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Prelude to a Redeployment

Listening for signs of the Americans in Kismayo, Somalia

It’s March. It’s my first time in Kismayo since I started covering U.S. military operations in Somalia, nearly four years ago. I’m pretty sure I’ve already been here, but that was before I was on this beat, with my ears perked for the Americans.

Usually, I work from Mogadishu, the national capital, talking to Somali officials and civilians from a hotel compound inside something like five layers of HESCOs (the colloquial term for those huge beige and mesh container fortifications you see in the movies). Much of my reporting is focused on civilian casualties in U.S. airstrikes, allegations of which spiked after former President Donald Trump relaxed the rules intended to prevent civilian airstrike casualties in 2017. Last year, a Freedom of Information Act suit prompted the release of some of the directives loosened under Trump, which the head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project deemed “an unchecked license to kill.” I also cover the use of American-made-and-supplied weapons that recently killed kids in the north of Somalia and dysfunction in international state-building of the national Somali army. I write this not to share my CV, but to give you a sense of the situation here.

In this coastal state capital in the southernmost part of the country, called Jubaland, I feel much closer to the Americans than I do normally. How much closer I actually am, I’m not sure, but I know we are essentially sharing a base at the tiny Kismayo airport. U.S. special operations forces are apparently next door to my hotel, in a separate compound. At least, a few people have gestured in that direction and told me, that’s where the Americans are. I always nod like I can see. It seems too keen to tell the truth—that I can’t see the place that they’re indicating. Saying, Wait where is it? sounds excruciatingly plaintive.

A few people have gestured in that direction and told me, that’s where the Americans are.

I do see them at dinner at my hotel one night, though. They seem to know their presence is a statement. I’m not positive the men are Americans until a few nights later, when the hotel manager mentions that the Americans were here for dinner. No one else outside the handful of guests I see every day has eaten there since I arrived, nearly a week ago. So then I am sure it was them. I don’t see them again.

The main reason you can feel, rather than see, the Americans is because you can hear their planes most nights. According to everyone I speak to—Somali officials and humanitarian aid staffers, South African security contractors, British technicians, Kenyan hotel managers, and soldiers—they are the only people who fly in at night; presumably, they’re allowed to do so specially by the Jubaland state government. The president of Jubaland, who everyone calls Madobe, is the former leader of a group at one point aligned with al-Shabaab, the fundamentalist insurgent group the United States is fighting in Somalia and who maintain control over some 70 percent of the southern and central parts of the country. Now, Madobe allegedly has a terrific relationship with the United States. [The] Americans have the best ally in the war on terror in Ahmed Madobe, a former Jubaland official tells me over WhatsApp.

At one point, an official who seems like he would know mentions offhandedly that the United States is purportedly going to build a new base in Jubaland, in an area called Afmadow, about seventy miles west of Kismayo. I get the contact for the mayor of Afmadow, and he tells me, yes, the Americans (that is, white men in military uniform) came less than a year ago. They said they’d be in Afmadow more often. But he tells me he doesn’t know anything about any specific building, and that he hasn’t seen them since.

One of Donald Trump’s final acts as president was to withdraw virtually all U.S. troops from Somalia, where, in addition to the relaxed air-strike routine, roughly seven hundred soldiers had been stationed, with many of them training and “mentoring” Danab, the Somali special forces, and carrying out crack operations against al-Shabaab in which civilians sometimes got killed. When I got back from my most recent trip to Somalia, an employee with an international “peace building” mission told me via Signal that the institution for which they work has no interest in understanding who al-Shabaab really is. The staffer told me that the organization is more of a fundamentalist insurgent group than any sort of major player in the global war on terror. But no one wants to talk about that, they said.

Since Trump’s withdrawal from Somalia, American troops had been “commuting to work” (their words, not mine) from Kenya. But this May, the Biden administration announced that a “small, persistent” group of soldiers would be redeployed in the country. The Somali business community had been waiting for this moment. Last year, when I was in Mogadishu, a businessman who used to have contracts for building gates at a U.S. Somalia base, a place called Baledogle, asked me when the Americans would be coming back—as if I’d know. He didn’t want to miss the chance to get in on the action. To prove that he’d worked with the Americans before, he took out piles of old contracts from his desk and let me take pictures of them with my phone. Later, I looked at the photos and zoomed in on the words, but I couldn’t see anything.

It was months before Biden’s announcement of a redeployment that I heard the Americans coming into Kismayo at night, though. In fact, it was after the AFRICOM Commander, General Stephen J. Townsend, testified to the House Armed Services Committee and said, of returning to Somalia, “I have submitted advice to my chain of command, and my chain of command is still considering that advice, and I would like to give them space to make that decision.”

The planes always sounded like an enormous fan. Sometimes, the noise would start at dinner, but usually the sound came after I’d eaten, when I was back in my container. A friend in Brooklyn asked me why they came at night; they said maybe the Americans were worried about the planes getting shot down. But that’s not realistic. It might have been a factor, but the United Nations and other international organizations know how to land without getting shot down. When they’re coming into Mogadishu, they do a corkscrew spiral, which is fun but overdramatic. No, the Americans came at night because they didn’t want anyone to know what they were doing. The sound of the plane (or planes) was annoying, but it’s more distracting knowing something intentionally secretive is happening near you.

