June 10th, 2011
09:00 AM ET

CIA chief hints at U.S. operations in Somalia

Did CIA Director Leon Panetta publicly reveal US commandos and CIA operatives are working inside Somalia? It’s long been suspected, but almost never talked about. But at his confirmation hearing Thursday to become Secretary of Defense, Panetta offered some highly unusual remarks when he was asked about Al Qaeda affiliate organizations in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.

Here is what he had to say. “Our approach has been to - to develop operations in each of these areas that will contain Al Qaida and go after them so that they have no place to escape. So we are doing that in Yemen. It's obviously a dangerous and uncertain situation, but we continue to work with - with elements there to try to develop counterterrorism. We're working with JSOC as well in their operations. Same thing is true for Somalia. And with regards to AQIM in North Africa, we are working with both the Spanish and the French to develop approaches there that will contain them as well.”

But you have to read between the lines. JSOC stands for the Joint Special Operations Command. These are the covert US military commandos from the Army, Navy, and Air Force that conduct highly secret counterterrorism operations around the world. It was JSOC troops of course that conducted the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound. By all accounts US military aircraft and helicopters have staged secret operations inside Somalia in recent years against specific Al Qaeda operatives believed to have been involved in the 1998 attacks on US embassies in East Africa.

However Panetta appears to be going far beyond that, suggesting that the CIA and the US military at least have plans on how to deal with the rising militant and Al Qaeda threat in Somalia even as Al Qaeda also gains strength in next door Yemen. The concern is Somalia is already a safe haven for terrorists, and if Yemen collapses the two failed states may present a threat of crisis proportions because of Al Qaeda’s potential ability to operate unfettered from locations inside those borders.

But for the US military in particular even the mention of operations inside Somalia always causes a shudder. The 1993 battle of Mogadishu in which 18 US troops were killed has been a memory that simply never faded from the Pentagon’s psyche.

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