- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2006

Two-and-a-half years ago, I first learned of the CIA’s covert program to use secular warlords to contain al Qaeda in Somalia. As early as 2002 intelligence officials concluded that al Qaeda had re-established an operational network in Somalia after being routed in Afghanistan. Some reports even suggested that Osama bin Laden crossed the Arabian Sea in a dhow and found sanctuary in Somalia after escaping the noose in Tora Bora.

Until now, I refrained from writing about the Somali front in the war on al Qaeda because of its extreme sensitivity and its vital importance. Regrettably, State Department career officials, in order to condemn the program, have now confirmed to the New York Times the existence of the covert operation being run by the CIA station in Nairobi, Kenya. This is an unconscionable breach of security that ought to outrage us all.

The links between Somalia and al Qaeda predate September 11 and unlike the disputed links between al Qaeda and Iraq before the war, these ties are incontestable. The 1998 bombings of our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were carried out through the Somali networks. Since September 11, Somali-linked terrorists have bombed a hotel catering to Israeli tourists in Mombasa, attempted to shoot down an Israeli airliner, have been tied to the London transit bombings and were caught with radioactive contraband in Britain.

To counter the risk that Somalia will become a terrorist safe haven, the United States has stationed 2,000 fast-reaction troops in neighboring Djibouti. Under presidential authority, Washington also launched a covert action program relying on a coalition of secular Somali warlords called the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism.

The alliance has been used to harass and disrupt terrorist operations in Somalia and to capture al Qaeda operatives like Suleiman Abdalla Salim Hemed for interrogation by the United States. The callow exposure of this program’s existence complicates our ability to work through proxy allies in fighting terrorism.

Critics who charge that the alliance has been counterproductive and resulted in new support for the Islamic court militias who claim to have seized Mogadishu ignore the fact that al Qaeda was already well-established in Somalia before the CIA program began.

This creative, risk-taking approach to the Somali problem exemplifies the best of the CIA. It was overseen by a talented CIA station chief with a long history in the region. It was a vital program because the other alternatives are so dire.

There is no easy solution in Somalia. Allowing the country to become a safe haven for terrorists threatens not only the entire Arabian Peninsula and the Gulfs of Aden and Oman but gives al Qaeda a base for global operations. This is why Secretary of State Colin Powell, in Senate testimony in 2003, named Somalia on a short list of countries where the U.S. might have to take military action after Iraq.

The military option is undesirable for several reasons. Because of the clan structure of Somali society and widespread possession of arms, an invasion would require a level of civilian casualties that would horrify U.S. and world public opinion. Occupying forces would face an insurgency even more tenacious than in Iraq.

That is why it is crucial for the CIA-backed warlords to succeed in containing al Qaeda. But the odds have been made much more difficult by State Department disclosure of the covert program.

Every CIA officer knows covert action can be a career killer when operations are exposed or fail. The political fallout and second-guessing has just begun. How CIA Director Michael Hayden and Deputy Director Steve Kappes handle the Nairobi station chief will be closely watched by CIA officers, especially in operations. This is the acid test of whether the new CIA is a risk-averse agency where creativity and daring will be rewarded.

To send a message throughout CIA, Messrs. Hayden and Kappes should promote the Nairobi station chief instead of sacrificing him to appease critics in other agencies or Congress.

John B. Roberts II served in the Reagan White House. He writes frequently on terrorism and national security.

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