to the United States or its allies?” he asked, emphasizing that he was referring to a current threat, not past attacks such as al-Qaida’s 1998 bomb attacks on two U.S. embassies in East Africa.
The senior intelligence official’s take was very different.
“The scale of the problem in Somalia was huge,” the official said. “We’re talking a large number of al-Qaida, a couple of training camps over the years that have trained, in the case of two examples, a couple of hundred people who are now out there. Some probably left the continent and returned to Europe, some may have returned to Afghanistan and some may have returned to Iraq, and some may just still be in Somalia fighting.”
Although there are terrorist training camps in Somalia, the special ops officer acknowledged, “there are training camps all over the place. But what was the threat tied to our homeland or our allies?”
“Somalia definitely has a cell [of al-Qaida] but the connectivity to the rest of al-Qaida is really specious, it’s very frail,” said a special mission unit veteran.
The diaries of senior Arab al-Qaida members such as Ramzy Binalshib and Abu Zubaydah express clear racism toward black people that would complicate any attempt at close cooperation between the Arab-dominated group and its African franchise, he said.
“What they [i.e. the targets in Africa] did enable us to do was see the network, because they had to communicate, so that’s always good,” the special ops officer said. “It made us understand the network, that’s the biggest success story. And it’s another example of how we can work quietly with others.”
“We managed to strengthen bilateral relations in the region with numerous countries,” agreed the intel source with long experience in the Horn.
But the recent flurry of airstrikes in Somalia, combined with senior leader comments, suggests that there is much work yet to do.
In a March 1 hearing, Marine Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee: “…we see [al-Qaida] links going down into Somalia with al-Shabaab.”
“There’s been a lot of very challenging things done there and, sadly, we’re going to have to do,” said the senior intelligence official. But although the CIA and JSOC continue to be active in Somalia — a recent article in The Nation outlined close links between CIA and the TFG’s intelligence agency — the military has no permanent presence in the country, the intelligence official said.
After expanding for most of the past seven years, JSOC’s presence in the Horn “is steady — it’s definitely plateaued,” the senior intelligence official said. In fact, the official said, it’s probably dropped a bit” because a couple of “the key targets” have been killed.
There are no JSOC personnel in Somaliland, Sudan or Eritrea and only a very small intelligence team in Ethiopia, the official said. “On a given day in Kenya, you probably have a couple of dozen guys — that’s about it,” the official said. “Enough to do, if required … a high-value capture-or-kill mission. And then we certainly have the ability to move guys pretty damn quickly to there.”
But despite JSOC’s acute interest in Somalia, there is a limit to what the command can achieve there, said a Defense Department official. “JSOC is not going to be the deciding force in whatever happens in Somalia,” the official said. “They can’t kill them all. They can’t capture them all.”
When it comes to Somalia and Yemen, “we’d like to be doing much more in both those places,” the senior military official said. “The State Department came down hard and said we don’t want a third front in an Islamic [country] … Our State Department doesn’t want us to have campaign plans in these two countries.
“It’s a tale of frustration, tears and woe — of what we wanted to do and what we thought we’d be allowed to versus what we’ve been able to do.”
In the meantime, said the senior intelligence official, “Somalia remains a huge problem.”
- Catching up on Somalia and Somaliland (africommons.wordpress.com)
- Opening up a new front against the al-Shabab (thehindu.com)
- More Ethiopian troops seen in central Somalia-residents (trust.org)
- Ethiopian tanks push into Somalia to attack Islamists (smh.com.au)
U.S. Africa Command/Major Eric Hilliard – The Seychelles, where the U.S. had temporarily stationed MQ-9s under the operational authority of U.S. Africa Command, now houses a base where a small fleet of “hunter-killer” drones resumed operations this month.
By Craig Whitlock and Greg Miller
Published: September 20
The Obama administration is assembling a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen, U.S. officials said.
One of the installations is being established in Ethiopia, a U.S. ally in the fight against al-Shabab, the Somali militant group that controls much of that country. Another base is in the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, where a small fleet of “hunter-killer” drones resumed operations this month after an experimental mission demonstrated that the unmanned aircraft could effectively patrol Somalia from there.
The U.S. military also has flown drones over Somalia and Yemen from bases in Djibouti, a tiny African nation at the junction of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. In addition, the CIA is building a secret airstrip in the Arabian Peninsula so it can deploy armed drones over Yemen.
The rapid expansion of the undeclared drone wars is a reflection of the growing alarm with which U.S. officials view the activities of al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia, even as al-Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan has been weakened by U.S. counterterrorism operations.
The U.S. government is known to have used drones to carry out lethal attacks in at least six countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The negotiations that preceded the establishment of the base in the Republic of Seychelles illustrate the efforts the United States is making to broaden the range of its drone weapons.
