Nothing attracts U.S. officials like a fresh al-Qaeda kill. With U.S. Special Forces nowhere to be found around the crime scene, removing the usual veil of secrecy, White House officials descended on Fazul Abdullah Mohammed’s corpse like buzzards. The mastermind of the 1998 Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya was confirmed dead on Saturday after a June 8th shootout in Mogadishu.
"We congratulate our army for killing the head of al-Qaida operations in East Africa,” said Information Minister Abdulkareem Jama. “They have shown their effectiveness."
So effective that Somali troops appear to have caught Mohammed sleeping.
Al-Qaeda’s ring-leader in East Africa found himself back in Somalia after the 2009 killing of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, eliminated by a helicopter-borne SEAL team outside of Mogadishu. However in contrast to a high-risk raid, Mohammed was riding in a stocked luxury car (cash, weapons, GPS) when stopped at a government checkpoint in the capital. A lethal gunfight ensued after Somali police discovered a pistol, and Mohammed was mistakenly buried as a “South African.” His cache sparked enough suspicion to exhume the body and confirm his death through photo and DNA identification.
Gen. Abdikarim Yusuf Dhagabadan, Somalia's deputy army chief, subsequently declared, “It is a victory for the world. It is a victory for Somali army.”
U.S. officials obviously agree, but for reasons that stretch beyond 12 American lives and their families. Shortly after the news broke, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton solemnly marked Mohammed’s death as, “a significant blow to Al Qaeda, its extremist allies, and its operations in East Africa. It is a just end for a terrorist who brought so much death and pain to so many innocents in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, and elsewhere - Tanzanians, Kenyans, Somalis, others in the region, and our own embassy personnel.”
"We commend the efforts of the Somali government forces, whose actions against Fazul struck a significant blow against those in the region seeking to carry out terrorist attacks," added John Brennan, the White House’s counter-terrorism chief.”
Now back to reality in Somalia.
Only days ago the fragile state’s condition looked particularly dire. Although African Union (AU) troops have slowly overtaken al-Shabab’s territory in Mogadishu during five months of grueling urban warfare, a constant anxiety lingered over the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Fears that the TFG’s governance couldn’t keep up with AU gains fully materialized in May, when the TFG and UN entered a protracted debate on the TFG’s controversial mandate. Due to expire on August 20th, UN and Western donors bluntly expressed the need to address the TFG’s corruption and lack of political coherence.
Topping the list was a feud between President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden, Speaker of the Transitional Federal Parliament. The two have quarreled endlessly over each other’s terms, a national election and a new constitution, gridlocking the TFG and obstructing the UN’s oversight. Months of intense buildup erupted in a series of UN Security Council meetings in May, during which the TFG found itself under intense criticism. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni then threatened Western governments that he would pull his 5,000 troops out of Mogadishu without a one-year extension to the TFG’s mandate, a position aligned with Sharif’s.
The resulting Kampala Accord, signed on June 9th in the presence of Museveni and UN special representative Augustine Mahiga, granted the Ugandan strongman’s wish. Western governments had no choice except to trade an immediate transition for flimsy assurances of reconciliation; an election would be pushed back 12 months to allow a complete AU offensive. Museveni triumphantly declared, “I am delighted that we have managed to overcome the deadlock in such a constructive way.”
The cost, however, appears extraordinarily high: the resignation of Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, Somalia’s most popular statesman in years.
This outcome brewed throughout TFG/UN discussions. After weeks of political wrestling, Mohamed realized that Sharif was preparing to sacrifice him in exchange for an extension to the UN’s mandate - and his own term - which Aden opposed. Never a fan of each other, Mohamed refused to meet Aden privately in early June, preferring to settle their differences as a “national issue.” Days later the Prime Minister clarified: “The speaker is not sincere while 90% of the parliament members are good people.”
