The Next Chapter: Confronting al-Shabab

By Dan Gettinger

As darkness set in on the evening of January 27, 2014, in the aftermath of the American drone strike, masked al-Shabab fighters collected the scattered body parts of Sahal Iskudhuq, a senior al-Shabab commander, from the side of a road in southeast Somalia. The al-Shabab fighters chanted “God is Great” before departing the scene with the remains. Iskudhuq and his driver had just left a Shabab meeting in Baraawe, a coastal town four hours south of Mogadishu in the Lower Shabelle region, a hub for the al-Qaeda-affiliated militants and the focus of American counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa. The following day, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steven Warren confirmed that the operation did take place. However, according to a senior American official who spoke to the Wall Street Journal, the intended target may in fact have been Moktar Ali Zubeyr (also known as Ahmad Abdi Godane), the emir of al-Shabab. With last year marking the lowest number of American drone strikes in Pakistan since 2008, the attention and intensity of American counterterrorism strategy is shifting from Central Asia to Africa. The military operations in Somalia reveal the kind of approach to Islamic extremism that the Obama administration is likely to continue to pursue after the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Ahmad Godane, the leader of al-Shabab, claimed responsibility for the Westgate Mall attack in September 2013. Credit: -/AFP/Getty Images
Ahmad Godane, the leader of al-Shabab, pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012 and has since advocated for a jihad outside of Somalia. Credit: -/AFP/Getty Images

The drone strike that killed Sahal Iskudhuq was aimed at the center of al-Shabab’s power structure. Iskudhuq was a senior commander of Amniyat, al-Shabab’s elite intelligence unit. Reportedly a close ally of Ahmad Godane, he was responsible for a variety of missions, ranging from kidnapping foreign aid workers to selecting targets for assassinations and bombings outside of Somalia. A U.N. Monitoring Group report from July 2013 identified Amniyat as a “secret service” that is “structured along the lines of a clandestine organization.” The report credited the Amniyat for keeping Godane in power. The intelligence unit is considered by some to be the last pillar of support for for the militant leader at a time when al-Shabab have suffered a number of setbacks within Somalia. Just days after the death of Iskudhuq, security forces launched a raid on al-Shabab training camps in the northeastern region of Puntland in which, according to Puntland’s acting Security Minister Col. Khalif Isse Mudan, three militants were killed. The coordination of these events reflects both the cooperation between local forces and American commanders and, if Ahmad Godane was indeed the target of the recent drone strike, the effort to achieve a psychological victory over al-Shabab by sowing chaos within the group.

Over the past two years, events like the September Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi and the Spring 2012 offensive in northern Mali by the al-Qaeda-affiliated group Ansar al-Din have added new urgency to the American counterterrorism mission in Africa. While some of these affiliated groups like Ansar al-Din and al-Shabab are primarily focused on waging an internal struggle against local government forces, these groups have targeted European and American interests in the region before, and pose a real threat of doing so again. The fear among the American national security community is that the al-Qaeda brand is becoming more dispersed. “There are some five different franchises at least and 12 countries that this movement has morphed into,” said National Security Director James Clapper in a Senate committee hearing last week.

American counterterrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa have been focused on eliminating the al-Shabab leadership and those individuals within the al-Shabab network who promote or facilitate external operations. The previous known American drone strike in Somalia killed Ibrahim Ali Abdi (also known as Anta Anta), al-Shabab’s senior bombmaker and head of the group’s suicide unit, on October 28, 2013. Somali officials welcomed the death of Abdi; “This man had a major role in the death of many innocent civilians and his death will help in bringing back peace,” said Interior Minister Abdikarim Hussein Guled during a government radio program according to the AFP. The drone strike followed a failed raid on Baraawe by U.S. Navy SEALs in an attempt to capture Mohamed Abdikadir Mohamed, the Kenyan-Somali al-Shabab commander known commonly as Ikrima. According to a report by Kenyan intelligence services, Ikrima, a powerful member of the Shabab, advocated for the organization to conduct operations on targets outside of Somalia. He was tasked by al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan to plan attacks against a number of targets within Kenya.

The American operations in Somalia differ from the Central Intelligence Agency’s targeted killing campaign in Pakistan. For one thing, the operations in Somalia are mostly the province of the American military and Joint Special Operations Command. While the CIA has maintained control over drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, the past three operations in Somalia appear to have been the work of the Pentagon. The locations for kill operations in Somalia—whether achieved with Hellfire missiles from a drone or with special forces—take advantage of the moments when the targets appear most vulnerable. Iskudhuq, Anta Anta, and, in a 2011 SEAL team raid, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, were all killed as they traveled by car to or from Baraawe; Bilal al-Berjawi, an al-Qaeda-linked commander of al-Shabab, was killed in his car by a drone strike at an al-Shabab checkpoint outside Mogadishu in 2012. In contrast to Pakistan, in Somalia, the Obama administration appears more willing to attempt capture operations rather than relying purely on targeted killings to remove top commanders. In 2011, the U.S. Navy captured Ahmed Warsame and interrogated him aboard a Navy warship before sending him for trial in New York. These capture operations were made possible by the presence of American warships in the Gulf of Aden, which provided a littoral base of operations. The extensive American support for African Union troops in Somalia and a deepening commitment to the region are two factors that likely contribute to the drive for intelligence from capture operations.

As the counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan come to a close, counterterrorism operations in Yemen, Somalia and Mali—three countries that President Obama mentioned in the 2014 State of the Union as experiencing a rise of extremism—are likely to intensify and the plans he outlined at the National Defense University will really be put to the test. The American role in operations within these countries varies. A targeted killing campaign dominates the effort in Yemen. Meanwhile, U.S. drones provided intelligence support in Mali during the French intervention last year. Somalia is something of a hybrid of the two. The recent decision by the Obama administration to send a small cell of American military advisers to Somalia—the first deployment in Somalia since the “Black Hawk down” episode in 1993—marks an escalation in U.S. efforts to rid the country of al-Shabab. U.S. troops have also been deployed in a similar supporting role to Mali and Uganda. American special forces maintain bases in Kenya, Burkina Faso, and at Camp Lemonnier, the air base in Djibouti out of which Predator drones fly on missions to Yemen and within the Horn of Africa. American operations are spreading across geographical boundaries as AFRICOM takes the lead in a militarized counterterrorism strategy.

U.S. Marines and Senegalese Companie de Fusilier Marine commandos conduct training exercises in September 2013. Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo/Sgt. Marco Mancha

The operations in Somalia appear to be more in line with the counterterrorism strategy outlined by President Obama his speech at the National Defense University than the targeted killing campaign waged by the CIA in Pakistan and Yemen are. The selective use of kill operations in Somalia reflects Mr. Obama’s push for a strategy made up of a “series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks,” and his insistence on only striking when there “near-certainty” that no civilians will be killed. With the decentralization and, as Ben Hubbard writes in the New York Times, “franchising” of al-Qaeda, solidifying partnerships and building the capacity of local security forces with the focused deployment of small special forces teams is intended to end the era of large-scale counterinsurgency programs. However, the President’s mandate to pursue this strategy—which remains the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)—is in need of a serious revision by Congress. In order to meet the requirements of the evolving counterterrorism strategy, the President and Congress must together develop a framework that acknowledges threats from both al-Qaeda-affiliated and non-aligned groups (like those that killed Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi) that pose a real threat to Americans, but without laying the foundation for a forever war against scattered terrorist elements. While the American role in Somalia and the President’s NDU speech offer a vision of how future counterterrorism operations will be conducted, the structure of the post-9/11 strategic environment is far from settled.

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