EU denies “boots on the ground” in Somalia raid
Brussels, Belgium – 22 May 2012
By Jonathan Dowdall
Updated – 22 May 2012
Source says combat operation in Somalia saw special forces leading the offensive
Amidst reports that European Union forces have for the first time conducted a ground assault in Somalia, sources close to the operation say one critical aspect of the official story has been falsely reported by senior EU officials: that combat forces were not deployed on the ground.
In a statement released by the EU Navfor public affairs office on 15 May, the commander of the EU mission, British Royal Navy Rear Admiral Duncan Potts, stated that the anti-piracy task force operation was conducted entirely via air assault and that, “at no point did EU Naval Force ‘boots’ go ashore.”
Yet this rendition of events has been undermined by statements made by an intelligence operative close to EU anti-piracy operations in the region who told DefenceReport that EU ground forces did, in fact, lead the assault on the Somali mainland.
“If they say no boots touched the ground, it’s because they aren’t allowed to say that – but they have had boots on the ground, for sure,” said the operative who spoke to DefenceReport on the condition of anonymity due to their proximity to on-going classified EU operations.
When approached by DefenceReport, an EU Navfor spokesman denied that any ground forces were involved in either pre-raid reconnaissance or the assault, itself: “to our knowledge, there were no forces on the ground in Somalia at this time. There were certainly no EU boots on the ground.”
The raid – the first of its kind for EU forces – was launched on 15 May and targeted a pirate logistics headquarters and ammunition dump. Officials say such operations are designed to disrupt the piracy logistics chain before they put to sea. They were authorised in March amidst heated controversy over potential risks to civilians.
Espionage and special forces in the pirate belt
Sebastien Brabant, an EU spokesman with knowledge of this operation, told DefenceReport that only “proportionate and precise small calibre weapons” were used in the raid, and that the target of the operation was pirate equipment, not the pirates themselves.
However, the intelligence operative who broke silence to speak to DefenceReport said the EU’s objective – which he said was to target pirates’ coveted high-speed motorboat engines – could only be achieved through the use of ground assault. That ground attack, he added, was a factor he knew to be part of the larger operation, and whose details the EU was quick to deny.
“You need dedicated, well placed explosives to destroy such equipment permanently,” the source said, adding that this task was left to forward deployed ground units.
In a further complication for the EU’s version of events, the UK-based not-for-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism has uncovered evidence that the only EU vessel currently equipped with attack helicopters and capable of conducting a large air assault – the French amphibious assault ship Dixmude – was not in theatre at the time of the 15 May raid.
EU spokesmen confirmed that this left only “organic” helicopter assets (such as those aboard frigates in theatre) for the raid: according to EU files, Lynx or Sea King helicopters. Both are platforms traditionally used in roles other than heavy air assault.
The intelligence operative who spoke to DefenceReport said that such explanations were an attempt to conceal ground-based special operations activity in Somalia.
US Navy special warfare units in the area have been conducting covert ground reconnaissance against pirate positions in Somalia for some unknown period of time. “Much intelligence in the region has been direct – there have been teams inserted by submarine and helicopter to gather ‘eyes on’ observations,” the source said.
These clandestine operations are designed to monitor foreign crews being held as hostages, the source explained. Eight vessels and 220 foreign nationals are currently being held hostage.
That operations escalated from non-kinetic to kinetic last week also did not come as a surprise. “They have been seeking a green light for this for some time,” the source added.
It should be noted that any such ground activity is not under the purview of the EU’s anti-piracy mission, but instead must be authorised and coordinated unilaterally by respective Navies operating in the region.
As of this month, the US, France, UK, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands all have naval assets in the region.
Building grass roots support for EU operations
The transition to full-scale military operations has received the support of Somalia’s national government in Mogadishu.
Muhyadin Ali Yusuf, a senior official at the Somali Government Anti-Piracy Task Force, told DefenceReport that he and other government officials have been in direct consultation with Rear Admiral Potts about these operations.
Ali Yusuf said his government supports EU ground operations “as long as they are not hurting local fisheries or innocent people.”
He and other government officials view EU strikes as a preferable alternative to the growing presence of private security contractors on-board ships traversing the Gulf of Aden. According to official figures, almost 45 percent of ships entering the region now hire armed private guards to fend off pirate attacks, a statistic that Ali Yusuf links to increasing reports of innocent civilian fisherman being killed at sea.
Many Somali government officials are also worried that pirates will turn to more aggressive tactics and begin using explosives and heavy calibre weapons in their raids, a feature that could indicate a widespread arms race in the Gulf between pirates and those attempting to protect commercial – and EU – interests.
The average ransom payment per ship averaged USD four million (GBP 2.5 million) in 2011. With the recent transition to ground attacks in Somalia, the EU has indicated that it is worried by rapidly expanding piracy campaigns – and is accelerating its efforts to finally stem the growth of a booming pirate economy.
Update - Includes sources: the average ransom payment per ship at USD four million (GBP 2.5 million) in 2011; reports of civilian fisherman being killed at sea.
Feature photo / US DoD
Inset photo / EU Navfor