The CIA’s Secret Sites in Somalia

Jeremy Scahill     13 February 2012

July 12, 2011   |    This article appeared in the August 1-8, 2011 edition of The Nation.

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. The existence of both facilities and the CIA role was uncovered by The Nation during an extensive on-the-ground investigation in Mogadishu.

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Among the sources who provided information for this story are senior Somali intelligence officials; senior members of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG); former prisoners held at the underground prison; and several well-connected Somali analysts and militia leaders, some of whom have worked with US agents, including those from the CIA. A US official, who confirmed the existence of both sites, told The Nation, “It makes complete sense to have a strong counterterrorism partnership” with the Somali government.

The CIA presence in Mogadishu is part of Washington’s intensifying counterterrorism focus on Somalia, which includes targeted strikes by US Special Operations forces, drone attacks and expanded surveillance operations. The US agents “are here full time,” a senior Somali intelligence official told me. At times, he said, there are as many as thirty of them in Mogadishu, but he stressed that those working with the Somali NSA do not conduct operations; rather, they advise and train Somali agents. “In this environment, it’s very tricky. They want to help us, but the situation is not allowing them to do [it] however they want. They are not in control of the politics, they are not in control of the security,” he adds. “They are not controlling the environment like Afghanistan and Iraq. In Somalia, the situation is fluid, the situation is changing, personalities changing.”

According to well-connected Somali sources, the CIA is reluctant to deal directly with Somali political leaders, who are regarded by US officials as corrupt and untrustworthy. Instead, the United States has Somali intelligence agents on its payroll. Somali sources with knowledge of the program described the agents as lining up to receive $200 monthly cash payments from Americans. “They support us in a big way financially,” says the senior Somali intelligence official. “They are the largest [funder] by far.”

According to former detainees, the underground prison, which is staffed by Somali guards, consists of a long corridor lined with filthy small cells infested with bedbugs and mosquitoes. One said that when he arrived in February, he saw two white men wearing military boots, combat trousers, gray tucked-in shirts and black sunglasses. The former prisoners described the cells as windowless and the air thick, moist and disgusting. Prisoners, they said, are not allowed outside. Many have developed rashes and scratch themselves incessantly. Some have been detained for a year or more. According to one former prisoner, inmates who had been there for long periods would pace around constantly, while others leaned against walls rocking.

A Somali who was arrested in Mogadishu and taken to the prison told The Nation that he was held in a windowless underground cell. Among the prisoners he met during his time there was a man who held a Western passport (he declined to identify the man’s nationality). Some of the prisoners told him they were picked up in Nairobi and rendered on small aircraft to Mogadishu, where they were handed over to Somali intelligence agents. Once in custody, according to the senior Somali intelligence official and former prisoners, some detainees are freely interrogated by US and French agents. “Our goal is to please our partners, so we get more [out] of them, like any relationship,” said the Somali intelligence official in describing the policy of allowing foreign agents, including from the CIA, to interrogate prisoners. The Americans, according to the Somali official, operate unilaterally in the country, while the French agents are embedded within the African Union force known as AMISOM.

Among the men believed to be held in the secret underground prison is Ahmed Abdullahi Hassan, a 25- or 26-year-old Kenyan citizen who disappeared from the congested Somali slum of Eastleigh in Nairobi around July 2009. After he went missing, Hassan’s family retained Mbugua Mureithi, a well-known Kenyan human rights lawyer, who filed a habeas petition on his behalf. The Kenyan government responded that Hassan was not being held in Kenya and said it had no knowledge of his whereabouts. His fate remained a mystery until this spring, when another man who had been held in the Mogadishu prison contacted Clara Gutteridge, a veteran human rights investigator with the British legal organization Reprieve, and told her he had met Hassan in the prison. Hassan, he said, had told him how Kenyan police had knocked down his door, snatched him and taken him to a secret location in Nairobi. The next night, Hassan had said, he was rendered to Mogadishu.

