On Tuesday, senior US officials got on the phone with reporters to give a background briefing on the coordinated terrorist bombings that killed 76 people in the African nation of Uganda on Sunday as they were watching the World Cup.
The US officials, however, did not sound particularly reassuring.
They acknowledged that “there are indications that Al Shabab was indeed responsible.” This is the Somali terrorist group of extreme Islamists that has ties to Al Qaeda, that has successfully recruited Americans and Canadians with Somali roots, and that, for the first time, has now struck outside its own country. Al Shabab poses a threat not only to Africa, but, potentially, to the United States. Indeed, an American was killed in the bombings.
The officials said that since Al Shabab was designated a foreign terrorist organization during the Bush administration, the group has been on the US "radar screen" and the US has been “trying to monitor” any hints of plans to carry out a terrorist attack. They said the US needed to “take stock” of recent developments and “take a look and see what it is that we need to do as a result of those attacks.”
That amounts to a lot of looking, watching, monitoring, and taking stock. But what about doing?
The truth is, America’s options here are limited, but that does not mean they are of no value. They amount, basically, to a policy of containment from afar, or mostly afar – a stark contrast to the boots-on-the-ground approach to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Full-scale US military engagement in this lawless Muslim country in the Horn of Africa might end up badly – just as one in 1993 did. During that US-led intervention, 18 American soldiers were killed in pursuit of a Somali warlord, dramatized in the film “Black Hawk Down.” [Editor's note: A previous version mischaracterized the intervention.]
The US simply doesn’t have the military resources right now (one expert says it would take 100,000 “peacekeepers” to stabilize Somalia). And this failed state is in far worse shape than Afghanistan or Iraq.
The US officials described Somalia as a “complicated and challenging environment,” and that’s putting it mildly. It is made of fiercely loyal and clashing clans, and has had 14 governments between 1991 and 2010. It now has a Western-backed transitional government that controls only a few blocks of the capital city, Mogadishu, thanks to the presence of about 5,000 African Union peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi.
Al Shabab is fighting to turn Somalia into a state ruled by a harsh interpretation of Islamic law, and it controls the two biggest ports in the south. Its stated reason for the Uganda attack was to force foreign troops out of Somalia. It was a fringe movement until 2006, when Ethiopian troops, with US backing, intervened and instated the transitional government.
Indeed, some experts point out that it’s the foreign intervention that has stoked Al Shabab and turned it into a full-blown insurgency that made it open to Al Qaeda’s funds and training. In the 1990s, Al Qaeda tried to put down roots in Somalia, but it was perceived as foreign and Arab and couldn’t break into the clan system. Until recently, Taliban-like fundamentalism was a stranger to this country of Sufi Muslims with moderate religious views.
Questions still remain as to Al Shabab’s intentions. Are they limited to Somalia? Or might they reach to US soil? A controversial report by the Council on Foreign Relations suggests that the US is too focused on backing the corrupt and ineffective transitional government, which cites the threat of Al Shabab terrorism to garner support from the West and the region.
The report's author, Bronwyn Bruton, claims that neither Al Shabab nor the transitional government can rule Somalia, and that the best policy for the US is one of “constructive disengagement” – letting the Somalis work out their problems over years, while the West uses intelligence and selective military actions to go after bad guys, and helps with humanitarian and development aid. [Editor's note: A previous version contained an incorrect attribution.]
The senior administration officials decried that approach, but they are following much of it. Last September, US special forces killed an Al Qaeda trainer of Al Shabab forces in broad daylight; unlike in the previous administration, which used cruise missiles and gunships to go after terrorists, there was no collateral damage to civilians.
Probably the biggest question that lies ahead is a planned increase of African Union troops in Somalia. Will that exacerbate the situation and stoke Al Shabab? Or will it succeed in tamping down this violent group that preys on civilians, including fellow Somalis?
No wonder senior officials say they have to consult with the region and “take stock.”