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.

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.

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.

The US has long kept its eye on Somalia as a possible haven for Al Qaeda, according to an International Crisis Group study of counterterrorism in the area. As early as 1998, when the Clinton administration fired cruise missiles at terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, US officials were concerned that Osama bin Laden might turn to Somalia as his next place of refuge, says the ICG study.

The Al Qaeda leadership decamped to the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, instead. Still, three extremist groups operating from Somalia "have chalked up a deadly track record," according to ICG.

Perhaps most notorious among them is an Al Qaeda cell made up of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan and several other militants. This group is thought linked to the embassy bombings, as well as the 2002 bombing of a Kenyan hotel and an unsuccessful attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner.

The second group is a Somali nationalist and Islamist movement with long-standing links to Al Qaeda named al-Itihaad al-Islaami. During its 1990s heyday, the group had a militia of 1,000 fighters funded by Islamic charities from the Gulf states and maintained training camps staffed by foreign jihadis, says ICG.

The third group has emerged since 2003. It is a small but ruthless militant network led by Aden Hashi Ayro, a relatively young fighter reportedly trained in Al Qaeda's Afghanistan camps.

Lumped together, these organizations have given Somalia a reputation as a hotbed of Islamist extremism. But viewed from the perspective of the larger population, that may not be the case.

"In reality, jihadism is an unpopular, minority trend among Somali Islamists," concluded the ICG report.

This week's missile strike in Somalia was far from a first for the US. It carried out similar attacks at least three times last year.

Though those strikes were not all successful, the general antiterror effort in Somalia is going well, according to US intelligence.

A year or 18 months ago, Al Qaeda was establishing a foothold in Somalia that was on its way to becoming formidable, said Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell at a Feb. 27 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Since the Ethiopian Army rolled into Mogadishu, things have changed, said Director McConnell.

"For the most part, we've been able to keep it tamped down, or on the run. We've traced personalities," he told the Senate panel.

The concern of Karin von Hippel of CSIS and some other analysts is that the focus on personalities and security may distract the US from trying to rebuild the government and promoting higher levels of national reconciliation and reconstruction.

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