The Dangers of Success

Why it's not so simple to crush and kill al Qaeda affiliates.  

Al-Shabab has seen better days. The Somali group that perpetrated the horrific attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya that killed over 60 people controlled much of Somalia, including the capital, in 2009. Forces from the African Union and neighboring states like Kenya -- backed by the United States and working with rival Somali factions -- chased al-Shabab out of Mogadishu and many other parts of the country, while splits and defections further weakened the group. Then, in 2012, after years of flirtation, al Qaeda formally embraced al-Shabab. Setbacks for an al Qaeda ally is good news for U.S. friends, but one of the ironies of American counterterrorism is that helping our allies win changes the nature of the threat.

Acknowledging these shifting sands, President Barack Obama observed this May that "the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11," but warned that al Qaeda affiliates are emerging, from "Yemen to Iraq, from Somalia to North Africa." Counterterrorism accordingly has shifted, with attention focused less on the al Qaeda core and more on affiliates and potential allies, which are present in Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen, among other countries. Many of these groups are locked in life and death struggles against local governments, which is why Washington is arming, training, and providing allied regimes support. But al-Shabab's experience suggests that we must prepare for "success" -- because locally focused groups respond to failure in dangerous ways.

Some terrorists keep fighting while their comrades fall one by one: Basque Fatherland and Liberty, better known by its acronym, ETA, took years to embrace a ceasefire despite the killing or arrest of many of its senior members. Other terrorists simply drop out and at times even reject violence: Leaders of Egypt's Gamaat al-Islamiyya, which was responsible for attacks in Egypt that led to almost 1,000 deaths in the 1990s, declared a ceasefire from jail in 2003 and later issued a stunning self-critique that rejected violence. After President Hosni Mubarak fell, Gamaat al-Islamiyya even formed a political party.

Many groups respond to failure, however, by doubling down and changing their agendas. Like Gamaat al-Islamiyya, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), whose leader Ayman Zawahiri now heads al Qaeda, initially focused exclusively on Egypt to the point that it argued that even the struggle against Israel should be secondary. EIJ fought alongside, and at times with, the Gamaat al-Islamiyya and also imploded in the late 1990s, with its leaders dead, jailed, or in exile. But in its death throes, fragments of EIJ became even more extreme and, in so doing, further alienated the Egyptian public. Hounded at home and abroad and out of money, Zawahiri embraced Osama bin Laden's global agenda and directed the remnants of his organization against the United States.

The leading jihadist organization in Algeria today, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which killed almost 40 foreigners in an attack on the In Amenas oil facility in January 2013, grew out of the Algerian jihadist movement that has been around for two decades. In the mid-1990s, the Armed Islamic Group, the most prominent of the many jihadist organizations, rebuffed bin Laden's offers of cooperation, thinking that it would triumph on its own. A decade later, however, Algeria's jihadists found themselves weak and divided, reduced to sporadic terrorist operations and banditry with some accepting the government's amnesty program. The remnants joined al Qaeda, but only after they had abandoned hope of success at home.

Part of why groups fight under al Qaeda's banner is because they find its ideology and anti-Americanism inspiring. But the presence or absence of inspiration is only part of the story. The al Qaeda core can offer affiliates new resources ranging from money and training facilities to ties to fundraising and logistics networks. Joining al Qaeda also brings new recruits, particularly foreign fighters, eager to sacrifice themselves as suicide bombers. Perhaps most importantly, swearing allegiance to Zawahiri allows local groups to rebrand themselves, identifying with a cause that is bigger and more important. The al Qaeda name still has cachet in many circles, and groups like al-Shabab try to stress their similarities to Zawahiri's organization rather than dwell on their own failings and abuses.

The price of joining, of course, is that the remit changes: groups are then encouraged to go beyond the local struggle and take up arms against the United States and commit terrorist attacks against other al Qaeda enemies. Al Qaeda's Yemen branch almost downed a U.S. civilian airliner on Christmas Day 2009. More commonly, as al-Shabab did in Kenya, affiliates go beyond their own borders and attack in their region, targeting nearby enemies and Western visitors or symbols.