According to the former fellow prisoner, Hassan told him that his captors took him to Wilson Airport: “‘They put a bag on my head, Guantánamo style. They tied my hands behind my back and put me on a plane. In the early hours we landed in Mogadishu. The way I realized I was in Mogadishu was because of the smell of the sea—the runway is just next to the seashore. The plane lands and touches the sea. They took me to this prison, where I have been up to now. I have been here for one year, seven months. I have been interrogated so many times. Interrogated by Somali men and white men. Every day. New faces show up. They have nothing on me. I have never seen a lawyer, never seen an outsider. Only other prisoners, interrogators, guards. Here there is no court or tribunal.’”

After meeting the man who had spoken with Hassan in the underground prison, Gutteridge began working with Hassan’s Kenyan lawyers to determine his whereabouts. She says he has never been charged or brought before a court. “Hassan’s abduction from Nairobi and rendition to a secret prison in Somalia bears all the hallmarks of a classic US rendition operation,” she says. The US official interviewed for this article denied the CIA had rendered Hassan but said, “The United States provided information which helped get Hassan—a dangerous terrorist—off the street.” Human Rights Watch and Reprieve have documented that Kenyan security and intelligence forces have facilitated scores of renditions for the US and other governments, including eighty-five people rendered to Somalia in 2007 alone. Gutteridge says the director of the Mogadishu prison told one of her sources that Hassan had been targeted in Nairobi because of intelligence suggesting he was the “right-hand man” of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, at the time a leader of Al Qaeda in East Africa. Nabhan, a Kenyan citizen of Yemeni descent, was among the top suspects sought for questioning by US authorities over his alleged role in the coordinated 2002 attacks on a tourist hotel and an Israeli aircraft in Mombasa, Kenya, and possible links to the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

An intelligence report leaked by the Kenyan Anti-Terrorist Police Unit in October 2010 alleged that Hassan, a “former personal assistant to Nabhan…was injured while fighting near the presidential palace in Mogadishu in 2009.” The authenticity of the report cannot be independently confirmed, though Hassan did have a leg amputated below the knee, according to his former fellow prisoner in Mogadishu.

Two months after Hassan was allegedly rendered to the secret Mogadishu prison, Nabhan, the man believed to be his Al Qaeda boss, was killed in the first known targeted killing operation in Somalia authorized by President Obama. On September 14, 2009, a team from the elite US counterterrorism force, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), took off by helicopters from a US Navy ship off Somalia’s coast and penetrated Somali airspace. In broad daylight, in an operation code-named Celestial Balance, they gunned down Nabhan’s convoy from the air. JSOC troops then landed and collected at least two of the bodies, including Nabhan’s.

Hassan’s lawyers are preparing to file a habeas petition on his behalf in US courts. “Hassan’s case suggests that the US may be involved in a decentralized, out-sourced Guantánamo Bay in central Mogadishu,” his legal team asserted in a statement to The Nation. “Mr. Hassan must be given the opportunity to challenge both his rendition and continued detention as a matter of urgency. The US must urgently confirm exactly what has been done to Mr. Hassan, why he is being held, and when he will be given a fair hearing.”

Does any­one know Leon Panetta’s email ad­dress? I’d like to send him my list of United States as­sas­si­na­tion plots. More than 50 for­eign lead­ers were tar­geted over the years, many suc­cess­fully. 7

Not long ago, Iraq and Iran were re­garded by US­rael as the most sig­nif­i­cant threats to Is­raeli Mid­dle-East hege­mony. Thus was born the myth of Iraqi Weapons of Mass De­struc­tion, and the United States pro­ceeded to turn Iraq into a bas­ket case. That left Iran, and thus was born the myth of the Iran­ian Nu­clear Threat. As it began to sink in that Iran was not re­ally that much of a nu­clear threat, or that this “threat” was be­com­ing too dif­fi­cult to sell to the rest of the world, US­rael de­cided that, at a min­i­mum, it wanted regime change. The next step may be to block Iran’s life­line — oil sales using the Strait of Hor­muz. Ergo, the re­cent US and EU naval buildup near the Per­sian Gulf, an act of war try­ing to goad Iran into fir­ing the first shot. If Iran tries to counter this block­ade it could be the sig­nal for an­other US Bas­ket Case, the fourth in a decade, with the dev­as­tated peo­ple of Libya and Afghanistan, along with Iraq, cur­rently en­joy­ing Amer­ica’s unique gift of free­dom and democ­racy.

On Jan­u­ary 11, the Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported: “In ad­di­tion to in­flu­enc­ing Iran­ian lead­ers di­rectly, [a US in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial] says an­other op­tion here is that [sanc­tions] will cre­ate hate and dis­con­tent at the street level so that the Iran­ian lead­ers re­al­ize that they need to change their ways.”

How ut­terly charm­ing, these tac­tics and goals for the 21st cen­tury by the leader of “The Free World”. (Is that ex­pres­sion still used?)

The neo-con­ser­v­a­tive think­ing (and Barack Obama can be re­garded as often being a fel­low trav­eler of such) is even more charm­ing than that. Lis­ten to Danielle Pletka, vice pres­i­dent for for­eign and de­fense pol­icy stud­ies at Amer­ica’s most promi­nent neo-con think tank, Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute:

The biggest prob­lem for the United States is not Iran get­ting a nu­clear weapon and test­ing it, it’s Iran get­ting a nu­clear weapon and not using it. Be­cause the sec­ond that they have one and they don’t do any­thing bad, all of the naysay­ers are going to come back and say, “See, we told you Iran is a re­spon­si­ble power. We told you Iran wasn’t get­ting nu­clear weapons in order to use them im­me­di­ately.” … And they will even­tu­ally de­fine Iran with nu­clear weapons as not a prob­lem. 8

What are we to make of that and all the other quo­ta­tions above? I think it gets back to my open­ing state­ment: Being “the only nu­clear power in the Mid­dle East” is a great card for Is­rael to have in its hand. Is US­rael will­ing to go to war to hold on to that card?

Please tell me again … What is the war in Afghanistan about?

With the US war in Iraq sup­pos­edly hav­ing reached a good con­clu­sion (or halfway de­cent … or bet­ter than noth­ing … or let’s get the hell out of here while some of us are still in one piece and there are some Iraqis we haven’t yet killed), the best and the bright­est in our gov­ern­ment and media turn their thoughts to what to do about Afghanistan. It ap­pears that no one seems to re­mem­ber, if they ever knew, that Afghanistan was not re­ally about 9-11 or fight­ing ter­ror­ists (ex­cept the many the US has cre­ated by its in­va­sion and oc­cu­pa­tion), but was about pipelines.

Pres­i­dent Obama de­clared in Au­gust 2009: “But we must never for­get this is not a war of choice. This is a war of ne­ces­sity. Those who at­tacked Amer­ica on 9/11 are plot­ting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Tal­iban in­sur­gency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Amer­i­cans.” 9

Never mind that out of the tens of thou­sands of peo­ple the United States and its NATO front have killed in Afghanistan not one has been iden­ti­fied as hav­ing had any­thing to do with the events of Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001.

Never mind that the “plot­ting to at­tack Amer­ica” in 2001 was de­vised in Ger­many and Spain and the United States more than in Afghanistan. Why hasn’t the United States bombed those coun­tries?

In­deed, what ac­tu­ally was needed to plot to buy air­line tick­ets and take fly­ing lessons in the United States? A room with some chairs? What does “an even larger safe haven” mean? A larger room with more chairs? Per­haps a black­board? Ter­ror­ists in­tent upon at­tack­ing the United States can meet al­most any­where, with Afghanistan prob­a­bly being one of the worst places for them, given the Amer­i­can oc­cu­pa­tion.

