No matter where I go or who I talk to in the US Navy, the one thing folks give me a hard time about is that it is suggested I often spend too much time focusing on piracy in Somalia and not enough time discussing Al Shabaab. That is fair, I guess, although I was the guy who suggested we buy the services of pirates to fight Al Shabaab, after all at least we know the motivation of pirates is money...
But on a more serious note, US officials have been talking up the threat posed by Al Shabaab and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula over the last few months. It turns out, they had a very credible intelligence source of information regarding the threat of those two organizations. A few details from Luis Martinez of ABC News.
After secretly holding and interrogating a Somali man captured off the coast of Africa for two months, the United States indicted him, claiming he was a liaison between terrorist groups.Many thoughts, not very well collected, come to mind as I observe this event.
The Somali man, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, believed to be in his mid-20s, is a top leader in the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab terrorist group in Somalia who has been acting as a go-between with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the U.S. Justice Department alleged in an indictment Tuesday.
First, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame was captured at sea on April 19, 2011 and taken to USS Boxer (LHD 4) where he was interrogated and held before being transferred to New York. To capture the man while at sea obviously suggests an impressive intelligence operation took place behind the scenes, and while it shouldn't need to be said - the reason the US did capture him on what was almost certainly a short notice window to respond to intelligence is because the US Navy is globally deployed and always present. It is probably a bit of luck that some pirate event didn't have our ships out of position to respond to this intelligence, a detail that needs to be stated because it is important to note piracy is a distraction for maritime forces, not a maritime mission the US Navy is currently, actively dealing with directly.
Second, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame was captured at sea. The sea is playing an important but rarely discussed role in Al-Qaeda's lines of communications. Around The Horn of Africa there is a lot of attention given to piracy as the major problem at sea, but piracy is a symptom of the bigger regional lack-of stability problem and by no definition is piracy a threat to the national interests of the United States. Task Force 151, the international task force against piracy, is symbolic of US military activities lately - it is a halfhearted military solution that can never solve the political problem that sources the piracy in the first place. I do not know why it is the policy of the United States to sail the fleet in circles off the Horn of Africa pretending to protect commerce from piracy threats, but at some point effective and efficient use of the fleet needs to focus on forwarding legitimate security solutions. In this instance, that claim can be made.
Third, I intend to leave the legalities of taking Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame to civilian court to the experts, and highly recommend the good folks at the Lawfare Blog. They have made available a copy of the full indictment of Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame at this link (PDF), and have already gone into the coverage of this very important development. Does it matter? Yes, how we deal with terrorists is a legal issue that rises to the level of a Presidential election issue. Will this trial get as much coverage as Casey Anthony? It would be a tragedy regarding the judgment and quality of American journalism that balances ratings in favor of national importance if it didn't, which also means it probably won't get anywhere near as much attention as Casey Anthony on the US cable news networks.
Fourth, the politics of this are also very important. George Bush left office with no way to deal with detained terrorists except to release them to the custody of other nations. Some people say the Guantanamo Bay solution works just fine, but it really doesn't. The bottom line on the Guantanamo Bay solution is that it has always been a temporary solution with no replacement, and both the Executive and Congress has been unable to come up with a better replacement for almost a decade now.
But more important than the detainment politics to me is the war narrative politics. For a couple of years now the US Army has cited only "hundreds" or less Al Qaeda operating in Afghanistan and Iraq, but Al Shabaab alone is well over 5,000, with access to tens of thousands more disenfranchised folks in Somalia alone. No one really knows how big Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is, but best verifiable numbers range over 500, and they have access to many thousands of disenfranchised folks in Yemen. While it is unlikely the Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame case will bring it up, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is on the rise and becoming the next big problem with thousands in their ranks.
The point is, Afghanistan gets all the attention but that isn't where Al Qaeda is. I've put together a little map to put my thoughts in context, and included a few pointers to where one might notice a few dumpster fires.
One Hot Mess
There are more Al Qaeda at the end of those arrows on this map than all other places not shown on this map combined, and you do not see major parts of Pakistan or Afghanistan on that map. The Obama administration knows this, hell everyone knows this, but the question is what is anyone going to do about it and what should the United States be doing about it?
