April 5, 2002 | Executive Summary on Department of Homeland Security
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.
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.