Special Forces are up to no good in Somalia

An Expensive Education is about Special Forces operators and the CIA.

Somewhere in the world, and probably in a dozen countries or more throughout the Global South, American Special Forces operators are engaged in action. Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, and other, less-well-known units, operating in small groups on top-secret missions, are involved in what has been called—romantically, ungrammatically, and probably misleadingly—the “War on Terror.”

What are are these troops doing? Where? And why? The answers to these questions are known only within the uppermost reaches of the Pentagon, the intelligence establishment, and the White House. But it’s safe to say that most Americans would be uncomfortable knowing what they’re up to. And in Nick McDonell’s well-received novel of a decade ago, An Expensive Education, what Special Forces operators and the CIA are up to is no good.


An Expensive Education by Nick McDonell (2010) 305 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)


The action in An Expensive Education shifts back and forth from the border of Somalia and Kenya, where Somali bandits and terrorists are active, to the campus of Harvard University.

  • At Harvard, Professor Susan Lowell has just won the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction for her account of the insurgent campaign directed by a mysterious Somali warlord. Hatashil, who is “sort of like a Robin Hood figure.” He is attempting to destabilize and ultimately overthrow the National Security Front, the corrupt force that masquerades as the country’s government.
  • Meanwhile, on the ground on the Somali-Kenya border, a brilliant Harvard-educated CIA officer named Michael Teak witnesses the massacre of a Somali village by troops he believes to be American Special Forces operators.

McDonell follows the trajectory of these two intriguing characters as the United States government moves to cover up its involvement in the massacre. It’s an ugly story, and it does not reflect well on the CIA, the Special Forces, or the White House, which has surely directed the action from the outset.

How many SEALs and Rangers are there, really?

By the way, the only estimate I can find about the number of American Special Forces operators comes from a six-year-old article in Mother Jones, originally published on TomDispatch. The article projects the total as of 2014 at 72,000. By comparison, the total number of active duty personnel in the United States military was 1.3 million as of 2018. These are, indeed, elite troops.

For further reading

The former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson wrote a novel about terrorism in the Horn of Africa, too: The Night Ranger (John Wells #7), which I reviewed at An outstanding thriller set amid the refugee crisis in Kenya and Somalia.

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