Which African President is the most powerful?
At the beginning there is always the question of who to eliminate. Who poses such a great, so imminent threat to America that death alone is the answer? The suggestions come from US intelligence officials - including from Stuttgart, as detailed job descriptions at Africom show. For example, the military is looking for an "all source analyst", a specialist whose duties expressly include "nominating targets". This step is the beginning of a "nomination process" that will only be completed on President Barack Obama's desk. Every Tuesday the proposals are presented to the President, in this case by Africom and the Special Operations Department. As soon as Obama signs the execution document, the target person is released to be shot down.
In those February 2012, the "kill list" included the alleged jihadist Mohamed Sakr, who is said to have played an important role in the African terrorist group al-Shabaab since 2009. Only: Sakr was born in England in 1985 and is a British citizen. Even the President of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, can't just kill a Briton like that. Or is it?
He doesn't have to. Great Britain revoked Sakr's British citizenship in September 2010. He is thus outlawed.
But: who you want to kill, you have to find first. The US secret service has been hunting down Sakr for years. But now the pursuers have finally come close to him. You're about to catch him.
At 50, Maxamed Abdullahi is one of the elders of his clan. He is a highly respected man: people come to him when there is a dispute - about the best grass or water, the essentials of nomadic life. He says who is right and who has to give in, and his award is valid. There is no other law here in the bush.
That day he has to walk a long way to find fresh grass for his camels, almost an hour. Maxamed Abdullahi is a tall, sinewy man with short hair and a narrow goatee. He wears the long robe of the nomads and cheap black sandals "made in China". He protects himself from the sun with a turban or hat, while camel herding he usually simply wraps his bedding around his head. Then he has something with him to lie down for an afternoon nap.
Around a thousand kilometers from Maxamed Abdullahi and his camels, an armed drone is being prepared for use in "Camp Lemonnier", a separate and closely guarded part of Djibouti's airport. At this time, most of the drones that the US Africa Command in Stuttgart needs for its missions take off from here. At first glance, "Camp Lemonnier" is a rather disorganized collection of barracks, hangars, tank trucks, helicopters and airplanes. An American flag flies in the middle. The civilian employees of the company Battle Space Flight Services, which maintains and operates drones on behalf of the US military, also work here in those February days. A profitable business: Most recently, the company received an order from the Air Force worth a good $ 950 million.
It's early morning in Djibouti when the technicians hit the drone Predator bring them onto the runway: eight meters long, 15 meters wingspan, with the HellfireMissiles under the wings weigh a ton. It can stay in the air for around 25 hours. The take-off went smoothly, and at 6:30 a.m. Western European time, a team of US pilots took the helm at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico.
The real mission begins.
Connected live: the AOC combat operations room in Ramstein. Here on the data wall, a huge LCD screen, every single aircraft and every US drone that takes off in Africa is displayed. The images from the on-board cameras are also received almost in real time - for immediate analysis by the analysts. The military in Ramstein is connected to other parties involved via an encrypted Internet chat, such as the start team in Djibouti, the command in Stuttgart and those at the end of the chain of command in an air-conditioned container in New Mexico: the pilots.
In this case, the joystick is in the hand of a woman, a US soldier with the rank of captain. She is an experienced pilot and has even flown this exact drone twice. Normally a crew consists of six people: The pilot flies - and at the end presses the fire button. The "sensor operator" is a kind of co-pilot who operates the on-board cameras and possibly views images that are coming from other drones at the same time. The "Mission Coordinator" maintains contact with the units and secret services involved - including Germany. And there is a substitute for each position. Exhausting jobs: the crews work in shifts of eleven and a half hours, and the containers are tight, there are too many people in too little space. Too many men especially. It stinks of sweat, of cigarettes and of farts.
On that day, the pilot's crew observed a "moving target" - that means: It's about people.
At eight o'clock Western European time, eleven o'clock Somali time, the drone flies steadily at an altitude of 5.5 kilometers. The weapons on board are operational, the aiming lasers are calibrated. Everything ready for launch.
The target: Mohamed Sakr, who is said to be near Mogadishu.
The area where Maxamed Abdullahi finally finds grass for his camels is in the Lower Shabeelle region - named after the Shabeelle River. The Indian Ocean is close by and the capital Mogadishu is 60 kilometers away. The region used to be the country's breadbasket, but armed conflicts and recurring droughts have left their mark, and above all: hunger. Since 2008, the region has been largely in the hands of the Islamist Al-Shabaab militias, who want to establish a state of God in the Horn of Africa.
Maxamed Abdullahi wants nothing to do with the jihadists. He's a devout Muslim, yes, and he was one of the few here who even attended the Koran school - but the zeal and anger of these people are alien to him. In addition, Al-Shabaab fighters repeatedly stand in front of his hut and demand tribute: goats and camels. As if he and his family weren't already struggling to survive. But the Islamists have weapons. You never go without a tribute.
In the late morning, Abdullahi prepares his first meal, millet porridge with fresh camel milk. After eating, he usually lies down in the shade of a tree to sleep. He's got used to the strange low humming sound of the drones passing by somewhere up there. It's everyday life in Somalia.
Someone who had already been hit by that time is Bilal Berjawi, a friend of the Mohamed Sakr whom the US forces are currently on the trail of. Berjawi and Sakr had known each other since they were twelve. Both grow up in London as friends, one with Lebanese parents, the other with Egyptian parents. At the same time they turn to radical Islam, marry both Somali women and both leave London in 2009 - to fight in Somalia in the al-Shabaab. Berjawi's wife gives birth in a London hospital in late January and makes the mistake of calling her husband. Bilal Berjawi answers the phone. A few hours later he is dead, killed by a US drone.
In the weeks that followed, the Stuttgart Africa Command worked to make Mohamed Sakr a martyr too.
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But how do you get on the trail of a man who has gone into hiding somewhere in Somalia? Via intercepted emails or phone calls, as with the London jihadist Bilal Berjawi, via agents on site or via partners such as the Federal Intelligence Service. BND agents appear regularly in German asylum seekers' homes, where they, for example, interview Somalis who have fled about the situation in their home country. Maybe someone is talking about two god-warriors who had just arrived in Somalia from London?
Whatever the BND people learn, they routinely pass on to their American counterparts. Unless a US agent is in the room anyway, that will also happen. And every little detail can be decisive for the Americans' targeting, no matter how small a hint from Germany, can complete the analyst's puzzle and trigger the order to fire - which occurs in Africa missions from Germany Africom headquarters in Stuttgart-Möhringen.
In between you can ask yourself why that is actually the case? Why is the headquarters for the US Africa mission in Germany and not, just for example, in Africa?
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