MOGADISHU, Somalia—If it weren’t for the shot that killed Navy SEAL Kyle Milliken, villagers in Daarasalaam, Somalia, might not have noticed anything amiss that night in May. For hours earlier, Milliken and his team had moved silently through the town, leaving boot prints that sank into the wet gray clay, and at least five dead bodies in their wake. Only when an Al Shabaab militant, concealed beneath the low-hanging branch of a mango tree, spotted Milliken standing over the bodies of two fellow fighters and fired did the silence that evening finally break.
The militant’s shots fatally wounded Milliken and led to a messy, hours-long evacuation that ended as the sun started to climb over the horizon that morning. The team left syringes, bandages, and muddy footprints that hardened in the blazing heat the following day, and the villagers of Daarasalaam retraced the team’s steps, piecing together a narrative of the raid that had resulted in the first U.S. combat death in Somalia since the infamous Black Hawk Down incident in 1993.
In recent weeks, the death of four U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Niger on Oct. 4 has lead some in the United States to question the presence and activities of U.S. soldiers in Africa. The secrecy of U.S. Africa Command or AFRICOM and of American Special Operations Forces has exacerbated suspicions about the dangers they face in roles often described only as “advisors,” and the U.S. government’s findings about that incident may never be made public in their entirety.
But an extensive investigation by The Daily Beast has given us some important details about the equally secretive mission in which Milliken was killed. And while that incident occurred five months prior to the American deaths in Niger, and on the other side of the continent, it provides important insight into the nature of AFRICOM’s operations and the actual risks involved for U.S. troops, their allies, and local populations.
On Monday, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the press in Washington that Americans deployed in Africa are part of “a global strategy” to combat groups like the so-called Islamic State and al Qaeda, and their affiliates, that “pose a threat to the United States, the American people, and our allies.”
Al Shabaab, operating mainly in Somalia, is regarded as just such a group, and Milliken, a fresh-faced 38-year-old veteran of special operations from Falmouth, Maine, was just the kind of fighter being sent into this combat day after day in places most Americans have never heard of alongside foreign troops from various backgrounds. In Somalia, for instance, American advisers work closely with AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia, composed mainly of troops from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya, and Ethiopia.
The Daily Beast met in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, with a witness from the area in which the raid took place last May who detailed evidence he said that he had seen himself, retracing the footprints left by Milliken’s team. He also collected testimony from other locals who saw the bodies of Al Shabaab militants killed during the operation before the militants cordoned off the area. This witness, like others consulted for this article, asked not to be named out of concern his life would be put at risk.
The Daily Beast also met repeatedly with a former Somali government official in Mogadishu who has been investigating the raid by speaking with locals about what they witnessed in the aftermath of the attack, and also with a serving Somali intelligence officer working in the region. Finally, The Daily Beast spoke over the phone with two individuals in the region who recounted what they knew of the operation in Daarasalaam.
The picture that emerges is far from perfect. Individuals from the area in which the raid took place could not be reached in the immediate aftermath of the operation when their memories of important details would be most accurate. It’s also true that living in a zone dominated by Al Shabaab, they could be vulnerable to pressure from the group.
But given the secrecy that surrounds such missions by U.S. Special Operations Forces, it is important to remember that what happens in an incident like this is not secret to the people who were targeted or those who live in close proximity to them. It is the American public that is kept in the dark.
When The Daily Beast questioned the Pentagon about the the operation detailed here, Department of Defense spokeswoman Maj. Audricia Harris responded in an email that she “will not discuss specific activities of Special Operations Forces,” but confirmed that “Milliken was part of a small number of U.S. forces [who] provide training and advisory support to AMISOM and Somali Partner forces to develop their capabilities to fight al-Shabaab and other terrorist organizations. These forces will also facilitate the coordination of U.S. strikes with partner ground operations.”
In the aftermath of Milliken’s death, U.S. Africa Command issued a statement saying U.S. forces were conducting an “advise and assist” mission with members of the Somali National Army, first claiming American Special Forces had stayed back as Somali forces carried out the raid. But five days later, speaking to a New York Times reporter at an African Land Forces Summit in Malawi, Brig. Gen. David J. Furness, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force for the Horn of Africa, admitted that U.S. forces were actually moving “alongside” Somali forces when they came under fire.
