CIA-trained militia used U.S.-made weapons in deadly attacks
Weapons were directly supplied to the Puntland Security Force in Somalia but after the US withdrew, the group split and fought internally over control of the US-supplied assets.
At least 22 people including 2 children were killed and dozens more wounded by US-made weapons delivered directly to a Somali counter-terrorism force that split and fought internally for control of US-supplied assets, VICE World News can confirm after an independent review of the weapons involved.
The deadly violence took place late last year over days of fighting among fighters from the Puntland Security Force (PSF), a militia set up by the CIA and led by Navy SEALS since the early 2000s. The PSF was built to fight the al-Qaeda-backed militant group al-Shabaab. Its headquarters are in Bosaso, a major port city in Puntland, a semi-autonomous coastal state in northern Somalia.
Three of Saciid Shidow’s children – aged 8, 12 and 35 – were killed and four – 6, 8, 9 and 13 – were injured when a mortar hit his house shortly after 7pm in late December. The children were at home because their school had been closed due to the fighting. Shidow works as a chef for the staff of an infrastructure company outside Bosaso, almost 800 miles from the city. He told VICE World News that he was at work the morning after the attack and found out after receiving a call from one of his surviving sons. He does not like to talk about what happened, it causes him great pain.
The mortar fire also damaged a hospital, the State House and local businesses, along with the overall fighting, causing the reported displacement of about 100,000 people – almost half the population of Bosaso. The mortars involved in the fighting were all made in Arkansas.
The violence itself was, at least indirectly, also caused by American influence: the PSF was divided and was in an internal bloody political battle over the military resources that the United States had provided the group with before about 750 US military personnel withdrew in January 2021, in what was one of the last actions of the Trump administration.
Earlier this week, less than 24 hours after Somalia had elected a new president, US President Joe Biden announced that he approved a plan to send “under 500” land forces back to Somalia, which changed the Trump administration’s decision. The returning troops will train Somali forces. It is unclear if anyone will go back to the Puntland area.
When they withdrew last year, U.S. forces took most of their weapons with them, but U.S.-made mortars, as well as weapons from other sources such as battered AK-47s, among other sets, were left behind. An internal security assessment leaked to VICE World News notes that mortar shelling caused much of the death and destruction in Bosaso in late 2021. “A mixture of 81/2 mm, as well as 60 mm mortar shells, were fired into civilian communities, killing and wounding a number of civilians,” the document reads.
Some of the mortars left by the United States had been made for training purposes, and the PSF also deployed them wildly in the fight. “The shelling appears to have been accidental and into civilian areas,” the leaked report said. In fact, photos and videos from Somali news and others shared on social media from the time of the fighting show buildings and shops filled with gaps.
A video segment from Puntland State TV focuses on injuries at Ayaan Hospital, the city’s main hospital, and a hospital staff member who was killed. “We were in a very precarious situation, sandwiched between two warring forces,” Dr. Hinda Jama Ahmed in the state TV clip. Ahmed said she and others had slept in the hospital for three days because they could not get out to safety. Speaking of Mohamed Abdi, the employee who was killed, Ahmed said he was “the backbone of the hospital.” According to the doctor, Abdi was killed around 11.30am at night by mortar fire while bringing food to others.
The doctor also said the clashes prevented the hospital from caring for patients – including wounded soldiers. “We were under siege,” she said. “We could not even send our medical staff to go out and help them in distress when shots came from both sides.”
The PSF has long been considered one of the most successful militias in fighting al-Shabaab, and Puntland is one of Somalia’s relatively stable states. With around 600 men, the group is largely independent and operates independently of the control of the Somali government. Exactly who owns PSF and its many assets – especially a US-funded compound in Bosaso, which houses plenty of weapons – has never been explicitly stated. This lack of clarity was a significant contribution to the tension in the PSF as the United States withdrew. “The United States trained and equipped forces and left us without making the right handover and configuration,” a Somali researcher told VICE World News. The researcher did not want to be named out of concern for personal safety due to the sensitivity of the subject, which involves a number of powerful Somali families and the Somali and US governments.
When U.S. forces withdrew under Trump, Somalia was embroiled in an election battle that just ended Sunday after more than a year. The fighting between PSF soldiers in Puntland is an extension of the greater national political unrest that had built up in the country over the past few years. It has made room for the expansion of al-Shabaab, the fundamentalist rebel group PSF and others were formed to fight. ISIS-Somalia also has a small presence in Puntland.
