Briefing Book

A Somali Surprise?

U.S. officials are worried about the chaos radiating from the Horn of Africa. But how concerned should we be?

ABDURASHID ABIKAR/AFP/Getty Images
ABDURASHID ABIKAR/AFP/Getty Images

In a speech closely watched in Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor, John O. Brennan, said Thursday that al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups around the world are "under tremendous pressure" from "years of U.S. counterterrorism operations" in cooperation with other countries.

"[Al Qaeda] is being forced to work harder and harder to raise money, to move its operatives around the world, and to plan attacks," he said, though it remains intent on attacking the United States and its allies.

Brennan’s talk came just after Hillary Clinton concluded a meeting with Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed in Kenya, where the secretary of state pointedly warned Eritrea to stop supporting militant groups in neighboring Somalia, an increasingly lawless country that foreign-policy experts are viewing with growing concern.

Brennan, a gruff, flint-eyed former senior CIA official with 25 years of government service, spoke with the clipped diction of a U.S. official. He pronounced the names of "al Qaeda" and "Hezbollah" with a noticeable Arabic lilt, underscoring his years of experience in dealing with the Middle East as a State Department political officer in Saudi Arabia, a top regional analyst, and later a CIA station chief.

Steven Simon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former counterterrorism official in the Clinton administration, said the likely motive of the speech was to "establish the president’s identity on this issue" and rebut criticism from Republicans that Obama is "soft on terror."

U.S. terrorism experts agree that al Qaeda has suffered setbacks, at least in some parts of the world. Peter Bergen, a CNN analyst and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, said the "net effect of the drone attacks" along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, for instance, "has been devastating to their planning and training." Polling data also show a loss of public support for al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan, Bergen said. "But even if a small percentage of people think that Osama’s a great guy, that’s still a lot of people" in a country of 170 million. He also pointed to recent al Qaeda activity in Yemen.

Then there’s Somalia, a country that has only become more chaotic since FP contributor Jeffrey Gettleman dubbed it "the most dangerous place in the world" back in March. Several analysts mentioned the recent involvement of Somali expatriates from Minneapolis in fighting in Somalia and, allegedly, in  Australia — where five men stand accused of plotting a suicide attack on an army barracks — as a worrisome trend. Some 200,000 ethnic Somalis live in the United States today, many of them relatively recent migrants.

According to Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, al Qaeda is strengthening its hold on Somalia, as well as Yemen and Algeria, where affiliated militant groups have deep local roots. Al Qaeda operatives are "shifting to Somalia because of the newfound opportunities there," he said, and because al-Shabab, the al Qaeda-affiliated militant group that controls much of the country, is consolidating its power.

American officials are also worried. Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said in April that the U.S. government was "very concerned about the threats that they pose to U.S. facilities in the region, in the Horn of Africa, and potentially to the U.S. homeland," referring to al Qaeda and al-Shabab. "We have seen a very, very small percentage … of individuals of Somali descent and some who are not of Somali descent who will have come to identify with extremists in Somalia," he said.

Brennan, outlining today what he described as "the contours of a new strategic approach — a new way of seeing this challenge and a new way of confronting it in a more comprehensive manner," sought to contrast Obama’s approach to terrorism with that of his predecessor. "Like the world itself, his views are nuanced, not simplistic; practical, not ideological," he said of the president.

Brennan’s remarks, delivered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a centrist think tank in Washington, were the fullest articulation of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy to date. In an interview with the Washington Post prior to the speech, Brennan said the United States was not engaged in a "war on terror," and in today’s address, he explained his reasoning further.

"Portraying this as a ‘global’ war risks reinforcing the very image that al Qaeda seeks to project of itself — that it is a highly organized, global entity capable of replacing sovereign nations with a global caliphate," he said. "And nothing could be further from the truth."

Hoffman agreed that "the ‘war on terrorism’ has outlived its usefulness, even if it was appropriate in the immediate aftermath of 9/11," and become "more of a liability than an asset."

Terrorism analysts said there was nonetheless a great deal of continuity between the Obama administration’s policies and that of the Bush administration. "It took the Bush administration 7 years out of 8 to put together a coherent strategy," Simon said, "but having waited 7 years to do this, the Bush administration essentially forfeited any of its ability to carry any of it out."

"For people like al Qaeda, it doesn’t matter if Obama or Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush is in office," Bergen said. "Their laundry list is so long that no American president could satisfy them."

Brennan’s remarks were also noteworthy for what they didn’t say: much on Somalia. In the question-and-answer session after his prepared talk, Brennan said that "Somalia’s a good case in point in terms of not looking at an issue only through the counterterrorism prism" and that the United States needed a "more comprehensive approach" toward the Horn of Africa. "Sometimes in these places young Somalis or others will join up with terrorist groups because it gives them an opportunity to have three square meals a day," he said, and the United States needs to get better at providing alternative livelihoods. But he indicated that U.S. policy on the region was still in a formative stage.

"It’s a little unfair to suggest that we were only looking at Somalia through a counterterrorism lens," said Juan Zarate, who was deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism from 2005 to 2009 in the Bush administration, pointing to efforts made, especially from 2005 or so onward, to take a more comprehensive approach to fighting terrorism. "He’s right, it needs to be looked at more broadly," Zarate said of Brennan’s comments. "The problem is there are no easy answers" to a country like Somalia.

Zarate also said there was less new than was advertised in the new administration’s approach to terrorism. For instance, Obama has continued to use the word "war" to describe his strategy toward al Qaeda — if not toward "terrorism" in general. "We are indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates," the president said in his speech at the National Archives in May.

Ken Menkhaus, a political scientist at Davidson College in North Carolina and an expert on the Horn of Africa, said that the Obama administration was "trying to take a more diplomatic approach" to Somalia. Menkhaus sees Clinton’s meeting with the Somali president as a "huge boost" to his embattled government and "a sign that the U.S. intends to fully back it." But he said he was looking for signs that the Obama administration would go beyond arms shipments and allow Sheikh Sharif’s government to reach out to "Islamic rejectionists."

As for the dangers of Somali radicalization in the United States, Simon thinks they are manageable. "And I think there are people trying to manage it," in the U.S. government. "It’s not something that’s going to sneak up on people."

The Australia case may be different. "If there is evidence Shabab leadership sent them back to conduct a suicide attack, then that is truly a game changer, and the Shabab automatically qualifies for membership in the ‘incredibly stupid Somali political movements since 1990’" group, Menkhaus said. "But we have to wait for the details of the case to come out."

Might al-Shabab decide to take over Mogadishu in the wake of Clinton’s comments, to embarrass the United States? "They’ll do it when they feel they’re strong enough," Simon said.