There are no simple choices when confronting al Qaeda affiliates. Ignoring groups until they become affiliates, or ignoring affiliates until they strike at U.S. targets, risks leaving U.S. intelligence and security officials in a defensive and reactive mode -- and vulnerable to a surprise attack. But too aggressive an approach (in the hope of nipping their power in the bud) can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, strengthening bonds between al Qaeda and other jihadist groups by validating the global Islamist narrative and leading groups to cooperate for self-defense and organizational advancement.

We cannot escape this dilemma, but we can lessen it. When possible the United States should work behind the scenes as a high-profile U.S. role may lead remnants to direct their ire against the United States even more. Also, when possible, the United States should encourage its allies to offer groups a way out when they fail, encouraging them to take on a peaceful political role, and reincorporating those willing to give up violence. In addition, United States should recognize the risks that come with allied success and intelligence and homeland defenses should prepare accordingly, particularly if the losing groups have large diasporas in the United States.

In the end, helping defeat a real or potential al Qaeda ally is a good thing. They pose threats to U.S. allies, and their barbarous and bloody tactics should condemn them in any event. Yet successful counterterrorism is often ambiguous, and successfully reducing one problem often means creating or worsening other ones.


Democracy Lab

Africa's Phoenix

Don't let al-Shabab fool you: Somalia is making progress. But the West needs to change its approach.

This week, the world is learning what Somalis already knew: the jihadist group al-Shabab might have been ejected from the country's major cities last year, but they are just as violent and ambitious as ever.

Al-Shabab attacked Turkey's embassy shortly before I arrived in Mogadishu a few weeks ago. In June, no fewer than seven would-be suicide bombers stormed a U.N. complex barely a kilometer from the Mogadishu airport. During an attack on the Somali Supreme Court in April, al-Shabab terrorists wore police uniforms that had been distributed just two days earlier. This past Ramadan, there were days with over 20 distinct al-Shabab attacks in Mogadishu alone.

Yet it's important for the world to understand -- especially right now -- that there is far more to Somalia these days than al-Shabab. For all its problems, Somalia is experiencing the exact opposite of brain drain: human and financial capital is pouring into Mogadishu, where new offices and hotels sit a misleadingly short distance away from displaced persons camps and still-ruined government ministries. Downtown streets are bristling with ads for banking and cell phone services; every block seems to have a travel agency, marked with paintings of airplanes pointed hopefully skyward. There are regular flights to Dubai and, yes, Nairobi.

Judging Somalia's young and barely-functional government by its ability to solve national-level problems can lead to a badly skewed sense of the country's actual situation. Westgate doesn't change a reality that few western policymakers have grasped: Somalia is a country where progress isn't synonymous with state-building. The success or failure of the post-conflict period might actually have little to do with the government's ability to establish strong state institutions -- or even with its ability to militarily defeat al-Shabab.

Instead, the defining issue of the country's post-conflict period is whether the Somali government and its partners can unleash the country's potential. Somalia is sitting on substantial gas wealth -- although Kenya claims that much of it sits inside its own maritime borders. The Somali company Dahabshiil is Africa's largest money transfer firm -- but it's headquartered in Somaliland, a self-declared independent republic where the Mogadishu government has no reach. Diaspora money has fueled a building glut in Mogadishu; while exact numbers are hard to come by, one Somali investor interviewed by the Guardian claimed that the rental value of one of his buildings had increased tenfold since 2009. Yet the government, whose revenues are limited to harbor and airport customs duties, lacks the ability to profit from the boom.

There's another anecdotal indicator that reveals some surprising sources of health for Somalia. In Mogadishu these days, it's impossible to go too long without meeting someone who has given up a secure and high-paying job in Europe or the United States to live and work in a city that many outsiders regard as synonymous with chaos and violence. Among those I met was a British economist who had been in town visiting family a month earlier and felt a strong sense of obligation to stay; a former U.S. Army Language School instructor who's now working for the prime minister's office; and the young Central Bank employee who answered my questions in clear, unaccented American English.

The possibility for success is there, but it isn't in the places that Western policymakers typically look. And viewing Somalia through the lens of Westgate threatens to distort a national-level picture that is in fact more complicated -- and arguably more hopeful -- than recent troubles, and the struggles of Somalia's nascent Federal Government, would suggest.

