Misreading the Somali Threat

Misreading the Somali Threat

The Obama administration is sending mixed signals on how to deal with pirates.



In the days after the Maersk Alabama was attacked by Somali pirates, the papers here were full of news about the incident. Many letter writers praised the cargo ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, for volunteering to be a hostage in exchange for his crew’s safety, with one commenting that he wished Kenya’s feuding leaders would draw a lesson “and put the interests of the country before their own.” Others expressed the hope that the United States will work to eliminate the pirate menace, noting how close Somalia is to Kenya. No one, however, has proposed military action against Somalia.

That was left to US hawks, who–conflating piracy, the militant Somali group Al Shabab and Al Qaeda–swiftly turned the attack into a new excuse for extending the “war on terror” to this corner of Africa. John Bolton, former ambassador to the United Nations, called for an invasion as “the prudential response” to piracy, while the Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano argued for “going into Somalia and rooting out the [pirate] bases.” Former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan maintained in the Wall Street Journal that if Al Qaeda mounts another successful attack, “there is a strong chance it will be linked to Somalia.”

The Obama administration’s response to Somali piracy–and the strategy it develops to deal with Al Shabab–will be a crucial test of whether the neocon worldview retains any traction. So far the signals are frustratingly mixed. On the one hand, Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s coolheaded comments in the wake of the attack signaled that the administration has thrown off the Bush-era lens and sees the world as the messy and complicated place that it is. On April 13 Gates explained that “there is no purely military solution” to the threat of piracy and suggested that the best strategy for dealing with hijackers like those who captured the Maersk Alabama–whom he described as “untrained teenagers with heavy weapons”–was to improve governance and economic stability. On the other hand, if a front-page April 11 Washington Post story is to be believed, even before the piracy incident administration officials were paying respectful attention to defense officials’ recommendations to pre-emptively strike Al Shabab training camps “based on the potential threat the group poses to American interests.”

What worries me in particular is the ease with which Americans who should know better are buying into the claim that Al Shabab is working closely with Al Qaeda–a contention reminiscent of the repeated charge that Saddam Hussein was in league with Osama bin Laden. The Washington Post story, for example, spoke flatly of the “ties between [Al Shabab’s] leaders and al-Qaeda.” Reuters, by contrast, carefully referred to Al Shabab on March 19 as a group that “Washington accuses of having close ties to al Qaeda.” Al Shabab denies organizational links to Al Qaeda, though in a March 3 interview with Al Jazeera (as reported by Purdue professor Michael Weinstein), its spokesman said the group shares Al Qaeda’s goals of implementing Sharia, uniting Islamic countries and “restoring the Caliphate.”

Sitting here in Nairobi, in a country grappling with ethnic tensions and an estimated 40 percent unemployment rate, the question of just what the Obama administration believes about piracy and terrorism in Somalia is not academic. Somalia is Kenya’s neighbor, and even the few US bombing runs into the country to date, targeting alleged Al Qaeda operatives, have resulted in a huge influx of Somali refugees. Kenya’s Dadaab refugee center is home to an estimated 250,000 people, while the population of the area of Nairobi known–not affectionately–as Little Mogadishu has swelled with illegal immigrants.

One friend of mine here, an Ethiopian by birth, is gloomy about Obama’s ability to resist the hawks’ demands. He says that Obama, being new and black, is under great pressure to prove his military credentials. There’s no way to do that, he says, in either Afghanistan or Iraq. Somalia, in contrast, offers a chance to define and fight his “own” war. My concerns rest more with the ambitions of Africom, the Pentagon command for Africa, which has been warmly endorsed by several of Obama’s top advisers. Despite general distrust of Africom throughout the continent, former Ambassador to Tanzania Charles Stith blithely wrote in the Boston Globe that “while Africom has met some resistance, this latest hostage-taking involving an American might be just the opportunity to jump-start conversations about how Africom might be more effectively engaged.” Yes, and just the ticket to career advancement for a young Africom officer.

An African proverb says, “When the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” Those of us who are Somalia’s neighbors can only hope that if the American elephant decides to start something, we won’t get stepped on.

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