On Monday, the U.S. pledged $5 million to assist Somalis battered by a severe drought that has, in the words of U.N. refugee agency chief Antonio Guterres, precipitated the "worst humanitarian disaster" in the world right now. But over the last couple weeks we've learned that the U.S. is increasingly getting involved in Somalia for another reason: counterterrorism.

In an article for The Nation yesterday, Jeremy Scahill reported that the CIA has set up two secret facilities in Mogadishu as part of America's fight against the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic militant group Al Shabab: a fortified compound near the capital's airport for training Somali intelligence agents in counterterrorism and a prison in the basement of Somalia's National Security Agency headquarters for detaining suspected Shabab members. Scahill, who spoke with Somali government and intelligence officials, Somali analysts and militia leaders, former prisoners, and a U.S. official, explains that while the Somalis technically run both sites, the CIA is pulling the strings behind the scenes and directly interrogating prisoners. A U.S. official later downplayed the CIA's presence in the country in an interview with CNN's Barbara Starr, explaining that the agency's operatives occasionally support the Somalis in interrogating terrorism suspects by "being present in the room or suggesting specific questions," and that the CIA also sends personnel and aircraft into Mogadishu to train Somali intelligence agents.

The news comes only a couple weeks after The New York Times reported that the U.S. was expanding its covert drone program against militants from Yemen to Somalia, and after American boots hit the ground in the country--albeit briefly--to collect the bodies of insurgents killed in drone strikes (yes, you read that right: the U.S. is reportedly picking up Somali militants' bodies). What's the larger significance of all these developments? The reports raise several key points:

  • Shift in Militant Strategy: The CIA believes Al Shabaab is increasingly communicating and partnering with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, CNN notes. The Shabab recently pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda and its new leader, Ayman al-Zawahri. 
  • Shift in U.S. Strategy: In the "post-Osama bin Laden era," the Times writes, "some American military and intelligence officials view Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia as a greater threat to the United States than the group of operatives in Pakistan who have been barraged with hundreds of drone strikes directed by the Central Intelligence Agency in recent years."
  • Serious Risks: Somalia, simply put, is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. In an interview with Scahill, a Somali intelligence official points out that the U.S. doesn't have control of the protean political environment in Somalia like it does, to some extent at least, in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. wants "to help us," he explains, "but the situation is not allowing them to do [it] however they want. They are not in control of the politics, they are not in control of the security" (indeed, Scahill writes that has casts its lot with Somali intelligence agents and non-Somali African military forces, not the Somali government). The Times adds that attacking Shabab fighters, many of whom oppose Somalia's weak transitional government but not necessarily the U.S., could drive them into the arms of Al Qaeda (so far, the Shabab have only carried out one attack outside Somalia--a series of bombings in Uganda during the World Cup). And, of course, the Pentagon is still haunted by the botched 1993 "Black Hawk Down" incident, in which 18 elite American troops were killed in Mogadishu in a struggle with fighters allied with warlords. 

In this clip from an interview Scahill did with Democracy Now today, The Nation reporter gives the International Committee of the Red Cross the location of the secret prison he discovered, noting how prisoners have been held there without charge: