In pre-dawn darkness, a Toyota Land Cruiser skidded off a bridge in North Africa in the spring, plunging into the Niger River. When rescuers arrived, they found the bodies of three U.S. Army commandos — alongside three dead women.
What the men were doing in the impoverished country of Mali, and why they were still there a month after the United States suspended military relations with its government, is at the crux of a mystery that officials have not fully explained even 10 weeks later.
At the very least, the April 20 accident exposed a team of Special Operations forces that had been working for months in Mali, a Saharan country racked by civil war and a rising Islamist insurgency. More broadly, the crash has provided a rare glimpse of elite U.S. commando units in North Africa, where they have been secretly engaged in counterterrorism actions against al-Qaeda affiliates.
The Obama administration has not publicly acknowledged the existence of the missions, although it has spoken in general about plans to rely on Special Operations forces as a cornerstone of its global counterterrorism strategy. In recent years, the Pentagon has swelled the ranks and resources of the Special Operations Command, which includes such units as the Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force, even as the overall number of U.S. troops is shrinking.
At the same time, the crash in Mali has revealed some details of the commandos’ clandestine activities that apparently had little to do with counterterrorism. The women killed in the wreck were identified as Moroccan prostitutes who had been riding with the soldiers, according to a senior Army official and a U.S. counterterrorism consultant briefed on the incident, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, which is conducting a probe of the fatal plunge off the Martyrs Bridge in Bamako, the capital of Mali, said it does not suspect foul play but has “not completely ruled it out.” Other Army officials cited poor road conditions and excessive speed as the likely cause of the 5 a.m. crash.
U.S. officials have revealed few details about the soldiers’ mission or their backgrounds, beyond a brief news release announcing their deaths hours after the accident.
In many countries, including most in Africa, Special Operations forces work openly to distribute humanitarian aid and train local militaries. At times, the civil-affairs assignments can provide credible cover for clandestine counterterrorism units.
But in Mali, U.S. military personnel had ceased all training and civil-affairs work by the end of March, about a week after the country’s democratically elected president was overthrown in a military coup.
The military’s Africa Command, which oversees operations on the continent, said the three service members killed were among “a small number of personnel” who had been aiding the Malian military before the coup and had remained in the country to “provide assistance to the U.S. Embassy” and “maintain situational awareness on the unfolding events.”
Megan Larson-Kone, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Embassy in Mali, said the soldiers had stayed in Bamako because they were “winding down” civil-affairs programs in the aftermath of the coup while holding out hope “that things would turn around quickly” so they could resume their work.
Two of the soldiers, Capt. Daniel H. Utley, 33, and Sgt. 1st Class Marciano E. Myrthil, 39, were members of the 91st Civil Affairs Battalion, 95th Civil Affairs Brigade, which is based at Fort Bragg, N.C.
For two months after the crash, the U.S. military withheld the identity of the third soldier killed. In response to inquiries from The Washington Post, the Army named him as Master Sgt. Trevor J. Bast, 39, a communications technician with the Intelligence and Security Command at Fort Belvoir.
Last week we reported that in the aftermath of the so far disastrous French campaign to eradicate "rebels" in the north of Mali, because of their implied threat fo Europe, that "US Drones, Boots Arrive In Mali." Turns out we were wrong, and as the case virtually always is, for some reason there was already a US presence of at least three US commandos in Mali in the summer of 2012. What they were doing there remains a mystery, as it is a mystery if the ever co-present flip flops on the ground were there inciting the perpetual scapegoat Al Qaeda to do this, or that. Or maybe it was not the CIA. Maybe it was the Army's "little-known and secretive" branch known as the Intelligence and Security Command. Regardless, what becomes obvious is that while the US was on the ground and engaged in secret missions, it needed an alibi to avoid "destabilizing" the local situation once its presence became conventional wisdom. It got just that, thank to one Francois Hollande just over a week ago.
From the WaPo, as of July 8, 2012:
Enter the Intelligence And Security Command
The Intelligence and Security Command is a little-known and secretive branch of the Army that specializes in communications intercepts. Its personnel often work closely with the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees missions to capture or kill terrorism suspects overseas.
During his two decades of service, Bast revealed little about the nature of his work to his family. “He did not tell us a lot about his life, and we respected that for security purposes,” his mother, Thelma Bast of Gaylord, Mich., said in a brief interview. “We never asked questions, and that’s the honest truth.”
U.S. counterterrorism officials have long worried about Mali, a weakly governed country of 14.5 million people that has served as a refuge for Islamist militants allied with al-Qaeda.
With only 6,000 poorly equipped troops, the Malian armed forces have always struggled to maintain control of their territory, about twice the size of Texas. Repeated famines and rebellions by Tuareg nomads only exacerbated the instability.
About six years ago, the Pentagon began bolstering its overt aid and training programs in Mali, as well as its clandestine operations.
Under a classified program code-named Creek Sand, dozens of U.S. personnel and contractors were deployed to West Africa to conduct surveillance missions over the country with single-engine aircraft designed to look like civilian passenger planes.
In addition, the military flew spy flights over Mali and other countries in the region with longer-range P-3 Orion aircraft based in the Mediterranean, according to classified U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
In what would have represented a significant escalation of U.S. military involvement in Mali, the Pentagon also considered a secret plan in 2009 to embed American commandos with Malian ground troops, diplomatic cables show.
Under that program, code-named Oasis Enabler, U.S. military advisers would conduct anti-terrorism operations alongside elite, American-trained Malian units. But the idea was rejected by Gillian A. Milovanovic, the ambassador to Mali at the time.
The stumbling block:
In an October 2009 meeting in Bamako with Vice Adm. Robert T. Moeller, deputy chief of the Africa Command, the ambassador called the plan “extremely problematic,” adding that it could create a popular backlash and “risk infuriating” neighbors such as Algeria.
Furthermore, Milovanovic warned that the U.S. advisers “would likely serve as lightning rods, exposing themselves and the Malian contingents to specific risk,” according to a State Department cable summarizing the meeting.
Moeller replied that he “regretted” that the ambassador had not been kept better informed and said Oasis Enabler was “a work in progress.” It is unclear whether the plan was carried out.
But back to the US Commandos, and, lo and behold, prostitutes:
The soldiers died of “blunt force trauma” when the vehicle landed upside down in the shallow river, crushing the roof, the Army said.
The Special Operations Command said it could not answer questions about where the soldiers were going, nor why they were traveling with the unidentified Moroccan women, saying the matter is under investigation.
Larson-Kone, the embassy spokeswoman, said the soldiers were on “personal, not business-related travel” at the time, but she declined to provide details. Officials from the Africa Command also said that they did not know who the women were, but they added in a statement: “From what we know now, we have no reason to believe these women were engaged in acts of prostitution.”