Three days after the 8th Anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US launched an airstrike in Somalia that killed a wanted Al-Qaeda operative. This show of force had several objectives relating to international security, indicating that the Obama Administration is not weak on terror and that it will not be under its watch that a country will fall to a radical Islamist organization. However, it is the unintended consequences and impact of raids of this nature that could push Somalia towards a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Operation Celestial Balance was executed on the 14th of September in the southern Somali town of Barawe, 250 km from the capital Mogadishu, targeting a convoy transporting Al-Shabbab commanders and Al-Qaeda operative, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. Four AH-6 helicopters carried out the raid that killed Nabhan, accused of leading an Al-Qaeda sleeper cell in Kenya that staged the 2002 Mombasa attacks on Israeli nationals. Nabhan was also thought to have played an important role as a senior instructor for new militant recruits in Somalia and was also considered an important liaison to senior Al-Qaeda leaders. Even though any direct links that Al-Qaeda could have to Al-Shabaab are still speculative, there is a confirmed ideological affinity that has in numerous occasions been confirmed through propaganda videos and public statements.
Although there had been some resistance to the mass influx of foreign fighters to shape the future of Somalia, in particular by influential opposition figures like Sheikh Aweys, this US airstrike has provided the impetus for radical positions. It is the political gold of an American military attack and the touchdown on Somali soil that has allowed Aweys and others to reposition themselves advantageously in the fight against President Sheikh Sharif. The unintended consequences of this surgical attack will resonate beyond the military aspect, and directly impact the peace process. Not only will the credibility of Sheikh Sharif's government be questioned but the increasingly fragmented Islamist insurgency will now have a unifying rallying and recruitment point, plunging the country into further disarray. The government in this case will become insignificant in the political and ideological debate.
In addition to the political costs that approaching Somalia under the prism of the war on terror will have, they also do little to alter the military landscape. Initiating incision attacks (meant to affect the command centre and open space for other manoueverings) without any troop offensive or movement to exploit momentary weakness become ineffective. The US's manoeuvre warfare, that has failed in Afghanistan and will fail in Somalia, will also weaken the TFG's ability to respond to Al-Shabaab's war of attrition and its Iraqi style insurgency tactics, because support in Al-Shabaab held areas becomes consolidated.
Furthermore, as with the airstrike that killed Al-Shabaab commander, the Afghani-trained, Aden Hashi Farah Ayro, it served to embolden the response on the ground and radicalize positions even further. Ayro's status sky-rocketed after his death, as he was considered then an important martyr in the just war against foreign occupiers (the Ethiopians). National symbols of this nature are much more problematic to tackle in the long run and counter-terrorism strategies, that already distinguish in approach between targeting foreign international jihadis and local organizations, may find that foreign jihadis may also provide strong resistance symbols and serve to consolidate the acceptance of foreign fighters in Somalia.
Although the US's move may arguably be justified legally under the problematic principle of ‘right of hot pursuit' or self-defense (enshrined in Art 51 of the UN Charter), it has the potential to further destabilize Somalia. The US Joint Special Operations Command could eventually justify this operation on the basis that they were pursuing a fugitive, as is the intended objective of the ‘hot pursuit' principle in the laws of sea, given that Nabhan was wanted by the FBI since 2006. However, this move could also have been authorized by the Sheikh Sharif's Transitional Federal Government, which would only serve to strengthen perceptions that the TFG is a puppet of the US and Ethiopia. This perception is problematic for the Islamic credentials of Sheikh Sharif and could add yet another layer of difficulty in the reconciliation process.
In the sphere of perceptions, a coordinated effort could have been secured so that intelligence on the ground be used to capture Nabhan which would have allowed the TFG to assert its authority and demonstrate that it is operating under the rule of law. Airstrikes of this nature only serve to "terrorize" the population, even if this surgical operation resulted in no civilian casualties, and add further credence to the justification of armed struggle. A civilian population, facing the world's worst humanitarian crisis and exposed to almost two decades of unrelenting conflict, will certainly throw their support behind a group that claims to be the representatives of their legitimate political grievances.
A reprisal attack for the US raid was expected by Al-Shabaab against the TFG and the AU peacekeeping mission (AMISOM), but what came was a frightening retaliation on the 17th September, the deadliest strike against the peacekeeping mission since its deployment in March 2007. Four suicide bombers entered AMISOM's compound in Mogadishu, driving two UN cars and detonated themselves in the mission's nerve centre, killing the deputy commander of the mission, General Juvenal Niyoyunguruza and 20 others. Such an attack would have required careful planning and reconnaissance, and would have also required AMISOM to make a mistake. If a ‘secret ‘ meeting was being held, as claimed by Al-Shabaab, between American, European and Somali officials then the security breach becomes even more problematic. It also highlights Al-Shabaab's capacity to reach deep into the allied camp but could also reveal that the tide of support for the TFG in Mogadishu is significantly shifting. Attacks like these do more to expose the TFG's and AMISOM's vulnerabilities than the US airstike does to expose Al-Shabaab's vulnerability as the military superiority of the US justifies success while the insurgents have to engage on other terms.
US actions and faulty policies are undermining reconciliation efforts in Somalia and, by giving Al-Shabaab political ammunition, may shift the alliance balance and find groups veering away from any affiliation to the TFG. It was the unity government of Sheik Sharif that was considered the country's best option for peace and genuine political negotiation, that would result in a broad based consensus to conflict transformation. The survival politics of Somalia, that are partly characterized by fluid allegiances and the need to secure interests by backing the winning side, will mean that any attempts to continue the peace process will invariably fail. Somalia may either be facing a takeover by radical Islamists or a carved country, similar to the fiefdoms of the 1990s, where fragmentation and civil war will ensue.
Written by: Paula Roque, senior researcher and coordinator of the Somalia Working Group at ISS, Pretoria Office