In the 10 years since September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, U.S.-led efforts to defeat al-Qaida have focused on South Asia and the Middle East. But the international terror group has long had a foothold in East Africa, and analysts say the group's link to Somalia's al-Shabab militants continues to pose a major regional threat.
Three years before al-Qaida operatives crashed planes into New York's twin towers and the Pentagon outside Washington, DC, the terrorist group struck in East Africa. On August 7, 1998, suicide bombers destroyed the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, killing hundreds of people and wounding thousands more.
Mark Schroeder, an Africa analyst with Stratfor.com, a global news and analysis company, says because the region has been loosely governed for so long, East Africa was an ideal place for al-Qaida to practice acts of terror.
“It was a great place to try some methods and tactics and strategies that was very much below the radar and I would still say, in a way, it's still below the radar - not to the same extent," explained Schroeder.
He says that after 9/11, the United States really began to expand its presence in East Africa, recognizing that al-Qaida posed a major threat.
“After the embassy bombings in 1998, it wasn't like the region was neglected, but I think the 9/11 event was definitely a turning point in taking a kind of global, comprehensive approach to understanding al-Qaida, and trying to isolate and minimize them as a threat,” Schroeder said.
Strong terror links
Today, that threat has evolved. The attacks in 1998 were organized by al-Qaida's central command under the guidance of Osama bin Laden. But now, the attention is on Somalia's Islamist militant group, al-Shabab.
“Al-Shabab is the most significant threat in East Africa," said U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Karl Wycoff, "and I would say, just to put all of this in context, that Al-Shabab is not only a terrorism threat but its also a stability threat - a threat to stability both in Somalia and in the region.”
The group has had strong links to al-Qaida. Case in point: the man behind the embassy bombings, known as Fazul Harun, was both an al-Qaida operative and a top commander in al-Shabab.
But the power structure is complicated. Al-Shabab is a highly factionalized organization, with some members adhering to a global jihadist philosophy, and others focused on the local fight within Somalia.
In order to combat such a threat, Wycoff says the United States relies on its regional partners, such as Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, or TFG.
“I would also point out in terms of how things are playing out, that Harun Fazul, who was involved in the attacks on the U.S. embassies back in 1998, for instance, was killed by TFG forces, by transitional government forces, there in Mogadishu," noted Wycoff. "And that's, I think, an example of the way things are moving: that we're trying to enable our Somali partners, continue to support our African Union partners, that they can make more progress on the stability front.”
The United States supports the so-called Djibouti Peace Process as a route to stability in Somalia. The United Nations-backed initiative led to an agreement between Somali leaders this year that establishes a plan for national elections and a new constitution.
But, there are also reports that the U.S. is using covert military tactics, including drone missile attacks, against al-Shabab targets.
“The United States has for the last several years maintained that kind of covert presence and capability, and the U.S. has carried out specialized operations for the last several years in Somalia. It's not often; its not frequent; but it happens,” said Mark Schroeder of Stratfor.com.
Is al-Shabab weakening?
Now, with a famine devastating the communities that al-Shabab has controlled and drawn resources from for several years, and with the TFG claiming military victories over the militant group in Mogadishu, many say al-Shabab is weakening.
Abdi Samad, an independent Somali analyst based in Nairobi, says that as al-Shabab’s central structure falls apart, foreign fighters in the group may seek to carry out attacks elsewhere.
“Still there's a significant number of the foreign fighters who came from the neighboring countries," Samad said. "They can come back to Kenya, Tanzania or Uganda and they can do something. They can even carry out some operations.”
Somali officials have said their success combating al-Shabab marks the beginning of the end of the group.
However, Somalia has been without a stable central government for the past 20 years, leaving the country an ideal testing ground for terrorism.