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U.S. Launches Airstrikes in Southern Somalia

January 9, 2007 at 4:40 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: The alleged mastermind of the 1998 embassy attacks in East Africa was the target of the air strikes in Somalia, al-Qaida operative Fazul Abdullah Mohammed.

The embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killed more than 225 people, including 12 Americans. Abdullah Mohammed and al-Qaida operatives are also suspected of planning a pair of near-simultaneous attacks in November 2002: the failed attempt to shoot down an Israeli aircraft at the Mombassa airport in Kenya; and a car bombing at a Kenyan resort that killed 13, injuring more than 80 people.

In Somalia itself, there have been weeks of turmoil. The country has not had a government in 15 years. And just this week, interim President Abdullahi Yusuf returned to Mogadishu.

Government forces, backed by Ethiopian troops, took control of the country from a movement known as the Islamic Courts after weeks of fighting and, with Kenyan troops, sealed the border between those two countries, trapping militants and jihadists.

Some U.S. officials have expressed concern that Somali Islamist militias are linked to al-Qaida. Recently, the al-Qaida number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called for guerrilla resistance against the Somali government in a videotaped message.

Today, President Yusuf said the U.S. was justified to target the terrorists.

ABDULLAHI YUSUF, Interim President, Somalia: I am not sure if this actually happened. But if it did, the U.S. has every right to defend itself, because the bombers of the American embassy are hiding, and they deserve to be targeted.

RAY SUAREZ: In Washington, White House Spokesman Tony Snow said the global search for terrorists will continue.

TONY SNOW, White House Press Secretary: We’ve made it clear that this is a global war on terror. And this is a reiteration of the fact that — people who think that they’re going to try to establish a safe haven for al-Qaida any place need to realize that we’re going to fight them.

RAY SUAREZ: These latest strikes were the first U.S. military action in Somalia in more than a decade. U.S. troops were sent in to help stabilize the country after the 1991 coup.

But in October 1993, militants shot down a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter over Mogadishu, killing 18 Army rangers and special forces in the fighting that ensued. The incident eventually led to the withdrawal of most U.S. forces by March of 1994.

But after 9/11, the U.S. military began building up its presence in the Horn of Africa, creating the combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, based in Camp Le Monier in Djibouti in 2002.

The heavily armed AC-130 gun ships that took part in the air strikes in Somalia took off from the base in Djibouti.

Timing the attacks

Andre Le Sage
National Defense University
The Union of Islamic Court was providing safe haven to the al-Qaida East Africa cell, members of which are being targeting by these air strikes.

For more, we're joined by Susan Rice, who served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs under President Clinton when the U.S. embassies were attacked in 1998. She's now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

And Andre Le Sage, assistant professor for terrorism and counterterrorism at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.

And, Professor Le Sage, in terms of strategy, why unleash this attack now?

ANDRE LE SAGE, Africa Center for Strategic Studies: I think it's very important to understand that, two weeks ago, Ethiopian military entered Somalia and removed the Union of Islamic Courts from Mogadishu. The Union of Islamic Court was providing safe haven to the al-Qaida East Africa cell, members of which are being targeting by these air strikes.

RAY SUAREZ: So, during this very short period before this government consolidates, it's a good time to move ahead with something like this?

ANDRE LE SAGE: These al-Qaida operatives presumably are in a very remote rural location. It's much better to try to access them and target them while they're away from civilians, while they are vulnerable, do not have protection, you know, against an urban area where it would be more difficult to find them and to remove them.

RAY SUAREZ: Secretary Rice, is this a significant development?

SUSAN RICE, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution: I think it's potentially a significant development in that we were going after an al-Qaida cell that included individuals we believe that were responsible for killing Americans and Kenyans and Tanzanians in 1998, in al-Qaida's first major strike against the United States.

Obviously, dismantling that cell would be in our interest, and certainly in the interest of Kenya and Tanzania.

The other thing that's potentially significant, of course, is that Somalia, itself, is at a major crossroads. The cell became vulnerable when the Ethiopians pressed the radical remnants of the Islamic Courts out of Mogadishu, south toward the Kenyan border and, with the help of the Kenyans on the other side of the border, trapped them, as was just said, in the remote area where they could be targeted and should be targeted.

