Even as the U.S. continues to remove dangerous extremist leaders from the field, it’s headed in the wrong direction on limiting safe havens
By Massimo Calabresi
The U.S. raids against terrorist targets in Somalia and Libya on Saturday show how America is succeeding in one part of its counterterrorism strategy, but failing in another.
Two things allow extremists to threaten the U.S.: ambitious leadership and safe haven. America has become very good at neutralizing the former, but is doing very poorly at limiting the latter.
Since 9/11, the U.S. has succeeded in killing or capturing most of al-Qaeda’s original leadership. In another victory on Saturday, the FBI and CIA, with the support of U.S. military forces, captured a long-sought al-Qaeda leader, Anas al-Liby, in Tripoli, according to a U.S. official and media reports. Al-Liby allegedly joined al-Qaeda in the 1990s and was under indictment for participating in the 1998 attack on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He had a $5 million reward on his head.
Secretary of State John Kerry said of the raids on Sunday, “Members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations literally can run but they can’t hide.” But the problem is that they are hiding, in safe havens in largely ungoverned areas.
Even as the U.S. has rolled up the original group’s leaders, al-Qaeda’s ideological allies have ranged through West, North and East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Iraq and the Caucuses, and remain in South Asia. Largely isolated, these al-Qaeda travelers are often focused more on regional objectives than spectacular attacks against America.
But with bold leadership, those small-time groups can plan and carry out such big attacks. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has repeatedly launched dangerous bomb plots against U.S. airlines. The Somali group al-Shabab and other organizations in Africa and the Middle East have formally joined forces with al-Qaeda and declared their intention to attack the U.S. and its allies.
Removing ambitious, creative leaders limits the danger. That’s the logic behind the attack against a leader of the al-Shabab group in Somalia by Navy SEAL Team 6 early on Saturday morning. U.S. officials have not identified the target of the operation, but one said it “was aimed at capturing a high-value al-Shabab terrorist leader.” The official also said no U.S. personnel were injured or killed.
(MORE: Terror in Nairobi: Behind al-Shabab’s War With Kenya)
Reports of the results of the raid in Somalia have been mixed. The AP reported that the SEALs failed to get their target, but a U.S. official said the SEALs did inflict some al-Shabab casualties.
Regardless of the strike’s success, the larger problem is that Somalia remains largely ungoverned and — like Yemen and other countries with operative al-Qaeda offshoots — unable or unwilling to tackle al-Shabab. The U.S. has poured money and support into such countries with mixed success.
Worse (from the counterterrorism perspective at least), countries that once brutally cracked down on al-Qaeda allies, like Libya and Syria, have become hotbeds of extremist activity in the wake of the Arab Spring. That leaves the U.S. facing a widening potential threat and limited options for dealing with it.
The situation was colorfully described by former CIA and FBI counterterrorism expert Philip Mudd in July at the Aspen Security Forum:
That’s a logical approach to the problem, and no doubt it helps keep America safe. But the longer-term issue is whether the U.S. will be successful in working with local governments to limit safe havens around the world. At the moment, the U.S. is doing great at smoking dangerous terrorist leaders, but with safe havens thriving in rogue countries, the threat of these terrorist groups still exists.
— With reporting by Zeke Miller and Jay Newton-Small / Washington