“Advise and assist” has become a ubiquitous phrase used by AFRICOM to describe its missions across the continent, where some 6,000 U.S. troops are deployed. In the Niger incident, U.S. forces reportedly were leaving a meeting with community leaders on an “advise and assist” mission with members of the Niger army when they were ambushed by ISIS-affiliated fighters. In Somalia, Pentagon officials have contended that when U.S. Special Forces conduct “advise and assist” missions, although they may accompany local forces on operations, U.S. troops stay behind as local forces conduct raids, not engaging in combat unless defensive action is required.
Although “advise and assist” has often been used to play down concerns about the dangers U.S. troops, details obtained about the circumstances surrounding Milliken’s death suggest that due to the nature of these asymmetrical, unconventional wars, U.S. forces in Africa do in fact face frontline dangers.
Hours before Milliken’s helicopter touched down outside Daarasalaam, the region’s usual sun-beaten landscape was showered with heavy rains, turning the fertile clay into thick, wet mud that clung to tires and painted people’s feet gray.
Villagers in the town, originally named “Daanyeerrey” or “the village with monkeys” and changed in the 1980s to an Arabic name meaning “House of Peace,” were going about their usual work selling foodstuffs from small shops and tilling the soil of their farms rife with onions, mangoes, and tomatoes.
Residents had grown accustomed to living under Al Shabaab rule; the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group took over the area in Lower Shabelle, 40 kilometers west of Mogadishu, in 2008 and has controlled it with little opposition since. For a brief period in 2015, African Union and Somali forces retook Qoryooley, the immediate area around Daarasalaam, only to lose it again five months later when one of their Forward Operating Bases was overrun, 70 soldiers were killed, their arms were stolen, and the AMISOM peacekeepers vacated the region.
By the time Kyle Milliken was operating in Somalia, Lower Shabelle was once again known as a stronghold for Al Shabaab. But there, as in most of Somalia, civilians also carry arms, making the task of distinguishing extremist militant from gun-toting farmer an extremely difficult one.
Some armed farmers also create alliances with Al Shabaab, agreeing to fight for them when called upon in exchange for protection from rival clans, further complicating the definition of legitimate targets on this battlefield.
But 38-year-old Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Milliken was no stranger to complex environments. His home town of Falmouth, Maine, remembers him running track and field at the University of Connecticut, graduating in 2001 and enlisting in the Navy the following year.
By 2007, Milliken had conducted 48 combat missions in Iraq alone, including one in which he helped evacuate three wounded members of his team while under fire, according to his battlefield citation leaked to CNN. In 2015 he was also awarded the Navy Achievement Medal for creating “ground breaking procedures” for future “national missions,” the most classified operations, which required presidential approval.
These missions are the kind most famously carried out by Delta Force and SEAL Team Six. The teams specialize in hostage rescue and direct action in areas where conventional forces are denied access for various reasons, and operate under the auspices of the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC.
Congressman Scott Taylor, a former SEAL who knew Milliken for over a decade and served with him in Iraq, described Milliken as “a great friend, family man, and teammate. He was brilliant, witty, and fiercely loyal.”
Of any soldier tasked with targeting and eradicating an enemy as invisible yet dangerous as Al Shabaab, few would seem to have been better prepared than Milliken.
His superiors likely thought the same when they tasked him with finding and destroying Al Shabaab radio equipment used to broadcast propaganda and eliminating Moalin Osman Abdi Badil, an Al Shabaab leader responsible for gathering information on Somali and African Union force movements, who was believed to be camping out in Daraasalam.
The mission to find Badil began late in the evening on May 4, when American helicopters deposited at least six American soldiers and at least 20 Somali soldiers from Danab, the U.S.-trained special forces unit in the Somali National Army, in the still-wet ground roughly eight kilometers from Daraasalam at an area called El-Shir.