But that's really a part of a larger story. The larger story is whether or not the United States and the international community, the countries of the region, will step up quickly enough and with robust enough security, political and economic support to enable this transitional government -- which is extremely fragile -- to actually take meaningful control of Somalia and stabilize and strengthen what has been a disastrously failed state for more than 15 years.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, do you agree with that, that part of the job that we saw being played out over the last few days is also to step in and help this new government establish its authority?

ANDRE LE SAGE: Absolutely. Somalia was an ungoverned space for a very long time. And in this ungoverned space, you had Islamic Courts providing security, providing charitable assistance. And helping to fill that space with a legitimate government that Somalis are comfortable in will prevent Islamic movements and militants of all sorts from trying to reestablish and assert their control through that territory.

RAY SUAREZ: While at the same time, this is a government, as we've mentioned, that's still trying to find its feet. The United States made a point of saying publicly that it cleared this attack with this new government. Is that a significant part of this, too?

ANDRE LE SAGE: The United States has been very supportive of the transitional federal government. You've recently had visits to Nairobi to attend an international contact group meeting, which coordinates assistance for the transitional government, by Assistant Secretary Jendayi Frazer from the U.S. State Department.

What we see now is a great deal of U.S. interest and, increasingly, support for the transitional process. This includes the declaration of an additional $40 million in humanitarian, development, and peacekeeping operations support from the U.S. government.

RAY SUAREZ: How does that happen, Ms. Rice? Does one country call another and just say, "Look, we wanted to let you know before this happens, we may be coming after some people on your territory"?

SUSAN RICE: Well, sometimes we call, and sometimes we don't call. In this case, we were cooperating with friendly allied governments in Kenya and Ethiopia and the new transitional government in Somalia, so it was relatively easy. In other instances, I'm not sure we've given advanced warning.

Escalating regional violence

Susan Rice
Brookings Institution
We need to be with others supporting the transitional government to bring in clan elements, to bring in elements from the moderate side of the Islamic Courts Union, and make this a consolidated, comprehensive government.

RAY SUAREZ: The new U.N. secretary-general said that this risks escalating violence in the region, as much as the U.S. is seeking to lower the violence. Do you agree with that, Ms. Rice?

SUSAN RICE: There's always a risk. But, let's face it, the risk of Somalia falling into intensified violence is the risk of the status quo persisting. It has been anarchic; it has been violent and ungoverned.

And the challenge now is to try to stabilize it. And, in the process of doing so, we shouldn't abandon our counterterrorism imperatives, which really are real in the context of Somalia. We have to go after the terrorist cells where we find them.

But at the same time -- and I fear that we not lose sight of this critical objective -- we have to step up very rapidly -- we, the United States, the United Nations, the rest of the international community -- to help stabilize this government.

And with all due respect to the efforts of the administration and the State Department, $40 million in the context of Somalia is very small change. We're talking about putting in yet another African Union-led peacekeeping force where the troops aren't volunteering, they're not yet available.

And we've seen in Darfur, with all the best effort on the part of the African Union -- that deserve great credit for what they've done in Darfur -- they don't have the capacity to manage another large peacekeeping operation. This has to be done by the United Nations, with support from other outside governments with military capacity, if it's to have any effect.

And the political agenda is absolutely critical. We need to be with others supporting the transitional government to bring in clan elements, to bring in elements from the moderate side of the Islamic Courts Union, and make this a consolidated, comprehensive government that represents all of Somalia's disparate parts.

Al-Qaida in East Africa

Andre Le Sage
National Defense University
These individuals, operating on their own and with support from extremist members of the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia, have been able to launch some very deadly attacks against Western interests and African interests.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you heard the secretary sounding a note of urgency here. We should talk a little bit more about Somalia, Professor. How significant a launching pad, an organizing space for al-Qaida is East Africa, compared to other places in the world?

