BY DAVID WHIPPLE:
The last time the U.S. went into Somalia, in 1993, what was supposed to be a routine grab-and-go operation ended with 18 dead Americans being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The military has steered clear of sub-Saharan Africa ever since. It’s not quite “Heart of Darkness,” but the region’s tangled and violent political dynamics and its heavily armed militias are far from welcoming.
But last week, a team of Navy SEALs stormed a Somali villa in pursuit of a commander of the al-Shabab group. A fierce firefight repelled the SEALs, but no Americans were hurt. At the same time, 3,000 miles away in Libya, American operatives seized a commander of al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb outside of his home in Tripoli. It was the end of a 15-year hunt for Abu Anas al-Libi, wanted for his involvement in the 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The synchronized raids suggest American recognition of an increasingly urgent situation in Africa. While the operation to capture al-Libi has been in the works for years, the raid in Somalia was planned only in the past few months. The return of American Special Forces on relatively short notice is a sign of some new and pressing concern in Africa.
African militancy is certainly nothing new. Large swaths of the continent are run by warlords and often devastated by civil wars. Even in North Africa, less subject to such difficulties, insurgent groups like Nigeria’s Boko Haram and al-Shabab in Somalia have existed for years. But in such unstable regions, most groups kept a local focus, looking to gain power in their own neighborhoods rather than pursuing an international agenda. Boko Haram attacked the Nigerian state with the sympathy of many poor Nigerians angry at the corrupt government. In 2012, they staged assaults across the country aimed at government and police forces. Al-Shabab formed in 2006 as the military wing of the Somali Council of Islamic Courts, one among many groups fighting for power in the vacuum of Somalia. They held the capital city of Mogadishu until 2011, and the port of Kismayo until 2012.
In 2006, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, a North African militant group led by Abu Anas, formalized ties to al-Qaeda and rebranded itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. With the new name came a realignment of the group’s agenda as it transitioned from localized insurgency to global jihad. With a new agenda came new targets. AQIM made headlines by capturing the Malian city of Timbuktu and imposing Sharia law on its residents until a French campaign drove them out of the city later that year. It seems likely that AQIM was also behind the 2012 Benghazi attacks that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, although the connections remain unclear. They have also been implicated in the attack on the Amenas gas plant in Algeria, in which 39 foreign hostages were executed.
Running on revenue from cocaine trading and piracy, AQIM’s presence in North Africa has expanded significantly over the course of its affiliation with al-Qaeda. But the group’s influence does not stop where its territory does. Combined with an influx of radical militants from the Middle East during the Arab Spring, AQIM has been integral in catalyzing an increase in African militancy with an international focus. AQIM has trained Boko Haram militants, and provides an al-Qaeda proxy for regional groups looking to expand their brand. Since its contact with AQIM, Boko Haram, whose name translates roughly to “Western Education is Forbidden,” has been faithful to its title, twice attacking schools or colleges in Nigeria this past summer. In late September, an attack on an agricultural college killed 40 students. This could represent a decisive shift in Boko Haram’s mission, away from anti-state terrorism with popular support to terrorizing the very people who had given them that support.
In the case of al-Shabab, the shift has been even more pronounced. In July, al-Shabab’s previous leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, surrendered to Somalian government forces after an internal coup put his rival Ahmed Abdi Godane in command of the group. Godane preaches a harsher and more international brand of Islamic militancy than his predecessor. He was trained in Afghanistan and has known al-Qaeda ties. Upon his accession, analysts worried that al-Shabab would expand the scope of its operations into the international sphere. Such fears became reality when the group was implicated in the Westgate Mall attacks in September that killed 67 civilians, including many foreigners, at a shopping center known as a hub of Westernization in Nairobi. The selection of a high profile foreign target associated with the West suggests new, more radical, more global aspirations. Al-Shabab, under Godane’s leadership, is now known to have al-Qaeda ties.
This brings us back to the raid in Somalia this past week. American officials have been hesitant to name the target of the raid, leading some to speculate that it was Godane. In the Obama Administration’s eyes, he very well might be the only target worth risking American lives. But the fact that such a target is in Africa is new. Even as militancy in Africa has expanded, the American presence there has remained marginal. Only three American drones currently operate in Africa, a constraint that handcuffed U.S. forces there as they responded to AQIM’s rise and its attacks in Mali. President Obama faced extensive criticism during his re-election campaign for his failure to provide adequate security at the American Embassy in Libya as well as for failing to acknowledge that it was a terrorist attack. In the short space of a year, we’ve gone from hesitance to acknowledge the presence of terrorists to confidence in conducting raids to snatch their commanders. A growing worry among American policy makers is that displaced militants from Iraq and Afghanistan will flee to the vast and unmonitored stretches of the Sahara and the Sahel.
Meanwhile, Israel has been tackling escalating problems in Africa for years. Al-Shabab’s 2002 attacks on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, in combination with the group’s attempted takedown of an Israeli airliner, led Israel to look at the region with new concern. In 2011, they announced a joint anti-terrorism agreement with Kenya. And earlier this year, they immediately dispatched 2 expert advisors to help manage the standoff at Westgate.
Israel is the best in the business of finding and neutralizing terrorist threats and potential hotspots. Given the events of the past few months across North Africa and the shift from anti-state terrorism to a more international and radical brand, Africa itself might be turning into just such a hotspot. This week’s raids suggest that the U.S. is taking note.
David Whipple ‘15 is in Pierson College. His blog focuses on non-state actors in the Middle East. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.