In Somalia, a New Template for Fighting Terrorism

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Mohamed Dahir/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

ANARCHY Two policemen lay dead last July. But a new government may now have an interest in allowing attacks on terrorist leaders.


Published: October 17, 2009

Somalia isn’t just a nagging geopolitical headache that won’t go away. It is also a cautionary tale. Few countries in modern history have been governmentless for so long, and as the United States has learned, it would be nice to think you could ignore this wild, thirsty, mostly nomadic nation 7,000 miles away. But you can’t.

Al Qaeda is working feverishly to turn Somalia into a global jihad factory, according to recent intelligence assessments, and the way the United States chooses to respond could serve as a template for other fronts in the wider counterterrorism war. Just last month, American helicopters swept over the dusty Somali horizon to take out Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a wanted Qaeda suspect who had been hiding out in Somalia for years and training a new bevy of killers; some of those trainees are believed to be Somali-Americans who could easily slip back into the United States and do some serious damage as suicide bombers.

In a way, the daring daylight strike against Mr. Nabhan, which was supposedly part of the Obama administration’s shift from targeting terrorists with cruise missiles that often kill civilians, was a flashback. Few in Somalia — or the American military — have forgotten Black Hawk Down, the battle in October 1993 when Somali militiamen in flip-flops killed 18 American soldiers, including members of the Army’s elite Delta Force. It was a searing humiliation for the Pentagon, which had just emerged from the first gulf war pumped up on smart bombs and laser-guided missiles, but in Somalia found itself back in a Vietnam-style quagmire where high technology was no match for local rage.

Black Hawk Down made the United States gun-shy for years, contributing to its failure to intervene against genocide in Rwanda and, for a time, in Bosnia, too. The battle itself was immortalized in a so-so film and a great book — required reading for some courses at West Point.

“Never again, that was the message,” said John Nagl, a retired Army officer who was on the team that wrote the military’s new counterinsurgency field manual. “People were saying this is what happens when we get involved in small wars in places we don’t understand.

But American policy has pivoted since 1993 to another question: What happens when we don’t get involved

The experience in Somalia speaks to that concern as well — to the problems of ignoring any patch of ungoverned territory, especially in the Muslim world, whose anarchy might tempt the arrival of the likes of Al Qaeda.

Concern about the perils of lawlessness is not new to American policy planning, of course; it was an element in the Reagan administration’s abortive effort to help calm Lebanon in 1982. But it has acquired intense urgency since Sept. 11, 2001, and now figures heavily in calculations about Afghanistan and Pakistan, about the pace of extracting American forces from Iraq — and in a reprise of 1993, about what to do in Somalia.

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