Thursday, August 7, is the ten-year anniversary of the al-Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. For the better part of ten years, the U.S. government has worked closely with intelligence agencies in Ethiopia and Kenya to track the movements of three al-Qaeda operatives alleged to be responsible for planning the operation, which killed more than 250 people and wounded thousands more. The suspects have frequently taken refuge in Somalia, exploiting the porous borders and ungoverned spaces of the world’s number one failed state. One of those suspects, the alleged leader of al-Qaeda in East Africa Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, has reportedly entered Kenya, where Kenyan authorities are currently on a manhunt.
Mr. Mohammed is believed to have masterminded the embassy bombings, and capturing or killing him should be a top priority for the United States and its allies. But a ten-year manhunt is not a strategy to deal with the root of violent extremism in the region — the 18 years of political unrest and bloodshed in southern Somalia. The U.S. supported Ethiopia’s December 2006 invasion of Somalia to oust Islamists from power and install a transitional government in the capital Mogadishu. Yet as in Iraq, the invaders had no post-war political strategy, and Ethiopia — Somalia’s historic enemy — was quickly bogged down in a brutal counter-insurgency against Islamist and clan-based militia groups.
The insurgent attacks and Ethiopia’s scorched-earth response have driven two-thirds of Mogadishu’s residents — some 700,000 people — into the harsh Somali countryside. With rising food prices and failed crops, aid agencies are warning of famine. Meanwhile, the Bush administration supports Ethiopia’s presence in Somalia and, with help from Ethiopian intelligence, U.S. forces have launched at least four airstrikes targeting al-Qaeda suspects and Islamist leaders inside Somalia. Only one airstrike killed its intended target, and U.S. attacks have resulted in civilian casualties. Behind closed doors, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies refer to the U.S. strategy as ‘whac-a-mole.’
Efforts to kill “high value” targets will only produce a revolving door of new terrorists until we start to address the well-being of millions of Somalis. The current terror-only approach of the U.S. and its Ethiopian allies is generating resentment among Somalis and creating the ideal recruiting conditions for violent extremist groups. Anti-Americanism is increasing in Muslim communities across East Africa, and al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri has called for jihad against Ethiopian forces in Somalia.
‘Whac-a-mole’ is not a viable strategy, and as the corrupt and abusive transitional Somali government hurtles toward collapse, the Bush administration is best advised to put the mallet down and pick up the phone. No one is saying that rebuilding a Somali state is an easy task, but sustained high-level diplomacy and close coordination with allies is the only way to help Somalis forge an inclusive government that can pull the country out of the abyss.