September 16, 2009


Disinformation flows quickly in Somalia. The death of al-Qaeda commander Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan is "very significant," a progression in tactics from drones to special-ops, a call to war from al-Shabab or an inconsequential killing, depending on whom you ask. After exposing certain exaggerations and re-ordering President Obama's priorities, Nabhan's death becomes just another day in Somalia - complicated, provocative, and ultimately futile.

According to the AP, CNN, NYT, and Reuters, who all reported similar analysis, the choice of special-ops over drones to terminate Nahban is, "a shift by the Obama administration to go to greater lengths to avoid civilian deaths." Even a cursory glance at the situation dispoves this theory. Important as civilians are, President Obama had more pressing factors on his mind, like George Bush, Israel, and Afghanistan.

The simple fact that Nabhan had been hunted "for a long, long time," according to an American official, removes much of the decision from Obama's own will. Imagine if he vetoed the operation - the right would kill him for not protecting the world or being tough on terrorists. He also risks losing support in the military, particularly those involved in Nabhan's tracking and surveillance. He may disgree in public, but Obama is competing to be as tough as Bush. This operation was both a continuation of Bush and an attempt to keep pace with him.

Adding to the pressure was Nabhan's own operational history. Beyond a tentative link to the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, his primary crime was the 2002 bombing of the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Kenya. America will hunt any terrorist with equal vigor, but those targetting Israeli interests abroad may be subject to extra wrath at the urging of the Israeli government. Killing Nabhan settles a score for Israel, a bad time when Osama bin Laden's latest alleged tape blamed 9/11 on American-Israeli relations.

America just validated his claims to his receptive audience and maybe a few fence-straddlers.

Not coincidentally, the raid on Nabhan has plenty to do with Afghanistan. The AP speculated that, "the US government - haunted by the deadly US military assualt on Mohadishu in 1993 - is trying to neutralize the growing terrorist threat without sending in troops," while the NYT labeled the operation, "an indication of the Obama adminstration's willingness to use combat troops strategically against al-Qaeda's growing influence in the region."

Why exactly is President Obama trying to neutralize al-Qaeda's influence in Africa? Killing off al-Qaeda operatives is a goal in itself, but Obama's real intent is to eliminate al-Qaeda outside of Afghanistan in order to justify his surge. Currently his "war of necessity" is being undermined by the many al-Qaeda cells operationg outside Afghanistan. Somalia and Yemen debunk the theory that defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is necessary. Obama hopes to bring verity to his focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan by corralling outside threats. Then Afghanistan would truly be the last stand, one worthy of fighting.

Only underneith these plots do we find concern for civilians, but this care is also flimsy. Nabhan was targeted once before and missed by a drone in 2008. The special-ops force had more to do with confirming his death than preventing innocent deaths. And though limiting civilian casualties could temper the ensuing controversy, coming onto land - Islamic soil - is likely to be even more offensive. At least one witness and a Somali minister claimed the six attack helicopters launched from a warship flying a French flag. Not so farfetched given how toxic the stars and stripes are in Somalia.

Furthermore, though protests broke out over the last drone America has no reputation to salvage anyway. Those Somalis who don't like al-Shabab will come to hate America's minimalist approach. The BBC's Mohammed Olad Hassan, reporting from Mogadishu, said the raid has already upset Somalis, "who fear attacks by foreign forces may help fuel the insurgency they are designed to combat." Hassan grabbed the heart that killings are only that, not solutions to Somalia's problems, and will only enflame the insurgency.

Compare the death of al-Qaeda commander Aden Hashi Farah in 2008 with the current level of fighting; al-Shabab surged after his death. Nabhan was reportedly around 30. Though his connections may be missed in the short term he will still be replaced, and soon. "Neutralizing the growing terrorist threat without sending in troops" is fatally flawed, a cheap delusion. Killing remains America's only answer to the obvious necessity of nation-building. Why care about 20 civilians when six million are displaced or starving?

Herein lies President Obama's problem. Killing Nabhan in the chosen manner will likely draw parallels to Bush's own methods, which Obama repeatedly chastised. The Israeli connection won't go unnoticed either, and al-Qaeda will continue to infiltrate other states to counter Obama's emphasis on Afghanistan. But targeted assassination as a strategy is his downfall. The conditions that spawn terrorism and extremist ideology remain - yesteray, today, and tomorrow are all the same. A limited approach forges more enemies, not peace or stability.

al-Shabab spokesman Sheikh Bare Mohamed Farah Khoje told Reuters, "We wish we could eradicate them all [Americans]. We will never forget our brothers who were targetted illegally by the United States." Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim Bilal, chairman of Amal Islam and ally of al-Shabab, vented, "the United States never abides by internationalaw. We condemn America. All these raids show its war on Islam."

If al-Shabab and al-Qaeda had any distinction before, they are the same now.

President Obama is walking down the wrong path in Somalia. He could lose his legs by dipping his toes in. Though one al-Shabab official bemoaned, "We are very upset, very upset... this is a big loss for us," the mother of Israeli victims knows better. Ora Anter, who lost two boys in the Paradise Hotel bombing, stressed, "This isn't something you can feel happy over, that they have been killed and are no more. Unfortunately there will be more, they rise up like mushrooms."


  1. Practically speaking, our current lack of military capactiy would seem to dictate a limited approach if any at all. When George H.W. Bush tried his hand in Somalia and failed miserably.

    Insofar as we can't wage total war against the anti-American Islamo-terrorist factions in Somalia, there are few options we have to subvert and disrupt their operations.

    The complex social structures which define Somali life would also seem to undermine any effort of grassroots efforts to root out radicalized intellectual traditions; their distinction at the clan, sub-clan, and family level are entrenched within their conceptions of ID.

    While I agree with the bulk of your analysis - especially the mushroom logic - my imagination is failing to produce any other methods by which we can move against them.

  2. Unfortunately we don't believe methods exists to truly stabilize Somalia. As realists we accept that some problems simply have no answer, and we are confident that a limited approach will backfire - it can't even be called counterinsurgency. Those who advocate a regional framework put their faith in bad hands - Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia. Kenya, and Yemen can barely solve their own problems. As a practical step we would like to see Somaliland recognized and supported by the international community, not told to go help Somalia when the world itself is powerless to. This strategy could also enflame the insurgency though, which doesn't usually operate in Somaliland but has the ability to launch sporadic attacks.

    We are afraid that Somalia is passing a new point of no return. Even in 2006 the insurgency was focused primarily on Somalia. Now with the increased involvedment from the US military, we are likely turning al-Shabab into a true jihadist movement. Whatever benefits come from assassinations are short lived; most militant groups have shown the ability to replace their leaders. We accept this reality and would rather live in it than one where people are always looking for cheap solutions to the world's most complex problems.