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Political unrest is common denominator among splintered African militant groups

October 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the men targeted by U.S. special forces over the weekend and the organizations they’re a part of, I’m joined by Jeremy Bash. He formerly served as chief of staff to both the director of the CIA and secretary of defense during the Obama administration. And our own chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, who has been working the phones all day.

Thank you both.

Jeremy Bash, to you first. Why is the United States going halfway around the world to try to grab terrorists like these two men?

JEREMY BASH, Former Chief of Staff to Leon Panetta: Well, Judy, al-Qaida in East Africa, the Al-Shabab element that is at issue here, is a threat to the United States and our allies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we have a — we may have an audio problem with your microphone, so we are going to try to figure that out. Let’s see.

We’re OK. Now, you can keep talking.

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JEREMY BASH: All right, Judy.

The Al-Shabab element al-Qaida in East Africa is a threat to the United States and our allies. We look at what they planned in the 1998 terrorist bombings in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in Nairobi, Kenya.

JUDY WOODRUFF: My apologies, Jeremy Bash. we have an audio problem. We are going to try to get that fixed.

I’m going to turn to Margaret and then we will come back to you.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I will pick up on what Jeremy…

JUDY WOODRUFF: But pick up on that.

MARGARET WARNER: … what Jeremy Bash was saying, which is that Al-Shabab, the one in Somalia, is believed to mostly be locally focused, regionally focused.

But there is one arm, there’s one wing, one faction. And this man, Ikrimah, was considered a senior operational commander. And they do have — do set their sights out of Somalia’s borders and, what’s more, are believed to have links to al-Qaida.

So he was considered not an immediate threat to the U.S. homeland, but a threat. In Libya, of course, al-Libi, Abu Anas al-Libi, who was captured there, he has an indictment against him for the — as you pointed out, the embassy bombing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A longstanding…

MARGARET WARNER: But, also, I’m told by former and current U.S. officials, it was believed that in this current chaos that you are seeing in that part of Africa, he was working to establish more of an al-Qaida-linked presence in Libya.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Jeremy Bash — and I think we have your microphone back now. Apologies about that.

JEREMY BASH: No problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that to say the U.S. consider both of these men direct threats to U.S. interests, U.S. security interests?

JEREMY BASH: Yes, I would say so. If we’re going to go halfway around the world, as you noted, and actually capture someone or attempt to capture someone, it’s because they pose a direct and imminent threat to the United States, to our interests, our allies and potentially our homeland.

And really we have seen, Judy, the central front in the war against al-Qaida shift somewhat from the western areas of Pakistan to Yemen over the last couple of years, and now Africa is really the central front in the fight against al-Qaida.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So we’re talking about — we’re talking about a big continent here, with a lot of territory, Margaret. Does that mean — I mean, what are the places where the U.S. sees a threat?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, the U.S. sees a threat — right now, if you just had a map up, a lot of these groups are operating fairly independently.

It’s pretty splintered. So, you have got Al-Shabab in Somalia. You have Boko Haram in Nigeria. You have these various groups, militias even in Libya. You have got now all these foreign fighters that have — and Egyptians that have returned to the Sinai in Egypt.

But one of the common denominators is you have had all this unrest, governments are weaker than they were five years ago in terms of being able to exert security control, and the area is even more awash in weapons because of the Libyan conflict, which unleashed, you know, all of these weapons that have been captured — sorry — that were held by Gadhafi forces.

So the concern on the part of the U.S. is not that they’re ready, at least from what I have been told, to attack the homeland now. They don’t have the capability and mostly they don’t have the aim — but that, increasingly, as they become more and more of an interconnected group, it could pose much more of a danger, and in the meantime, they do have their sights set on U.S. interests and facilities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wherever they can find.


JEREMY BASH: And I think our experience tells us, Judy, that over the last 15 years, since the embassy bombings, if we don’t go after al-Qaida where they are and if we don’t try to take out their top leadership through manhunting and other disruptive activities, then it’s possible and potentially likely that they could come attack us here on the homeland.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the idea of trying to capture — they captured the man in Libya. They were not able to get the man in Somalia.

JEREMY BASH: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That tells you they want to interrogate these people, they want information from them. They just don’t want to eliminate them.

JEREMY BASH: I think our objective is to question them and get intelligence, because the intelligence can actually inform further operational activity.

And it’s an operational cycle. You collect, you analyze, you question, and then you conduct further operations. So the hope is that these operations will lead to further operations to decimate the top leadership of al-Qaida in East Africa and those finding safe haven in North Africa.

And it’s really unprecedented, Judy, I would say, for the military, the United States military, to operate under its own military authorities to go not into the ungoverned areas or the war zones, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Somalia or the Horn of Africa, but to go into an urban commercial area, in downtown Tripoli, and actually take someone off the street.

And that tells me, number one, it was a very high-risk mission, but there was high payoff and high reward, two, that we had pristine intelligence, and, three, that we probably did have some cooperation from the Libyan authorities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that was my question, Margaret. Was there a question of legality here?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, that was one of the questions that was debated internally, the legality, because this is a sovereign government. And, in fact, it’s one that the United States hopes will succeed, but doesn’t have the capacity, capability, and maybe not the will right now to do an operation like this.

I am told that there was at least an understanding or discussion that if the Libyan government failed to take a guy out who was hiding in plain sight, as al-Libi was, that the United States might act on its own. Now, that all remains a little murky. They don’t want to embarrass the Libyan government. The State Department had concerns about what this would mean for this Libyan government. So there is a lot of delicate diplomacy still to come.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is a government the United States had hoped would stand up and be strong, but it hasn’t been able to do what the U.S. is counting on.

The U.S. moved in Somalia. Jeremy, you have the case of a government that is very weak.

JEREMY BASH: Very weak. And, in fact, Al-Shabab has actually been on the run because Somali forces have improved their operations against Al-Shabab, backed by Kenya and others, but in many of the areas, it is still ungoverned.

I actually think the operation in Libya was more risky than the operation in Somalia, because even though there was…


JUDY WOODRUFF: Because it was in the heart of a city.

JEREMY BASH: That’s right. And there are civilians around.

And Ikrimah in Barawe down on the coast of Somalia was really surrounded just by militants and it was a fairly open area, kind of on the beach. But in downtown Tripoli in daylight, with women and children around, again, to me, that showed that we had both pristine intelligence and possibly the cooperation of some local forces.

After all, how did we get him out of the country? And I don’t know this for certain. I’m not in government. But I strongly suspect that we flew him out to a Navy ship. To fly out of the country, you need some local domestic support.


MARGARET WARNER: But it points out why a drone strike wasn’t an option, because it was in downtown Tripoli.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is what we have seen in the past.


MARGARET WARNER: So if the United States wanted to get this guy one way or another, the other, that is, the lethal operation, wasn’t an option.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s fascinating to be happening, as we said, halfway around the world. We wake up Saturday morning and hear about all this.

Margaret Warner, Jeremy Bash, thank you.

JEREMY BASH: Thanks, Judy.