Tag: al shabab

20 Years and Counting: America’s Vicious Cycle of Intervention in Somalia

Yesterday, the L.A. Times revealed that the United States is equipping and training thousands of African soldiers to fight al-Shabab, the militant wing of the Islamist Somali government. For now, outsourcing the combat to African countries may appear to bring America minimal risk, but Washington’s renewal of its multi-decade attachment to Somalia continues a cycle of deciding its winners and losers. Among an assortment of tribes, clans, and African states fighting for self-serving ends, Washington has handcuffed itself to a hornet’s nest.

The hubris of policymakers who believe they can remedy Somalia’s problems could produce policies that draw more recruits to the cause of militant groups, much as similar policies have in the past. Policymakers have failed repeatedly to bring order to the destitute African state, such as when it descended into clan-based warfare in the early 1990s.

At the time, U.S. officials agreed to enforce a March 1993 U.N. resolution that pledged to rehabilitate Somalia’s economy and reestablish national and regional institutions. State Department official David Shinn spoke of “basically re-creating a country,” while then-U.N. ambassador Madeleine Albright said America’s mission in Somalia “aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country as a proud, functioning and viable member of the community of nations.” The humanitarian mission eventually tasked America’s military with disarming Somali warlords and conducting house-to-house weapons searches. What began as U.S. leaders imbued with the best of intentions eventually ended with our brave military’s ignominious defeat.

Today, the United States fights al-Shabab by proxy. The group poses no direct threat to the security of the United States; however, exaggerated claims about the specter of al Qaeda could produce policy decisions that exacerbate a localized, regional problem into a global one. Amid news that African troops are doing the fighting, but that “The United States is doing almost everything else,” African Union forces could be seen as a puppet proxy of Uncle Sam.

Washington is supplementing the training of African troops with private contractors. Outsourcing makes intervention easier, as policymakers can hide the costs of a mission they have yet to clearly define. Intervention on the cheap also becomes costly in other ways. For a commander in chief who allegedly believes he should take moral responsibility for America’s lethal counterterrorism operations, privatizing intervention allows him and his administration to escape accountability should the forces we train, or the weapons we provide, turn against us or our allies.

Like moths to a flame, disparate Somali groups may rally around the perception they are fighting against the injustice of foreign meddling. Moreover, while military analysts were boasting back in June that al-Shabab could be facing the end of its once-powerful rule, questions surrounding what form of political stability will fill the al-Shabab vacuum remain unasked and unanswered.

The United States began fighting al-Shabab after December 2006, when Washington backed Ethiopia in toppling Somalia’s loose network of Islamist Sharia courts. The intervention backfired. The Islamist movement grew more powerful and today, U.S. officials fear al Qaeda could gain a foothold unless al-Shabab is defeated.

Sadly, America’s history of intervention in Somalia aptly demonstrates the resiliency of unintended consequences. Although developments in Somalia have some observers arguing that America should become more involved, the more reasonable conclusion to draw—looking at the historical record—is that America has tried and failed repeatedly to transform Somalia at an acceptable cost.

The Convoluted Debate on Drones

The same week U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta declared “we’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda”—an assessment that many believe reflects the efforts of seven years of CIA drone strikes—former director of national intelligence Dennis Blair called America’s “unilateral” drone war in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia a mistake. “Because we’re alienating the countries concerned,” Blair said, “because we’re treating countries just as places where we go attack groups that threaten us, we are threatening the prospects of long-term reform.”

Given that our Nobel Peace Prize–winning president has drastically escalated the use of these flying, robotic hitmen, there seems to be some confusion at the White House.

Speaking to attendees at the Aspen Security Forum, Blair said drone strikes in Pakistan should be launched only when America had the full cooperation of the government in Islamabad and “we agree with them on what drone attacks” should target. As explained elsewhere, this author accepts the efficacy of America’s drone war, but with enormous reluctance. That said, part of Blair’s assessment seems wildly out of touch. Why would Washington wait for permission from Islamabad to hunt al Qaeda?

