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Chaotic Somalia keeps U.S. on terrorism watch

Latest missile strike at the East Africa nation, aimed at a suspected Al Qaeda operative, keeps terrorists off balance. But some say US should do more to nation-build in Somalia.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 5, 2008


In the ruined, chaotic state of Somalia the United States has long been engaged in a shadowy struggle with the forces of militant Islam. This US effort has two main goals: to prevent extremist groups from taking root in Somali society, and to counter notorious terrorist figures thought responsible for attacks throughout North and East Africa.

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The US missile strike launched March 3 against the southern Somali town of Dobley was part of this larger fight. Whatever the attack's results – the Defense Department officially is keeping mum – US intelligence officials in recent weeks said they are generally pleased with their progress against terrorism in the region.

But is any such progress coming at the expense of Somalia itself?

Attacks against individual militants may frighten and anger ordinary Somalis, say some analysts, leading to something of a backlash against the US. Meanwhile, the US government in the area might be focusing on antiterrorism policy at the expense of nation-building efforts.

"I am concerned we are not helping the Somalis build even a minimally functional government," says Karin von Hippel, co-director of the post conflict reconstruction project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The March 3 strike was carried out by at least two cruise missiles fired from a US Navy submarine. According to local news reports, the target was Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Kenyan who may have played a major role in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Residents and police in Dobley said at least eight people were injured and a home destroyed in the attack. A radical Islamist movement that ruled much of southern Somalia throughout 2006 retook Dobley last week, according to wire service reports. On March 4 the town's streets were filled with hundreds of protesters shouting anti-American slogans, according to these reports.

At the height of its power, the radical movement, known as the Council of Islamic Courts, controlled Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. But in early 2007, troops loyal to a UN-supported interim government, backed by the Ethiopian Army, ousted the Islamist group.

Of course, to call the elements currently in power in Mogadishu a "government" perhaps is to overstate the case. Since the early 1990s, Somalia has been a nation in name only. No group is in position to control its borders. No one watches its coastline. Yet it is only a relatively short boat trip across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula.