US firms are part of Somalia 'kill chain' operating from Manda Bay

A fully armed US-made MQ-9 Reaper that is used for air combat.

Photo credit: US Air Force | AFP

What you need to know:

  • The US military's heavy and growing reliance on private contractors at sites around the world raises questions of accountability.
  • Concerns about the roles of for-profit businesses in US military operations may be further stoked by Africom's admission in a statement to the reporting project that American civilians are operating armed drones in East Africa.
  • Even if private contractors are not directly involved in combat, they become “part of the kill chain” by providing intelligence used in airstrikes.

Private US contractors are conducting surveillance flights over Somalia from a US military base at Manda Bay, Lamu County according to reports by a worldwide network of investigative journalists.

Intelligence gathered by these companies has been used as the basis for some of the hundreds of US airstrikes targeting Al-Shabaab, a study by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project says.

More than 100 Somali civilians may also have been killed in such US attacks during the past 13 years, suggests Airwars, a London-based research group which has been cited in the report.

The US Army's Africa Command (Africom) acknowledged accidentally killing five Somali civilians.

The presence of private operatives among the 150 US personnel at Manda Bay base was highlighted by Al-Shabaab's attack in January that killed two contractors as well as a US soldier.

Accountability issues

The US military's heavy and growing reliance on private contractors at sites around the world raises questions of accountability, the reporting project points out.

Last year, the Pentagon spent $370 billion — more than half its budget — on private contractors, according to a study by two US universities.

Concerns about the role of for-profit businesses in US military operations may be further stoked by Africom's admission in a statement that US civilians are operating armed drones in East Africa.

The reporting project quotes former private military contractor Sean McFate as warning that “the ethical standard of who can pull the trigger has been slowly eroding over the last 30 years.”

Even if private contractors are not directly involved in combat, they become “part of the kill chain” by providing intelligence used in airstrikes, adds Mr McFate who now works with the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

An Africom spokesperson told the reporting project that “contractors may operate an armed drone but they cannot make the decision to deploy the weapon system.”

“At their core, decisions to fire on the enemy may only be made by lawful combatants under the law of armed conflict. Our uniform-wearing service members are lawful combatants; our contractor teammates are not,” the official added.

The Manda Bay facility has been expanded in the decade it has been used by the US military. Last year, the US mission there was officially upgraded from “tactical” to “enduring operations.”

Up to 100 additional US troops were deployed to the base in the aftermath of the surprise Shabaab attack that destroyed six aircraft in addition to killing three Americans.

New aircraft hangars have also been built at Manda Bay, likely to protect sensitive technology installed on surveillance aircraft, the reporting project relates.

“Kenya is not just a passive host to American military operations,” the study states. 

“It has received more money, training and equipment from Washington than any country in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s also one of the world’s top five recipients of US counter-terrorism aid.” 

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