The threat from Somalia

Monday, November 2, 2009

ONE OF THE rhetorical questions frequently tossed out in the debate over Afghanistan concerns the brewing trouble in Somalia and Yemen, both of which are known to host al-Qaeda cadres and training camps. If it's necessary to pacify Afghanistan to protect U.S. security, goes the taunt, must we also intervene in Somalia and Yemen?

The presumed answer is: "Of course not -- and therefore why bother with Afghanistan?" The more sensible response is: If something is not done soon about these lawless places, one or the other may well become the next Afghanistan -- a place where U.S. military intervention was compelled by a devastating attack on the homeland.

Most urgent is Somalia: Washington's focus on Afghanistan has obscured what ought to be alarming recent reports about al-Qaeda's schooling of terrorists there -- including a substantial number of American citizens. National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael R. Leiter recently reported to Congress that a radical Islamic militia known as al-Shabab has sent dozens -- that's right, dozens -- of Somali Americans and American Muslims through training conducted by al-Qaeda. At least seven have already been killed in fighting in Somalia, where al-Shabab is challenging the internationally recognized but weak Somali government over the parts of Mogadishu it still holds.

Some experts question whether the Taliban leadership is still intertwined with al-Qaeda. In the case of Somalia, there is no question. Al-Shabab recently released a video pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda. It featured an American spokesman and showed footage of a training camp starring a former University of South Alabama student. Al-Shabab may not aspire to launch attacks against the United States, but it seems more than plausible that it would allow some of its U.S. passport holders to be drafted for an al-Qaeda mission.

The Obama administration is not ignoring this threat. Last month a bold raid by U.S. Special Forces killed one of Somalia's top al-Qaeda operatives. But such stand-off counterterrorism operations are no more likely to solve the problem on their own than they are in Afghanistan and Pakistan. What's needed is a complementary and concerted effort to bolster the Somali government and its army, so that it is able to turn back al-Shabab and extend its authority across the country.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently met President Sharif Ahmed and said that his moderate Islamist administration was "the best hope we've had in quite some time for a return to stability." But U.S. support for Mr. Ahmed has been modest. Washington is a big donor of food and other humanitarian aid and provides funds to train the military, but Mr. Ahmed recently told The Post that he desperately needs more military support and an expansion of a U.N. peacekeeping force.

Administration officials say that a review of the situation in Somalia is underway, with aims that include strengthening the government. It's a hard problem: The country has lacked a national government for 20 years, and attempts by the past three U.S. presidents to help restore order, with U.S. troops or with proxies, failed dismally. But Somalia is not a country the United States and its allies can ignore or treat merely with missile strikes. As in Afghanistan before 2001, the mounting threat of terrorist organizations, and their potential to strike far beyond the horn of Africa, are apparent. The indelible lesson of Sept. 11, 2001, is that they must be countered aggressively.

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