U.S. special forces wage secretive 'small wars' against terrorists

Story highlights

  • Special forces active in Middle East, Africa
  • U.S. officials say forces provide advice and attack terrorists

Washington (CNN)President Barack Obama is increasingly calling upon Special Operations forces to carry out so-called "small wars" across the Middle East and Africa to challenge both ISIS and al Qaeda in places where the U.S. maintains a footprint beyond Syria and Iraq.

In his first trip overseas since taking command of U.S. Special Operations a month ago, Gen. Raymond Thomas told a Middle Eastern audience recently that "complex" fails to adequately describe the current security environment. That complexity is leading the Obama administration to expand the use of small teams of Special Operators in various terror hotspots.
    Thomas previously served as head of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command -- the unit that includes Navy SEALS, the Army's Delta Force and other covert Special Operations units.
    "We are attempting to identify opportunities to expand [Special Operations'] global presence, forward access and relationships to leverage opportunities short of crisis," Thomas said.
    He did not offer additional details, but many military officials privately have noted that ISIS came to power and began controlling large swathes of territory, posing a major terror threat, faster than the U.S. could respond. They don't want to see it happen again.
    That explains why -- although much of the U.S. response is clearly focused on Iraq and Syria -- Special Ops forces are being asked to prevent both ISIS and al Qaeda from gaining a stronger foothold in places like Libya, Somalia and Yemen. The military characterizes many of the operations as "advising and assisting" local forces with intelligence and overhead surveillance to help identify targets. But in reality there are also many instances of the U.S. conducting direct attack operations on terror targets.
    Among the places where "small war" activities are underway:

    Somalia

    About 50 U.S. troops operate at undisclosed locations across southern Somalia advising and assisting Somali, Kenyan and Ugandan forces in their fight against Al-Shabaab, the local al Qaeda affiliate.
    On Thursday, called in an airstrike on Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia Thursday when a mission to help Ugandan forces the American troops were accompanying turned into an unexpected battle. The incident occurred west of Mogadishu, according to a U.S. military official familiar with reports from the scene. No U.S. troops were wounded but five militants died.
    The U.S. headquarters for the effort remains at the airport in Mogadishu, but the fact that the troops are at times in the field shows how far the U.S.-Somali military relationship has come since the 1993 U.S. battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, often referred to as the "Black Hawk Down" battle, in which several U.S. troops were killed.
    Al-Shabaab has conducted a number of attacks in Kenya against Western interests in recent years, raising concerns for the U.S. about its ability to recruit more fighters in the region and the growing influence of al Qaeda on the group. The U.S. has also conducted counter-terrorism operations against Al-Shabaab, both in raids on the ground and from drone and aircraft strikes. In March, the Pentagon said it conducted a large-scale airstrike against an Al-Shabaab camp in Somalia, killing some 150 fighters there.

    West Africa

    The U.S. has sent up to 300 military personnel to Cameroon. Many are involved in drone operations there from Garoua to help provide intelligence in the region to assist local forces. There are additional drone operations based out of Niger. A U.S. military official said a major concern remains Boko Haram inside Nigeria and its declared affiliation with to ISIS. The U.S. sees ISIS increasingly trying to recruit fighters from West Africa, the official said.

    Yemen

    The Pentagon will offer few details, but recently a small number of U.S. troops went back into Yemen to help Saudi and United Arab Emirates forces in their battle against the al Qaeda affiliate there. The U.S. troops are providing intelligence assistance and advice, according to several U.S. military officials.

    Libya

    A small number of U.S. forces occasionally travel into Libya, according to several U.S. officials. A few months ago, the Pentagon had to acknowledge the presence of U.S. personnel in Libya when photos showing them appeared online. The Pentagon said they were there trying to meet with locals but left the country at the request of local authorities.
    The current U.S. troops are trying to connect with political and security officials in Libya to get more information so if a national government is formed, the U.S. will be ready to provide additional military assistance. The Pentagon recently acknowledged there is a "concept of operations" for Libya that includes continued airstrikes against ISIS targets when they can be located.
    Correction: This story and headline have been updated to reflect that U.S. forces did not come under fire or fire on the militants, based on more recent information provided by military sources.