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Authors: Aki Peritz,Eric Rosenbach

Find, Fix, Finish (34 page)

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Nabhan’s accomplice, Fazul, had indeed been arrested after attempting to use a stolen credit card to purchase jewelry sometime in July 2002, along with Nabhan, who was posing as Fazul’s taxi driver at the time. The fact that Nabhan had escaped by jumping bail caused less of a stir than the fact that Fazul had escaped several armed police officers. According to one officer, the Kenyan police had considered Fazul “a normal robbery suspect” at the time of his arrest and had escorted him to what he claimed was his apartment in their search for stolen goods; they clearly did not expect that he would flee the apartment and evade them in the streets below. They apparently did not realize that their escaping detainee was also a key terrorist suspect, despite the decaying wanted posters of Fazul plastered on the walls of police stations throughout the country.
That Nabhan had disappeared into Somalia was particularly problematic for the Kenyans, as well as the Americans, for no single force had been able to maintain control of the chaotic country since 1991. And no local force was available to help Kenyan, US, or Israeli forces track him down, as there had been in Yemen and Pakistan. Somalia is an extreme libertarian’s dream—the entire country is an ungoverned space not accountable to a central government.
Somalia’s decades-long descent into chaos was a complex tale of cruelty, international neglect, and greed. Guerrillas led by Somali warlords in 1991 ousted dictator Siad Barre, forcing US officials—who had not really cared much about Somalia in the first place—to look at the question of succession. “We hazarded a few guesses,” according to Frank Crigler, the US ambassador to Somalia during the late 1980s. “But we never came close to imagining the scenario that eventually unfolded or the humanitarian nightmare.”
The next year, several hundred thousand Somalis died due to famine. The country likely had plenty of food, but sparring warlords blocked shipments to the country’s interior. Responding to the crisis, the US initially deployed troops to ensure food deliveries and provide security in what would eventually become part of a UN peacekeeping mission. After 1993, however, President Clinton announced the withdrawal of all US forces from Somalia. UN forces withdrew by March 1995, amid the country’s highest level of chaos.
Although the northern regions of Somalia enjoyed a degree of stability, in the southern regions virtually all economic institutions collapsed during the early 1990s. The UN classified Somalia as a “least developed country,” and the inter- and intraclan warfare so devastated the south that the malnutrition rate reached 90 percent in some regions and displaced persons camps.
The chaos of anarchy eventually gave way to the reemergence of traditional clan structures and Islamic courts, but Somalia remained a shattered country with no real central government.
Although the scene was ripe to provide terrorist groups some measure of refuge, there were impediments to this process. Some analysts have argued that Somalis were traditionally “suspicious of politically active Islam and remained attached to the clan as the sole source of protection.”
Others, seeking to explain why al-Qaeda failed to establish a base in Somalia during the 1990s, have suggested that the country may have been too chaotic even for the terrorist group to handle. A report by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, for example, argued that al-Qaeda operatives in Somalia fell victim to many of the same challenges that plague Western interventions—they were “prone to extortion and betrayal, found themselves trapped in the middle of incomprehensible clan conflicts, faced suspicion from the indigenous population, had to overcome significant logistical constraints and were subject to a constant risk of Western military interdiction.”
By this logic, states such as Yemen and Kenya, with relatively weak central governments offering minimal stability, are preferable terror safe havens to anarchic states like Somalia.
This argument has some merit. Nabhan’s East Africa cell initially chose Kenya over Somalia as a base of operations, and even after the Islamic Courts Union (ICU)—a coalition of conservative religious groups seeking to establish a unified Somali state under Islamic law—came to power, al-Qaeda did not develop as large a presence in Somalia as it did in many other countries. Still, Somalia offered a refuge from governments of all kinds, and many analysts have linked bin Laden and al-Qaeda to various Islamist groups in the country.
