Somalia: Will US Strikes Disrupt al Shabab?

A helicopter raid on al Shabab fighters in Somalia yesterday turned out to be the work of US forces, who targeted and likely killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. Nabhan, a Kenyan affiliated with al Qaeda and al Shabab, was “wanted over 2002 attacks on a hotel and an Israeli airliner in Mombasa, Kenya.” Nabhan was potentially also involved in the 1998 attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Mombasa, Kenya

Mombasa, Kenya

This attack was not the first by US forces in Somalia. Last year, a US missile strike killed Aden Hashi Ayro, another al Shabab commander with ties to al Qaeda.

Do US strikes disrupt al Shabab or discourage terrorism in the Horn? Strikes remove leaders, but as an anonymous American official told the New York Times after Ayro’s death, strikes can also “become a major recruiting tool” for rebel groups.

And strikes may be simply ineffective. Numerous missile attacks on Taliban leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan have failed to quash the movement. US policymakers seem to feel they have exhausted nonmilitary options in some cases in Somalia, but examples from the past suggest missile strikes will not have a serious impact on Somalia’s civil war or on the presence of al Qaeda in East Africa.

Nabhan’s death does, however, highlight once again the connections between terrorism in Kenya and the civil war in Somalia.

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9 thoughts on “Somalia: Will US Strikes Disrupt al Shabab?

  1. Strikes do what they are intended, kill or neutralize specific targets. However, since the US policy towards Somalia is largely non-existant or abrogated to supposed East African allies these military actions are conducted in a vacumn. The US’ recent nation building experiences – otherwise known as counter-insurgency – in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Somalia, prove this very point. Iraq is a quasi-success due to strong institutional building coupled with security operations. Afghanistan has been military heavy with little serious attention paid to institutional building thus any endstate to US involvement remains undefineable at this time. Sadly for the people of Somalia they do not have the world’s second largest petroleum reserves, but they may end up with al Qaeda and the global jihadist insurgency – just look where that got Afghanistan.

    • Brad, thanks for stopping by. I agree that US policy toward Somalia is poorly defined. Do you think that Somalia represents a critical US interest?

  2. Alex,

    Great blog by the way. Since US policy in Africa is my professional work I am biased in my reasoning. Somalia per se does not represent a critical area of US interest in terms of real politik if looking at energy, economic, and hard power interests.

    However, Somalia is a symptom of all that was wrong with American interventions in the developing world. We came, we tried to help, things went bad for a while, and we left. At least this model was true until 2002/2003 – now we go and stay.

    I am not sure or convinced that jihadists al Qaeda and other groups could ever gain as much influence there as they did in Sudan and Afghanistan. The situation is just not analogous. Since both the current and past administration are addressing terrorism as a substantial existential threat to the US and applying ever increasing hard power elements against “terrorism” we have painted ourselves into a corner vis-a-vis Somalia. That said we cannot risk a return to a situation like Afghanistan pre-9/11 where terrorists can freely congregate, train, plot, and launch attacks.

    The UNOSOM incidents will ensure that America never again gets invovled meanginfully in Somalia – which is a shame because there is a chance for success there, and the record proves it when you exam the UNOSOM I mission successes early on in the operation.

    I guess I have not really answered your question but what bothers me is that between killing terrorists and arming Ethiopia US policy is non-existent. We need a clearer policy, with stated objectives, and resources to put against achieving it. Options available today may not be in the future and may not produce the same results.

    The piracy issues, resource sharing, and nutritional access are all goals that could be addressed and mitigated by a concerted effort of the US and our international partners. Unfortunately they are expensive, intensive, and enduring – there is little appetite for that, particularly now, and particulary in places where our politicians cannot point to a quid pro quid for why we are there.

    Of course I’m still waiting for cheaper gas since liberating the Iraqi oilfields…call me a dreamer.

    Brad (hoyawolf)

    • Thanks for the great response to my question! I agree with a lot of what you say here. I do not think Somalia is or will become a “safe haven for terrorists” in the way that Afghanistan or Sudan was, as you say. Are you familiar with the work of Ken Menkhaus? He argues that Somalia is in fact too unstable to provide a real “safe haven,” because even Arab terrorists might make tempting targets for kidnappers, mafias, or rebels in Somalia. The real haven, he says, could be Kenya or another “weak state” in the region.

      I also agree about the need for an enduring international strategy – the piracy issue alone calls for it, and there has been some movement in NATO toward dealing with piracy more systematically. As for the problem of statelessness, I do not know if the US or its allies can really make a difference – we can topple a government, as we did by backing Ethiopia against the Islamic Courts, but it’s easier to destroy than to build. Even increased US support to the transitional government has not been able to break the stalemate between them and al Shabab. I don’t know what the answer is, except possibly to let events run their course for the time being.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful response.

  3. I am familiar with Menkhaus’ work as well and concur with a lot of what he has to say. However, I am not sure Kenya is quite weak enough to become a host like Afghanistan under the Taliban.

    Trying to break the stalemate is useless. During UNOSOM I the UN was able to broker a cease-fire based upon the status quo. I think that is where we should set our goals, it is realistic. However, as more and more Arab/international influence manifests itself with Al Shabab I think you will find their goals continue to become cosmified and beyond reason because of ideological/religious rationalization.

    Just my two cents!

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