US Strikes al-Qaeda In Somalia
Acting swiftly on intelligence, United States forces operating out of a base in Djibouti dispatched an AC-130H gunship to engage al-Qaeda terrorists on the move in southern Somalia. Reportedly, the primary target among the group was Abu Talha al-Sudani, a man close to Usama bin Laden and believed to be the financier of the 1998 simultaneous bombings of the American embassies in Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya. Abu Talha al-Sudani is al-Qaeda’s head of East African operations. Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the al-Qaeda terrorists suspected of planning and masterminding the 1998 embassy attacks and receiving the funds from al-Sudani, are believed to be in Somalia as well, and Mohammed may have also been a target of the AC-130 strike. (For a more extensive list of key terrorists in Somalia, see Daveed Gartenstein-Ross’ rundown at the Counterterrorism Blog.)
While there are no reports of whether al-Sudani or even Mohammed or Nabhan were eliminated in the US strike, the attack shows a forward-leaning US posture in the Horn of Africa that has been just beneath the surface of developments in and around Somalia in recent months and weeks. Relatively discretely, US intelligence has been backing Ethiopia in its defense of Somalia’s government and its offensive that has routed the al-Qaeda franchise Islamic Courts Union. The World Tribune reported a US source that asserted that the United States has “promised to replenish equipment, munitions and other supplies for the current offensive against Somalia.”
Ethiopia, with American support, has not stopped after driving al-Qaeda elements from all major Somali cities, but instead has continued to press in pursuit, seeking to decapitate the ICU’s leadership and rout its fighters. To fall short is to invite an insurgency in the style of Iraq, which the ICU has declared is its plan after regrouping and following the eventual withdrawal of Ethiopian forces.
Part of the success that Ethiopian and Somali forces have seen is due to the United States providing ground force intelligence from satellites and unmanned aerial drones, enabling them to track and engage al-Qaeda force movements, particularly at night.
The degree of success the Ethiopian and Somali forces will have will depend greatly on the US naval blockade preventing escape back to Yemen as well as the effectiveness of Kenyan forces blocking its border and denying an egress route. While anywhere is preferable to being in the crosshairs of pursuing troops, Kenya’s 15% Muslim population has been largely non-responsive to the Wahhabi brand of Islam espoused by al-Qaeda and is far from an ideal retreat.
Yet even with American support for Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Army’s thus-far successful and relentless engagement of al-Qaeda’s Islamic Courts Union, seeking to destroy it rather than simply drive it away, a representative from the US State Department indicated a willingness to hold talks with some ICU members. US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, said that the Transitional Federal government in Somalia now assuming control in Mogadishu should consider including ‘moderate’ Islamists from the defeated Islamic Courts Union in its government. Frazer said, “I think its important to talk to the Islamic courts, or whoever are the moderates within the group. They did bring a certain degree of order to Mogadishu, they have experience.” She added that they would have to renounce violence.
It is important to note here that the Islamic Courts Union “removed three (3) checkpoints in the Mogadishu area where average monthly revenues collected represented cash flows to the former warlords in excess of one million US dollars annually,” according to the November 2006 report of the UN’s Monitoring Group on Somalia. With no functioning government or formal tax code to speak of, these checkpoints serve as tax collection points for local warlords that essentially amount to extortion and protection money. The removal of the Mogadishu checkpoints served as a means for the ICU to endear themselves to local businesses – then able to transport goods without extortion - and enabled them the means to garner support that was lacking from the general Somali population. The ICU did leave most checkpoints in place, however, which then served as a major source of the Islamists’ funding.
Somalia’s President Abdullahi Yusuf, in Mogadishu Monday for the first time since being elected to the office, promptly dismissed the US suggestion that it include moderates from the ICU in its government. He flatly rejected the call to include Islamists as nonsense, saying that negotiation with any Islamists “will not happen.” Yusuf said, “We will crack down on the terrorists in any place around the nation.”