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STUTTGART, Germany — It was an Africa operation unlike so many that came before.

When U.S. Special Forces troops boarded helicopters and swept into southern Somalia earlier this month in a daring daylight raid to take out a much-wanted al-Qaida operative, there were no missiles launched from distant ships or bombs dropped from overhead drones.

The question is whether that hands-on, high-risk Somalia mission is a harbinger of things to come for the new U.S. Africa Command, which until now has stressed cooperation, not commando raids, in its dealings with African nations.

The Sept. 14 operation — which the U.S. military has anonymously confirmed but provided few details about — ran counter to AFRICOM’s broadcast purpose to promote stability through military training partnerships intended to make armies across Africa more professional.

Yet such raids may reveal a hidden iron fist at the heart of the U.S. military mission in Africa, some analysts say -- especially in anarchic places like Somalia, where there is a total security vacuum and where the U.S. military has few alternatives when a high-valued target comes into view.

“I don’t think it’s a blip on the radar. I suspect there is more to come and that you’re going to see more of this in the future,” said Olivier Guitta, a counterterrorism expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, a think-tank focused on Islamic extremist terror groups. “You can do all the training you want. But it’s going to take them awhile to be ready.”

Added Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University: “It’s an operation of necessity, but not of preference. It’s not the first choice, but sometimes it’s the only choice.”

It has been one year since AFRICOM became the U.S. military’s sixth regional combatant command, and during that time commanders have pounded home the mission objectives. Repeated trips around the continent have focused almost exclusively on helping African militaries develop the capacity to provide for their own security.

News releases on the command’s Web site tout missions ranging from maritime security partnerships in the Gulf of Guinea to HIV prevention programs. There’s no mention of the Special Forces troops taking out Ali Saleh Nabhan, who was wanted in connection with the bombing of an Israeli hotel in 2002 and ever since had made Somalia his refuge.

At AFRICOM’s Stuttgart headquarters, the challenges surrounding Somalia have been at the forefront. On Wednesday, a group of experts and scholars visited to talk about the many complexities in the bloodied country, where a fragile transitional government is in a fight for its life against the local Islamic extremist group al-Shabaab.

Vicki Huddleston, the Defense Department’s newly appointed deputy assistant secretary for Africa, declined to confirm the military’s involvement in the recent commando operation.

“I don’t believe that the U.S. government has officially said they had anything to do with it,” she said.

However, Huddleston said she did not envision U.S. troops playing a direct role in helping to bring security to Somalia. Instead, the focus will continue to be on training.

“What we’re doing to help facilitate [stability] has been working with Uganda and other countries in the area to train the transitional federal government forces,” Huddleston said.

But the covert raid encapsulates some of the dilemmas AFRICOM faces. In a part of the world where suspicions about U.S. motives run deep, any direct military engagements could have the counterproductive effect of driving skeptical fence-sitters to the side of extremists.

“The thing is, you don’t want it to become public,” said Guitta. “Then you will have the whole other problem of having the people you’re trying to support being viewed as pawns. Then there’s a backlash.”

That’s the concern in Somalia. Some analysts say such actions could potentially be exploited by Islamic extremists looking to cast the weak transitional federal government as a puppet of Western powers.

Repercussions associated with such assaults are difficult to predict, according to EJ Hogendoorn, a Kenya-based expert on the Horn of Africa for the International Crisis Group.

However, surgical raids are less likely to provoke hostility than missile strikes, which carry higher risks for collateral damage. In the past, airstrikes were the preferred course of action, with the most recent occurring in 2008.

“From our perspective, they’re taking a certain amount of care to avoid civilians being attacked,” Hogendoorn said. “That suggests to me a bit more sensitivity.”

While AFRICOM officials declined to comment on the Somalia raid, officials recently have said that the command is not engaged in similar activities in other parts of Africa.

“U.S. Africa Command is not actively patrolling, searching for or pursuing al-Qaida or affiliated extremist groups in the Trans-Sahara region,” said AFRICOM spokesman Vincent Crawley in a statement.

“If U.S. personnel became aware of suspected extremist groups or individuals during a training exercise, any potential actions by U.S. personnel would be coordinated with the U.S. Embassy and the National Command Authority,” he said.

To date, Operation Enduring Freedom Trans-Sahara represents the quiet front of the war on terrorism. The mission — a military-to-military training partnership between the U.S. and 10 African countries — is centered on the soft-power programs AFRICOM prefers to emphasize.

But violence has begun to flare again in parts of northern Africa in recent months, and AFRICOM intends to add resources to counterterrorism efforts across northern Africa’s deserts. Among the recent attacks by suspected terror groups: an assault on Malian military forces on patrol last month; an American aid worker killed in Mauritania in June; and a British tourist killed in Mali in May.

“It’s a fertile breeding ground for terrorism. Not just for recruiting, but training as well,” said Lt. Col. James Woods, program manager for AFRICOM’s efforts in the region.

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.
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