The only “ne­ces­sity” that drew the United States to Afghanistan was the de­sire to es­tab­lish a mil­i­tary pres­ence in this land that is next door to the Caspian Sea re­gion of Cen­tral Asia — which re­port­edly con­tains the sec­ond largest proven re­serves of pe­tro­leum and nat­ural gas in the world — and build oil and gas pipelines from that re­gion run­ning through Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is well sit­u­ated for oil and gas pipelines to serve much of south Asia, pipelines that can by­pass those not-yet Wash­ing­ton clients, Iran and Rus­sia. If only the Tal­iban would not at­tack the lines. Here’s Richard Boucher, US As­sis­tant Sec­re­tary of State for South and Cen­tral Asian Af­fairs, in 2007: “One of our goals is to sta­bi­lize Afghanistan, so it can be­come a con­duit and a hub be­tween South and Cen­tral Asia so that en­ergy can flow to the south.” 10

Since the 1980s all kinds of pipelines have been planned for the area, only to be de­layed or can­celed by one mil­i­tary, fi­nan­cial or po­lit­i­cal prob­lem or an­other. For ex­am­ple, the so-called TAPI pipeline (Turk­menistan-Afghanistan-Pak­istan-In­dia) had strong sup­port from Wash­ing­ton, which was eager to block a com­pet­ing pipeline that would bring gas to Pak­istan and India from Iran. TAPI goes back to the late 1990s, when the Tal­iban gov­ern­ment held talks with the Cal­i­for­nia-based oil com­pany Un­o­cal Cor­po­ra­tion. These talks were con­ducted with the full knowl­edge of the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion, and were un­de­terred by the ex­treme re­pres­sion of Tal­iban so­ci­ety. Tal­iban of­fi­cials even made trips to the United States for dis­cus­sions. 11 Tes­ti­fy­ing be­fore the House Sub­com­mit­tee on Asia and the Pa­cific on Feb­ru­ary 12, 1998, Un­o­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tive John Maresca dis­cussed the im­por­tance of the pipeline pro­ject and the in­creas­ing dif­fi­cul­ties in deal­ing with the Tal­iban:

The re­gion’s total oil re­serves may well reach more than 60 bil­lion bar­rels of oil. Some es­ti­mates are as high as 200 bil­lion bar­rels … From the out­set, we have made it clear that con­struc­tion of the pipeline we have pro­posed across Afghanistan could not begin until a rec­og­nized gov­ern­ment is in place that has the con­fi­dence of gov­ern­ments, lead­ers, and our com­pany.

When those talks stalled in July, 2001 the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion threat­ened the Tal­iban with mil­i­tary reprisals if the gov­ern­ment did not go along with Amer­i­can de­mands. The talks fi­nally broke down for good the fol­low­ing month, a month be­fore 9-11.

The United States has been se­ri­ous in­deed about the Caspian Sea and Per­sian Gulf oil and gas areas. Through one war or an­other be­gin­ning with the Gulf War of 1990-1, the US has man­aged to es­tab­lish mil­i­tary bases in Saudi Ara­bia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Afghanistan, Pak­istan, Uzbek­istan, Tajik­istan, Kyr­gyzs­tan, and Kaza­khstan.

The war against the Tal­iban can’t be “won” short of killing every­one in Afghanistan. The United States may well try again to ne­go­ti­ate some form of pipeline se­cu­rity with the Tal­iban, then get out, and de­clare “vic­tory”. Barack Obama can surely de­liver an elo­quent vic­tory speech from his teleprompter. It might even in­clude the words “free­dom” and “democ­racy”, but cer­tainly not “pipeline”.

Love me, love me, love me, I’m a Lib­eral (Thank you, Phil Ochs. We miss you.)

An­gela Davis, star of the 1960s, like most mem­bers of the Com­mu­nist Party, was/is no more rad­i­cal than the av­er­age Amer­i­can lib­eral. Here she is re­cently ad­dress­ing Oc­cupy Wall Street: “When I said that we need a third party, a rad­i­cal party, I was pro­ject­ing to­ward the fu­ture. We can­not allow a Re­pub­li­can to take of­fice. … Don’t we re­mem­ber what it was like when Bush was pres­i­dent?” 12

Yes, An­gela, we re­mem­ber that time well. How can we for­get it since Bush, by all im­por­tant stan­dards, is still in the White House? Wag­ing per­pet­ual war, re­lent­less sur­veil­lance of the cit­i­zenry, kiss­ing the cor­po­rate ass, po­lice bru­tal­ity? … What’s changed? Ex­cept for the worse. Where’s our sin­gle-payer na­tional health in­sur­ance? Noth­ing even close. Where’s our af­ford­able uni­ver­sity ed­u­ca­tion? Still the most back­ward in the “de­vel­oped” world. Where’s our le­gal­ized mar­i­juana — I mean re­ally le­gal­ized? If you think that’s changed, you must be stoned. Where’s our abor­tion on de­mand? What does your guy Barack think about that? Are the in­dis­pens­able labor unions being res­cued from obliv­ion? Ha! The ul­tra-im­por­tant min­i­mum wage? In­fla­tion ad­justed, equal to the mid-1950s.

