Al Qaeda in the Horn of Africa

Jon Huntsman made an interesting comment the other day. He said the al Qaeda terrorism sweeping the world these last decades represents the collapse of old regimes much as collapse swept old Europe and the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago. It would run another five to 10 years, he said. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a rising expert on global terror and has recently been interviewed in Wired and Salon on current threats, particularly in the south of Africa, and published dozens of articles on terrorism.

The Horn of Africa is currently racked by what seems to be its worst drought in 60 years, with tremendous humanitarian consequences. Compounding the problem, and creating a dilemma for the United States, some of the hardest-hit areas are controlled by an al Qaeda-aligned organization that regularly extorts humanitarian organizations — and will likely do so again, Gartenstein-Ross and Tara Vassefi write in this month’s Atlantic.

The southern parts of Somalia are the drought crisis's "ground zero," as David Shinn, the U.S.'s former ambassador to Ethiopia, put it in an interview with the authors. This creates a perplexing dynamic, since the dominant force in the drought-stricken areas of Somalia is al Shabaab, the extremist, al Qaeda-linked militia that many U.S. policymakers see as the region's most significant strategic challenge.

Part of Shabaab's legitimacy rests on its claim that it is a better regional administrator than Somalia's weak transitional federal government (TFG), they write. The flood of refugees into neighboring countries from the areas it controls has been a major embarrassment. Shabaab has thus backtracked on its previous expulsions of a number of humanitarian NGOs. 

“In February 2010, for example, Shabaab expelled the World Food Programme. Somali farmers had complained that the free food aid was driving market prices down so far that subsistence farmers could no longer support their families. Shabaab banned three more aid groups in August 2010 and another three in September, accusing them of ’promulgating Christianity and Western ideology.' "

Since January 2007 there has been much more U.S. presence on the ground in Somalia than has been reported and much more than most people realize, Gartenstein-Ross said in an interview with Salon.

Asked by Salon why both the Bush and Obama administrations have seen getting involved in Somalia militarily as in the U.S. interest, Gartenstein-Ross replied:

“If you look back to 2006, there clearly was some connection between the Islamic Courts and al-Qaida at leadership levels. There's a legitimate debate about how strong those connections were. But moving forward to where we are now with Shabaab, the group is clearly connected at its top levels to al-Qaida. There have been multiple statements coming out of Shabaab's leadership that they align themselves with al-Qaida. One Shabaab leader, Omar Hammami, issued a manifesto a few years ago explaining the split between Shabaab and the other insurgent factions. He said that part of the reason was that the other factions were committed to the colonial borders, but in contrast Shabaab was dedicated to reestablishing the caliphate, which is one of al-Qaida's goals. Other leaders have come out and pledged their allegiance to bin Laden or al-Qaida more generally. So this is why the U.S. sees what's going on Somalia as of concern to the U.S. national interest. Couple that, of course, with the experience of Afghanistan pre-9/11 where a safe haven in another part of the world ended up allowing terrorist strikes to occur here.”

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross directs the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Tara Vassefi is a faculty member at the Naval Postgraduate School.

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