Yet those struggles shouldn't be downplayed. In Somalia, the United States and international partners have invested over 20 years of diplomacy in the creation of a Mogadishu-based government to replace the state of anarchy that seized the country after the overthrow of military dictator Siad Barre in 1991-- a goal that was finally realized earlier this year, at least on paper. Yet in meetings with officials, I grew increasingly doubtful of the government's ability or even willingness to tackle the country's problems. I asked one government advisor to explain how he thought Mogadishu could impose a federal system on a polity whose sense of citizenship had eroded over 20 years of civil war. His answer was brief and disappointing: "Federalism is the law," he said. "As of today, it's the law."

There is almost no real professional security sector, which mostly consists of clan militias allied with the central government. For instance, a recent agreement between Mogadishu and the largely ungoverned, semi-autonomous Jubbaland region was centered on the integration of the powerful Ras Kamboni militia into Somalia's national army. On the face of things, such an agreement could be seen to manifest the internal weakness of a Somali government that can only spread its reach through opportunistic deals with the warlords who actually rule the country's periphery. But that's too simplistic. In fact, given the reality of a fractured country with no recent history of centralization, such arrangements could become an essential and organic means of cross-regional cooperation.

It would also be easy to draw dire conclusions from a U.N. Monitoring Group finding that donor money had disappeared from the Somali Central Bank, or from this summer's spike in separatist rhetoric coming from the Puntland autonomous region, or from the recent al-Shabab revival.

A year after its return to the capital, and especially post-Westgate, the Somali Federal Government appears weak in the face of the country's persistent instability.

A prime ministerial advisor in Mogadishu explained the government's current situation in fairly unsparing terms. "There's going to be no instant recovery," she told me. "Government institutions didn't exist before. Government buildings have been occupied by refugees for 20 years. There are no working offices. The government is incapacitated."

But Somalia's future depends less on the building of a bureaucratic and militarily-dominant state than on the center's ability to manage the demands of the various autonomous regions (especially Somaliland, now a de facto sovereign republic), while securing future or existing revenue streams. To be sure, this might require a certain degree of participation from state institutions as well as a stronger measure of basic rule of law, particularly in Somalia's promising financial sector. Encouragingly, the Federal Government is currently working with money transfer companies to develop basic regulations for the country's burgeoning mobile money industry. And it would be easier for Somalia's globally powerful money transfer industry to operate in Western markets if there were rigorous controls on terror financing, or even just basic financial regulations, inside of Somalia itself.

Such reforms might not require a large state apparatus or even a strong, nationwide sense of citizenship. What they do need is the acceptance, both inside Somalia and among its international partners, of the political necessity of decentralization (even in spite of the al-Shabab threat). The one-sided emphasis on traditional state-building is already proving to be a losing strategy. Most notably, U.S. pressure helped lift a longstanding U.N. small arms embargo against Somalia this past March, a measure that was passed in the absence of any serious stockpile control or security sector reforms on the part of the Somali government.

Somalia hasn't had a strong central government since the reign of military dictator Said Barre, which culminated in 20 years of civil war. But it's not unreasonable to expect a more or less stable balance between the country's autonomous regions and its center, while encouraging the creation of a government better equipped to exploit possible sources of economic growth. Turkey, which is providing crucial humanitarian and infrastructural aid, offers an example for western governments to emulate. One government official told me that Turkey was the only international donor that has really moved beyond security sector and stabilization assistance. Turkey's development strategy isn't obsessed with the trappings of centralization, but with deliverables ranging from hospital construction to garbage collection. And judging by the ubiquitous Turkish flag-labeled vehicles I saw in Mogadishu's streets, the embassy attack has done little to slow down their multibillion-dollar efforts.

After a shattering event like Westgate, it's easy to imagine that the international community will once again be tempted to prioritize stabilization and counter-terrorism in Somalia-related policy. Yet Somalia's stability and prosperity might depend more on the kind of support Turkey is providing than on the building of a traditional, centralized state. The same could be said of any number of other places that have frustrated policymakers with their seemingly chronic inability to impose a strong sense of citizenship and order on polities that have historically resisted it. What's true in Somalia could end up being true in South Sudan, Afghanistan, or even Syria: State-building and progress are not the same thing, and the conditions for long-term success might exist in spite of the Western powers' inability to recognize or encourage them.