According to a Somali intelligence officer familiar with the operation, the helicopters and troops had come from Baledogle, a former Soviet airstrip that’s now an American army base 70 miles northwest of Mogadishu, where U.S. Special Forces are currently training Danab.
The same officer says that five of the Danab troops stayed with Milliken and his American team, while the remaining Danab forces moved quietly under the star-lit sky toward the town, eventually passing in the bush through an irrigation canal locals use for their farms.
For such missions, night-vision equipment is standard, giving soldiers who wear it a major advantage over those who do not. Special operations forces may also use sound-suppressed weapons.
As they drew closer to Daarasalaam, the American and Somali soldiers entered into Al Shabab’s nighttime territory. Though the militants spend their days within the town’s limits, as dusk settles the young men disappear into its outskirts to sleep, fearing nighttime raids and drone strikes.
Shortly after crossing the canal, Milliken’s team came across two of these militants in the bush. The earth around their makeshift beds showed what looked to local residents the following day like signs of struggle and it appeared bodies had dragged through the wet earth. Town residents who saw the area suspected there may have been an interrogation.
“The footprints become muddled, like they had fought with these guys and then taken them further away from the road forcibly,” says one man who lives in the town. A few meters from where they apparently had been surprised in their sleep, the two men were found dead.
Their tracks showed them walking parallel to a river that runs beside the small village. They may have come across another member of Al Shabaab sleeping by the riverbank. By the time the sun rose the next morning, all that was left of him was a trail of blood by the river bank that two locals saw. The body was found two days later after floating 19 kilometers downstream to near Janaale town, where locals told people in Daraasalam bullet holes were still evident in the swollen corpse.
As Milliken’s team reached Daarasalaam, they left tracks throughout the town’s muddy streets lined with shanties and tin-roofed shops before making their way to a house on the outskirts across from a large mango tree. The house had two rooms with sheet-metal walls and a ceiling that covered only half of the structure.
Many in the town didn’t know the house existed before following the footprints the next morning and hearing militants describe it as an explosives manufacturing facility.
“I’ve been living in this place my whole life and had never seen this house before,” one resident says. “We think [Al Shabaab] made it when they got here and had kept it secret from everyone.”
The Danab team had approached the house quietly from its left side as it faces the road, where they likely suspected Badil would be sleeping. What the team didn’t realize was that opposite the house and across the dirt road three Al Shabaab militants were lying in shallow trenches dug underneath a large mango tree. Two of the trenches were dug perpendicular to the road while the third, about seven meters away, lay at an angle, obscured almost entirely by a large branch which hung close to the ground.
As described by locals who inspected the scene the next morning, all three of the Shabaab were tucked so close to the tree’s low branches and leaves it was hard to distinguish their dark green mosquito nets from the foliage, helping to conceal the sleeping bodies barely visible above ground.
Likely for these reasons, no one from the Danab team had noticed the trenches. Instead, their footprints suggest they searched the house but finding it vacant, they exited the front door, marched left away from the structure, and took cover under a small tree further down the road.
Their footprints show the team then bee-lined for the two trenches perpendicular to the house and the soldiers shot the two men. Whether they had seen the trenches, finally, or received new intelligence, is unclear.
The bodies of the two slain Al Shabaab were found by locals the next morning lying down with bullet holes in their heads, leading residents to believe the two men did not put up a fight before they were killed. The third militant, however, was still alive, and it seems the Danab forces did not realize it.
The Somali intelligence officer who spoke to The Daily Beast says that once the two men were killed, the Danab team called for the remaining Danab and Americans to confirm the threat was neutralized. Milliken and his team then entered the town in order to take photographs and fingerprint the slain Al Shabab militants, likely to identify whether they had in fact found Badil.
But as they stood under the mango tree near the militants’ bodies, the third fighter—still unseen in his trench seven meters away—fired his weapon, piercing the quiet night with the sound of gunfire for the first time.
Residents with nearly a decade of familiarity with Al Shabaab’s tactics suspect he was the one soldier on duty at that time in the night who saw the team approach his fellow soldiers from his post. The militant’s gunfire was loud enough to wake up a neighbor, who remembers hearing at least one shot after which he stepped outside of his house to check if anyone was shooting at his home or garage next door.
