Outsourcing the Battle Against Somali Islamists

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Lisa Mullins: The East African nation of Somalia is considered a failed state. There's plenty of evidence to support that. Right now, parts of the country are in the grip of a famine. The government though doesn't control much territory, so international aid is being blocked by militants in Somalia. Those militants belong to Al Shabaab, which is an Islamist group affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Officials fear that Al Shabaab could try to carry out strikes against the west, but there's little appetite in the United States to put boots on the ground in Somalia, so the problem has been outsourced by the State Dept. sort of. Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times has written about Washington's use of contractors in Somalia. He's now in Nairobi, Kenya. Remind us why the US doesn't want to just put troops on the ground in Somalia and what it's doing instead of that.

Jeffrey Gettleman: The American government was very humiliated by the Blackhawk down episode of 1993 when US troops were killed by Somalian militia men in the streets of Mogadishu. And this was during a big peacekeeping mission in the '90s, and after that the US basically pulled out of Somalia and said we don't want to go back there. So now there are these terrorism concerns emanating from Somalia. There's a group, Al Shabaab that's linked to Al-Qaeda. They've shown t hat they can pull off suicide attacks, they've killed many people, and the US is concerned about them, but they don't want to expose American troops. Several companies, including one that I wrote about to do their bidding. And this company, Bancroft, is run by a Princeton graduate, a young guy, Michael Stock, 34 years old, and basically they are military advisors to African peacekeepers in Somalia.

Mullins: So how does it work, is the US directly paying Bancroft to be the contractor on the ground?

Gettleman: It's an interesting and some would say opaque arrangement. The African Union is paying Bancroft several million dollars a year to help train their troops and essentially fight with them. The Bancroft guys don't have guns, but they're on the front lines. And then the United States reimburses these African countries for paying for these advisors. So, it is ultimately American money and the American government didn't deny that to us, they just pass it through the African Union. They're basically helping them fight this intense urban war in Mogadishu and it's been working. The Al-Shabaab pulled out of the city for the first time in years just about a week ago; and that was a stunning development that seemed like a pretty big opportunity for the government in Somalia finally to get its act together and start governing the city.

Mullins: So, that's the benefit perhaps of using contractors like these. What about the risks?

Gettleman: Well the risks are there just isn't the accountability. The American government -- and this all goes back to how we started with Blackhawk down, the American government is not really on the ground in Somalia and this affects the famine too. Right now Somalia is suffering from a famine and it's difficult bringing in expertise, and help and UN agencies because nobody wants to work there.

Mullins: What do you know about any internal discussions that the Obama administration having right now about dealing with Al-Shabaab?

Gettleman: Nobody really knows how to handle Somalia and Al-Shabaab is part of that. Some people want a more aggressive stance taken against the Shabaab. They want more air strikes, more special operations strikes to try and eliminate Shabaab's leaders. But there are other people in the American government including Johnny Carson, who's the State Dept. for Africa, and he's concerned that if the US starts really pounding the Shabaab and it's obvious that it's American forces with planes, or helicopters or cruise missiles that that could backfire. And that the Shabaab could then present itself as the underdog against this foreign power and then they could get even more support.

Mullins: All right, Jeffrey Gettleman, East Africa bureau chief of the New York Times speaking to us from Nairobi, Kenya. Jeffrey, thanks a lot.

Gettleman: Thank you.