For the small team of U.S. Navy and Air Force commandos in northern Somalia on June 1, 2007, it must have seemed like history repeating itself. While hunting Islamic terrorists in the town of Bargal, the commandos had been pinned down by gunfire. Fourteen years earlier, a similar situation had resulted in the deaths of 18 U.S. servicemembers in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital — a tragedy that’s the subject of the book and movie Black Hawk Down.
But the commandos in 2007 had a few high-tech advantages over their predecessors.
To escape Bargal, the commandos called in some surprising assistance: the U.S. Navy destroyer Chafee, sailing just a few miles off the Somali coast. For a decade now, Navy warships have quietly loitered in Somali waters — sometimes as little as a mile offshore. The ships are there primarily to protect food ships and intercept pirates and weapons smugglers, but they’re also available for emergency gunfire support. A few shells from the Chafee’s 5-inch gun, pictured, covered the commandos’ retreat.
The 1993 Mogadishu battle had soured American leaders on any further of intervention in war- and famine-plagued Somalia — until 9/11 changed their minds. Starting in 2003, U.S. Special Forces and CIA agents returned to Somalia to track down and kill or capture Al Qaeda and affiliated operatives hiding out in the lawless country. The Americans pinned down in Bargal four years ago represented just part of the hush-hush U.S. operation, which is being detailed in a captivating series of articles by Army Times reporter Sean Naylor.
The 9,000-ton, missile-armed Chafee wasn’t the only high-tech weapon that played a role in the early years of America’s ongoing intervention in Somalia. Washington had yanked the Predator drones from nearby Djibouti in 2003 in order to reinforce the robotic arsenal patrolling Iraq. The drones would return to Somalia in a few years.
In the meantime, the Special Forces in East Africa had access to AC-130 side-firing gunships, plus a little-known spy plane codenamed “Chain Shot.” The modified U.S. Navy P-3 patrol plane is fitted with cameras and data links for long-range surveillance. “A very good aircraft, very effective,” is how one unnamed official described Chain Shot. “We used that capability quite a bit because it has long legs.”
As Naylor details, the American presence in Somalia expanded in the wake of Ethiopia’s 2006 invasion aimed at destroying Somali terror groups. “They moved pretty rapidly,” an official said of the Ethiopians, “and we did seize on that to drive, and to help them drive, the Al Qaeda guys toward the border of Kenya.” There, they would be easier targets for U.S. and allied forces.
The Ethiopians withdrew in 2009, but U.S. Special Forces did not. Aided by high-tech weaponry in the air, at sea and on land, America’s shadow war in Somalia continues today.