When will they learn? It wasn’t quite Black Hawk Down, but America’s latest military intervention in Somalia was another unmitigated failure. Far from being weakened by the incident, Al-Shabaab are likely to emerge stronger than ever.
It took America’s fighting forces a long time to get over Black Hawk Down. The impact of their disastrous foray into Mogadishu – exactly 20 years ago last Thursday – was to sap morale and challenge the superpower’s post-Cold War belief in itself as benevolent superpower-in-chief; the parading of American corpses through the city’s streets was a setback that informed all military intervention for a decade to come, and was a major factor in the international community’s reluctance to get involved in Rwanda in 1994.
Yet here we are, two decades later, dealing with the aftermath of another botched American military raid on Somali soil.
This one, fortunately for all concerned, wasn’t nearly as bad. Although details remain scarce, the basic facts are that a team of US marines – SEAL Team Six, the same unit that nabbed Osama bin Laden in Abbatobad – landed by boat near the coastal town of Baraawe, currently under the control of Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab. They rushed to a nearby house to try and capture or kill a high-profile Al-Shabaab leader. A gunfight ensued and the Americans were beaten back, apparently without reaching their target. There were two Al-Shabaab fatalities, and the Americans were forced to abandon some of their equipment, including weapons.
We’re not sure exactly who the target was, with contradictory reports emerging. Various media outlets are reporting various anonymous sources as identifying both Al-Shabaab chief Ahmed Abdi Godane and Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, a senior commander that goes by the name Ikrima (Note:The US has now confirmed that Ikrima was the target) . Either way, the mission was unsuccessful, and Al-Shabaab are already trumpeting their victory. “Ordinary fighters lived in the house and they bravely counter-attacked and chased off the attackers,” spokesman Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab told Reuters, adding that no senior figures were in the vicinity of the attack.
In the absence of much information, attention instead has turned to speculation about the reasons behind the unexpected raid. There are two main narratives. The first is that this was a direct response to the terrorist attack on Westgate mall in Nairobi, for which Al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility, intended as a swift and targeted retaliation that would teach Al-Shabaab and any other would-be terrorists a lesson. This narrative is supported by authoritative reports that the raid was planned and authorised in the immediate aftermath of the Westgate attack.
The second is that this is part of a larger attempt to strike at the heart of Al-Qaeda’s affiliate operations around the world; a coordinate offensive in American’s never-ending War on Terror. This is lent credence by the fact that another daring raid was conducted at the same time in Libya, where special forces kidnapped Abu Anas Al-Liby, a senior Al-Qaeda figure wanted in connection with the US Embassy bombings in east Africa in 1998. The Libyan raid was a much smoother operation: no one got hurt and Al-Liby is now in US custody.
These two narratives are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they complement one another quite well. It will come as no surprise if both raids had been contemplated for some time, with the Westgate attack merely serving to bring the timetable forward. And the coordination makes sense too: as well as catching the targets by surprise, the American authorities can handle the inevitable public and diplomatic backlash in one go, instead of having to account for two separate incidents at two different times.
That backlash has already begun. The Libyan government has complained loudly, calling for a full explanation from Washington. And they’ve got reason to complain: Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s administration walks a fine line between cooperation with the western nations which helped oust Muammar Gaddafi, and keeping militia groups – many of which identify as Islamist – under control. The kidnapping of a Libyan national and high-profile Islamist figure from the Libyan capital threatens to push upset the all too delicate balance.
Somalia’s government was less concerned about the violation of its sovereignty, but perhaps that’s because their sovereignty is tenuous at best, and often non-existent in practice. The area where the attack took place is Al-Shabaab country, as is much of southern and central Somalia, and it’s Al-Shabaab who have been most outspoken against the raid. However, given the failure to nab any big fish, the group will probably be able to use the incident to their advantage; historically, they always been at their most popular when they have a defined external threat to mobilise against.
As Simon Tisdall scathingly (and quite correctly) observed in the Guardian: “The raids yielded one wanted man. They shed yet more blood. They played the terrorists’ game. They invited further retaliation and escalation down the road. They reminded Muslims everywhere that the US, in righteous mood, has scant regard for other countries’ borders and national rights. And they did nothing to address the roots and causes of confrontation between Islam and the west.”
It may not have been another Black Hawk Down, but already it looks like America has plenty of reason to regret another ill-advised military intervention in Somalia. DM
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Simon Allison covers Africa for the Daily Maverick, having cut his teeth reporting from Palestine, Somalia and revolutionary Egypt. He loves news and politics, the more convoluted the better. Despite his natural cynicism and occasionally despairing tone, he is an Afro-optimist, and can’t wait to witness and chronicle the continent’s swift development over the next few decades.
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