On Sunday, a United States Air Force AC-130 gunship launched a strike against what Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman on Tuesday called “principal al-Qaeda leadership” operating in southern Somalia. There have subsequently been reports of further aerial attacks against Islamist terrorists in the area of the remote fishing village of Ras Kamboni near the Kenyan border, but it is uncertain if these involved American forces or were part of the ongoing Ethiopian offensive against the militants. As a longstanding advocate of resolute action against the militant Islamists in the Horn of Africa who testified before Congress last year on the growing threat posed by Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked Islamic Courts Union (ICU), I cannot help but be gratified by the group’s defeat at the hands of the Ethiopian army acting with the implicit, and now explicit, support of the United States.
It should be noted, however, that when the Islamists seized control of Mogadishu in June 2006, they tried to present a moderate face. And, like the Taliban in their early days, the Somali Islamists found willing apologists in the media and in academia, who were quick to reassure such Western audiences as follow events in such faraway places that the ICU was really an indigenous law-and-order group; it earned its widespread popularity by providing governance and social services in the absence of any functioning state institutions in the territory of the former Somali Democratic Republic, a political vacuum dating back to the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship more than a decade and a half ago (the area of the Republic of Somaliland is an exception, having dissolved its union with the former Somalia and reclaimed its separate sovereign independence). So my somewhat dour assessment of the ICU regime as “the New Taliban” — which was based in part on field work in the region in 2005 (which findings I likewise reported to Congress) — took quite a bit of criticism from Pollyannaish inside-the-Beltway analysts who insisted rather inconsistently both that we knew too little about the Islamists and that we knew they weren’t a threat.
The forces of the Somali Islamists, like those of the Taliban before them, were reinforced by foreign jihadis, including Britons, Canadians, Eritreans, Pakistanis, Sudanese, Yemenis, and assorted Arabs, as now evidenced by prisoners taken by Ethiopian ground forces. Of course, we have long known that foreign terrorists have found refuge in Somalia. In addition to the fleeing ICU leadership, the presumptive targets of Sunday’s U.S. air strike included three foreign al Qaeda leaders indicted for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and who are believed to also to have been involved in the 2002 suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, that killed fifteen people and a simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner — namely, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed of Comorros, who figures on the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” list with a $5 million bounty on his head; Saleh Ali Salih Nabhan of Kenya; and Abu Taha al-Sudani of Sudan. All three were, until recently, sheltered in Mogadishu by the ICU and, if they are not dead (there are unconfirmed reports that al-Sudani may have been among those killed when a vehicle carrying militants was destroyed in the blanket of fire), are currently on the run somewhere between Ethiopian forces operating out of Kismayo, the now-sealed Kenyan border, and U.S. naval forces blocking any seaborne escape (the carrier U.S.S. Eisenhower has been dispatched to join the guided-missile cruisers U.S.S. Bunker Hill and U.S.S. Anzio and the dock-landing ship U.S.S. Ashland, which have been conducting anti-terror operations in the waters off Somalia for some time). Ras Kamboni, where the remaining militants are isolated, was, perhaps not so coincidentally, where al Qaeda had found a hospitable base from which it launched the attacks on the American diplomatic missions.
The longstanding links between Islamists in Somalia and al Qaeda were attested to by no less a figure than Osama bin Laden himself, who, in an audiotape released on a jihadi website last June 30, acknowledged that the ICU was seeking the establishment of a Taliban-like state where terrorists might find haven. As recently as last month, bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri was calling the ICU’s establishment of a proto-state based on its radical creed the “southern garrison of Islam” — which it was indeed becoming, as the relative strength and proficiency of the most radical elements among the Islamists put them in the ascendancy. As I reported this fall, Adan Hashi Ayro, a kinsman and protégé of ICU leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, was leading a distinct armed force within the Islamist movement dubbed Al-Shabaab (“The Youth”), which consisted of young men, between 20 and 30 years old, who were trained by foreign fighters to spearhead the military operations. And as the Associated Press subsequently reported, the generally reclusive Ayro grew so confident that he entered Kismayo publicly, openly acknowledging his foreign links.
Confirmation of the mounting danger finally came from a rather unlikely source, the United Nations — or rather, the Monitoring Group entrusted by the U.N. Security Council’s Sanctions Committee with reviewing compliance with the more than decade-old arms embargo against Somalia. An 86-page report by the four technical experts on the panel — an American, a Belgian, a Colombian, and a Kenyan — presented to the Sanctions Committee in November documented violations of the embargo by seven largely Muslim countries that provided large quantities of armaments, personnel, and training to the ICU’s armed forces. The countries accused of helping the Islamists included some of the “usual suspect” supporters of Middle Eastern terrorism such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.
Thus, by late fall, it became more than evident that the Islamists could not be allowed to consolidate their Taliban-like regime in such a geostrategically critical location as the Horn of Africa, just opposite the Arabian Peninsula, where the Red Sea meets the Indian Ocean; much less to do so in close collaboration with transnational terrorist groups and their state sponsors. So, while most Westerners were busy with holiday merrymaking late last month, with a wink and nod from Washington, the estimated 20,000 troops which Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had deployed to Somalia, ostensibly in defense of the last redoubt of the latter country’s internationally-recognized but utterly ineffective Transitional Federal Government, went on the offensive against the forces of the ICU, driving them into the corner where, with the escape route to Kenya denied, the Islamists are now being, hopefully, eliminated by a combination of Ethiopian land action and U.S. naval blockade and air strikes.
Thanks to Ethiopia’s forceful action while all-too-many others dawdled, and to America’s finally wakening to the mounting threat, the prospects are not only brighter for security in the Horn of Africa, but also for America’s global war on terrorism. Would it be too much to hope that, thirteen years after Black Hawk Down and nearly a decade after the East Africa embassy bombings, perhaps we have finally learned that the only effective “exit strategy” in a terrorist haven like Somalia is to ensure that the terrorists permanently exit the scene first?
— J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University and an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.