I asked a South African security contractor who was working with the Somali special forces, or maybe the Jubaland security forces, to build out another base on the airport about the planes. He chuckled and said, with a heavy Afrikaans accent, they’re bringing in their toys.

The man was with a group of other Afrikaaners, who were all employed by a security firm called Integrated Experts, or something else ingeniously vague. They said they didn’t entirely know which militia they were apparently helping to secure the state of Jubaland and stabilize the nation of Somalia; over the course of weeks, I asked them enough—casually, coyly, and directly—that I believed them. They were here for money, to do what they were told, and to not get in trouble. One of the men used to guard the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria. They had all been in Mozambique, where there’s some sort of insurgency. They were also in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the men had been running around helping to secure places since 2004. One said he expects he’ll end up in Ukraine. He laughed. That’s always how it goes, he said.

I saw them at mealtimes. At breakfast once, I told the men I had recently watched a movie about the South African army in the 1980s—how it was brutal, and commanders had beat up and humiliated soldiers. The movie was hard to watch. The men smiled fondly and said, Yes, we had discipline then. They all seemed to be in their late forties or fifties and must have been in the army in those years, or at least had older brothers who were. Another time, I joked with one of them about how much money the war on terror has made private security firms. We both laughed grimly, but it’s true. Later on, the men came back from work on a particularly sweltering day, and one of them shouted, What a horrible fucking country! I thought about how he was a product of where he’s from, but that didn’t excuse who he was. I also thought, It is very, very hot.

Since Trump’s withdrawal from Somalia, American troops had been “commuting to work” (their words, not mine) from Kenya.

I had just finished dinner at my hotel’s buffet one night when the planes started going again. The hotel manager, a supremely competent, affable woman, passed by and commented, “Maybe they’ll just be an hour or two.” She worried the planes kept guests up. Apparently, people sometimes got scared. An hour later, I was back in my container, in my pajamas: tie-dye purple pants and a bright blue T-shirt from a football game I attended in Argentina many years ago. The planes were still whirring. Since it had been going on for so much longer than normal, it had started to get irritating. I also thought, goodness, this is my beat. I cover the United States in Somalia. There must be something I can do. So I went outside barefoot and stood on the stoop of my container, looking, but I could truly see nothing. I held my hand in front of me, waved it, and could not see even a flicker of movement. The blackness was impressive, the warm air wonderful.

Back inside my container, I WhatsApped the hotel manager and asked if the planes were the Kenya Defense Forces, also stationed in Jubaland, or if it was the Americans, just to confirm. She said it was the Americans but didn’t know what they were doing. When I asked who I should speak to to find out, she wrote back, the Americans.

I fiddled around on the computer, a Netflix show playing in the background on another tab. It felt ridiculous; I wanted to be a journalist. I sent a message to a colleague in the States, writing of my plight, that there was clearly some lengthier project or operation of some sort happening that night. I thought to myself, let me at least walk around a little bit, even though I knew anything happening probably wouldn’t make a story. But I could live with myself better if I tried a little harder. So I stepped out in my PJs and brought my phone. I didn’t lock the door. 

Everything in the maze of the compound looked the same, wall-to-wall HESCOs leading to small rectangular container offices. Eventually, I met a security guard in a satisfying deep olive-green outfit who I thought must be Kenyan. I asked him what was going on, and he said the Americans, but he didn’t speak great English, or tell me anything else. I asked him if he knew what they were doing; he waved his hand and said, ah, every night. I asked him, is there a place where I could climb and see what’s happening? Get a better view? Politely acting like my request was totally standard, he guided me around a corner and showed me a blue ladder that was essentially built into the HESCOs. Then he turned and left.

After he rounded the bend, I climbed up, crouching on the top row of a wall of HESCOs. I still couldn’t see anything—anything at all. But I could tell that I was pretty close to whatever was happening—or maybe not. I felt like I was looking at something. It felt good to be there. I should have worn shoes.

Then, suddenly, I could see a small lime green dot. I wanted to move closer, but I would have had to crawl, and crawling in the dark on a wall seemed unadvisable: if anyone saw a person crawling on the HESCOs at night, they might get trigger happy. I wondered, what else can I do? I tilted my neck back to look up at the stars, which were bright and clear, as they always are when it’s perfectly pitch black. They were really something. I thought, this is pleasant. I looked toward where I thought there was something to see. Still nothing but the miniscule dot. I tilted my neck back again and continued to sit crossed legged. I enjoyed the air and the stars.

The minutes ticked by pointlessly. Then, the green light started to move. Like a shark fin in the water, it sliced through the night. I watched it travel in a way that suggested it was turning, making a left so that it was now parallel to me. I shifted my body and stood up so that I could face it again. It seemed to be moving down a runway (or using the empty space in that part of the airport as a runway). The noise changed, like the plane was taking off. Who the hell knows—but that was my best guess. I stared out into the black night until the noise faded.

A few days after my night-time adventure, I mentioned to the translator I’d hired that I was trying to do a story about the new base in Afmadow that the official had mentioned to me. I asked him if he’d heard anything about this quasi-confirmed rumor bluntly—like it was gossip, like I was asking if he’d heard some spicy information. In response, his face fell; he cringed lightly and said something about how he couldn’t believe more was coming.

I felt disgusting at his reply. I didn’t want to be in my own skin. I should have been more considerate in how I broke the news to him: that the Americans are returning. That more could be coming. Trying to walk it back—though we’ll never walk this back—I mumbled quietly, I’m sorry.