The Obama administration is going to send Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame to civilian court, which means evidence will be presented publicly and a narrative will emerge from that evidence.
We are about to find out if the United States has any STRATCOM at all in the State Department, because this court case is without question the single most important STRATCOM moment of the next decade in the fight against terrorism - not just on the prosecution legal side but also on the operational side.
So lets all generically think about what is happening here. News reports are claiming Somalia is not only a failed state, but Somalia is a dead state with as many as 54,000 people fleeing the war stricken drought zone in June alone. Pirates are now organized enough to use the Yemen controlled island of Socotra as a fuel depot. News headlines tomorrow will discuss a pirate hijacking inside the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor, about 30 miles from Aden if my sources are correct. But none of this news items about Somalia actually matters, because none of these developments represent a threat to the national interest of the United States.
Those are other peoples problems and should be left for other people to deal with. It might be hard to swallow, but when one starts counting problems in Somalia, piracy looks more and more like the least of the problems folks are facing, at least it is unless piracy is part of the income model for Al Shabaab. No government has officially made that claim yet though.
The threat comes from Al Shabaab, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) - all of whom are capable and have desires to strike at US interests both globally and domestically. Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame represents the link between Al Shabaab and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which makes him potentially the most important Al Qaeda member captured outside Pakistan or Afghanistan since 9/11. If similar links between these organizations and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) exist, we are in serious trouble... and those links probably exist.
Think about the map. Right now Libya is a dumpster fire with no local functioning security system, which means it represents a tremendous opportunity for organizations linked to Al Qaeda to move and operate freely around the current military contest for political control. Libya has all the makings of a prolonged, uncontrolled tribal war similar to Somalia where groups are likely to link up with elements of Al Qaeda like AQAP and AQIM for support towards taking political control once Gaddafi is removed.
Folks also better start paying attention to the news on the western side of Africa, because another front is starting to open up in Africa (see here, here, and here) - and I'm not talking about Independence day in Sudan this Saturday - which is where the UN is focused.
Right now we are fighting wars on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the political objective hopefully to reduce the military presence in both nations over the next few years. Pakistan is going to remain a target in an extended air campaign for years. The only sure thing we know from the announced arrest of Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame is that the United States is about to really spin up air operations in Yemen and Somalia over the next days, weeks, and months.
Libya is a strategic catastrophe, or as it is more commonly being called privately - an Obama Boondoggle - and it will surely look like one that even the best political spin doctors can't hide as European nations begin to withdraw from combat operations next month. Libya is also emerging as the new nexus in North Africa for Al Qaeda, and anyone who says otherwise is ignoring how that fight against Al Qaeda is the fight everyone knows is coming after Gaddafi loses power. The easiest prediction one can make right now is that some form of covert US military operations against AQIM and their efforts in Nigeria are coming - sooner rather than later. Finally, the Obama administration has a "no massacre" policy, so if things get heated after South Sudan declares independence, expect US military activity there too.
Since AFRICOM stood up, the focus has been engaging African nations at their request in what is described as a "supportive role" towards security. That must change in the very near future.
At some point it is time to admit that strategically, the US military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq to consolidate and contain Al Qaeda to those two states has failed miserably, and the US must adapt. I do not know what that adaptation looks like, but western, northern, and eastern Africa are dumpster fires where Al Qaeda presence is growing - and AFRICOM needs to grow up from its touchy, feely hands off approach and be a real Unified Combatant Command if they are going to productively deal with these emerging problems. The United States is facing Al Qaeda on three sides of a continent we have neglected as policy for decades, and our best friend on the continent - Egypt - is enduring some internal issues that remove the nation as a regional leader we can count on.
Which takes us back to Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame's day in court and the associated STRATCOM. What will the court files reveal about Al Qaeda? What will be the emerging narrative from a terrorist trial in the US at a time where the nation is suffering from war fatigue, and oh by the way, the future is darker than the present. How strong are our alliances and are they sufficient to address emerging challenges?
