August 17, 2010

Is al-Qaeda Getting Smarter?

Mogadishu lurches toward fresh hostilities. As the international media reports on rising food prices driven by al-Shabab’s threat of a Ramadan offensive, cause and effect can be witnessed on the immediate ground. The African Union (AU) has warned civilians to evacuate. If it doesn’t make a move in the name of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), al-Shabab will come find it.

“Hizbul Islam and Al-Shabaab are preparing new forces in the districts under their control for new attacks with Somali government troops and AMISOM,” said AMISOM spokesperson Maj. Behuko Barighye. “We got credible information that the insurgents planned new attacks at our bases in Mogadishu, and we are ready to defend any attacks from them."

Now, can the same be said for al-Qaeda and the greater Africa?

The triple bombing in Kampala, Uganda during the World Cup achieved several of al-Qaeda’s goals. Demonstrating its reach as part of its overall goal to undermine Afghanistan’s justification, al-Qaeda and al-Shabab baited 4,000 new AU soldiers into Mogadishu while further regionalizing the conflict to attract new recruits. Somalia is the place to be for international and African jihadists alike.

Not that the conflict isn’t regionalized already; at least three Kenyans and four Ugandans have been charged by Ugandan authorities for executing Kampala's operation. al-Qaeda recruited Rwandan Muhamud Mugisha in Kenya and originally tasked him to lead the operation before being demoted for committing a logistics mistake. His importance was revealed in his claim that, "Kenyan policemen, especially the Somali tribe, helped us to cross from Somalia to Kenya, and from Kenya to Uganda. I am sure they knew who we were. Our bosses communicated to them and they easily let us through.”

Kenya officials didn’t brush off Mugisha’s accusation, instead pledging an investigation, which accomplishes the side-objective of sowing doubt between Uganda and Kenya.

But Kampala also fell short of al-Qaeda’s optimal conclusion. Isah Ahmed Luyima, one of those charged by Uganda with masterminding the attack, testified that he had been instructed to kill as many Americans as possible. Only one, Nate Henn, became a casualty of al-Qaeda’s war, the rest Ugandan except for an Indian and Irish citizen. While the attack served its basic strategic purpose of escalating Somalia’s war to still manageable level, it failed to attract mass US media attention destined for major American casualties.

Washington would have been spurned to act with even greater military urgency than its current political and financial support to AMISOM. This may be a gift for al-Qaeda though, and Somalia’s future depends on how much al-Qaeda has learned from experience.

Days ago a US intelligence official monitoring al-Shabab told the Long War Journal, "Al Qaeda's top leadership has instructed Shabaab to maintain a low profile on al Qaeda links. Al Qaeda has accepted Shabaab into the fold and, and any additional statements would only serve to draw international scrutiny. Al Qaeda is applying lessons learned from Iraq, that an overexposure of the links between al Qaeda central leadership and its affiliates can cause some unwanted attention."

More accurately, al-Qaeda is applying lessons from Afghanistan rather than Iraq, where its invasion followed America’s. Afghanistan was the reverse, a haven spoiled by 9/11 that Somalia currently parallels. Somalia and Yemen balance Afghanistan and Pakistan, and US forces are more likely to invade them all if each poses a threat than relieve one for another. While al-Qaeda still seeks to lure US troops into hostile Islamic environments, its grand strategy cannot be pursued with every sanctuary occupied.

At least its past actions, US intelligence, and military logic indicate this to be al-Qaeda’s plan for Somalia.

A real answer may come sooner than later. Though al-Qaeda’s leadership has pulled back on African targets, the intelligence official said they want to see more attacks on specific US targets in Africa, like embassies or corporations. al-Shabab and al-Qaeda promised further attacks as the AU deploys its new forces, and disregarding their warning would be foolish. The question is whether al-Qaeda can walk a finer operational line, provoke the right enemy, and send the right message.

If al-Qaeda is going to lure foreign troops into Somalia, it prefers them to be American, not African.

So al-Qaeda's leadership couldn’t have liked that South Africa sent Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane to Kampala for the AU’s summit in late July, which between then and now is about the time needed for a strategic response. As Africa’s leading power, one of AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping’s first troop request’s went to South African president Jacob Zuma. When asked himself, a coy Zuma replied with a smile, "As leaders we should rise to this challenge, which is yet another indicator of the road we still have to travel to build a prosperous secure and peaceful Africa in a just stable world.”

Three weeks later and South Africa’s cabinet is set to debate the matter on Wednesday. A government source told The Observer, “Remember that South Africa is an African superpower, and they would want to be seen playing key roles in the affairs of Africa. It appears President Zuma will definitely give a nod to the AU's request for South African military support... The South African government will definitely seize the opportunity to show the continent that they are the big brothers."

Defense spokesman Ndivhuwo Mabaya stated, "The matter is now in the hands of the cabinet or President Jacob Zuma.”

al-Qaeda surely doesn’t want to engage the AU with South Africa in front. In one way avoiding African targets is strategically sound; al-Qaeda has no use in fighting African troops from non-Islamic countries. To succeed it must keep Somalia an Islamic war, whereas turning the conflict into an issue of pan-Africanism would jeopardize its strategic goals. al-Qaeda’s base responds to fighting corrupt Islamic dictators and US interests. Threatening non-Islamic African governments provokes all of the military wrath and none of the political or religious motivation that sustains Afghanistan and Somalia.

But al-Qaeda’s tight strategy leaves little margin for error. It must avoid African casualties to prevent Somalia’s transformation from an anti-US, Islamic war into an African war. And it must incite pure US forces through direct strikes on US targets in order to enhance its rallying call, but not so many that Somalia becomes another Afghanistan.

The region’s escalation suggests that the world will know soon enough how much al-Qaeda has learned in a decade of total warfare against America.

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