Libya, Somalia Raids Show U.S. Counterterrorist Strength and Weakness

Even as the U.S. continues to remove dangerous extremist leaders from the field, it's headed in the wrong direction on limiting safe havens

  • Share
  • Read Later
Mohamed Sheikh Nor / AP

Al-Shabab fighters march with their weapons during military exercises on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia

The U.S. raids against terrorist targets in Somalia and Libya on Saturday show how America is succeeding in one part of its counterterrorism strategy, but failing in another.

Two things allow extremists to threaten the U.S.: ambitious leadership and safe haven. America has become very good at neutralizing the former, but is doing very poorly at limiting the latter.

Since 9/11, the U.S. has succeeded in killing or capturing most of al-Qaeda’s original leadership. In another victory on Saturday, the FBI and CIA, with the support of U.S. military forces, captured a long-sought al-Qaeda leader, Anas al-Liby, in Tripoli, according to a U.S. official and media reports. Al-Liby allegedly joined al-Qaeda in the 1990s and was under indictment for participating in the 1998 attack on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He had a $5 million reward on his head.

Secretary of State John Kerry said of the raids on Sunday, “Members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations literally can run but they can’t hide.” But the problem is that they are hiding, in safe havens in largely ungoverned areas.

Even as the U.S. has rolled up the original group’s leaders, al-Qaeda’s ideological allies have ranged through West, North and East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Iraq and the Caucuses, and remain in South Asia. Largely isolated, these al-Qaeda travelers are often focused more on regional objectives than spectacular attacks against America.

But with bold leadership, those small-time groups can plan and carry out such big attacks. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has repeatedly launched dangerous bomb plots against U.S. airlines. The Somali group al-Shabab and other organizations in Africa and the Middle East have formally joined forces with al-Qaeda and declared their intention to attack the U.S. and its allies.

Removing ambitious, creative leaders limits the danger. That’s the logic behind the attack against a leader of the al-Shabab group in Somalia by Navy SEAL Team 6 early on Saturday morning. U.S. officials have not identified the target of the operation, but one said it “was aimed at capturing a high-value al-Shabab terrorist leader.” The official also said no U.S. personnel were injured or killed.

(MORE: Terror in Nairobi: Behind al-Shabab’s War With Kenya)

Reports of the results of the raid in Somalia have been mixed. The AP reported that the SEALs failed to get their target, but a U.S. official said the SEALs did inflict some al-Shabab casualties.

Regardless of the strike’s success, the larger problem is that Somalia remains largely ungoverned and — like Yemen and other countries with operative al-Qaeda offshoots — unable or unwilling to tackle al-Shabab. The U.S. has poured money and support into such countries with mixed success.

Worse (from the counterterrorism perspective at least), countries that once brutally cracked down on al-Qaeda allies, like Libya and Syria, have become hotbeds of extremist activity in the wake of the Arab Spring. That leaves the U.S. facing a widening potential threat and limited options for dealing with it.

The situation was colorfully described by former CIA and FBI counterterrorism expert Philip Mudd in July at the Aspen Security Forum:

If we accept that we can’t afford another group, like al-Qaeda was in Afghanistan in the 1990s, to develop the capability to strike, and we don’t want to intervene with Big Green, and furthermore we don’t have a local partner that has the capacity or the will to intervene, I’m saying as a practitioner I’m running out of options, dude: I’m gonna shoot him.

That’s a logical approach to the problem, and no doubt it helps keep America safe. But the longer-term issue is whether the U.S. will be successful in working with local governments to limit safe havens around the world. At the moment, the U.S. is doing great at smoking dangerous terrorist leaders, but with safe havens thriving in rogue countries, the threat of these terrorist groups still exists.

— With reporting by Zeke Miller and Jay Newton-Small / Washington

 

For a detailed breakdown on the U.S raids in Somalia and Libya, watch this video:

13 comments
RicardoRivera
RicardoRivera

I like how this writer defines failure wouldn't it be nice to have a 100% rate when fighting this enemy but we do live in the real world. This writer doesn't even know what these classified ops have stopped this is just a public one so imagine the ones we don't hear about.This just shows our reach and how we will fight evil anywhere! You know this was a high value target if we sent in the Seals.

PeterJamesHerz
PeterJamesHerz

Maybe we should make this armchair philosopher who wrote this article in charge of our Navy Seals. I'm sure that'd be interesting ;)

DessieDeratta
DessieDeratta

"the threat of these terrorist groups still exist"

Nobel Prize for understatement! 

The threat has grown exponentially since the US started the "war on terror" 12 years ago - America is losing on so many fronts it's hard to keep count of them all. 

Maybe time the USA stopped digging it's own grave? 


poliphobic
poliphobic

Absolutely sick and tired of mouthy yanks , like this Kerry , strutting around the world threatening everybody.

littleredtop
littleredtop

It's a big mistake to capture those guys.  Certainly one might have some temporarily valuable information but the chances of that are slim as those guys are not  part of a well organized initiative but a fragmented tribal uprising with spontaneous flareups.  The old adage "shoot to kill" has never been more appropriate than it is pertaining to those fanatics.  Clearly, the only way to eliminate terrorism is to kill the terrorists before they can replicate.  This technique has been successful for exterminators for decades. 

AsperGirl
AsperGirl

The self-defeating thesis of the Arab Spring uprisings is that they target an unwanted leader and his regime for removal.  That leaves a vacuum into which extremists can move and become active, politically and militarily.  

Real diplomatic leadership in that region would support popular uprisings that have actual constructive aims beyond mere regime destruction -- like creating new political cultures where parties can form and agenda-focused votes can be cast.  

Until civic education/political culture development takes place, why should countries like Syria dump current strongman and tribal leaders?  To invite Al Qaeda and/or the Muslim Brotherhood to come in and take over?

GregAbdul
GregAbdul

We have local partners. Kenya is a firm solid US ally.

eagle11772
eagle11772

@RicardoRivera I think the present administration TALKS TOO MUCH about these operations which SHOULD BE secret.

eagle11772
eagle11772

@poliphobic That's what Democrats do.  Remember how they gleefully plunged us into the fruitless Vietnam War ?

eagle11772
eagle11772

@AsperGirl Arab societies, IN ALL ARAB COUNTRIES, are stuck in the 7th century.  It's gong to take 200 years at least, if ever, to make these Arab societies normal, functioning, democratic societies that respect the rights of minorities. Or it may never happen at all.  IMHO they've chosen their own road to Hell.

poliphobic
poliphobic

@eagle11772 @poliphobic 

I know nothing of American politics, and care marginally less. I just see that your country has gone from being one that the rest of us admired, respected and were thankful for , to one that is disliked  and feared as one fears an unpredictable wild animal.

I recall the V/nam war very well - I was in Malaysia for some of that time.