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Muna Khan: As US extends its drone strikes to Somalia, does it run the risk of exposing itself to more dangers?

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A drone strike by the US against Islamic militants made Somalia the sixth country to be targeted, after Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

Following last week’s drone strike, the Twitterverse went into overdrive with “6th country” receiving its own hashtag on which people denounced President Barack Obama as the “Nobel Peace Prize winning President now waging seven wars.”

Indignation aside, the situation in Somalia is more complex, plagued as it is by decades of war, drought and famine.

A US official confirmed on June 29 that drones had been used in an attack in the southern town of Kismayo on June 23 targeting two senior members of the Somali terrorist outfit Al Shabab, which is said to have links to Al Qaeda. The two men who were wounded in the attack are believed to have links to Anwar Al Awlaqi, an American-born cleric who himself escaped a drone attack in Yemen earlier this year. There are some conflicting reports on their current whereabouts, but according to a story in The Military Times on July 1, US forces took the men away for questioning.

US authorities are concerned that Al Shabab leaders are working closely with Al Qaeda to strike targets in the region.

“They have become somewhat emboldened of late, and, as a result, we have become more focused on inhibiting their activities,” a military official told The Washington Post on July 1. “They were planning operations outside of Somalia.”

Although this isn’t the first time Al Shahab members have been targeted by the US, it is the first time a pilotless drone strike has been used in an attempt a member of the groups. Previously, unmanned drones have been used for surveillance purposes; one was shot down in Somalia in October 2009.

On April 6, an Al Shahab commander was reported to have been killed in an airstrike in Dhobley in southern Somalia. Late last month, Fazul Mohammed, the man allegedly behind the US embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998 and also founder of Al Shabab, was killed in a shootout in the capital, Mogadishu.

Al Shabab has been on the Obama administration’s radar since 2008, but the group did not perceive the terrorist outfit as a threat to US interests until more recently, when, according to many analysts, Al Shabab began looking to enlarge its field of operations.

In July of last year, the group claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda, that killed 76 people. Ugandan troops are in Somalia as part of a UN peacekeeping force.
Somalia has been without a functional government since 1991, when warlords ousted Mohamed Siad Barre from power. The internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government, which was set up in 2004, controls only a small part of the country, which has been ravaged by the ongoing conflict. Its mandate expires on August 20, and a date for elections keeps getting pushed forward because of the chaos in the country.

The UN estimates that 1.4 million Somalis are displaced within the country, while nearly 700,000 are refugees in neighboring nations.

The country, which has an estimated population just shy of 10 million, tops the list of the Failed States Index.

A contingency of 9,000 troops from African Union countries Uganda and Burundi is fighting a battle against Al Shabab militia and seems to have made some gains in the past few months. A spokesperson for the AU troops said the US drone strikes assist them in increasing their surveillance capabilities.

The Obama administration is particularly interested in the threats posed by Al Shabab and Al Qaeda. After being confirmed as the new defense secretary, CIA director Leon Panetta said he had intelligence indicating that Al Shahab was looking at striking beyond Somalia and that Al Qaeda had shifted some of its operation to Somalia.

This was corroborated late last month when senior Obama security aide John Brennan cited Somalia among the countries “where the administration has placed a new focus on Al Qaeda affiliates,” according to The Washington Post.

By expanding its drone attacks to Somalia, the US risks some backlash; indeed, the attacks have proven to be very unpopular, despite their precision and ability to limit the number of casualties.

Pakistan, for example, has seen a surge in anti-American sentiment since the controversial drone strikes began a few years ago and increased in frequency this year. A recent poll showed that only three percent of Pakistanis support drone attacks.

On June 29, the Pakistani government ordered the closure of a CIA drone base in Shamsi and asked all US personnel to vacate the premises in retaliation for delayed payments from a coalition fund meant to support the country’s efforts in the war.

Analysts believe drone strikes will continue in Pakistan, especially since the strikes have been relatively successful in eliminating alleged militants. An estimated 2,500 alleged militants have been killed since the attacks began in 2004, according to The Guardian newspaper.

The Obama administration has not been met with any hostility from the Somali government, however fragile it may be. Defense minister Abdulhakim Haji Faqi called on the US to carry out more drone strikes against militants, but admitted that he was not given advance notice about the June 23 operation.

He was, however, quick to point out that this should not be seen as a complaint. “Absolutely not,” Mr. Faqi was quoted as saying in the Military Times. “We welcome it … We urge the US to continue its strikes against Al Shabab, because if it keeps those strikes up, it will be easier for us to defeat Al Shabab.”

The Obama administration’s renewed resolve to quash Al Qaeda and its affiliates using drone strikes seems to have received the approval of many US politicians, but there are those who fear the consequences. They worry about human rights issues that arise from civilian casualties killed in the strikes, as well as the blurry legal lines of unaccountability that arise in drone warfare.

What is clear, however, is that one cannot predict how the drone strikes will affect Al Shahab. Analysts may be too quick to celebrate the “devastating blows” these strikes have had on the group and how they have been demoralized by the gains made by the AU forces.

It is too early to predict how Al Shahab will respond to the drone attacks, and whether they will change tactics in recruiting young men for their cause. These recruits are easy to coax into joining the group; after all, they need food and shelter, which Al Shabab, the Taliban and Al Qaeda provide.

The militancy in Somalia cannot be compared to those in other countries, which is why it needs to be tackled with a clear-cut strategy that takes its decades-old anarchy into consideration. Al Shahab is essentially opposed to the transitional government in Somalia and is not fighting the US — but the drone strikes have begun to change that, as evidenced by the relationship it has fostered with Al Qaeda. The US must recognize this before it is too late, or it may very well be forced to enter into dialogue with yet another erstwhile enemy.

(Muna Khan, Senior Correspondent of Al Arabiya English, can be reached at [email protected])