During the standoff in December, PSF soldiers even moved from frontline positions fighting al-Shabaab back to their Bosaso headquarters to fight each other. The fighting in Puntland stopped at the end of the year. As it stalled, attention turned to the presidential election in the national capital, Mogadishu. Puntland President Said Abdullahi Deni was at the forefront of the Somali presidential race, although he did not win
When the Somali researcher was asked if the conflict between the PSF in Puntland could be resumed, it said: “Yes, I strongly believe in it.” The researcher explained that the basic power struggle between the powerful family and the Puntland state, both of which claim the PSF and its assets, has not been resolved.
The PSF is part of the legacy of the militias that the United States armed and supported in the early noughties in the name of fighting terrorism. The CIA began building the force in 2002, and about a decade ago, Navy SEALS took over the mission of training and supporting the unit.
By creating the empowered United States a single family dynasty, “Dianos”, who led the militia for three generations. First Osman Abdullahi Diano, then two of his sons led the group. In 2018, Mohamed Diano replaced his brother Asad Diano, who ran against the current president of Puntland for the leadership role.
Their mother was the project manager and logistical support for PSF. Other family members were put in similar plum positions. This prompted the family to line up with various other units related to security, most notably a fuel company, which further benefited from US counter-terrorism support.
As the United States withdrew in early 2021, Somali politics became more and more tense. At the end of the year, at the end of November, the current president of Puntland fired the director of the PSF for vague reasons allegedly related to promotion issues.
However, the PSF director refused to leave, claiming that his family owned PSF. The group then shared itself between loyalties to the two directors. Anecdotal reports suggest that most PSF soldiers remained with the force itself and the new commander, but those who remained loyal reportedly had access to the better US-made weapons and controlled the area, allowing them to launch a tough match.
‘The whole thing that they [the Diano family] went to war with the state of Puntland, and the argument was ‘this is our own project’ – that kind of tells you, “a Somali analyst told VICE World News via WhatsApp. Like the researcher, the analyst requested anonymity for security reasons.
“They thought PSF belonged to them. They still do.” Before the fight, in early December, it was reported that traditional elders were involved in trying to prevent the bloodshed. In particular, the elders stated that while the firing was legal, the group decided that the buildings, weapons and vehicles used by PSF belonged to the Diano family.
The ruling was considered politically motivated, but is, no matter what, indicative of the extent to which the United States funded an individual family.
“US support for the establishment and maintenance of the PSF has clearly had political consequences in Puntland, which may not always have been clear to the US or at times even downplayed in the light of counter-terrorism goals,” Omar Mahmood said. This is what senior analyst in East Africa for the International Crisis Group told VICE World News. “External actors who operate in Somalia often want to build institutions, but instead end up supporting the individual to a greater extent as a means of achieving that. The support for PSF seems to have been subject to this well-known trap. ”
In response to questions, a US Africa Command (AFRICOM) representative did not deny the presence of US-made mortars. A representative told VICE World News via email: “While AFRICOM continues to provide assistance to Somali partner forces, the key tools in our engagement strategy include security force assistance programs, military-to-military engagements and operations – all activities are closely coordinated with the US the embassy’s national team and the Somali government. ”
The representative also noted, “U.S. forces were not involved in any partner nation’s military operations in Puntland during the December timeframe, nor did the command receive any civilian casualty claims against the U.S. government.” Neither Puntland’s government, PSF nor Puntland officials responded to requests for comment.
“The proliferation of weapons derived from U.S. arms transfers often leads to unavoidable consequences such as civilian casualties and other adverse, unintended effects on U.S. security,” said Jordan Cohen, a defense and foreign policy analyst at the CATO Institute who focuses on arms sales.
“This has happened across South and Central America, Afghanistan and now Somalia. A significant amount of shipments are being delivered to Ukraine right now, and these examples show what can go wrong.”
The weapons supplied to the PSF were against UN sanctions. In a 2016 report, the UN Security Council noted “with concern” that the United States had not complied with the rules prior to the delivery of the weapons. Jay Bahadur, who served as a weapons group expert for the Council until 2019, noted that mortars – the weapons that killed Shidow’s children – are a particularly problematic element in an urban environment like Bosaso. “The introduction of the mortars adds an element to the conflict that you have not traditionally seen in Puntland,” he told VICE World News.
In early March, Puntland’s president reappointed Diano to the post of director, demonstrating to a Somali analyst who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, “PSF’s great influence is that they can force the state to capitulate to them.”
“Ultimately, the situation is a clear lesson that any external intervention has a political angle and that the pursuit of counter-terrorism targets in Somalia should always be considered with this in mind,” concluded Mahmood of Crisis Group.
In December, the humanitarian organization Save The Children issued a statement saying it was “deeply saddened by the reports of children killed and displaced in the recent conflicts in Bosaso in the Puntland state of Somalia.” Due to the sensitivity of the topic, Save the Children will not elaborate on the statement.