The raid by Navy SEALs on a Somali villa in search of a senior Shabab commander (his fate is unknown) and the capture by American commandos of a key terrorist suspect in Libya on Saturday were signs of a more assertive, targeted American role in trying to curb rising militancy and terrorist enclaves in North Africa.
Somalia, which had no central government for two decades, has long been a haven for terrorists, though there was some limited improvement in its political system and security earlier this year.
But the brutal terrorist attack on an upscale mall in Kenya last month has revived fears about Somalia’s homegrown Qaeda-linked extremists known as Al Shabab, which claimed responsibility for the attack, and about the group broadening its reach to Kenya and beyond.Some experts say the four-day-long mall siege, which killed more than 60 people, shows the emergence of a more aggressive Shabab leadership, even though the group has lost territory and influence at home. The militants have threatened to intensify attacks on Kenya until Kenyan troops that are part of an African Union mission leave Somalia. That mission, authorized by the United Nations, is backed by American drone and aircraft strikes on targeted militant leaders. Over the last six years the United States government has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in military, humanitarian and development aid.This support has enabled the African Union force, working with Somali Army units, to push Al Shabab out of the capital, Mogadishu, and given officials there a chance to govern, however imperfectly.
Since the mall attack, the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, has said he has no plans to withdraw the Kenyan troops. Uganda, Ethiopia and Burundi, other major contributors to the anti-Shabab fight, should expand their involvement because Somalia’s weak, year-old government clearly needs the support. The United Nations special representative for Somalia says the mission requires helicopters and armored vehicles as well as more troops.Military action alone won’t do the job, however. Al Shabab maintains support among some Somalians by presenting itself as protecting their country from predatory foreign forces. Countries with a stake in a more stable Somalia have to do a better job of counteracting that claim. Kenya, for instance, can help by ending abuses by its security forces in the African Union mission and its domestic police force against Somalis who do not support Al Shabab. The fact is, Kenya has been utterly hostage to the decades-long collapse and lawlessness of Somalia, which sits on its border.
But the government in Nairobi should not use the attack as a reason to close refugee camps in Kenya that house hundreds of thousands of Somalis or take other steps to indiscriminately crack down on Somalis in the country.The mall assault showed new desperation by Al Shabab and perhaps growing cooperation with Al Hijra, an extremist cell in Kenya. With these kinds of looming threats, the Obama administration should increase its efforts to cut off financing for Al Shabab, including fund-raising in the United States.Rumors that some Americans were among the mall attackers have not been proved, but in recent years several Somali-Americans have been prosecuted for terrorist financing and some Somali-American citizens have been indicted on suspicion of traveling to train and fight with Al Shabab. A Congressional Research Service report said more than 20 young men from Minnesota are believed to have gone to fight in Somalia.The mall attack has demonstrated that Al Shabab remains a resilient and lethal adversary. Regional stability in North Africa will depend on the United States, Kenya and other partners finding effective ways to contain it.