African leaders call for united front against terrorism after US strikes Al Shabab

While speakers urged a stronger response to the militant group Al Shabab at the first African Union summit on terrorism, none called out last night's US airstrike on the Somalia-based group.

Noor Khamis/Reuters
African leaders and delegates attend the Africa Union Peace and Security Council Summit on Terrorism at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, Sept. 2, 2014.

A US strike against Al Shabab on the eve of the first African Union summit on terrorism is a reminder that even as the AU strives to take greater responsibility for counterterrorism efforts, it still relies on Western partners, particularly in aerial warfare. 

“It is our African responsibility. We should ourselves do the work,” Chad's President Idriss Déby, who led the summit, said at a press conference. “And then friends and partners will support our efforts. We cannot continue to be a burden.”

The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) – comprised of forces from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Sierra Leone, Kenya, and Ethiopia – is a concrete sign of this cooperation against a growing terror network. 

The AMISOM troops have had a string of modest successes recently, wresting control of several towns from Al Shabab over the past week. Their progress has given the Somali government a “corridor of opportunity” to reestablish itself, says Andrews Atta-Asamoah, a senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. (Editor's note: This sentence has been changed to correctly identify the institute.)

“At this moment there is a lot of momentum toward diminishing the strength of Al Shabab,” Mr. Atta-Asamoah says.

'No single state'

Officials repeatedly called today for greater cooperation, acknowledging that their porous, often weakly controlled borders have allowed militants groups like Al Shabab, Boko Haram, and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to expand. 

“Al Shabab and its affiliates have continued to cause a serious security challenge for our region… It is essential for us to strengthen our cooperation since no single state can tackle this scourge alone,” said Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Kenya’s role in AMISOM and its shared border with Somalia has made it one of Al Shabab’s key targets. Nairobi was the site of one of the group’s most audacious attacks, a siege on a Nairobi shopping mall in September 2013 that left 67 dead.

Details on the US attack were still scant Tuesday afternoon, and the airstrike was not mentioned at the summit, despite many statements on the threat posed by Al Shabab. 

The US typically works alone on "high-value targets," Abdi Aynte, head of The Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, a Somalia-based think tank, said in an email. This attack apparently targeted Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of Al Shabab.

Such limited US actions are, for now, accepted or even welcomed by regional leaders, says Atta-Asamoah. That's because AMISOM, which is focused mostly on ground efforts, lacks a comparable air capacity. But if the US incurs major civilian casualties, AMISOM could face an insurgency strengthened by public anger.

“The more airstrikes you have the more visible the US footprint on the ground becomes,” Atta-Asamoah says. “The increasing involvement can easily become the basis for recruiting other jihadis across the world who might be fighting a cause against the US."

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