Somalia, may become as prominent a site on the next president’s agenda as Afghanistan or Iraq. A well-coordinated bombing campaign there on October 29 got almost no attention in press reports that, naturally, concentrated on the twists and turns of the final full week of the presidential campaign.
When the war on Islamic terror was even mentioned during the presidential debates, it largely involved the question of where to invest military resources: should we concentrate on Iraq, which President-Elect Obama endlessly argued had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks? Or on the Afghan-Pakistani border, where those who have hatched the largest attack ever on American soil came from?
Like the proverbial old generals, the debaters were largely fighting the previous war. The question is not where Mohamed Atta, his henchmen, or those who sent them were based when they prepared their plan to test the mettle of the new White House resident in 2001. Right now, as Vice President-Elect Joe Biden so rightly put it, there are people who plan to test the mettle of the next president.
Two areas largely overlooked in this context are the Maghreb and the horn of Africa. Speaking of the region “from Mauritania to Somalia,” Morocco’s foreign minister, Taieb Fassi Fihri told me last spring that terror masters “decided to invest” in his neighborhood. He portrayed an area rich in deserts, lawlessness, and weak and despotic regimes whose national interests prevent government agencies from cooperating in the war against terror. “It’s a paradise for Al Qaeda,” he said.
Add Iran to the list of those who have discovered that terrorist oasis. An Ethiopian-based Western diplomat tells me that in recent months a lot of new funding for the Islamic forces around Somalia and in the Maghreb is arriving from Tehran. Also pouring in from Iran is military hardware and logistical and training assistance. Shiite indoctrination for African locals completes the list of Farsi goodies.
There are plenty of signs that the anti-Western Maghreb storm described by Mr. Taieb Fassi and my Ethiopian-based source is gaining strength: the December 2007 bombing of the U.N. compound in Algiers and several Algerian terror attacks directed at Westerners since then; the continuing war in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara; the January 2008 canceling of the Dakar Rally car race after a terror plot to disrupt it in Mauritania was unearthed; increasing incidents of piracy near Somalia’s coast.
And now, those multi-pronged attacks that left more than twenty people dead in northern Somalia during the last week of October. The sophisticated planning and coordination, according to the State Department’s top African official, Jendayi Frazer, bore all the markings of al Qaeda. Five targets were carefully picked, including a United Nations compound, an Ethiopian consulate, and a presidential palace. They symbolize the Western-backed transitional Somali government and the powers supporting it: Ethiopia and the U.N.
Two years ago, Ethiopian forces - with tacit approval from Washington and Europe - intervened in Somalia, chasing away the Sharia Courts party that has imposed its harsh and bloody rule in Mogadishu. The U.N. and the West desperately attempted to strengthen a moderate government to replace the Islamist group, which remarkably resembles the Afghani Taliban. The Islamist militants were outgunned by the Ethiopians. But rather than laying down their weapons they - much like the Taliban - ran for the hills, where friendly sympathizers and hard terrain gave them refuge and the option to regroup and rearm. The latest bombing may signal the onset of a major offensive ending in reclaiming Mogadishu.
More that anywhere else, Somalia resembles lawless Afghanistan prior to the American military action there. After September 11, President Bush realized that the new war on terror, unlike much of past warfare, is not confined to one world spot. A central and wealthy leader of Arab anti-Americanism that lay at the heart of the terrorist ideology, Saddam Hussein, rightly became a target. Regardless of the many poorly-planned and badly-executed moves in Iraq, toppling Hussein and establishing an American presence there was a necessary part of the war of terror.
But what should the next president do now? Stay in Iraq? Turn all attentions to the unfinished business in Afghanistan? Pack up and pitch a tent in Somalia or the Maghreb? The answer is all of the above.
We obviously should not - and cannot - invade every failed country harboring extreme Islamist terrorists. In some cases, arm-twisting diplomacy would need to be employed. In others, we have no choice but to strengthen neighboring allied governments, like Ethiopia and Morocco. And yes, clandestine operations and pinpoint aerial bombardments need to be stepped up. In some extreme cases troops will need to be deployed.
The terror-fighting strategy must include a comprehensive plan to combat Islamist terrorists of all shades, wherever they hide, and wherever their state backers or other wealthy supporters reside. Otherwise it is bound to fail Mr. Biden’s test of mettle. The biggest mistake would be to neglect any area that was not directly involved with September 11 - because that area is where the next one well may be hatched.
Benny Avni s a U.N.-based columnist.