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Somalia Bomb’s Grim Message: Afghanistan Isn’t The Only Threat

December 4, 2009

(This is from Sphere, AOL’s new news site. Check it out.)

by Haley Edwards

ADEN, Yemen (Dec. 3) — A suicide bomber’s deadly attack at a Mogadishu hotel Thursday not only drives home the fragility of the all-but-failed state of Somalia. It also highlights a problem the U.S. escalation in Afghanistan doesn’t address: that al-Qaida’s Islamist allies are active far beyond the sway of the Taliban.

The attack on one of the Somali capital’s few luxury hotels Thursday killed at least 19 people, many of whom were attending a college graduation ceremony. Among the victims were three government ministers, one of whom — Ibrahim Hassan Adow, the minister of higher education — was an American citizen. Though violence is commonplace in the war-torn country, the suicide bomber struck in a neighborhood thought to have been under the control of the nation’s Transitional Federal Government, underscoring its vulnerability.

“This bombing is a serious blow to the Transitional Federal Government, but it is just one more serious blow in what has been a long line of serious blows,” said David Smock, a Somalia expert at the United States Institute of Peace. “The TFG is on life support, but I don’t think this one act will cause [its] final downfall.”

Online jihadi forums are still quiet on which group is responsible for the attack, but suspicions quickly centered on al-Shabab, Somalia’s most powerful Islamist insurgent group. In the past year, al-Shabab, which claims to have ties with al-Qaida and is classified as a terrorist group by the U.S., has enjoyed a series of successes against Somalia’s transitional government. In September the group, which controls much of southern Somalia, killed the second-in-command of the African Union peacekeeping force deployed in the country.

In his Tuesday night speech announcing the escalation in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama singled out Somalia and Yemen — the Gulf nation just across the Gulf of Aden from Mogadishu — as countries “where al-Qaida and its allies attempt to establish a foothold.”

Marc Lynch, the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, said Obama’s speech was both “reassuring and terrifying.”

“[Obama] understands that Afghanistan is not the only, or even the primary, location where those motivated by al-Qaida’s ideas can operate,” he wrote on his Foreign Policy blog. “But if the next move is to bring governance and stability, and counterterrorism and [counterinsurgency], to every ungoverned space on Earth … then we are truly facing bankruptcy.”

“We can’t afford to do this in Afghanistan,” Lynch wrote. “We certainly can’t afford to do it in Somalia and Yemen.”

Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, argues that the U.S. should cultivate more complex relationships with nations that harbor extremist groups.

“The U.S. must learn that its insistence on seeing everything through the prism of counterterrorism has induced exactly the type of results it is hoping to avoid,” he wrote in an e-mail Thursday. “By focusing on al-Qaida to the exclusion of nearly every other challenge and by linking all of its aid to this single issue, the U.S. has ensured that it will always exist.”

Obama advocated better intelligence and “strong partnerships” to stymie “shadowy networks,” but that might not be enough to preserve the faltering government of Somalia. Some policy experts suggest making more use of Predator drones, the unmanned aerial vehicles that have been used in the past to kill insurgents in both Somalia and Yemen, where al-Qaida has also established a formidable base. In the last week, the Yemeni press has reported drone sightings over Marib, an al-Qaida stronghold in northeast Yemen. It may not be long before they’re sighted again over al-Shabab’s turf in Somalia.

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