Yesterday, in an attempt to justify New York GOP Rep. Peter King’s broad and pointless hearings on domestic radicalization, consevative Post writer Marc Thiessen decided he’d invoke a terrorist group that does not yet exist:
Al-Shabab/al-Qaeda in East Africa. In the summer of 2008, the Somali terror group al-Shabab formally merged with al-Qaeda, and last year released a video showing its fighters chanting “Here we are O’ Osama. We are your soldiers O’ Osama” and pledging to carry out jihad for him across the world.
Al-Shabaab’s recruitment of at least twenty young Somali Americans in Minnesota is, indeed, alarming. The events in Minnesota and the FBI’s success in establishing a relationship with the local Muslim community that helped them nab the recruiters would be a proper subject for a Homeland Security Committee hearing, unlike King’s rhetorical indictment of the American Muslim community as a whole. In fact, it’s one of the alternatives I suggested.
The problem with Thiessen’s take is that, while al-Shabaab has pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden in an effort to gain al-Qaeda’s support, they have not, in fact, “formally merged” with the group, nor have they taken on the name “al-Qaeda in East Africa.” They are still wannabes. That’s in part because of internal conflicts within the group -- as Brookings’s Daniel Byman wrote last year, “Some parts of the organization cooperate with al Qaeda, with foreign jihadists playing leading roles in tactics and operations. But others within the movement -- probably the majority, in fact -- oppose the foreigners’ control, with some even publicly condemning terrorism and even working with international humanitarian relief efforts.”
A formal merger between al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda would be a huge deal, because, as Australian counterterrorism expert Leah Farrall, who authored a recent Foreign Affairs piece on al-Qaeda’s franchise operations, explained to me, adoption of the franchise name is “usually done around the time of the franchise’s first large-scale attack against Western interests -- as a sort of exercise in ‘brand promotion.’ Al-Shabaab is a heinous and brutal group -- but their activities have thus far been confined to East Africa. Farrall called Thiessen’s statement that Al-Shabaab had merged with al-Qaeda “completely inaccurate.”
Thiessen appears to be the only person using the term “al-Qaeda in East Africa” to refer to al-Shabaab. But his rhetorical excess in defense of a useless meta-hearing that yielded little in the way of understanding on the topic in question may be actively harmful. As Farrall wrote in an e-mail:
Any attempt to represent the group in this way before a formal merger took place would be rightly quashed in internal review processes that take place before the release of formal analytical product, not only because it is completely inaccurate and analytically misleading, but also because experts within government would also be aware that such a depiction would empower al Shabab in its campaign to join al Qaeda. In this respect, not only are Thiessen’s comments inaccurate, they are also irresponsible.
It wouldn’t be the first time a conservative commentator was overstating the influence of a terrorist group for political purposes. When underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab set himself on fire before being subdued by a group of unarmed airline passengers, conservatives rushed to portray the attack as “a success” for the terrorists rather than an embarrassing failure.
The irony is that al-Shabaab largely exists in its current form because of the misguided Bush-backed Ethiopian intervention in Somalia in 2006. As Matthew Yglesias wrote, that operation bred “a new generation of anti-American jihadists.” It also helped breed them here. If Congress does hold hearings on domestic radicalization involving al-Shabaab’s recruitment in Minnesota, it should probably consider that, too.