In divulging this week’s second US air strike on suspected al-Qaida targets in Somalia, US officials have offered only a broad, non-descriptive confirmation of continuing what they call military operations against an international terrorist network in East Africa. On Wednesday, the Defense Department would not disclose if this week’s raid was an escalation or an extension of the pursuit of al-Qaida suspects believed to have been involved in the deadly 1998 attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The raid two weeks ago was said to target the senior al-Qaida leader in East Africa and an al-Qaida operative wanted for his involvement in the embassy bombings. Andrew McGregor is director of Aberfoyle International Security, a Toronto, Canada-based agency specializing in political and security issues in the Islamic world. He says such raids will continue if local intelligence points to a need for further action, but that this week’s attack represents a significant commitment of US forces in the war on terrorism.
“It shows a growing commitment on the part of United States forces to become engaged militarily in Somalia at a time when they are quite busy on other fronts. It also demonstrates what seems to be a firm belief in the US administration that there are important al-Qaida elements at large in Somalia that would seem to pose some kind of immediate threat to the United States that would call for these extraordinary measures, and this kind of assessment, I’m afraid, is not shared by everyone,” he said.
McGregor notes that a second strike signals a good probability that the targets are still on the loose.
“As far as I understand, there were no al-Qaida operatives killed or injured in the first attacks. The weapons used, the AC-130 gunships, are very good at destroying every bit of life in an area. It’s not the kind of weapon that you would use when you want to deliver a specific strike against an individual,” he said.
Andrew McGregor says that since Ethiopian troops entered Somalia in December, there has been stepped up surveillance along Somalia’s border with Kenya, but that he is not aware of any al-Qaida activity in the area since that time.
“I’ve not heard any reliable information on their fate since the Ethiopian invasion in December. Quite possibly, they’ve managed to get out of Somalia, although the border with Kenya is supposedly closed,” he said.
In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, US President George W. Bush called on US forces to continue pursuing international terrorists overseas, in the countries where they operate in order to protect Americans at home. Andrew McGregor says it is difficult to believe that US pursuit of three at-large fugitives in Somalia will justify those goals.
“I think that this is opening a whole theater of operations that’s really not necessary. As far as a few fugitives go, you probably would be better off trying to establish some kind of negotiations. It would be probably more effective and certainly less costly than getting involved in a military way in Somalia. There is a very grave danger here that with the Ethiopians intent on pulling out very quickly, and the African Union extremely reluctant to commit any kind of a major peacekeeping force that the United States may be left holding the bag in the area and could be involved there for a number of years in a kind of worst-case scenario,” he says.