A CIA fighter, a Somali bomb maker, and a faltering shadow war

8 min read

The CIA convoy rolled out of Mogadishu in the dead of night, headed south along a crumbling ocean road that led deep into territory controlled by al-Shabab, one of Africa’s deadliest militant groups.

The vehicles halted at a seaside village, where U.S. and Somali paramilitaries poured out, storming a house and killing several militants, Somali officials said. But one man escaped, sprinted to an explosives-filled vehicle primed for a suicide bombing and hit the detonator.

The blast in November killed three Somalis and grievously wounded an American: Michael Goodboe, 54, a CIA paramilitary specialist and former Navy SEAL, who was airlifted to a U.S. military hospital in Germany. He died 17 days later.

His was a rare American fatality in the decade-old shadow war against al-Shabab, the world’s wealthiest and arguably most dangerous al-Qaida affiliate. But Goodboe was also a casualty of a U.S. way of war that has flourished since the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, now under greater scrutiny than ever.

The United States’ most ambitious response to the 9/11 attacks was in Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of troops were dispatched to banish extremists and rebuild the country — a mission that recently ended in crushing failure with the chaotic U.S. withdrawal.

But in Somalia, as in countries like Yemen and Syria, the U.S. turned to a different playbook, eschewing major troop deployments in favor of spies, Special Operations raids and drone strikes. Private contractors and local fighters were recruited for risky tasks. The mission was narrow at first, a hunt for al-Qaida fugitives, only later expanding to include fighting al-Shabab and building up Somali security forces.

Now that playbook is also failing. As in Afghanistan, the U.S. mission has been stymied by an alliance with a weak, notoriously corrupt local government, an intractable homegrown insurgency and the United States’ own errors, such as drone strikes that have killed civilians.

As a result, al-Shabab are at their strongest in years. They roam the countryside, bomb cities, and run an undercover state, complete with courts, extortion rackets and parallel taxes, that netted at least $120 million last year, by U.S. government estimates.

Al-Shabab also appear to have designs on the United States, with the arrest in 2019 of a militant while taking flying lessons in the Philippines, allegedly to commit another 9/11-style attack on the U.S. But critics of the U.S. approach in Somalia, including some military officers, say the threat to the homeland has been exaggerated and that Washington’s own policies only boost the extremists they seek to defeat.

Biden administration officials deny the mission in Somalia has failed, but they say they are cleareyed about its shortcomings. The administration could unveil a new Somalia policy in coming weeks, some officials said.

The U.S. government has been reluctant to commit troops to Somalia since the “Black Hawk Down” episode of 1993, when Somali militia fighters killed 18 American service members in a blazing battle later depicted in books and Hollywood movies. After that fiasco, the U.S. withdrew from Somalia for more than a decade.

Americans eventually returned in small numbers — covert operatives, soldiers and, lastly, diplomats who are bunkered into a windowless, penitentiary-style embassy at the Mogadishu airport that opened in 2018.

Nearby lies the CIA compound, where the air crackles with gunfire at night as the Americans train a small Somali paramilitary force that spearheads anti-al-Shabab operations.

There are now fewer than 100 U.S. troops in Somalia, mostly in intelligence and support roles. In January, former President Donald Trump moved most of the 700-member force across the borders to Kenya and Djibouti, though it continues to conduct strikes in Somalia and train troops.

The arc of the faltering U.S. mission in Somalia can be seen in the stories of two men, an American and a Somali, on opposite sides of the fight.

A Forever Warrior in a Forgotten War

Michael Goodboe was the archetypal elite fighter of the post-9/11 era.

A member of the elite SEAL Team Six, he deployed to Afghanistan within weeks of the Sept. 11 attacks. He worked from the CIA’s temporary station at the Ariana Hotel in Kabul and joined the first “Omega team” — a highly classified unit combining Special Forces operators and CIA paramilitaries that led the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other fugitives.

Colleagues admired Goodboe, known as “Goody,” for his easy manner, steady temperament and keen sense of purpose — qualities that stood out in the SEALs’ swaggering subculture and helped him forge close relationships with the Afghan, and later Somali, troops he helped to train, they said.

Many SEALs “do the minimum time, get their trident” — the SEAL symbol, worn on Naval uniforms — “and write a book,” said Capt. Christopher Rohrbach, a 24-year SEAL who has served in East Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq.

But Goodboe “was a team guy,” he said. “He was there for the greater good.”

After retiring from the Navy in 2009 with a clutch of medals, Goodboe joined the CIA’s paramilitary wing, now called the Special Activities Center — a clandestine group of about 200 fighters, the vanguard of the agency’s far-flung wars. The job eventually took him to Somalia.

The CIA had a checkered history there

In 2011, Somali security forces killed Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, an al-Qaida leader behind the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and seized a trove of valuable intelligence, including plots to bomb the elite British school Eton and London’s Ritz Hotel.

The Somalis handed everything to the CIA, including a memento — the dead militant’s unusual model of rifle, said Hussein Sheikh-Ali, then a senior Somali intelligence official and later Somalia’s national security adviser. “It was a turning point” in the relationship between the Americans and Somalis, he said.