The gunfire was also accurate enough to hit at least one of the special operators on the scene, likely Milliken, leaving blood spattered in front of the two trenches and an imprint of a body, which seemed to collapse on its left side into the soft ground, as seen by locals the following morning.
The same locals also saw the body of the third militant, his chest riddled with bullet holes, suggesting Milliken’s men immediately returned fire and killed him. After the raid, Pentagon officials confirmed that two additional soldiers in Milliken’s team were wounded in the operation, including one Somali-American translator.
By the time their emergency evacuation helicopter landed on a farm 300 meters away from where Milliken was wounded it was around 3 a.m., the same time as the morning’s first call to prayer. As the town’s muezzin, who sings the prayer from a speaker system in Daraasalaam’s yellow and brown colored mosque on the east side of town, woke up to announce the prayer, he is said to have heard a strange sound lightly penetrating the early morning quiet. An ultra-quiet helicopter? He later told other residents he had no idea what it was. Taking a look from a window in the minaret, he couldn’t see anything in the dark sky and proceeded to sing the call.
Multiple town residents, retracing the footprints from the house, noted that the footprints seemed rushed, as if the men were running to the farm that would serve as their evacuation point.
But as Milliken’s team administered first aid to their three casualties at that site, as evidenced by the medical supplies they left at the scene, they also encountered a potentially catastrophic problem: the helicopter appears actually to have landed, rather than staying slightly above ground, and the mud was so deep it clung to the bird’s skids, preventing it from taking off again. According to one villager familiar with the farm, who had inspected the site the following morning, “the ground there was really muddy, too muddy, and it looked like the helicopter had been pushed a few meters forward, like the men had pushed the helicopter themselves.”
When the bird finally took off into the sky, residents of Daraasalam had waked up and begun preparing to congregate at the mosque for the 5:00 a.m. prayer. In the helicopter’s wake, the team had left four pairs of boots and medical detritus seen by townsmen who gathered at the scene immediately that morning.
The following day Al Shabaab would tell Daraasalaam residents they found two mobile phones dropped in the mud near the team’s evacuation site, which showed a call made around 1:00 a.m. Al Shabaab members suspected the call was to an informant in their ranks to provide information on the location of Badil and other members of al Shabaab who were in town.
One member of the group, Abdullahi Yasin Jama, a former journalist turned deputy director of Al Shabaab’s Alfurqan Radio, posted pictures on social media of two Android phones in mud-covered hard shell casings on top of a green tarp with a U.S. flag sewn on and a muddied pair of boots, all supposedly found at the scene. However, no residents saw the two phones nor a laptop, which Al Shabaab also claimed to have gathered in the aftermath of the operation.
Nearly 12 hours after the raid, AFRICOM released a statement announcing Milliken’s death. The Pentagon later confirmed that the threat in the mission had been “neutralized,” after which Milliken and two others were wounded and evacuated from the scene.
Milliken’s death came a little over a month after President Donald Trump’s administration designated parts of Southern Somalia an “area of active hostilities” where war-zone targeting rules apply, lessening oversight in the decision-making process to carry out ground operations and drone strikes.
Yet the battlefield citation leaked to CNN for Ryan Owens, a Navy SEAL killed in Yemen in January, indicates that U.S. soldiers have been operating in the line of fire in Somalia for years before that designation was made.
The citation notes that in July 2015 Owens led a 12-man team alongside African forces in a battle which raged for three days against roughly 400 Al Shabaab militants. It also notes that Owens and his team were attacked with “small arms, machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, rocket propelled grenades, mortars, and improvised explosive devices,” according to the CNN report.
Last week, the Pentagon also confirmed to AFP that there are currently 400 U.S. forces on the ground in Somalia, an eight-fold increase from the number they had at this time last year. The confirmation of a dramatic increase in U.S. boots on the ground comes as Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmaajo” is expected to soon announce a “state of war” against Al Shabaab and launch an offensive involving thousands of troops in southern Somalia with support from the United States.