Humanitarian Cargo Contractor Secretly Supported U.S. Spec Ops in Yemen

Newly revealed relationship underscores the importance of private companies in America's most shadowy counter-terrorism operations.

AP

A new report has shed light on the shadowy world of contractors supporting some of the United States most secretive counter terrorism operations. As The War Zone has also reported before, the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community often take great care to obfuscate or outright conceal their activities abroad, but in doing so, often create a potentially dangerous nexus between security forces and spies, humanitarian organizations, and private companies.

On March 27, 2015, Houthi rebels detained an American contractor in Yemen’s capital Sana’a. After nearly six months in captivity, the militants let Scott Darden go, following an apparent intervention by the Sultan of Oman on his behalf, but there was no indication that his work in the country was anything particularly out of the ordinary. Now it seems this was not so according to a story, citing a number of anonymous sources, from The New York Times published on May 6, 2017.

In Yemen, Darden was the head of operations in the small Arabian country for New Orleans-headquartered Transoceanic Development, which coordinated and warehoused humanitarian aid shipments for organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Children’s Fund, better known by its acronym UNICEF. At the same time, he was managing deliveries for American special operators, as well.

The revelation is not particularly surprising. It is at best an open secret that the U.S. military has increasingly come to rely on contractors for a wide variety of functions, even when it comes to the most secret missions. Combined with specialized military and paramilitary units, these individuals and companies are vital for providing support functions and simply getting supplies into remote and often dangerous regions where the United States may not be waging a visible conflict. Using civilians can help keep the effort – and more often than not, local government involvement – discreet.

AP

A Red Cross employee oversees the unloading of humanitarian aid at Sana'a International Airport in Yemen in 2015.

Yemen is a particularly good example of this trend. By the time the time the Houthis seized control of Sana’a in September 2014, which set the country on course for what became a brutal civil war, the Pentagon had been running a multi-faceted counter-terrorism campaign against Al Qaeda’s franchise in the country for at least five years. On one side there was a publicly acknowledged mission to train and equip Yemen’s military to fight Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). On the other hand, the Pentagon and the intelligence community used drone strikes and commando raids, often with the assistance of American-trained Yemeni special operators, to attack specific individuals.

Officials in Washington were tight-lipped about the military assistance operation. They almost categorically refused to comment on the more focused counter-terrorism operations, with nicknames such as Copper Dune and Yukon Viking. The exact relationship between the two efforts remains unclear and Darden could have been arranging support for one or both of these missions.

There was already significant evidence that contractors were heavily involved in both the public and covert operations. Sometime before 2007, Yemeni officials hired Panalpina, a freight forwarding company, to move American-supplied gear from warehouses in the United States into Yemen proper. However, according to the Government Accountability Office, the country’s government fell behind on its payments to Panalpina and in 2008 contracted DHL Global Forwarding to continue this work. Neither company specifically focuses on military contracts. Cash flow continued to be a problem and GAO found significant amounts of equipment and supplies still languishing in private storage months after Yemen’s government completely collapsed in 2015.

GAO

The U.S. government did hire private military and security contractors to more actively assist in training and equipping Yemeni security forces. But this work may have required the Pentagon or other American officials to use private logistics or charter travel companies to move personnel or equipment in and out of the country, too. In March 2017, The War Zone revealed the existence of shadowy and possibly stillborn joint program between the U.S. Army and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the same region, known as the Yemen Somalia Agent Information Conference (YSAIC), as part of a larger analysis of the situation across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia. At least one YSAIC project would have involved bringing members of the Yemeni Ministry of Interior to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia to learn about collecting “post-blast” evidence and intelligence after bombings. Records we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act say this particular plan ended up canceled due to a lack of funds.

However, it seems more likely from The New York Times’ description and U.S. government responses to its reporters’ questions that Transoceanic Development’s operation in Yemen had ended up shuttling equipment and supplies for a shadowy U.S. military unit known as Task Force 48-4.2. This group was one portion of a larger element led by the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) that hunted down terrorists across the Arabian Peninsula and throughout East Africa.

DOD via The Intercept

In October 2015, The Intercept published a number of leaked documents that provided some of the most granular details about these missions to date as part of a series of stories known collectively as “The Drone Papers.” Despite this moniker, the documents showed that contractor-flown “manned fixed wing” spy planes were involved in the intelligence-driven targeted strikes. However, these forces would have needed more mundane goods and services, from food and water to fuel for vehicles and portable power generators. Already helping move similar items to Red Cross and UNICEF facilities in the country, Transoceanic Development would have been in a prime position to store and otherwise help deliver this type of material to forward operating sites.

And it’s not just Yemen. The U.S. government and its partners have and continue to apply similar models in other hotspots, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia. On May 30, 2017, a Fairchild-Dornier Do-328JET cargo aircraft belonging to an obscure company called Heidi Aviation crashed at Aden Adde International Airport in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu while flying a mission for Bancroft Global Development. Bancroft is the contractor supporting the African Union’s American-backed peacekeeping mission in the country.

On top of that, JSOC’s Task Force 48-4 is understood to be active in Somalia, likely being behind a raid on Al Qaeda-linked terrorist organization Al Shabaab in May 2017 in which a U.S. Navy SEAL died. In the future it may turn out that, as in Yemen, contractor logistics firms have been supporting a number of different international activities at the same time. Without private workers, the Pentagon would probably have difficulty maintaining a constellation of sites across Africa.

“The bottom line is there aren’t a lot of companies willing and able to provide those kind of necessary services in a place like Yemen,” Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, told The New York Times. “It’s not like you have people pounding down the doors for those contracts.”

AP

A charter flight sits at Mogadishu International Airport in Somalia in 2006.

Unfortunately, these arrangements aren’t without certain risks for humanitarian groups. This overlap between civilian and military organizations can put aid workers and humanitarians in danger if terrorists and militants no longer feel they can discern between the two or simply decide that there isn’t any meaningful distinction anymore. Famously, the Central Intelligence Agency ran a polio vaccination scheme in Pakistan that ultimately helped confirmed Osama Bin Laden was hiding in a compound near the city of Abbotabad. Afterwards, the militants such as the Pakistani Taliban began a vicious campaign against unrelated medical workers, in turn causing a spike in polio cases in the country. As recently as April 2016, armed groups were still targeting humanitarians and medical personnel.

If Darden’s case is any indication, that experience and others like it clearly haven’t dissuaded the U.S. government or its partners from employing contractors in such ways that might entangle counter-terrorism missions with unrelated civilian activities. As Feierstein noted, there simply aren’t a huge number of contractors to choose from when it comes to these efforts. You can be sure that The War Zone will continue to be among those keeping an eye out for these shadowy operations.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com