Somalia's Prisons: The War on Terror's Latest Front
Jun 27, 2012 6:30 AM EDT
The U.S. wants out of the international jailing business. So what happens when we catch a terrorist abroad? In Somalia, they end up in a living hell.
So now it’s official: United States soldiers have been hunting down al Qaeda affiliates in Somalia. When the White House confirmed earlier this month what has long been an open secret, most of the ensuing chatter focused on the need for greater transparency about the expanding war on terror.
Less discussed was what happens to all those alleged terrorists when they’re captured alive.
One answer can be found here in the dusty Somali port city of Bosaso, where corrugated-metal shacks look as if they might be blown away in the next storm, and summer temperatures easily top 110 degrees. Overcrowded, underfunded, and reeking of urine, the Bosaso Central Prison could make even the most dedicated insurgent regret ever getting into the terrorism business. Many inmates don’t have shoes, and instead of uniforms, they wear filthy T-shirts and ankle-length garments wrapped around their waists that resemble sarongs (called ma-awis in Somali). When I visited earlier this year, the warden, Shura Sayeed Mohammed, told me he had 393 prisoners in a place designed to hold no more than 300. He said that since 2009, he had received 16 inmates captured by Americans.
Pentagon spokesman James Gregory wouldn’t confirm the number of prisoners the U.S. has sent to Bosaso, only that it has handed over prisoners, “back over to where they came from.” He said the U.S. is “returning them to their government, and their government takes them.”
Bosaso, along with other remote prisons around the world, is one of the less well-known and least-understood aspects of the war on terror. When President Barack Obama came into office, he expanded the scope of Central Intelligence Agency and military-drone operations in the Islamic world, while also taking steps to end America’s role in detaining suspects captured overseas in that war. He shut the remaining CIA black site prisons in Europe, and handed over high-value Iraqi detainees to the Iraqi courts. Guantanamo Bay no longer takes new inmates, though it continues to house prisoners who haven’t yet been transferred to other countries.