On the Hunt in Somalia

On the Hunt in Somalia
By Jacob Laksin
FrontPageMagazine.com | January 10, 2007

An increasingly popular prejudice holds that the United States, by involving itself in Iraq, has handicapped the larger war against Islamic terrorism. Al-Qaeda operatives in southern Somalia would likely disagree. On Monday these operatives found themselves on the receiving end of apparently successful U.S. airstrikes. Launched from a U.S. Air Force gunship, the attack capped a broader regional campaign that has seen an American Navy fleet policing the country’s ports — a favorite transit point of the international terror network — while special intelligence operations, carried out in concert with neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, identify and search out terrorist suspects in the country’s volatile south. James Phillips, a foreign policy specialist at the Heritage Foundation who has written extensively about al-Qaeda in Somalia, told FrontPageMag.com yesterday that the “the recent air strikes in Somalia show that U.S. forces remain capable of striking at al Qaeda from far away at a moments notice.” Reports of American weakness, it seems, have been greatly exaggerated.  For many Somalia is, if anything, a painful memory. It is indelibly linked to the October 1993 operation in which 18 American Army Rangers were gruesomely slaughtered while tracking Somali warlord Muhammad Farah Aidid — a tragedy first chronicled by Mark Bowden in the Philadelphia Inquirer and later dramatized in the film Black Hawk Down. For U.S. military strategists, however, Somalia has long held another significance: as a key battleground to thwart the export of Islamic radicalism into the African continent and beyond.  It is in this context that this week’s airstrikes should be seen. Early reports indicate that the targets of the strikes were Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Saleh Nabhan, two terrorists with probable ties to al-Qaeda. Mohammed is believed to be the mastermind of the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya, which resulted in the deaths of 225 people. In addition, a failed 2002 attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner, and the car bombing of a Kenyan hotel that claimed the lives of ten Kenyans and three Israelis, are said to bear Mohammed’s fingerprints. Saleh Nabhan is also wanted for the 2002 attacks. Kenyan investigators have reportedly discovered bomb-making materials in his home and local police have fingered him as the owner of the vehicle used in the hotel attack.  Rap sheets like these have only endeared the detonative duo to Somalia’s radical Islamic Courts Union. An umbrella of hard-line Sharia law courts that, in defiance of the official U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government, affects to be the country’s true source of authority, the ICU is believed to have offered protection to both Mohammed and Nabhan. This would be entirely in keeping with the unions’ past history, which includes its documented links to al-Qaeda. Of the 11 courts affiliated with the union at least two are suspected to be terrorist training and recruitment centers, and at least one is led by an al-Qaeda operative, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the onetime head of al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, a now-dissolved Somali Islamist group affiliated with al-Qaeda. Although the ICU styles itself as the voice of Somali believers, it is on closer inspection a tribal interest group — it mainly comprises the Hawiye, a Somali clan that makes up about a quarter of the country’s population — whose main “achievement,” apart from courting foreign al-Qaeda fighters, has been to impose a particularly severe form of Islamic rule on those parts of Somalia unfortunate enough to have come under its ambit.  Menacing to its host country and the region at large, the union thus deserves the brunt of the blame for precipitating Ethiopia’s recent invasion. One might not know it from the pronouncements of groups like Human Rights Watch and untold numbers of “Africa experts,” who condemned Ethiopia’s military for acting on behalf of U.S. interests — a grave offense for the high minded — but the invasion served two vitally useful purposes: routing the gathering Islamist forces and preventing the takeover of what by all the evidence would have been the Somali equivalent of the Taliban. Yet it would be a mistake to think that Somalia is now rid of its terrorist problem. By all accounts, the country remains a hotspot of Islamist activity. Equally dubious is the notion that an African peacekeeping force can serve as a buffer against Islamic ascendance in the country. As usually happens when the idea of such forces arises, African countries prove unwilling to provide the necessary troops. The upshot is that it’s left for the United States to do the job — striking down terrorists and safeguarding civilization — that, with some honorable exceptions, African states and the remainder of the international community won’t do.  

Encouragingly, the U.S. military is more than equal to the task. As documented by the journalist Robert Kaplan, lost amid the constant barrage of bad news from Iraq is that the U.S. military remains on unwearied offensive against al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers. In Africa especially the military has hunted down the terrorist group and trained local forces to carry on the fight. It has done all this, moreover, with little fanfare and even less recognition. Perhaps that’s to be expected. In the age of global media, waging a war on Islamic terrorism was never going to be a glamorous vocation — only a necessary one.

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