Given the foreign coercion and popular opposition involved in the Kampala Accord, many Somalis and observers agree that the TFG’s political crisis just escalated. The agreement lacks legitimacy due to its back-room politics, especially after the conference was derailed from being held in Mogadishu. Sharif and Aden’s relationship remains contentious after delaying major decisions on the TFG’s future transition (they refused to agree the day before Museveni made them), and the electoral commission said it would go ahead as planned.
A new battle over the Prime Minister’s office is also expected. Greeted with thousands of supporters, Mohamed has yet to definitively signal that he will resign after the allocated 30 days. Mohamed told reporters before being summoned to Uganda, “You know the national leaders are currently holding talks in Kampala and as we were going the talks took new face... We will not accept any bargaining condition on Somalia’s peace.”
Many Somalis would rather see Aden or Sharif leave. While Parliament has earned a reputation for inaction and corruption, Mohamed was viewed as the opposite. An active face in the Western media during AU military operations, the U.S.-educated Prime Minister moved immediately to shrink the TFG’s bloated cabinet and secure paychecks for its soldiers (who hadn’t been paid in eight months). His connection with the Somali people triggered a backlash that few officials are capable of producing. Mohamed did urge his followers to stop protesting after several deaths, but he also added, “You are part of the decision making — what you want must be heard.”
Contrary to “resolution," the Kampala Accord remains suspended in the doubts of past failed systems. The present TFG, with Mohamed sitting at the top, finally created a glimmer of hope. Many Somalis fear the next government could devolve.
The death of Mohammed cannot be minimized entirely. A computer expert trained by Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and ingrained in al-Qaeda’s culture, Mohammed used his savvy to secure the allegiance of al-Shabab’s rank-and-file. Many fighters turned on their former transnationalist leader, Moktar Ali Zubeyr, in December 2010, replacing him with the nationally oriented Mukhtar Robow. It was eventually revealed that al-Qaeda’s leadership approved his exit.
Although Mohammed leaves behind a circle of highly-trained operatives, his personality could reopen a schism in the ranks if his successor draws a harder line. His overall void will also take time to fill on the battlefield, as he supposedly oversaw al-Shabab’s military operations. The problem is that someone will replace him, and experience is good for al-Qaeda as a whole. Describing Mohammed’s death as “another huge setback to al-Qaeda,” Brennan and Clinton echoed a third anonymous official within the Obama administration, who called Mohammed’s death "very big deal.”
Adam Smith, chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services terrorism subcommittee, used the same terminology back in 2009: an ambiguous “significant blow.” Smith had confidently declared. "We've had concerns about the degree to which Al Qaeda was trying to do training and maybe plan operations out of Somalia, and this will unquestionably undermine their efforts to do that.”
At this point al-Shabab was already gaining momentum and diverting recruits away from Afghanistan and Iraq. Mohammed soon arrived and al-Shabab proceeded to storm all the way to Villa Somalia (the presidential palace). al-Qaeda had established a “little Afghanistan” in Mogadishu, yet the story remained Nabhan’s execution. Somalia itself was forgotten as usual - just like now.
Highlighting Mohammed’s death falls into the grand scheme of hyping assassination of ranking Al-Qaeda officials: concealing weaker political strategy with impact kills. Bin Laden’s death cannot align U.S., Afghan and Pakistani interests; in many ways he was only reacting to their unhealthy relationship. The targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki several weeks afterward was intended to demonstrate action in Yemen - and distract from a policy meltdown. This same pattern is now being exploited in Somalia.
Given Western resistance to the present TFG and General David Petraeus’s personal attention, the Obama administration played some type of role in backing down to Museveni. They simply cannot afford to lose his troops. Except sacrificing Somalia’s Prime Minister reverts a budding counterinsurgency back into counter-terrorism. No matter how many AQ leaders are killed in quick succession, they will proliferate so long as Somalia’s conditions remain unchanged. The justice of an Embassy bomber only stimulates the taste of victory.
Losing Mohamed the day after is a bigger blow to U.S. strategy.