Why destabilizing strikes on terror networks can backfire

Before the tragic news about Steven Sotloff broke, the big terror-related story of the day was about a US airstrike in Somalia that targeted, and may very well have killed, Moktar Ali Zubeyr, also known as Ahmad Abdi Godane or just “Godane,” the leader of the Al-Shabaab terror network. Given the nature of the operation it won’t be possible to confirm Godane’s death until Somali investigators can study the attack site, but the fact that Al-Shabaab seemingly hasn’t said anything at all so far is interesting — you’d expect them either to declare that Godane is still alive or to announce his martyrdom publicly as a recruiting tool.

Somalia is a little off my usual beat, but this struck my interest since it illustrates the complexity of international terrorism now that there are two major brands in the market. Godane was an Al-Qaeda guy. He announced in a 2009 video that he, and Al-Shabaab, were joining AQ’s jihad movement, and then in 2012, having since risen to become leader of the group, he pledged Al-Shabaab’s allegiance to Al-Qaeda Central and began working with franchises like Yemen’s Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Algeria’s Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib. This latter declaration actually splintered Al-Shabaab, many of whose senior figures were opposed to diverting attention from their local fight toward the global jihad movement (Al-Shabaab’s leadership is still divided between local Somali militia focused on taking control of Somalia and foreign fighters interested in the wider jihad movement). Godane won the internal power struggle, and last year’s Westgate Mall attack in Kenya was to some degree his declaration of victory.

Now, assuming Godane is dead, what happens to Al-Shabaab? Godane may be succeeded by somebody equally devoted to Al-Qaeda, but it seems likely that there will be some kind of succession struggle. If there is, there’s a strong chance that it could be won by a commander who wants to take Al-Shabaab back to its roots as a purely Somali militia fighting to take control of Somalia first before potentially expanding the fight to neighboring countries. But what if the group goes the other way? What if the next guy in charge of Al-Shabaab decides to unite the organization with the Islamic State, instead? Would that be good for US interests in the region or would it actually be worse than leaving Godane in charge would have been? In the case of Al-Shaabab it may not matter that much; their capacity for big international attacks seems pretty limited. But if IS is the bigger immediate threat to the US right now, should we think twice before conducting similar strikes against the leaders of terror networks that really do have significant capacity? AQIM has already been splintered over the AQC-IS fight; would we be willing to take out Abdelmalek Droukdel even though the people below him might take the whole organization over to IS? AQAP has expressed some allegiance with IS; would we be prepared to take out their top leadership even if it meant the organization possibly going over to what appears, at this point, to be the greater of two evils?

I suppose if we get a chance to kill one of the leaders of these groups we should take it (if you believe America should be doing that kind of thing at all, which is another debate entirely), but it seems to me that we may be inviting more trouble for ourselves in the long run.

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