As Gen. Thomas Waldhauser danced around tough questions from reporters, another AFRICOM controversy had already begun to unfold here in Somalia. Eighteen hours before the press conference began, his Special Operators had been in the midst of an “advise and assist” mission in the south of the country about which conflicting stories were beginning to emerge.
According to over a dozen locals in the village of Ma’alinka, and security officials in Mogadishu, Somali commandos had carried out an operation in the town on Thursday at around 1 in the morning here. Five locals were injured by the Somali commandos and at some point during a firefight with people whose identities no one could agree upon, five local people were killed.
At least one of those civilians’ injuries appear to be the result of the U.S.-trained Somali soldiers’ sloppiness, or under-preparedness, when carrying out the operation. But the question of how five locals were killed was stirring vocal controversy: Local security officials claimed Somali Special Forces killed three known al-Shabaab leaders after coming into contact with them in the town. The names of those militants do not match the names of the five locals killed; local townsmen claimed only civilians were killed, either after being targeted by Somali forces or caught in crossfire between Somali forces and neighboring farmers protecting the town; and U.S. Africa Command said it would assess allegations of civilian casualties.
The local accounts of the operation describe a textbook “advise and assist” operation with U.S.-trained Somali Special Forces taking the lead, backed up by the logistics and directions of the Americans: Helicopters presumably flown by Americans deposited Somali and U.S. soldiers a few kilometers outside their target; the joint force approached it on foot; American Special Operators stayed behind while their Somali counterparts carried out the mission itself; and once completed, they flew back to base.
This type of operation epitomizes the “by, with, and through” approach working alongside local forces that Waldhauser repeatedly emphasized in the Pentagon press conference to show that American lives are not typically at great risk in Africa despite the criticism resulting from the Niger ambush. They conduct security operations “by” Americans if the host country does not have the capability to do so; “with” local forces if those forces are not yet able to operate independently; and ultimately “through” local forces alone once the U.S. has helped them build their local capacity. “We don’t anticipate any additional [U.S.] forces,” he told reporters. “It’s our role to work with partners to keep them in the lead as they conduct operations.”
It is located along a number of fault lines in the area: It’s on the border of the Biyomal clan’s territory, meaning it has in years past been home to skirmishes between the Biyomal militia and their rivals. And, like much of Lower Shabelle, the town is generally considered to be under al-Shabaab’s authority. But its proximity to an African Union Peacekeeping forward operating base, Lantabur, means that al-Shabaab militants tend not to spend long in the town center itself and are known to sleep in the bush, according to the civilians who live there.
Several townspeople own weapons and at least one of those weapons was registered with local authorities in 2012, according to paperwork seen by The Daily Beast. That AK-47 belongs to a local farm owner, although it’s used by his guard to protect one of the village’s boreholes from rival clan militias. People who pass through also pay small fees to buy water from the borehole and, with more and more locals using the village for transit, business at the borehole had been good in recent weeks.
On Wednesday evening, around 8 p.m. local time, roughly 30 people arrived in Ma’alinka with tractors they had used to take bananas to Afgoye. Having spent all day at the market there, which is open only on Saturdays and Wednesdays, they couldn’t reach their homes in the nearby town, Janale, before sunset, so they settled in for a night in Ma’alinka. When some asked townspeople for small mats to sleep on, Hassan Eelle, a local resident, obliged. He began chatting with three of them who were distant relatives from his clan, discussing how business was in the Afgoye market, whether their farms had produced good yield, and how tractors were the only—but they agreed not best—way of transporting the bananas they grew on their farms.
Eelle returned to his small corrugated tin home around 10 p.m., where he and his wife fell asleep in one of its two rooms. A few hours later, he estimates around 1 a.m., he woke to the sound of gunfire. He first thought it must be coming from a rival clan attacking the town, but then heard men speaking a foreign language and, confused, grabbed his wife and lay down on the ground inside their home, grains of sand from the earth floor pressed into his face.