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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Somalia as the "Forgotten front" in the War on Terror

Ineresting thoughts here by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
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 clichÈ 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 Statesópreserving human dignityóand our strategic priorityócombating 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 importanceóit currently supplies the U.S. with 16 percent of its petroleum needs and is expected to provide one quarter within the decadeóSub-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."

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