The killing of an accused senior Al Qaeda militant in Somalia yesterday could help to sever Al Qaeda's link to militants taking refuge in Somalia. But it could also stir up more unrest in a country that is already fighting a low-level civil war, pushing Islamist militants toward retaliation against what they perceive to be American targets, including the weak, Western-backed Somalian government.
US commandos killed Kenyan national Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in a helicopter raid against Mr. Nabhan's convoy, as it traveled through the Barawe district in southern Somalia. Nabhan has been on the US wanted list since 1996, when he was accused of helping to bomb the US embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania, and is thought to be the mastermind in a truck-bomb attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa in 2002.
There are no reports yet indicating whether the helicopter attack caused civilian casualties, but Islamist militias in Somalia allied with Al Qaeda have vowed to retaliate.
"Muslims will retaliate against this unprovoked attack," a leader of Al Shabab, a Somali Islamist militia told the AFP news agency today. "The United States is Islam's known enemy, and we will never expect mercy from them, nor should they expect mercy from us."
Obama's first Somalia strike
Yesterday's airstrike may not be the first for the US in Somalia, but it is the first major strike against a terrorist target under President Obama, and, despite campaign promises to try a different, more nuanced approach to the war against terrorists, this had all the hallmarks of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Security analysts suggest that Nabhan was a high-enough target within the Al Qaeda organization that his elimination could seriously disrupt the command structure of Al Qaeda in Somalia. But experts on the Horn of Africa say that this very success could complicate the goal of strengthening a democratic government in Somalia.
"There is serious talk that if you take out one of the three top Al Qaeda leaders, you cut off the logistical chain on the ground, so in that sense it may be seen as a success," says Paula Roque, a Horn of Africa expert at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane [Pretoria], South Africa. But to complete the job would require military strike after military strike, she adds, which would have the unintended effect of making Somalia's supposed leader, President Sharif Ahmed, look weak.
"If this was done with the authority given by the transitional government, for their sovereignty of Somalia to be infringed by foreign forces, then this will reinforce the impression that Sharif is a puppet," says Ms. Roque.
Somalia: Terrorist haven?
The attack on Nabhan comes at a time of increasing reports that Somalia, despite the West's efforts, may be becoming a safe haven for terrorists. Somalia's own home-grown Islamist movements appear to have the upper hand in most of southern Somalia, and in the majority of the capital of Mogadishu itself, enforcing a harsh and alien interpretation of Islamic law in the areas under its control.
But while this war for political control rages among Somalis, it is that second war – with perhaps hundreds of foreign Islamist fighters on one side and airborne Western commandos on the other – that could have destabilizing effects on Somalia, prolonging a two-decade long period of conflict that has killed thousands of Somalis and forced millions from their homes.
Just three years ago, the thought of Somalia becoming a training ground for terrorists would have been laughable, in part because it was simply too unstable. Somalia was, in effect, too ungoverned to provide the sort of stable environment where militants could train and learn the finer art of building the perfect truck bomb.
But after the Ethiopian invasion of December 2006 – aimed at removing an Islamist government in Mogadishu – Islamist forces were able to pull back, regroup, and recruit thousands of new fighters, at home and abroad, to repel a foreign, and Christian, occupation of their country.
Today, with perhaps a third of the country under their control, there is enough stability for a terrorist organization to build bases, train recruits, and receive arms shipments without fear of interception by either government forces or international intervention.
Past strikes against Al Qaeda suspects in Somalia
The attack on Nabhan is just the latest killing of a top Al Qaeda operative by US forces.
In May 2008, US drones killed Aden Hashi Ayro, the head of the Somali Islamist movement Al Shabab, which has close ties with Al Qaeda. Mr. Ayro's relations with Al Qaeda helped Al Shabab to modernize its techniques, adopting suicide bomb attacks and improvised landmines that had been tested in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While Al Shabab members have reacted with anger against the US commando attack, other groups fighting Al Shabab see the attack as literally a gift from God.
"We are very pleased with the helicopters that killed the foreign Al Shabab fighters," Sheikh Abdullahi Sheikh Abu Yussuf, a spokesman for the moderate Islamist group Ahlu Sunna wal Jama'a, told Reuters on Monday. "God sent birds against those who attacked the Holy Mosque, the Ka'ba [in Mecca], millennia ago. The same way, God has sent bombers against Al Shabab. We hope more aircraft will destroy the rest of Al Shabab, who have abused Islam and massacred Somalis."