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U.S. expands drone war

The clandestine U.S. military campaign to combat al-Qaida's franchise in Yemen is expanding to fight the Islamist militancy in Somalia, as new evidence indicates that insurgents in the two countries are forging closer ties and possibly plotting attacks against the United States, American officials say.

A U.S. military drone aircraft attacked several Somalis in the militant group al-Shabab late last month, the officials said, killing at least one of its midlevel operatives and wounding others.

The strike was carried out by the same Special Operations Command unit battling militants in Yemen, and it represented an intensification of a U.S. military campaign in a mostly lawless region where weak governments have allowed groups with links to al-Qaida to flourish.

The Obama administration's increased focus on Somalia comes as the White House has unveiled a new strategy to battle al-Qaida in the post-Osama bin Laden era, and as some U.S. military and intelligence officials view al-Qaida affiliates in Yemen and Somalia as a greater threat to the United States than the group of operatives in Pakistan who have been barraged with hundreds of drone strikes directed by the CIA in recent years.

The military drone strike in Somalia last month was the first U.S. attack there since 2009, when helicopter-borne commandos killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a senior leader of the group that carried out the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Although it appears that no senior Somali militants were killed in last month's drone strike, a Pentagon official said Friday that one of the militants who was wounded had been in contact recently with Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born radical cleric now hiding in Yemen. The news that the strike was carried out by a U.S. drone was first reported in The Washington Post this week.

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U.S. military officials said there was new intelligence that militants in Yemen and Somalia were communicating more frequently about operations, training and tactics, but the Pentagon is wading into the chaos in Somalia with some trepidation. Many in uniform are still haunted by the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" debacle, in which 18 elite U.S. troops were killed in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, battling fighters aligned with warlords. Senior U.S. officials have repeatedly said in private in the past year that the administration does not intend to send U.S. ground troops to Somalia beyond quick raids.

For several years, the United States has largely been relying on proxy forces in Somalia, including African Union peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi, to support Somalia's fragile transitional government. During the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2007, clandestine operatives from the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command initiated missions into Somalia from an airstrip in Ethiopia.

Even as threat warnings grow, U.S. officials say that al-Shabab militants are under increasing pressure on various fronts, and that now is the time to attack the group aggressively. But it is unclear whether U.S. intelligence about Somalia — often sketchy and inconclusive — has improved in recent months.

This week, Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, who was until recently in charge of the Joint Special Operations Command, told lawmakers that military planners were "looking very hard at Yemen and at Somalia," but he said that the effectiveness of the missions there was occasionally hampered by limited availability of surveillance aircraft like drones.

One day later, President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, said that al-Qaida's badly weakened leadership in Pakistan had urged the group's regional affiliates to attack U.S. targets.

''From the territory it controls in Somalia, al-Shabab continues to call for strikes against the United States," Brennan said.

Over the past two years, the administration has wrestled with how to deal with al-Shabab, many of whose midlevel fighters oppose Somalia's weak transitional government but are not necessarily seeking to battle the United States. Attacking them — not just their leaders — could push those militants to join al-Qaida, some officials say.

''That has led to a complicated policy debate over how you apply your counterterrorism tools against a group like al-Shabab, because it is not a given that going after them in the same way that you go after al-Qaida would produce the best result," a senior administration official said last fall.

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U.S. officials said this week that they were trying to exploit al-Shabab's recent setbacks. Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, al-Qaida's leader in East Africa and the mastermind of the 1998 bombings, was killed June 7 in a shootout at a security checkpoint in Somalia.

Somali clan militias, backed by Kenya and Ethiopia, have reclaimed Shabab-held territory in southwestern Somalia, putting more strain on the organization, said Andre Le Sage, a senior research fellow who specializes in Africa at the National Defense University in Washington.

Still, U.S. intelligence and military officials warn of increasing operational ties between al-Shabab and the al-Qaida franchise in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. The group orchestrated a plot to blow up a jetliner headed to Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009, and another attempt nearly a year later to destroy cargo planes carrying printer cartridges packed with explosives. Both plots failed.

U.S. intelligence officials say that al-Shabab so far have carried out only one attack outside of Somalia, a series of coordinated bombings that killed more than 70 people in Uganda as crowds gathered to watch a World Cup match last year.

In statements in recent months, al-Shabab have pledged allegiance to al-Qaida and its new leader, Ayman al-Zawahri. U.S. officials said that Awlaki had developed close ties to senior al-Shabab leaders, including Ahmed Abdi Godane.

"What I'd be most concerned about is whether AQAP could transfer to Shabab its knowledge of building IEDs and sophisticated plots, and Shabab could make available to AQAP recruits with Western passports," said Le Sage, referring to improvised explosive devices.

More than 30 Somali-Americans from cities like Minneapolis have left the United States to fight in Somalia in recent years. Law enforcement and counterterrorism officials say they fear that al-Qaida operatives could recruit those Americans to return home as suicide bombers.

''My main concern is that a U.S. citizen who joins, trains and then gains experience in the field with organizations such as al-Shabab returns to the U.S. with a much greater level of capability than when he left," said a senior law enforcement official. "Coupled with enhanced radicalization and operational direction, that person is now a clear threat."

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