No conclusion on Somalia’s helicopter attack can be verified until more information becomes available, but certain assumptions must be made since this information may not be offered freely. According to witnesses, a helicopter gun-ship launched from a war ship descended on the southern port of Merca, a sizable city in al-Shabab territory.
Unmarked as far as witnesses could see, the helicopter destroyed a house where al-Qaeda operatives were supposedly meeting. al-Shabab returned fire before quarantining the town’s cell phones and closing local businesses.
Even in their shadowy form these events leave few suspects to chose from. Only America has the capabilities and motive to launch such an attack, and a new raid was a matter of time. Every media report of the incident seems to have mentioned Saleh Ali Nabhan, Al Qaeda’s chief operative in Somalia, who was killed last year by a helicopter of Navy Seals in the southern town of Barawe.
As high-risk attacks normally entail, a potentially high-level target may be released sometime soon. The secret’s probably out in Mogadishu, and it won’t be long before a journalist catches wind. If big enough Washington may preempt their glory.
But unless multiple, high-ranking al-Qaeda operatives were eliminated in the attack, today is unlikely to strategically alter Somalia’s conflict. Knocking out single al-Qaeda agents, even senior commanders, has proven relatively futile in many of its theaters. Nabhan, who participated in the 1998 US embassy bombings, was quickly replaced by Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, another suspect in the bombings.
And al-Shabab captured significant territory following Nabhan’s death, including large sections of Mogadishu. Counter-terrorism cannot spare a foreign military, be it African or Western, from counterinsurgency in Somalia.
The upside for Washington is that no civilians have been reported killed, yet, and militants seem to have been the only people in the area. Another thing is obvious - US Special Forces do their job well. And though this temporary measure is designed to buy time, it might signal a wider ground offensive by the African Union (AU) in the coming months.
However, we must see who and how many al-Qaeda agents Washington caught sleeping before a real analysis of today’s implications.