April 19, 2006 | World Defense Review

The War on Terrorism’s Forgotten Front

In early March, two American warships, the cruiser USS Cape St. George and the destroyer USS Gonzalez, were conducting maritime security operations off Somalia when a suspected “pirate” boat opened fire on them. Fortunately, there were no casualties other than one “pirate,” who was killed when the navy vessels returned fire; twelve of his mates were detained by the Navy, which confiscated a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

This incident was just the latest in a string of attacks in what the International Maritime Bureau calls “the most dangerous waters” in the world. Last November, gunmen there in speedboats fired a grenade into the luxury cruise ship, the Seabourn Spirit, owned by a Miami-based travel company. Altogether, there are some thirty-seven recorded attacks on commercial shipping along the Somali coast in the last twelve months. Yet somehow, neither the Bush administration nor any of our inside-the-Beltway terrorism experts have connected the dots linking this “piracy” and America's “global war on terrorism.”

It has been a long-standing cliché that Africa is the stepchild of U.S. foreign policy, notwithstanding the modest attention recently received by the extradition of former Liberian president Charles Taylor (himself a figure with rather shady dealings with violent extremists, as a number of mainstream journalists, including The Washington Post's Douglas Farah, have extensively reported) to a United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal.

In the context of the current struggle against transnational terrorism, however, this lack of attention is not only shortsighted, but it undermines potential successes elsewhere. The Bush administration's 2002 National Security Strategy recognized as much when it acknowledged that conditions in sub-Saharan Africa threaten “both a core value of the United States—preserving human dignity—and our strategic priority—combating terror,” while the new 2006 National Security Strategy affirmed that “Africa holds growing geo-strategic importance and is a high priority” for America. What is needed, however, is not rhetoric but action: already terrorist networks, forced out elsewhere, have found refuge among Africa's weak or failed states.

Last year, Major-General Douglas Lute of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) publicly predicted that terrorist leaders being hard hit in Iraq, for example, were likely to relocate to the “vast ungoverned spaces” of East Africa, singling out Somalia in particular.

Unfortunately, old habits die hard. Despite the region's increasing importance—it currently supplies the U.S. with 16 percent of its petroleum needs and is expected to provide one quarter within the decade—Sub-Saharan Africa is rarely thought of in terms of the fight against terrorism: in the latest State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations, published in October 2005, not one of the forty-two extremist groups included was from the region.

The State Department's report ignored the existence of no fewer than three groups, which I verified during fieldwork in the region last summer have been operating out of the same Somalia from whose shores the “pirates” are sailing from:

*a spun-off al-Qa'eda cell responsible for the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, the 2002 bombing of the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, and the simultaneous attempt to shoot down the Arkia flight 582 Israeli charter flight;

*a shadowy independent jihadi group that has recently emerged in Mogadishu and that some have linked to last summer's London bombings and other terrorist operations; and

*al-Itihaad al-Islaami (“Islamic Union”), a Taliban-like group with ties to al-Qa'eda and ambitions to impose Islamist rule in Somalia, whose leader, Hassan Dahir Aweys, loudly proclaims that his men might earn divine pardon for their sins if they “cleanse themselves with the blood of foreigners.”

Even the United Nations, usually a step or two behind in such matters, has noted significant activity in the vacuum that passes as a Somali state. Last March, a Security Council task force warned of the presence of an “army” of jihadi fighters, operating out of at least seventeen training camps in central and southern Somalia. The UN monitors, led by an intrepid Sierra Leonean, John E. Tambi, uncovered no fewer than thirty-four arms shipments, including everything from AK-47 assault rifles to Zu-23 anti-aircraft weapons. All of this is financed by remittances from Somalis abroad as well as Islamic “charities,” smuggling, counterfeiting, and, yes, piracy in the heavily traveled waters off the Horn of Africa.

The alumni of these forgotten terrorist training camps have not hesitated to put their lethal skills to practice. Recent victims include an Italian nurse, Annalena Tonelli, two elderly British schoolteachers, Richard and Enid Eyeington, and an aid worker, Kenyan Florence Cheriuyot.

That all three attacks took place in the northern strip of Somaliland was no coincidence. Rather, it reveals that terrorist movements in this region share the same hatred for democracy as those operating on fronts more apt to be covered by Western media. Since 1991, the “Republic of Somaliland” has maintained a de facto separate status from Somalia and has been a island of relative tranquility in a turbulent region.  It is governed by a republican constitution, with an elected president and parliament. The 3.5 million inhabitants of Somaliland have three political parties to choose from and, despite being overwhelmingly Muslim, a functioning secular judiciary. Internationally-monitored legislative elections in September 2005 gave the two opposition parties a majority—a rare triumph for electoral democracy in the African and Middle Eastern worlds that the enclave straddles.

The ambitions of the extremists are not limited to the remnants of the failed Somali state. Ethiopia, a multi-religious, multi-ethnic giant going through the throes of democratization, has already experienced the Islamists' cross-border activities. One group of terrorists bombed a hotel in Addis Ababa in 2003 while members of another were arrested with twenty kilograms of explosives last year. The rickety Kenyan government is also a target. Sudan, where a fragile peace between the Islamist central government and Christian and animists in the country's south is holding despite charismatic rebel leader John Garang's death, remains a theatre of opportunity for the jihadists, especially if an international force including American and Europeans gets deployed to halt the slaughter in Darfur.

Ultimately, the way to defeat terrorism in Africa lies in enhancing the capacity of states in the region, both in terms of the democracy and stability of their political institutions and in their ability to police their own territory. The U.S. has taken some modest steps in these directions through diplomatic engagement and, on the security side, through more significant commitments, including the East Africa Counterterrorism Initiative to fund indigenous law enforcement infrastructure and the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative to improve border control and other local capacities. Efforts on both tracks, however, need to be strengthened and should be expanded to include potential new allies like struggling Somaliland that are not only reasonably democratic, but also can, with the right assistance, effectively control—which is a lot more than can be said for the unelected and non-functioning Somali “government” that the United Nations continues its risible, if deadly, charade of “recognizing.”

However, despite the threats emanating from the region, the U.S. military has yet to establish a coordinated response mechanism. In an arrangement harking back to the colonial era, 37 of the 48 Sub-Saharan African states fall under the aegis of the U.S. European Command (EUCOM). Given current geopolitical realities, if a separate Africa Command (AFRICOM?) cannot be created, then at least it would make more sense to align most of the continent with the Middle Eastern countries covered by CENTCOM, which has had more experience with and resources for combating the transnational Islamist terror networks. Absent a Somali government worthy of that name, the international community not only has a legitimate right, but also an obligation, to prevent terrorist groups and other criminal elements from filling the void—as well as their pockets.

A war on terror must be fought globally, whenever and wherever extremists try to find shelter. While some priorities must inevitably be set in the allocation of scarce resources, entire regions must not be ignored simply because they do not figure prominently in certain conventional worldviews. Otherwise, in this conflict, a forgotten front can quickly inflame into an Achilles' heel.

— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an academic fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.

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