With no stable government, there was no partner for the US to pressure or work with to pursue its targets. But when the ICU took over much of the country in 2006, the international community and the US quickly turned their attention to Somalia. The US had already labeled the head of the ICU’s consultative council, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a specially designated global terrorist in September 2001, citing his links to al-Qaeda. Some information claimed that the ICU was allegedly sheltering both Nabhan and Fazul in Mogadishu.
By the end of 2006, the US had joined with Ethiopia to reverse the ICU’s territorial gains and reassert the authority of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). When Ethiopian troops, at great cost, pushed the ICU from Mogadishu in early 2007, Nabhan fled with them to a nebulous “Islamist stronghold” near the Kenya-Somalia border.
Lacking a reliable local partner, US officials began to work closely with Ethiopian intelligence agencies to obtain information to hunt Nabhan and other al-Qaeda associates. However, the Muslim Somalis’ hostility toward Christian Ethiopian troops and the civilian casualties resulting from US attacks led to few actionable leads, intensifying the debate in Washington over US counterterrorism policy in the region. Ethiopia had traditionally been a strong US ally in the Horn of Africa and was viewed by many in the Bush administration as a key proxy in preventing a complete Islamist takeover of Somalia. Yet even with this partnership, determining Nabhan’s exact location proved extremely difficult.
The US soon added Nabhan to the FBI’s “Seeking Information—War on Terrorism” list, suggesting that the search for him was being stepped up. This may have also indicated that the evidence against him in the 1998 embassy bombings was not particularly strong, as only his colleague Fazul was on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists.
During this time Nabhan felt free enough to serve as the liaison between militants in East Africa and al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and became an important instructor in the country’s terrorist camps.
Whether he was now a member of al-Shabaab—a splinter wing of the ICU, and the primary al-Qaeda-linked organization in the country—or was simply “on loan” to the group is unclear. But in 2008 Nabhan released a video showcasing an al-Shabaab training camp in Somalia. While Nabhan explicitly solicited assistance from the peoples of “Kenya and Tanzania, and Nigeria and Uganda and Chad” in the video, he was in fact training militants from around the world—including several from the United States.
His solicitation did not fall on deaf ears. A group of Somali Americans from Minneapolis, arrested in early 2009 after they allegedly returned from a terrorist training camp in Somalia, claimed that Nabhan had been one of their trainers. Two months before Nabhan’s death, one of the group’s members pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges; his lawyer claimed that he had been trained in Somalia to be a suicide bomber. More disturbingly, another Somali American from Minnesota who had been at the training camps at the same time as Nabhan drove a truck bomb in November 2008 in northern Somalia; he was identified by a finger found at the explosion site.
By October 2009, National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) director Michael Leiter claimed that dozens of Somali Americans and Muslim converts had trained at al-Shabaab camps.
US operatives continued to track Nabhan, often relying on local warlords for information, but the effort produced little actionable intelligence. Funding brutal, untrustworthy warlords seemed to highlight America’s shortsighted policy of prioritizing the fight against Islamic extremists above all else. Furthermore, Somali officials in the fledgling US-AND UN-backed TFG argued that American support for the warlords hindered the effort to build a strong central government, undermining the long-term effort to deny terrorists a safe haven. “They [the US] really think they can capture al-Qaeda members in Somalia . . . but the Americans should tell the warlords they should support the government, and cooperate with the government,” commented former Somali president Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed.
On March 2, 2008, the US took its first shot at eliminating Nabhan. A US submarine off the Somali coast fired at least two missiles, destroying a house in the village of Dobley only a few miles from the Kenyan border. Dobley, together with the surrounding southern region of Somalia, had been a focal point of al-Shabaab and other insurgent group activities—most notably suicide bombs and hit-and-run attacks to rid the country of Ethiopian troops and regain territory. Although the casualties included suspected militants, they also included civilians, raising further questions about Washington’s narrow focus on suspected Islamic militants versus stabilizing the country to deny terrorist groups refuge. The strike also failed to reach its true target; Nabhan either escaped or had never been there.