ANDRE LE SAGE: You've never had significant training camps from al-Qaida in East Africa, but you have had some very dangerous individuals in the al-Qaida East Africa cell. We're talking about individuals like Fazul Mohammed Haroon, who was identified in your reporting earlier. Also Abu Taha al-Sudani, a Sudanese national, and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Kenyan national.

These individuals, operating on their own and with support from extremist members of the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia, have been able to launch some very deadly attacks against Western interests and African interests.

We all know about the 1998 embassy bombings that took place in Kenya and Tanzania. Then there were the 2002 attacks in Mombassa. We also know that individuals associated with al-Qaida looked to attack the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa based at Camp Le Monier in Djibouti in 2003. The individual concerned with that, Gulad Daroud, has been moved to Guantanamo Bay for questioning.

RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead.

SUSAN RICE: I think it's also important that we not forget that, for five years, Osama bin Laden lived in luxury in Khartoum, Sudan, set up businesses, built al-Qaida, raised funds, had training camps and facilities in that region. So al-Qaida has had a foothold in the Horn of Africa, in East Africa for quite some time now.

And, in fact, the individual cells that were just described are manifestations of a larger challenge. I think that Somalia is just part of a piece of a puzzle of the entire part of East Africa that we need to be concerned about.

Just recently, in the wake of the Ethiopian support for the transitional government, a new al-Qaida Web site has sprung up in Ethiopia. Zawahiri is declaring jihad on Ethiopia and on which it calls "American slaves," both in Sudan and in Ethiopia.

So this has the potential to grow much wider, but I don't think it's correct to portray it as something new. It's actually had its roots going back some years now.

Regional security problems

Susan Rice
Brookings Institution
But the fact is that this situation is very precarious; it could go either way. It changed dramatically just in the last three weeks, and it could change back dramatically.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I'm glad you brought up Sudan, because people might not realize -- Americans' geography of that part of the world is not so solid that they might not realize that Sudan is right next door, as is Eritrea, which has been fighting Ethiopia on and off for a long time. Kenya just to the south, and this is a place where there have been a half-a-dozen wars over the last 10 years.

SUSAN RICE: That's right.

ANDRE LE SAGE: Absolutely. The need for a peace process in Somalia, a transitional process that will succeed in establishing a government for that country, it will go a long way to alleviating many of the regional security problems that Ms. Rice was just discussing.

RAY SUAREZ: But where are the Somali people in all of this? There's been a great deal of attention paid to the fact that the new Somali government greenlighted the U.S. in this attack, came in with the support of the Ethiopians, tacitly backed by the United States. What about the Somali people and their druthers, Professor?

ANDRE LE SAGE: There is a great deal of concern that the Somali people are very resentful of the Ethiopian military presence in their country. Ethiopia is often seen as a historical antagonist in Somalia, only looking out for Ethiopia's interests.

And Ethiopian troops, the sooner they get out, in many respects, the better. It will prevent the Somali people from rising up against the Ethiopians as an occupying force and the beginning of an insurgency.

That insurgency could just be a clan insurgency, a public insurgency against Ethiopia, but it will definitely be something that remnants of the al-Qaida cells and the Union of Islamic Courts would try to take advantage of.

RAY SUAREZ: But among those people, Secretary Rice, is there some receptive nature for, some reception for a message from Ayman al-Zawahiri, pointing out American domination and threatening Western incursion in the area?

SUSAN RICE: I think we have to be concerned that that message will have some resonance, given the history of radicalism in Somalia, given the history of American involvement in Somalia, which has not had a pretty ending to it in the 1990s. So there is that risk.

But there are also -- Somalia is a very diverse society, in many ways, and there are elements also within Somalia that were resentful of the rather severe repression of the Islamic Courts and welcomed back some of the social freedoms that come with the transitional authority.

But the fact is that this situation is very precarious; it could go either way. It changed dramatically just in the last three weeks, and it could change back dramatically.

And U.S. policymakers, and U.N. policymakers, and leaders all over the world really need to be devoting attention and resources to sorting out the political security and economic underpinnings of this conflict, because, without that, we can look forward to yet another decade of chaos in Somalia, with all its attendant risks to our interests in the region and to the Somali people, for terrorism and other threats.