The island nation of 85,000 people has hosted a small fleet of MQ-9 Reaper drones operated by the U.S. Navy and Air Force since September 2009. U.S. and Seychellois officials have previously acknowledged the drones’ presence but have said that their primary mission was to track pirates in regional waters. But classified U.S. diplomatic cables show that the unmanned aircraft have also conducted counterterrorism missions over Somalia, about 800 miles to the northwest.
The cables, obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, reveal that U.S. officials asked leaders in the Seychelles to keep the counterterrorism missions secret. The Reapers are described by the military as “hunter-killer” drones because they can be equipped with Hellfire missiles and satellite-guided bombs.
To allay concerns among islanders, U.S. officials said they had no plans to arm the Reapers when the mission was announced two years ago. The cables show, however, that U.S. officials were thinking about weaponizing the drones.
During a meeting with Seychelles President James Michel on Sept. 18, 2009, American diplomats said the U.S. government “would seek discrete [sic], specific discussions . . . to gain approval” to arm the Reapers “should the desire to do so ever arise,” according to a cable summarizing the meeting. Michel concurred, but asked U.S. officials to approach him exclusively for permission “and not anyone else” in his government, the cable reported.
Michel’s chief deputy told a U.S. diplomat on a separate occasion that the Seychelles president “was not philosophically against” arming the drones, according to another cable. But the deputy urged the Americans “to be extremely careful in raising the issue with anyone in the Government outside of the President. Such a request would be ‘politically extremely sensitive’ and would have to be handled with ‘the utmost discreet care.’ ”
A U.S. military spokesman declined to say whether the Reapers in the Seychelles have ever been armed.
“Because of operational security concerns, I can’t get into specifics,” said Lt. Cmdr. James D. Stockman, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Africa Command, which oversees the base in the Seychelles. He noted, however, that the MQ-9 Reapers “can be configured for both surveillance and strike.”
A spokeswoman for Michel said the president was unavailable for comment.
Jean-Paul Adam, who was Michel’s chief deputy in 2009 and now serves as minister of foreign affairs, said U.S. officials had not asked for permission to equip the drones with missiles or bombs.
“The operation of the drones in Seychelles for the purposes of counter-piracy surveillance and other related activities has always been unarmed, and the U.S. government has never asked us for them to be armed,” Adam said in an e-mail. “This was agreed between the two governments at the first deployment and the situation has not changed.”
The State Department cables show that U.S. officials were sensitive to perceptions that the drones might be armed, noting that they “do have equipment that could appear to the public as being weapons.”
To dispel potential concerns, they held a “media day” for about 30 journalists and Seychellois officials at the small, one-runway airport in Victoria, the capital, in November 2009. One of the Reapers was parked on the tarmac.
“The government of Seychelles invited us here to fight against piracy, and that is its mission,” Craig White, a U.S. diplomat, said during the event. “However, these aircraft have a great deal of capabilities and could be used for other missions.”
In fact, U.S. officials had already outlined other purposes for the drones in a classified mission review with Michel and Adam. Saying that the U.S. government “desires to be completely transparent,” the American diplomats informed the Seychellois leaders that the Reapers would also fly over Somalia “to support ongoing counter-terrorism efforts,” though not “direct attacks,” according to a cable summarizing the meeting.
U.S. officials “stressed the sensitive nature of this counter-terrorism mission and that this not be released outside of the highest . . . channels,” the cable stated. “The President wholeheartedly concurred with that request, noting that such issues could be politically sensitive for him as well.”
The Seychelles drone operation has a relatively small footprint. Based in a hangar located about a quarter-mile from the main passenger terminal at the airport, it includes between three and four Reapers and about 100 U.S. military personnel and contractors, according to the cables.
The military operated the flights on a continuous basis until April, when it paused the operations. They resumed this month, said Stockman, the Africa Command spokesman.
The aim in assembling a constellation of bases in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula is to create overlapping circles of surveillance in a region where al-Qaeda offshoots could emerge for years to come, U.S. officials said.
The locations “are based on potential target sets,” said a senior U.S. military official. “If you look at it geographically, it makes sense — you get out a ruler and draw the distances [drones] can fly and where they take off from.”
One U.S. official said that there had been discussions about putting a drone base in Ethiopia for as long as four years, but that plan was delayed because “the Ethiopians were not all that jazzed.” Other officials said Ethiopia has become a valued counterterrorism partner because of threats posed by al-Shabab.
“We have a lot of interesting cooperation and arrangements with the Ethiopians when it comes to intelligence collection and linguistic capabilities,” said a former senior U.S. military official familiar with special operations missions in the region.
An Ethiopian Embassy spokesman in Washington could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.
The former official said the United States relies on Ethiopian linguists to translate signals intercepts gathered by U.S. agencies monitoring calls and e-mails of al-Shabab members. The CIA and other agencies also employ Ethiopian informants who gather information from across the border.
Overall, officials said, the cluster of bases reflects an effort to have wider geographic coverage, greater leverage with countries in the region and backup facilities if individual airstrips are forced to close.
“It’s a conscious recognition that those are the hot spots developing right now,” said the former senior U.S. military official.