Executive Summary: Somalia and al-Qaeda: Implications for the War on Terrorism

Report Homeland Security

Executive Summary: Somalia and al-Qaeda: Implications for the War on Terrorism

April 5, 2002 4 min read Download Report
Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation
James Phillips is a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

The United States has made considerable progress in its war against international terrorism. It has uprooted Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist group--and the radical Islamic Taliban regime that protected it--from Afghanistan. Yet, despite his military setback in Afghanistan and the arrest of over 1,300 al-Qaeda suspects in over 70 countries, bin Laden's terrorist network remains "the most immediate and serious threat" to American security, according to CIA Director George Tenet. Largely expelled from Afghanistan, al-Qaeda may seek to regroup in another country where it could count on some degree of local support.

Somalia is such a place. It is a failed state whose lawless anarchy would permit terrorists to operate relatively freely. Al-Qaeda has operated there in the past and has worked with a radical Somali group, al-Ittihad al-Islamiya (AIAI or "Islamic Unity"), since the early 1990s. Somalia also has a long seacoast with numerous unpatrolled ports that could provide easy entry for al-Qaeda terrorists fleeing from Afghanistan via Pakistan or Iran by sea.

If it were to intervene in Somalia, the United States would discover that Somalia's anarchy, which makes it fertile ground for Islamic extremists, also makes it an extremely unpredictable arena for military operations. It may be easier in military and geostrategic terms to conduct counterterrorist operations in Somalia than in Afghanistan, but Somalia's tumultuous internal politics make any sustained military operation a risky proposition.

The Clinton Administration discovered this when it expanded a 1992 humanitarian food relief operation in Somalia into a failed nation-building experiment. U.S. peacekeeping troops became a lightning rod for attacks by bin Laden's terrorists and his Somali allies. On October 3, 1993, 18 American special forces troops were killed in a battle with Somalis trained by bin Laden's supporters. The subsequent withdrawal of the U.S. peacekeeping forces from Somalia in 1994 was perceived as a triumph for bin Laden and probably encouraged him to launch increasingly devastating terrorist attacks against the United States to drive American forces out of Saudi Arabia, bin Laden's home country.

Implications for U.S. Counterterrorism Policy.
To prepare itself for the likelihood that bin Laden and his lieutenants will move their operations to Somalia, the United States should:

  • Place a top priority on intercepting al-Qaeda's principal leaders before they can establish a base of operations in Somalia. Al-Qaeda's center of gravity, which must be destroyed if it is to be defeated, is not its physical infrastructure in Afghanistan or elsewhere, but its leadership structure. Capturing or killing these leaders is more an intelligence problem than a purely military one.
  • Bolster U.S. intelligence-gathering inside Somalia. The CIA needs to recruit and deploy, as soon as possible, a network of Somali agents drawn from every clan and faction to gain a better understanding of Somalia's kaleidoscopic clan-based politics, al-Qaeda's presence there, and the strength of the groups that might aid it. Poor intelligence was a contributing factor in the failed 1993 raid that led to the deaths of 18 Americans.
  • Keep the focus on fighting al-Qaeda and avoid mission creep. Washington must remain tightly focused on battling al-Qaeda. U.S. military forces, already spread thin, must prepare for other contingencies, including possible war against Iraq. The United States cannot afford to commit substantial military forces to action in Somalia unless there is solid evidence that al-Qaeda has moved its leadership or major portions of its operations there. Washington cannot repeat the mistake of getting involved in nation-building in Somalia.
  • Cooperate with Ethiopia and Kenya to curb Islamic radicalism in Somalia. Neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya both have suffered from terrorist attacks launched by Islamic radicals supported by backers in Somalia. Ethiopia could be an important U.S. ally, with considerable influence inside Somalia exercised through its proxies in the Somali Reconciliation and Restoration Council. Addis Ababa also could provide access to Ethiopian air bases to use as staging areas for possible commando raids or air strikes.
  • Cultivate Somali allies to combat al-Qaeda. The U.S. should recruit Somalis to help uproot al-Qaeda from Somalia, but Washington should refrain from picking sides among the factions and should keep its lines open to all factions with the exception of the radical AIAI.
  • Use covert CIA operations, special operations commandos, and precision air strikes as necessary to target al-Qaeda cells. In Somalia, al-Qaeda would seek to blend in with native Somalis and use civilians as shields. Conventional military operations, and even large special forces operations as in Mogadishu in 1993, could result in heavy civilian casualties. Rather than take this approach, which would radicalize Somalis and win bin Laden greater support, the United States should attack isolated targets with small units operating stealthily at night. Lightning "snatch and grab" commando operations should be launched from bases outside of Somalia to limit the presence of foreign troops on the ground.

After being evicted from Afghanistan, al-Qaeda may regroup in Somalia, where it has longstanding links to the radical group al-Ittihad al-Islamiya. Washington's first priority should be to deny bin Laden a base in Somalia by intercepting al-Qaeda forces before they reach that failed state. Meanwhile the United States should increase its intelligence-gathering activities in Somalia to assess the strength of the threat that al-Qaeda poses there.

Absent a growing al-Qaeda threat or the move of its leaders to Somalia, the United States should avoid making a sustained military commitment there, which would divert scarce military forces from more urgent missions in Iraq or Afghanistan. The scale of any U.S. military and political commitment should be calibrated to match the threat posed by the al-Qaeda presence in Somalia. If this presence is found to pose little threat to American interests, U.S. military forces should not be deployed there. The United States instead should cooperate with Somalis to root out al-Qaeda. In any event, the Bush Administration should avoid being drawn into another costly and risky nation-building experiment in Somalia, this time under the guise of fighting terrorism.

James Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Affairs in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation