Analysis: US denying safe haven for al-Qaida in Somalia

The last thing Washington wants to see is an Afghanistan-style country appearing in the Horn of Africa.

somalia 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
somalia 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
In the early hours of Monday morning, a number of missiles fired from an American naval ship fell on the small Somali town of Dobley. The target according to a US military official, was a "facility where there were known terrorists" affiliated with al-Qaida. The Monday attack was reminiscent of the January 2007 air strike, which the US carried out against suspected al-Qaida operatives involved in the 1998 US bombings in East Africa. This latest show of US force in the Horn of Africa emphasizes Washington's continued resolve to attack al-Qaida operatives and their bases wherever they are in order to deny them safe havens. Somalia has been mired in conflict and instability since its dictator Siad Barre was overthrown in 1992. Located in the Horn of Africa and in close proximity to the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia borders Ethiopia, Kenya, Eritrea, and has an Eastern coastline to the Indian Ocean. Due to its porous borders and very weak government, Somalia, where over 90 percent of the population is Muslim, is highly vulnerable to the infiltration of radical Islamists and weapons trading. The latter was evident in the 1998 Congo war, where a large portion of the weapons used entered the African continent via Somalia. After Siad Barre was overthrown, Somalia imploded on itself, as different factions began vying for control over the country, turning Somalia into a failed state (a situation whereby the government does not have the ability to provide basic security and services to its people). The state of lawlessness worked to the advantage of Islamists who sought to establish bases of operations in Somalia, just as they have in Afghanistan and the tribal belts of Pakistan. There is strong evidence to suggest that al-Qaida initially found it difficult to operate in Somalia due to the homogeneous ethnic nature of the country, (there are five principle ethnic groups in Somalia), however perseverance eventually led to the appearance of local Somali Islamists who support the al-Qaida global jihadi agenda. In 2004, an Islamic group known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) emerged in Mogadishu and for a brief time it controlled the Somali capital in an attempt to assert its authority and implement Sharia law. Whilst its leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was considered a 'moderate', his deputies Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and Adan Hashi Ayro are known Islamists who were part of the organization al-Ittihad al-Islami (the Islamic Union, (AIAI)) which is accused of having ties with al-Qaida. Aweys himself appears on the US's most wanted terrorist list, whilst Ayro is known to have received training in Afghanistan jihadi camps. There have been reports that during recent weeks, Islamists were regrouping around Dobley, a town bordering Kenya, with other reports indicating they in fact took over the town last week. It is believed that Hassan Abdullah Hersi al-Turki, an Islamist militia leader linked to the AIAI and listed by the US as a backer of terrorism was meeting with other militant leaders in Dobley at the time of the strike. In 2004, the US State Department named Turki as having links with al-Qaida and suspected him of operating military training camps in Somalia. Turki thus poses a threat to the country and region through his efforts to expand the presence and influence of Islamists and in particular, their operational capabilities in Somalia. Reports suggest that he was the main target of the strike as well as possibly Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, wanted by the FBI in connection with the 2002 attacks in Kenya. Groups such as AIAI pose a significant threat due to their ability to win support from the local population with the establishment of Islamic schools and aid agencies, aimed especially at the poorest communities. Whilst offering basic services to segments of the population, the AIAI hoped initially to create a fundamentalist Islamic Somali state but later expanded its ambitions to seek the creation of a fundamentalist Islamic state in the Horn of Africa. It perpetrated many terror attacks in Somalia and throughout the region. Members of the group arrested in 2004 after attacking aid workers in Somaliland, admitted to being members of AIAI and part of a local al-Qaida cell. AIAI was also suspected by US and Israeli officials for collaborating with al-Qaida in a suicide car bomb attack on an Israeli owned hotel in Kenya in 2002, which left 11 Kenyans and 3 Israelis dead. A simultaneous attack, which luckily failed, targeted an El Al airliner departing from Nairobi. The ease with which radical Islamists are able to operate in lawless Somalia, their goal of creating a fundamentalist Islamist state, and attacks against Western and African targets, ensures that Washington keeps a close eye on Somalia, as the last thing that Washington wants to see is an Afghanistan-style country appearing in the Horn of Africa. Thus, the US and its allies closely monitor the presence of al-Qaida operatives operating in collaboration with local Islamist groups in Somalia. In all probability it is this concern that led to the attack, with the US seeking to neutralize the presence of al-Qaida and to undermine the threat of Islamic radicalism in East Africa. Extensively engaged in counter-terrorism operations, the US and its allies will thus need to continue with their resolve to limit the threat of Islamists in East Africa. Thus, it will help prevent the need for future ground force intervention in a country that could potentially be controlled by fundamentalists seeking to destabilize the region. In this sense, Somalia will continue to be strategically significant in the "war on terror." Shani Ross is the Coordinator for the Executive Programs & Conferences at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), Interdisciplinary Centre Herzliya, Israel.