But as the fruits of cooperation became clear, so did the costs. Human rights groups and U.N. investigators accused Somalia’s spy agency of torturing detainees and using children as spies. Some detainees recently accused the CIA of complicity in torture.

In 2015, the CIA station chief in Mogadishu pressed for the removal of Gen. Abdirahman Turyare, the Somali intelligence chief, accusing him of corruption and mismanagement. Turyare said he was the victim of American highhandedness and arrogance.

The dispute dragged on for a year as State Department leaders appealed to President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who comes from then same clan, to take action against Turyare. Only after Britain’s foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, told Somali leaders that their relationship was also endangered by the dispute was Turyare removed.

At the heart of that dispute, several Somali officials said, was control of Gaashaan, a paramilitary force officially part of the Somali spy agency but in reality led by the CIA.

Since 2009, the CIA has been training Gaashaan, which means “shield,” and it has grown into an elite force of 300 troops. Among the trainers was Goodboe.

By late last year, when Goodboe arrived in Somalia for another monthslong tour, the CIA and Gaashaan had turned their focus to one al-Shabab leader in particular — a bomb maker with a background in television.

The Master Bomb Maker

Somalis who once knew him say that Abdullahi Osman Mohamed was an unlikely jihadi kingpin.

“A friendly, energetic guy with a baby face,” recalled Mahmood, a former colleague who gave part of his name to speak freely about one of Somalia’s most dangerous men. “Very smart, very handsome. I often wonder how he became terrorist number one.”

In September 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed an order designating Mohamed, also known as “Engineer Ismail,” as a “global terrorist.” According to the United States, he is al-Shabab’s senior explosives expert; head of their al-Kataib propaganda wing; and a special adviser to the supreme leader, Ahmed Diriye.

Some Somalis go further, saying that Mohamed is one of two deputy al-Shabab leaders.

He was the intended target of the ill-fated November raid in which Goodboe was fatally injured, according to a retired Somali official and a senior U.S. official who refused to be identified to discuss sensitive intelligence.

The CIA declined to comment. A U.S. official would not say who the target was.

In many ways, Mohamed typifies the mix of resourcefulness and ruthlessness that has made al-Shabab such a formidable enemy.

He came from a conservative, middle-class Mogadishu family. His father worked for al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, a Saudi charity the U.S. accused of links to al-Qaida in 2002.

Mohamed, then in his early 20s, graduated from university in Sudan in 2006 and began working as a studio technician for Al-Jazeera in Mogadishu. His boss, the station’s Mogadishu bureau chief, Fahad Yasin, later went into politics and became Somalia’s spy chief — a striking illustration of the Somali conflict’s complex layers. Mohamed later spent time at Al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Qatar for training.

It was an especially tumultuous time in Somalia. Ethiopia, backed by the United States, invaded in 2006 to oust the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist group. U.S. warplanes bombed Islamic forces.

Like many Somalis, Mohamed was enraged, said a family friend who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals. Ethiopia and Somalia had fought a major war in 1977 and 1978, and remained bitter rivals.

Mohamed began moonlighting for al-Shabab.

Al-Shabab, or “the youth,” were a faction of the defeated Islamic Courts Union. Ousted from Mogadishu, they fled to southern Somalia and launched a guerrilla war, including bombings and assassinations, against Ethiopian soldiers.

By 2008, al-Shabab had become the most radical and powerful armed faction in Somalia, with thousands of recruits.

Al-Shabab’s broad goal is to establish their vision of an Islamic state in Somalia. In areas they control they have banned music and movies, and impose harsh punishments like stoning accused adulterers and amputating the limbs of accused thieves.

Mohamed first helped al-Shabab with propaganda, the friend said. Later, as U.S. airstrikes killed successive al-Shabab explosives experts, the young militant, whose degree was in electrical engineering, was promoted to take their place.

Al-Shabab went on to perpetrate a series of horrific attacks, including, in 2017, a truck bombing in central Mogadishu that killed at least 587 people — one of the deadliest terrorist acts in modern world history.

Somalia’s national army officially has 24,000 troops, but in reality is one-fifth that size, a senior U.S. official said

American analysts estimate that al-Shabab command anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 fighters. Under Mohamed, their bombs have grown more sophisticated and powerful.

Mohamed’s growing reputation for chaos and bloodshed has made him a highly respected leader inside al-Shabab ranks, Somali and Western officials said.

To those pursuing him, he is an elusive figure, always out of reach.

A memorial wall at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, honors agency employees killed in the line of duty. It has 137 stars — four of them added in May. Though the identity of those four officers remains classified, one was Goodboe — a final, anonymous tribute.

“Engineer Ismail” is believed to be still at large. In the latest al-Shabab bomb attack, on Sept 25, a suicide bomber hit a checkpoint in downtown Mogadishu, a few hundred yards from the presidential villa. Eight people were killed, including a woman and two children.

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