First, individuals either within or with ties to Pakistan’s spy agency have collaborated with insurgents that frequently attack U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. That doesn’t speak well for Blair’s call for joint cooperation. Second, we’ve known for years that elements within Pakistan have thwarted — on several occasions — foreign-led attempts to find and take out terrorists. Even someone who is not wildly enamored with drones understands the argument for employing them unilaterally when confronted with uncooperative governments. Policymakers, however, should be weighing the ability to keep militant groups off balance against the costs of facilitating the rise of more terrorists, particularly in a country as volatile as Pakistan.

A statement even more out of step than Mr. Blair’s came from Michael E. Leiter, former head of the National Counterterrorism Center. Earlier this week at the Aspen Security Forum, Leiter contended that assessments that al Qaeda was on the verge of collapse lacked “accuracy and precision” and that al Qaeda’s leadership and structure in Pakistan “is still there and could launch some attacks.” He also raised concerns about the possible long-term effects of intensive CIA paramilitary operations on conventional espionage and analysis for issues like China: “The question has to be asked: Has that in some ways diminished some of its strategic, long-term intelligence collection and analysis mission?”

Leiter’s comments are troubling due to the basis for his concern about the effectiveness of counter-terrorism. To emphasize why the growing consensus that al Qaeda is “on the ropes” is premature, Leiter noted that the failed plot to blow up a vehicle in Times Square in May 2010 was carried out by an American trained by the Pakistani Taliban. This statement is misguided in what it implies. By no means can America ensure that terrorists never come from Pakistan, or anywhere else. Such an aim epitomizes our overreaction to terrorism. It gives planners in Washington not only a convenient justification to prolong the wars we’re already in, but also an open-ended rationale to intervene anywhere else. Let’s remember that the United States is already fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is threatening to launch a third against Iran, bombs remote villages in nuclear-armed Pakistan, and has expanded operations into Somalia, Yemen, and possibly elsewhere. This is especially concerning given the current construction of a not-so-secret U.S. air base in the Middle East for more targeted strikes in Yemen.

Unfortunately, the president’s choice to replace Mr. Leiter, Matthew Olsen, said at his confirmation hearing this week before the Senate Intelligence Committee that he would define the strategic defeat of al Qaeda as “ending the threat that al Qaeda and all of its affiliates pose to the United States and its interests around the world.” This, too, is problematic. U.S. policy toward “ending the threat” from al Qaeda has been mainly through wars and intervention, and one of the many unintended consequences of American intervention has been the radicalization of Western-born Muslims.

Take, for instance, Somalia, where Washington has repeatedly tried and failed to bring order. Over the past two years, as many as 20 Somali-American men have disappeared from the Minneapolis area. Many analysts fear these men were recruited to fight alongside al-Shabab (“The Youth”), the militant wing of the Islamist Somali government the United States and Ethiopia overthrew in 2006. In describing Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalized American of the Somali diaspora believed to be the first U.S. citizen to carry out a terrorist suicide bombing, FBI director Robert Mueller said, “It appears that this individual was radicalized in his hometown in Minnesota.” Somalia is a classic case of how American intervention is forever self-perpetuating.

Debates over drones should not be cut and dry. Scholars, no matter the subject, should be “intellectually honest.” Supporters of counterterrorism can and should feel comfortable having reservations about the tactics employed, given Washington’s tendency for threat inflation. Drones may well become America’s new permanent wartime footing. Sadly, we will have learned nothing from 9/11 if drones provide policymakers a more antiseptic avenue for satiating their endless appetite for intervention.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

Al Qaeda’s Mythical Unity

The mythical al Qaeda is a hierarchical organization. After losing its haven in Afghanistan, it cleverly decentralized authority and shifted its headquarters to Pakistan. But central management still dispatches operatives globally and manages affiliates according to a strategy.

The real al Qaeda is a fragmented and unmanageable movement. In the 1990s, it achieved limited success in getting other jihadists to join in attacking the West. It was not managerial innovation but the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and other governments’ pressures that destroyed  the limited hierarchy al Qaeda Central had achieved. Its scattered remnant in Pakistan controls little locally and less abroad. The leaders have cachet but lack the material incentives that real managers distribute to exercise authority. Al Qaeda became bunches of guys with diminished capability.*

The myth is destructive to counterterrorism. Because tightly-run organizations are better at mass violence than disparate movements, the myth creates needless fear that encourages overly ambitious and expensive policies, like the war in Afghanistan. The myth increases the number of enemies we face, taking focus from real ones. Most jihadist militants hate Americans but don’t try to kill us. They fight locally. Attacking them risks making them into what we fear they are and stoking nationalistic resentment that increases their popularity.

