Commando raids: Africa's 'arc of instability' reorienting US terror map

Weak or failed states in northern Africa, described as an 'arc of instability' by US officials, are emerging as a new epicenter of terror activity, the weekend commando raids indicate.

Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters
Protesters take part in a demonstration against the capture of Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, in Benghazi, Libya, October 7, 2013.

The two US commando raids carried out in Somalia and Libya over the weekend underscore how Africa and its weak or failed states are increasingly the focus of American counterterrorism activity.

The State Department added another focal point to that African counterterrorism campaign Monday with the addition of Egypt’s Muhammad Jamal Network and its founder Muhammad Jamal, an associate of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, to the US global terrorist list.

The Muhammad Jamal Network has close ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and has established terrorist training camps in Egypt and Libya, according to the State Department.

That designation and the Somalia and Libya raids highlight how governmental breakdown and increased lawlessness across a swath of Africa from Egypt and Somalia to Mauritania have created the conditions for Islamist extremist groups to organize and thrive.

Increasingly the wide geographical region is referred to in congressional testimony and reports by Pentagon officials and diplomats as an “arc of instability” – a designation that caught on in January when Islamist militants associated with AQIM threatened to topple the government of Mali, while others raided a natural gas operation in southern Algeria, killing 40 foreign workers.

Somalia has been a failed state and a terrorist trouble spot for the US for decades – indeed, last week marked the 20th anniversary of the failed US military operation in Mogadishu in which 18 US soldiers died and two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down. But the Libya raid highlighted how the former police state of Muammar Qaddafi has become less stable with weakened government control over territory and militant activity.

The objective of the US raid in the Libyan capital of Tripoli was Abu Anas al-Liby (an alias for Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai), an Al Qaeda operative who was wanted by the US in connection with the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

US Special Operations forces grabbed Mr. Ruqai from his car without a fight in the neighborhood of his Tripoli home, Defense Department sources said.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a statement that Ruqai’s capture, along with the Somalia raid, sent “a strong message to the world that the United States will spare no effort to hold terrorists accountable, no matter where they hide or how long the evade justice.”

But the Libya raid also highlighted how a terrorist with a $5 million bounty on his head was able to live openly in Tripoli for some period of time, some counterterrorism experts note. Moreover, they say the Somalia operation – which apparently ended before the Navy SEALS conducting it could capture the high-value target they sought – targeted an Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization, Al Shabab, that has demonstrated a surprising increasing ability to carry out complex, high-profile terrorist attacks.

In a statement Monday on the Somalia raid, the Pentagon said: "While the operation did not result in [the target's] capture, US military personnel conducted the operation with unparalleled precision and demonstrated that the United States can put direct pressure on Al Shabab leadership at any time of our choosing.”

Al Shabab recently demonstrated its widening reach by carrying out last month’s deadly assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

The Westgate Mall attack surprised some terrorism experts by its painstaking planning and sophistication. Before the Sept. 21 attack, many international terrorism analysts believed that only Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula among Al Qaeda-affiliated groups could strike outside its immediate base. The Westgate Mall attack has led some analysts to warn that Al Shabab could be joining the list.

“The Westgate Mall attack was well-planned and well-executed, and involved sophisticated intelligence collection, surveillance, and reconnaissance of the target … skills [that] could be used for other types of attacks directly targeting the United States and its citizens,” said RAND counterterrorism expert Seth Jones in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week.

Americans need to think about Al Shabab as something more than just a Somalia or Africa problem, Mr. Jones said, noting that the group “possesses a competent external operations capability,” that its leadership has “expressed an interest in striking US and other foreign targets in East Africa,” and that “perhaps most concerning, Americans from cities like Phoenix and Minneapolis have traveled to Somalia over the past several years to fight with Al Shabab.”

What the weekend raids also prompt Americans to think about is how a threat that since 9/11 was more associated with Afghanistan and Pakistan and parts of the Middle East may now have its epicenter in the weak or failed states across the north of Africa.

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