Has the Amer­i­can threat to the en­vi­ron­ment and the world en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment ceased? Tell that to a ded­i­cated ac­tivist-in­ter­na­tion­al­ist. Has the 50-year-old em­bargo against Cuba fi­nally ended? It has not, and I can still not go there legally. The po­lice-state War on Ter­ror at home? Scarcely a month goes by with­out the FBI en­trap­ping some young “ter­ror­ists”. Are more Banksters and Wall Street So­ci­ety-Screw­ers (ex­cept for the harm­less in­sider-traders) being im­pris­oned? Name one. The re­ally tough reg­u­la­tions of the fi­nan­cial area so badly needed? Keep wait­ing. How about ex­ec­u­tives of the BP Oil Spill Com­pany being ar­rested? Or war crim­i­nals, mass mur­der­ers, and tor­tur­ers with names like … Oh, I don’t know, let’s see … maybe like Ch­eney or Bush or Rums­feld or Wol­fowitz or some­one with a crazy name like Con­doleezza? All walk­ing com­pletely free, all cel­e­brated.

“A major de­cline of pro­gres­sive Amer­ica oc­curred dur­ing the Clin­ton years as many lib­er­als and their or­ga­ni­za­tions ac­cepted the pres­ence of a De­mo­c­ra­tic pres­i­dent as an ad­e­quate sub­sti­tute for the things lib­er­als once be­lieved in. Lib­er­al­ism and a so­cial de­mo­c­ra­tic spirit painfully grown over the pre­vi­ous 60 years with­ered dur­ing the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion.” — Sam Smith13

“A change of Pres­i­dents is like a change of ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paigns for a soft drink; the prod­uct it­self still tastes the same, but it now has a new ‘image’.” — Richard K. Moore



  1. (Is­rael), Oc­to­ber 25, 2007; print edi­tion Oc­to­ber 26 

  2. Wash­ing­ton Post, March 5, 2009

  3. “Face the Na­tion”, CBS, Jan­u­ary 8, 2012; see video 

  4. The Guardian (Lon­don), Jan­u­ary 31, 2012″ 

  5. “PBS’s Dis­hon­est Iran Edit”, FAIR (Fair­ness and Ac­cu­racy in Re­port­ing), Jan­u­ary 10, 2012

  6. Reuters, Jan­u­ary 12, 2012 


  8. Video of Pletka mak­ing these re­marks 

  9. Talk given by the pres­i­dent at Vet­er­ans of For­eign Wars con­ven­tion, Au­gust 17, 2009 

  10. Talk at the Paul H. Nitze School for Ad­vanced In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, Wash­ing­ton, DC, Sep­tem­ber 20, 2007

  11. See, for ex­am­ple, the De­cem­ber 17, 1997 ar­ti­cle in the British news­pa­per, The Tele­graph, “Oil barons court Tal­iban in Texas“. For fur­ther dis­cus­sion of the TAPI pipeline and re­lated is­sues, see this ar­ti­cle by in­ter­na­tional pe­tro­leum en­gi­neer John Fos­ter. 

  12. Wash­ing­ton Post, Jan­u­ary 15, 2012 

  13. Sam Smith was a long­time pub­lisher and jour­nal­ist in Wash­ing­ton, DC, now liv­ing in Maine. Sub­scribe to his mar­velous newslet­ter, the Pro­gres­sive Re­view

    About the Author

    Jeremy Scahill

    Jeremy Scahill, a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute, is the author of the bestselling Blackwater…

By Published On: February 29th, 2012Comments Off on Jeremy Scahill> The CIA’s Secret Sites in Somalia

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