I’m not sure what to make of this report in the New York Times today that al-Qaeda is leaving Pakistan for Somalia and Yemen.
It may well be true that our strikes on al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan have had a cumulative effect and some of the “militants” think that they would be safer in the all-but-stateless chaos of Somalia or the peculiar conditions of Yemen (pro-Islamist government with only loose control over rugged territory and tough well-armed tribesmen).
On the other hand, their friends and hosts in the Pakistani versions of the Taliban can hardly be said to be on the run. So it may be that al-Qaeda sees increasing opportunity in and around the horn of Africa. Of course, al-Qaeda activity in this region is hardly new — even if the NY Times and Obama’s advisers have only just become aware of it — and the U.S. government has been devoting military and intelligence resources to it for some time. Hence our troops sharing the French bases in Djibouti, and considerable U.S. special forces and anti-terrorist activity in the region . . .
It is probably true that al-Qaeda “fighters” — as the NYT likes to call them — may well be more vulnerable in Somalia and perhaps also in Yemen then in Pakistan. Somalia certainly does not have a Pashtunwali-style honor code with ultra-strict rules about protecting guests against all comers — and in both countries local tribes could well be easier to turn against al-Qaeda strangers than their equivalents on on Pakistan’s North West Frontier. Moreover, the near-statelessness of Somalia — not to mention the absence of a highly effective “frenemy” intelligence organization like Pakistan’s ISI — may make it easier for the U.S. to carry out certain kinds of military operations. Yemen is a more complicated case.
Of course it would be convenient for us if al-Qaeda’s operatives were to settle in one region of the world and then fall prey to our hunter-killer drones. But it is and has always been an international organization. It would be surprising if its operatives were not to be found in countries like Somalia or Yemen, or for infiltrating vulnerable communities in other parts of Africa and even Latin America . . .
— Jonathan Foreman is writer-at-large for StandpointOnline.