Archive for the ‘Somalia’ Category

Yemen: Al Qaeda’s New Haven

December 29, 2009

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi recently told the BBC that his government needs more international assistance to combat Al Qaeda elements in his country.  He said that Yemen has the will to take on the militants but needs additional financial and military support from Western nations.  His comments came in the wake of an attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian man who was living in Yemen until earlier this month, to blow up a civilian airliner that was traveling from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Yemen is very unstable and its weak government is engaged in two civil wars.  This chaotic environment is ideal for terrorists who seek a safe haven from which to plan and launch attacks.  Somalia, which lies directly across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, has similar problems, and both countries have reportedly become destinations for Al Qaeda members who leave Pakistan for security reasons.  US policymakers and military leaders, including Gen. David Patrareus, the head of Central Command, are concerned about the threat posed by militants in that part of the world, and American special operations forces have reportedly carried out raids against suspected terrorists from nearby bases and offshore platforms.

The US has sought to improve the counterinsurgency capabilities of countries that are fighting Islamic extremists, including Afghanistan , Pakistan and Iraq, but those attempts have been on a large scale relative to most American efforts to help foreign governments with internal defense.  Given manpower and budget contstraints, the US will have to rely on Special Forces and other small units to train soldiers in partner nations.  For the same reasons, it is unlikely that the US will engage in more nation-building in lawless states where militants thrive, but providing a small number of trainers and a few billion dollars to bolster the security forces in countries of concern would be a fairly minor expense when viewed in the context of America’s overall defense budget, and it is a strategy that the Obama administration will likely pursue.

Obama’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

December 11, 2009

Yesterday, President Obama visited Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.  Many people reasonably believe that the president does not deserve the award after serving less than a year in office and not having achieved many tangible goals when it comes to foreign policy.  But regardless of whether or not he earned the prestigious prize, his acceptance speech was excellent.  It was very Niebuhrian, and it revealed that the president holds a view of the world and human nature that can be described as “Christian realism,” although he did not identify it in sectarian terms  He believes that man is flawed and frequenty behaves in unethical ways, but he also maintains that the human condition can be improved through acts of goodwill motivated by moral principles.  Having just escalated the war in Afghanistan, he argued that war is sometimes justified and necessary, but he balanced his adherence to just war theory by stressing the need to achieve a just peace that serves humanitarian aims.

In addition to promoting humanitarian realism, he advocated what international relations scholars refer to as “institutionalism” and “constructivism.”  Institutionalists believe that peace and progress can best be achieved by nations acting in concert through international institutions like the United Nations and World Trade Organization, and constructivists believe that changes in norms such as notions of sovereignty and human rights can improve global society.  In his speech, President Obama said that international alliances like NATO are needed to keep the peace, and he argued that the US and other countries should embrace humanitarian concepts out of enlightened self interest.

For information about Rienhold Niebuhr, who President Obama has cited as a major influence on his thinking, and Christian realism click on this link.  For another perspective on the international relations theory aspects of the president’s speech, read Daniel Drezner’s recent blog post on

Combating Somali Pirates

November 30, 2009

Yesterday, an oil tanker headed to the US from Saudi Arabia was hijacked by Somali pirates.  The attack was another addition to the long list of such incidents in the past decade (10 ships have been hijacked in just the last two month). 

The pirates have increased their capability and range over time.  They now mount attacks from mother ships stationed in the middle of the ocean, from which they launch smaller vessels against their targets.  The tanker captured Sunday was seized 600 miles off the coast of Somalia where the pirate bases are located.

Piracy has flourished in the Indian Ocean between the Gulf of Aden and the Seychelles islands despite increased naval patrols.  This trend may be the result of a flawed strategy pursued by concerned powers.  Navy vessels from the US and other countries cruise off Somalia’s coast and other parts of the ocean looking for pirates, but the area that the US Fifth Fleet and foreign navies have to patrol is 2.5 million square miles, which makes their task daunting to say the least.

A better method of combating the pirates would be to set up a convoy system like the Allies did in World War Two to reduce the effectiveness of German submarines.  A convoy strategy would force hijackers to take on warships rather than evade them as they have been doing.  The odds that pirates could successfully capture oil tankers or other vessels that were guarded by destroyers are very low, so using convoys would almost certainly limit the ability of the hijackers to kidnap people and disrupt trade.

The Evil Dentist

August 11, 2009

In southern Somalia, the Islamic extremist group al Shabab, which has ties to Al Qaeda, is forcibly extracting silver and gold teeth from residents on the ground that such teeth violate Islamic law because they are fashion and beauty items.  Anyone seen with a silver or gold tooth is abducted and taken to a masked man who rips the teeth out with pincers without giving the victims anaesthesia.  Americans who dislike going to the dentist should remember that the experience could be much worse…

Somalia, a classic example of a failed state, has a weak government that is struggling to combat multiple insurgencies, including one led by al Shabab.  A major concern for US officials is that Somalia could become a safe haven for Al Qaeda and other anti-American terrorist groups that can take advantage of the lawlessness in the poor African country by setting up bases and recruiting locals to carry out attacks.  In fact, some members of Al Qaeda have reportedly moved from Afghanistan-Pakistan to Somalia and Yemen in the last few months. 

The US has taken a greater interest in Africa since the September 11 attacks, symbolized by the establishment of a military command, Africom, in the region.  American special operations forces have reportedly been deployed to the Horn of Africa to eliminate terrorist targets.  Non-military aid, notably billions of dollars worth of health care assistance, has been given to governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). 

It is likely that Western nations will continue making efforts to stabilize African countries and deal with endemic problems there.  How effective those efforts will be remains to be seen.

Terrorist Havens in Somalia and Yemen

June 12, 2009

According to American officials, dozens of Al Qaeda operatives and some of the group’s leaders are leaving Pakistan and moving to Somalia and Yemen.  Members of the Obama administration, the military and the intelligence community have credited the increased level of drone attacks against Al Qaeda bases in the tribal areas of Pakistan as the reason for the exodus.

Although the displacement of some terrorists from Pakistan, a politically fragile country with nuclear weapons, is a positive development, the militants relocation to the Horn of Africa is troubling.  Somalia and Yemen are failed states and Al Qaeda could easily find safe haven there from whence they can plan and launch attacks against Americans and other civilians.  Al Qaeda militants in all three nations are reportedly communicating with one another electronically, which could facilitate terrorist operations but also enable American forces to more easily locate the plotters.

The terrorist threat in Somalia and Yemen is a matter of grave concern.  Although a major US troop deployment to either country to combat the militants is infeasible given the ongoing military commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American military could start launching airstrikes against Al Qaeda bases in those countries and send special operations personnel to train local security forces and carry out ground attacks.  Given the weakness of the governments in the Horn of Africa, it will be difficult to root out Al Qaeda from that area but eliminating some of the fighters would at least be a partial victory.

The increased presence of international terrorists in Somalia and Yemen highlights the need to prevent countries from becoming failed states and help strengthen those that already fall into that category.  Such a task will not be easy, and problems of corruption, internal conflicts and a lack of economic resources could make it almost impossible in some nations without a major international effort that would be politically untenable.  But preventing nuclear states like Pakistan and other places of major strategic interest from descending into chaos is imperative and should remain a major tenet of US foreign policy.