April 5, 2002 | News Releases on Department of Homeland Security
WASHINGTON, Apr. 5, 2002-If U.S. officials want to keep Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda cohorts on the run, they need to watch Somalia closely. Otherwise, the organization responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks will likely regroup there, according to a new Heritage Foundation paper.
Al Qaeda tends to settle in lawless countries with weak governments, such as Somalia and Afghanistan, says James Phillips, Heritage's Middle East expert. It also has long-standing ties to the Somali radical group al Ittihad al Islamiya (AIAI), which has tried before to impose strict Islamic law on parts of Somalia.
The United States should try to intercept al-Qaeda members before they can reach Somalia by stepping up patrols of the country's 1,900-mile coastline, Phillips says. It also should bolster intelligence-gathering in and around Somalia and give diplomatic, economic and intelligence support to Somali factions that are willing to contain or even eliminate AIAI as a potential threat.
What U.S. officials shouldn't do, Phillips says, is try once again to engage in nation-building in Somalia, one of Africa's poorest countries. "Washington can't afford to bog down its overburdened military forces in nation-building efforts that are inherently risky, expensive and doubtful," he says. "Such exercises draw peacekeeping forces into the lethal politics of failed states and create new incentives for terrorism and new targets for terrorists to attack."
That means refusing to pick sides among the various political factions in Somalia and refusing to put ground troops there unless al Qaeda, reorganized in Somalia, begins to present a credible threat. To do otherwise would pull already-stretched troop strength from more urgent missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, says Phillips.
Where possible, all ground operations in Somalia should be left to Somali surrogates, he says-backed by U.S. allies Ethiopia and Kenya. Both countries have strong reasons to cooperate. They have been hit by terrorist attacks launched by Islamic radicals supported from Somalia and will become frontline states if al Qaeda "turns Somalia into another Afghanistan."
Phillips says Ethiopia would be an especially good partner because it fought three wars with Somalia and can offer U.S. forces air bases for launching air strikes or commando raids. But he cautions against relying too heavily on Ethiopian interpretations of events, since Addis Ababa has its own agenda where Somalia is concerned and could give the United States misleading reports to gain increased U.S. aid and further Ethiopian aims in the process.
"The United States should learn from its 1992-1994 experience in Somalia and minimize the involvement of U.S. troops on the ground there, which would become a lightning rod for terrorist attacks," says Phillips.
Nearly 10 years ago, U.S. troops went into Somalia to keep U.N. convoys of food for starving Somalis from being stolen by local warlords. In response, militia members working for Mohammed Farrah Aideed-and trained by Osama bin Laden's terrorist network-shot down two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters and killed 18 Army Rangers. The movie "Black Hawk Down" depicts the desperate firefight that erupted and "shows why an ounce of prevention is worth several pounds of cure," says Phillips.