US and Somali forces who raided the family home of a former president and detained three teenagers may have been acting on misleading intelligence, according to officials in the unstable east African country.
Somali soldiers accompanied by at least one foreigner broke into the house of Aden Abdullah Osman Daar, a revered nationalist leader and former president who died in 2007, in the town of Janale, around 100km southwest of Mogadishu late on Friday.
Members of Daar’s family told the Guardian they were deeply shocked by the raid, which targeted Islamic militants from the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabaab organisation.
The incident will raise further concerns about the use of special forces troops to fight extremism in Africa. Last year the deaths of four American soldiers in an ambush in Niger prompted anger and led to questions over the costs of such deployments.
Senior US officials are reported to be considering deep cuts to the special operations deployment on the continent.
Three male members of the Daar family between the ages of 15 and 20 were arrested in the raid, the relatives said. The whereabouts of the detainees are currently unknown.
The troops also raided an adjacent farm belonging to Daar, who led Somalia from 1960 to 1967 and was the country’s first post-independence president.
The office of Hassan Ali Khaire, the Somali prime minister, has apologised to the family.
One Somali intelligence officer with direct knowledge of the operation – which took place in a region known as a al-Shabaab stronghold – said “there was bad intelligence during and before the raid on the house of former president”.
“The Americans did not know the place. They relied on false intelligence gathered by local informants who are sometimes biased due to clan influence,” he said.
However a source in the prime minister’s office gave a different version of events.
“The target of the raid was not the house of former President Aden Abdullah. This was an operation conducted by Somali special forces with their American advisers. The forces were following a member of terrorist group who ran away toward the house of the former president but the forces mistakenly raided the house where the family lived,” the source said.
The source also said Khaire told the family that the incident will be investigated and the three detained youths released soon.
A second intelligence officer who worked with the American special forces said mistakes were often the fault of unreliable local informants.
Major Karl Weist, a spokesman for US Africa Command, said that American forces, in an advise and assist capacity, partnered in a Somali-led ground force operation to disrupt and degrade al-Shabaab operations in the vicinity of Wagaante, Somalia, on the night of 4 September 2018.
“The operation targeted al-Shabaab’s improvised explosive device network. US forces were in a supporting role only,” he said.
Somali forces have been fighting Islamist militants from the al-Shabaab organisation for more than a decade. In recent years the US has increased its support for local troops, sending special forces to train Somali troops and accompany combat operations. The US has also conducted a growing number of airstrikes, including dozens by unmanned drones.
The incident highlights the difficulty of military operations in a complex political and social environment.
Raiding the home of a prominent local family and detaining innocent individuals risks fuelling support for insurgents, experts say.
There have been frequent claims that raids, sometimes involving US forces, have caused civilian casualties.
According to Dhaqan Osman, a family member, the joint forces were led by a tall white man who spoke American English.
“They broke into the front gate and then broke the inside gate with huge iron bar. They had torch lights and small guns with them. They first entered the room where the boys slept. They arrested two boys – my son and his brother-in-law. They then entered the next room and detained the third boy,” she said.
Suad Abdullahi, the sister of the two detained brothers, said: “We were chatting inside the house when we heard the breaking of the front gate. Suddenly the men came in. They had torch lights and they ordered us all to lie down. We said we are women and we need to cover. But they said ‘no.’ They caught and blindfolded our grandfather who is diabetic.” she said.
Witnesses said the westerner told the Somali soldiers to search the house.
“The searched every corner of the house and they said, ‘where is al-Shabab guy? Where is the emir of al-Shabab?’ We were shocked to hear that. This is the house and the farm of the former President Aden Abdullah [Daar], who is well respected among the Somali people,” Abduallahi said.
“Even during the warlords era and the rule of the militant groups in this area, nobody dared to enter the house of the former president due to the respect for the family.”
The joint forces left with the three boys on a waiting helicopter, the witnesses said.
Analysts say that the intensified operations have caused casualties among al-Shabaab leaders and have stopped dozens of bombings, potentially saving hundreds of lives.
But a series of offensives has failed to dislodge al-Shabaab from its strongholds.
Intelligence documents, transcripts of interrogations with recent defectors and interviews with inhabitants of areas in the swath of central and southern Somalia controlled by al-Shabaab have shone a light on the severity of its harsh rule – but also revealed significant support in some areas.