By 2009, Nabhan had built a militia of over 180 foreigners in Somalia, aptly calling themselves al-Muhajirun, or “the Emigrants.” These battle-hardened jihadists fought alongside Somali insurgents, coordinating their efforts with al-Qaeda leadership. Through al-Muhajirun, Nabhan was able to recruit young extremists from around the globe—in Kenya, Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Europe, and the US—reportedly bringing in some of the group’s most experienced fighters from outside the country. The growth of al-Muhajirun contributed to the growing concern over al-Qaeda links to militants in Somalia, with at least one security analyst suggesting that “Nabhan was a high-enough target within the al-Qaeda organization that his elimination could seriously disrupt the command structure of al-Qaeda in Somalia.”
The US concluded that Nabhan was commuting regularly between the cities of Merka and Kismayo on the southern coast of Somalia, and a military operation—code-named Celestial Balance—was readied. Surveillance confirmed a pattern of activity for Nabhan, providing American officials sufficient time to develop the operation. And several strategies were presented, including an air strike, a helicopter raid, and a capture attempt. While the planning stages—verifying and confirming the intelligence, determining which forces should be used, and nailing down other operational details—were conducted under the US Central Command, the operation was handed over to the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) for execution.
The NSC received a detailed outline of each option. Detaining Nabhan for interrogation was appealing, but President Obama’s advisers promptly rejected the capture option, likely remembering the brutal political fallout from the 1993 Somalia incursion. The risk to US troops on the ground in such a volatile region of Somalia was enough to outweigh the potential benefits, they believed. Finally, advisers presented the air strike option to Obama, which he approved, but the weather on the day of the attack forced commanders to green-light the helicopter mission instead. While there were risks associated with putting US troops inside hostile territory, it uniquely allowed America to verify Nabhan’s death.
On the afternoon of September 14, 2009, less than two weeks after the White House approved the operation, four US military helicopters flew into Somalia with a force of elite US commandos.
According to witnesses near Baraawe, a port town a little over a hundred miles south of Mogadishu, helicopters appeared over the horizon in hot pursuit of a convoy speeding down a highway through the desert.
They began firing .50-caliber machine guns and other automatic weapons at the convoy, while their targets attempted to return fire.
The car’s occupants were quickly overwhelmed and killed. US troops the fastroped from one of the helicopters into a swirling cloud of red dust and removed the bodies for identification.
The operation was a success: US troops had finally identified and eliminated Nabhan and set a precedent for a different kind of “finish” operation inside a terrorist safe haven.
of a high-level al-Qaeda personality is good news for the US and its counterterrorism strategy, but a single killing neither changes the overall societal narrative of a region, nor is it an effective substitute for dealing with the larger issues of creating effective control over the region. Liquidating Nabhan did not bring stability to Somalia; similar successes had similar effects on Yemen, Pakistan, and other countries with weak or nonexistent government institutions.
These moves are, however, critical to achieving certain goals if they serve a larger purpose. General David Petraeus acknowledged as much in an interview in mid-August 2010: “Operations by counterterrorist forces—in other words, by our special-mission-unit elements, which will remain nameless but which you know are absolutely part of a comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency campaign. Not only are those [operations] not at odds with counterinsurgency, they’re a very important element in the overall approach.”
America will continue to grapple with the demons that emerge from shattered countries for years to come. As of this writing, Somalia remains a wrecked shell of a country, ranked by
Foreign Policy
magazine as the top “failed state” for three years running. The radical Islamist groups that emerged when the ICU crumbled a few years ago seem to be growing stronger by the month, and the coastlines are continuously plagued by well-armed pirates. More alarmingly, small groups of American citizens—mostly young Somali Americans—are still joining these organizations.
Of those American citizens who do not meet a sticky end on distant shores, several have returned to the US to wreak havoc, perhaps on al-Qaeda’s behalf.
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