My anecdotal sense is that events since 9/11 have increasingly brought commentators around to truth. Even so, the media, for simplicity’s sake, tends towards the myth. And the Obama administration, despite improving upon its predecessors’ absurdly broad definition of our terrorist enemies, still overstates al Qaeda Central’s unity and control of affiliates. More importantly, U.S. policies still pay insufficient attention to the distinction among various al Qaeda entities.

Here are three recent examples of this rhetorical error and its consequences:

(1) Since bin Laden’s death, U.S. officials, analysts, and pundits have claimed that the cache of emails found in his compound contradict recent intelligence reports downplaying his control. The emails, we are told, show that he was still running the show and that al Qaeda Central remained potent.

Last week, however, McClatchy quoted more anonymous officials suggesting that to al Qaeda types in Pakistan and beyond, bin Laden was like a “cranky old uncle” that you respectfully listen to and ignore. The Washington Post reported that the emails show al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan complaining about depleted funds, declining popularity, and CIA drones decimating their ranks.

The White House seems conflicted about which view of al Qaeda to take. It commendably wants to belittle al Qaeda, robbing it of mystique by portraying bin Laden as pathetic and weak. On the other hand, it needs the threat of a powerful al Qaeda to justify the war in Afghanistan and other controversial policies.

(2) Media reports often give the impression that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are the core of the militant group (Ansar al-Sharia) revolting in Yemen’s south. The implication is al Qaeda could soon control territory for the first time. Too little attention is given to the uncertain role AQAP plays among Yemen’s militants and its limited ties to al Qaeda Central. Bin Laden apparently asked AQAP’s leader to attack Americans rather than gathering territory locally, suggesting that its commitment to attacking us may be limited.

The point is not that we should ignore al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen. But uncertainty about their role in Yemen and intent cautions against undifferentiated assaults on their leaders, let alone those of Ansar al-Sharia.

(3) Since our recent drone strike in Somalia on leaders of the al-Shabab insurgent group, the administration has claimed that Shabab’s leaders are plotting terrorism against American or western targets. The only evidence given for this assertion is vague claims of Shabab’s ties to Yemeni militants and its claim of responsibility for a 2010 terrorist bombing in Uganda. But that bombing came because Ugandan troops are in the African Union force fighting al-Shabab. While reprehensible, the attack does not show a desire to terrorize Americans.

At the risk of sounding quaint, Congress should make the administration substantiate its claims that Shabab is targeting Americans before we bomb them further. We have enough insurgents to fight these days outside Somalia.

*These positions are roughly those taken by Bruce Hoffman and Marc Sageman, respectively. My aim is not to perfectly state their views, however, but to describe general views in terrorism commentary.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

Mueller on Afghanistan

John Mueller, who has been helping out with Cato’s counterterrorism project, has a short essay in Foreign Affairs questioning the premise behind continuing the war in Afghanistan. That is: Al Qaeda would gain haven in Afghanistan absent a U.S. ground presence and use it to attack us here.

Mueller says that the Taliban would not be dumb enough to again offer aid and comfort to the wackos whose attacks brought the U.S. intervention that swept them from power before. I think this overstates the extent to which our enemy in Afghanistan is a singular entity with one way of thinking about its interests, rather than an amalgam of militias that view the utility of cooperation with foreign jihadists in varying ways. But the general point is mostly right.  Advances in UAV technology alone make a replay of the 1990’s impossible.

Mueller’s argument is badly needed in official places like Foreign Affairs where the “failed states are always terrorist havens” thesis is gospel. One can usefully export it to Somalia. The al-Shabab group’s loose ties to Al Qaeda are producing calls for U.S. intervention, despite the lack of evidence that international terrorists are using Somalia as a training ground or could.