How can the US and China work together in solving the emerging Al Qaeda problem in Africa? We are engaged with China on this, right? If the answer isn't yes, we have much work to do. How long before Europe bails in dealing with problems on their own southern lawn? How much longer will US war hawks trumpet the cause in Afghanistan with other, much more serious problems emerging in Africa and the Middle East? How long can the US sustain "air campaigns" and claim that activity legitimately forwards a solution, as opposed to doing what air campaigns always do - prolong the problems?
The US Navy is heavily investing in force structure to fight the big war against China in the Pacific while the nation is engaged in 6 campaigns - none currently deployed from the sea - in 6 countries across the Middle East and Africa. The most important nation in Africa besides the United States is China. In other words, the Navy is organizing to fight the one nation that has the most shared interest with us towards an Africa that is connected to the global trade system - something Al Qaeda stands squarely against. Is this approach to national security interests our naval strategy, or our naval strategery?
What does the logistics of distributed regional naval support presence look like when low end counter terrorism problems are to be addressed in the maritime domain by the Littoral Combat Ship?
Tell me what WWIII might look like. Take your hand and rub it on a globe from Nigeria to Pakistan on land, and if we count piracy - go from the Gulf of Guinea up towards the Med, down the Red Sea and all the way over to the west Indian coast topped by the Persian Gulf all the way down to the southeastern coastline of Africa. Is that a sufficient amount of territorial mass to conduct military operations and potentially be big enough to be a world war? By 2012 that is almost certainly going to be the range of land and sea where the US is conducting air strikes and maritime security operations against legitimate Al Qaeda related terrorism threats. This is not a hollow prediction, the US has consistently fought Al Qaeda wherever they go, and right now that enormous swath of territory is the area Al Qaeda is attempting to influence politically. Think about it.
STRATCOM matters in ideological struggles, and right now the expansion of Al Qaeda across Africa represents a weakness in our ideological struggle against the legitimacy of Al Qaeda as a credible alternative to the global trade system. If the global trade system isn't effectively reaching the people of African nations, which in many cases it is not; Al Qaeda represents a legitimate alternative to an offering we can't make to disenfranchised people.
The STRATCOM from the Obama administration offers nothing productive to disenfranchised people in Africa, and unfortunately that is the one lesson everyone stands witness to with the Arab Spring. That also might explain why the Obama administration does not stand up for folks like Mubarak and Gaddafi, hoping the result will offer the US better access to disenfranchised people. Will we have compelling alternatives for the people once dictators are out of power? I don't think anyone really knows, primarily because we are still quite uncertain how it all turns out in Egypt.
Are we fighting the right fights with the right tools? Today the Obama administration claims air campaigns aren't war; they are simply an evolved variation of armed humanitarian intervention. If humanitarian air strikes isn't the STRATCOM for Libya, then what exactly is? What about Somalia? What about Pakistan? Yemen? Sudan? Nigeria? Are we shaping the information environment for political action, or simply shaping the battlefield for the next air campaign?
The United States is a strategic hot mess right now in our fight against Al Qaeda. We are engaged in two land wars and air campaigns in four countries, and we do not have a policy that can be articulated as an acceptable plan for successfully ending any of these military campaigns. Why is defense cuts the most highlighted spending issue by this administration when the Presidents policies continue to call for more and more open ended military activity across Africa and the Middle East? How does any of this end?
Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame is sure to be another political parade of some sort, but is the United States preparing to lead the parade by establishing a narrative that explains the use of global forces or are we simply going to operate as usual pretending 6 different simultaneous military campaigns are no big deal? I believe the event represents a real opportunity for the administration to take control of the counter terrorism narrative to forward a more reasonable realignment of counter terrorism policy.
If the President can't establish a narrative that explains the constantly expanding use of military force globally as his primary political tool in the war against terrorism, then he needs to be replaced for getting the United States involved in (and also failing to lead during) what is by any definition the largest hot battlefield globally the nation has fought on since World War II. It is quite concerning that US political leaders are not being held accountable for that remarkable fact.