NAIROBI, Kenya – In the northern reaches of Somalia and the country's presidential palace, a well-equipped military force is being created, funded by a mysterious donor nation that is also paying for the services of a former CIA officer and a senior ex-U.S. diplomat.
The Associated Press has determined through telephone and e-mail interviews with three insiders that training for an anti-piracy force of up to 1,050 men has already begun in Puntland, a semiautonomous region in northern Somalia that is believed to hold reserves of oil and gas.
But key elements remain unknown — mainly who is providing the millions of dollars in funding and for what ultimate purpose.
Pierre Prosper, an ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues under former President George W. Bush, told AP he is being paid by a Muslim nation he declined to identify to be a legal adviser to the Somali government, focusing on security, transparency and anti-corruption.
Prosper said the donations from the Muslim nation come from a "zakat fund," referring to charitable donations that Islam calls for the faithful to give each year. The same donor is paying for both training programs.
Somalia hasn't had a fully functioning government since 1991 and is torn between clan warlords, Islamist insurgent factions, an 8,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force, government forces and allied groups. Given that mix, the appearance of an unknown donor with deep pockets is troubling, said E.J. Hogendoorn, a Nairobi-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.
"We don't know if this unknown entity is operating in the interests of Somalis or their own self-interest," he said in an interview. "If it's a company, there has to be a quid pro quo in terms of (oil and gas) concessions. If it's a government, they are interested in changing the balance of power."
The new force's first class of 150 Somali recruits from Puntland graduated from a 13-week training course on Monday, said Mohamed Farole, the son of Puntland President Abdirahman Mohamed Farole. The son, who is a liaison between the government and journalists and diplomats, told AP the new force will hunt down pirates on land in the Galgala mountains.
The range lies 125 miles (200 kilometers) north of the nearest main pirate anchorage but is home to an Islamist-linked militia that complains it has been cut out of energy exploration deals.
The Islamist militants led by Mohamed Said Atom have clashed with government forces several times this year. A March report by the U.N. accuses Atom of importing arms from Yemen and receiving consignments from Eritrea, including mortars, for delivery to al-Shabab forces in southern Somalia. Al-Shabab is Somalia's biggest insurgent group and has ties with al-Qaida.
The president's son emphasized the force was dedicated to anti-piracy, but said that he hoped greater security in the region would bring more investors into "public-private partnerships" with the government.
"You cannot have oil exploration if you have insecurity," Mohamed Farole said. "You have to eliminate the pirates and al-Shabab."
Energy exploration has started mainly just south of the mountains, although the amount of estimated reserves is unknown, or at least not publicly divulged.
Michael Shanklin, who was the CIA's deputy chief of station in Mogadishu 20 years ago, told AP he is employed by the unidentified donor country as a security adviser and liaison to the Somali government. Prosper said he is encouraging the Muslim donor nation, which insists on keeping its identity secret, to become more transparent.
The new force will be equipped with 120 new pickup trucks — which have already arrived — and six small aircraft for patrolling the coast, Farole said. No other force in Somalia, including the Mogadishu-based central government or African Union peacekeepers, has air assets.
Prosper said the Muslim nation is also donating four armored vehicles. A photo provided by diplomats and taken at Mogadishu's airport show two armored trucks made by Ford with gunner's turrets.
In recent weeks, Shanklin and Prosper met several Nairobi-based diplomats to discuss the contract between the Puntland and Mogadishu governments and a private security company called Saracen International, Prosper said in written replies to questions from AP. Prosper said Saracen is doing the military training and is being paid by the unnamed Muslim nation. Saracen is not providing the militia with any weapons, he said.
Uganda-based Saracen International was named in a March letter written by the Somali president's former chief of staff, Abdulkareem Jama, and obtained by AP that described training for the presidential guard. And it was named in a Nov. 18 statement from Puntland's government announcing the anti-piracy training. Bill Pelser, the chief executive of Saracen International, said it is "definitely a mistake or a misrepresentation."
Pelser denied being involved in the training program in Puntland or the one for the presidential guard in Mogadishu, saying he merely made introductions for another company called Saracen Lebanon. Lebanese authorities have no record of a company called Saracen. Pelser did not respond to requests for contact information for Saracen Lebanon.
Pelser is a former South African special forces soldier. Like many of his staff, he used to work for Executive Outcomes, a South African mercenary outfit credited with helping defeat rebel forces in Sierra Leone in return for mineral concessions.
Prosper declined to say how much the donor country has spent on the programs. Two Nairobi-based security analysts calculate it has already spent around $10 million on equipment, salaries and other costs. The analysts asked for anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the press.
Somalia's vast swaths of lawless territory host training camps for hundreds of foreign fighters aiding al-Shabab. Lying across the narrow Gulf of Aden from Yemen, Somalia is a haven for figures seeking to escape a U.S.-funded crackdown on terrorist networks in Yemen.
Whoever controls a well-trained, well-equipped and consistently paid military force is in a strong position to make a bid for filling the power vacuum in Somalia.
Farole declined to comment on his father's political future but noted that since his father became Puntland's president, he chased many pirates out of the region and ensured regular payments for soldiers in a country where many desert because the central government is too disorganized or corrupt to pay them.
The U.N. is quietly investigating to see if the creation and outfitting of the new military force violates an arms embargo, according to a U.N. representative who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak publicly.
The embargo forbids the importation of arms, military equipment or any support to any armed group in Somalia, including to any Somali government, without authorization from the U.N.'s sanctions committee. There is an exemption for support for counter-piracy operations, provided the Security Council was notified and gave permission. In the case of the new military force, the Security Council was not notified.