Early Monday, between one and three U.S. missiles slammed into a small town in southern Somalia, at least one missile striking a suspected safe-house where it was believed one or more Al Qaeda terrorists were hunkered down.
It wasn’t the first time American air or naval forces had attacked enemy positions in Somalia. It was the fourth such attack in 14 months on the lawless East African nation: a result of the increasing expansion of Islamic extremism onto the African continent.
Conflicting reports have emerged regarding the operation. What is known is that the attacks were probably made with either surface or submarine-launched cruise missiles. The targeted house was in the town of Dhoobley (Dobley), a few miles from the Kenyan border. The targeted individuals were considered high value, and — according to one of my sources — “there was a very clear Al Qaeda link” and the hit “may have been a two for one [in terms of high value targets].”
Target possibilities include:
• Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Kenyan-born Al Qaeda terrorist responsible for both the 2002 bombing of a resort hotel in Kenya and a missile attack on an Israeli airliner. Nabhan was reportedly killed — though not yet confirmed — in Monday’s attack.
• Hassan Abdullah Hersi al-Turki, a veteran ICU insurgent leader, whose forces were in fact operating in — and had control over much of — the area at the time of the attacks. Turki was also a probable primary target in Monday’s attack.
• Sheikh Muhktar Ali Robow (a.k.a. Abu Mansur), the former deputy defense minister of the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic Courts Union (ICU). Robow, who fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the Taliban in Afghanistan, also has been operating in the south of Somalia near where the U.S. attacks took place.
• Adan Hashi ‘Ayro, former leader of al-Shabaab (“the Youth”), a ruthless guerilla wing of the ICU.
• Fazul Abdullah Muhammad, a purported leader of Al Qaeda in East Africa, and one of the FBI’s “most wanted.”
• Others include Issa Osman Issa, Ahmad Abdi Godane, and Ibrahim Haji Jama — all of them Al Qaeda-trained terrorists.
As of this writing, Defense Department officials and Africa analysts won’t reveal the identity of who was in fact targeted — a "known Al Qaeda terrorist" is what the Pentagon says — nor whether or not the target or targets were taken out.
“Clearly, [the targeted individuals] are figures of interest associated with the Somali Islamists for the U.S. in the greater war on terror,” says Dr. J. Peter Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University and a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “We’re not going to directly go after some penny-ante insurgent with a rocket launcher. We would only go after a high value target based on actionable intelligence that that target was in the area.”
International Islamic terrorism is not new to Africa. Though the current-level of America’s commitment to fighting terrorists in Africa is, which is why American forces have increasingly found themselves operating in, above, and off-the-coast-of the continent. And why the U.S. Defense Department recently stood up its new unified combatant command, the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).
Currently AFRICOM is a subordinate command of the U.S. European Command (EUCOM). But if all goes as planned, AFRICOM will become a fully operational independent combatant command in October of this year.
AFRICOM is long overdue.
For centuries, the continent has been a breeding ground for corrupt dictatorships, slave traders, thieves, smugglers, pirates, child soldiery, and various and sundry guerrilla armies. For the past 20 years, it also has become a haven for international terrorists.
“I think we’ve recognized that weak states and ungoverned spaces provide not only a safe haven for terrorists to take refuge, but also an opportunity to exploit economic and political marginalization on the part of local peoples to recruit, and to build up an infrastructure,” says Pham. “Africa — perhaps more so than any other region of the world — has these vast ungoverned spaces.”
According to Pham, many of the existing states within Africa “though well-meaning” lack the capacity to control 100 percent of their national territory.
Examples of these dangerous vacuums may be found in Somalia where Monday’s attacks took place (The Somali capital, Mogadishu, was the site of the terrible 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, brutal factional fighting has taken place since, and heavily armed pirates have for years prowled Somali waters).
Other “ungoverned spaces” may be found in almost all regions of Africa. Particularly unstable are the vast areas of the Sahara Desert and the Sahel Belt where, for instance, Algerian militants — the former “Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat” — have recently declared themselves to be Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). “They’ve carried out a number of rather effective attacks,” says Pham. “Additionally, what Al Qaeda has gained through its AQIM franchise is access to the North African immigrant communities in Europe where support for the largely Algerian AQIM is much stronger than that for the original Al Qaeda.”
But it’s not just Al Qaeda that is establishing a foothold in Africa.
Last week, an enormous 35-man sleeper cell was shut down in Morocco. The size and international scope of the cell was disturbing to be sure. But the worst part was found in the connecting of the dots where the suspects — ranging from businessmen to politicians to at least one television journalist — were found to have been trained by Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and funded by Lebanon-based Hizballah. And Hizballah’s money comes from Iran.
“Different groups will coalesce and align against conventional wisdom,” says Pham. “What most analysts view as the Shiia-Sunni divide is papered over as militants and extremists will take money from anyone, and build alliances of convenience against their common enemy.”
Though tactically effective in the short-term, reactive airstrikes — like Monday’s attacks — and special operations on the ground are not enough to address the problems long-term. Experts are hoping AFRICOM will prove to be the strategic answer.
Next week, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold hearings on AFRICOM to look at long-term planning for AFRICOM and review the Defense Department’s $389-million request to fund the command for Fiscal Year 2009 (The AFRICOM transition team received approximately $50 million from the Federal budget in FY 2007, and AFRICOM was budgeted for $75.5 million for FY 2008).
“The real question is will the command get the necessary resources,” says Pham.
Africa is, after all, a new critical front in the war on terror. And with its vast spaces, endless coastline, and seemingly infinite natural resources; nations like China — expanding their ability to project military power — are developing a new appreciation for Africa’s strategic worth.