SEALs Hit al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda; Africa Shift?

What was behind the weekend raids in Africa, and where do we go from here? Photo: (Longer/AP)

WASHINGTON, October 7, 2013 — In two separate raids this weekend, US Navy SEALS launched attacks on al-Qaeda and its affiliates. US Navy SEALs captured Abu Anas al-Libi in Libya, and attacked an al-Shabaab stronghold in Somalia.

Al-Libi has been on the FBI terror list for involvement in the 1998 Africa embassy bombings which killed over two hundred people. Al-Libi is now being held by the US onboard a Naval vessel in an unknown location.

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In Somalia, SEALs encountered heavy resistance during their raid, which is reported to be in retaliation for the September mall attack in Nairobi by the Somali based al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate.

These events are interesting for a number of reasons.

First, it shows that the US and the Obama Administration may be moving away from drone strikes and more towards concentrated commando raids, trading the hammer for the scalpel.

Drone strikes, even against terrorists, have become increasingly unpopular in the United States and are drawing criticism from our allies and even more contempt from our enemies. While contempt for our enemies is to be expected, the damage caused by drone strikes did much to push those into the camps of our enemies who would not be there had a drone not blown up their farm or house by mistake. The black flag affect should be a real concern for the United States, and perhaps these raids are evidence that they wish to minimize civilian casualties and public criticism.

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Second, it shows that the United States is still dedicated to fighting terrorism around the globe. The Obama Administration will use these raids to show the Global community that they are set in their resolve to continue the fight against those who spread terror.

No reports yet have come out of the raid in Libya concerning how long US intelligence has been aware of al-Libi’s presence in that country, but it is conceivable in the wake of so many scandals and low public opinion these raids were a political move aimed at showing the American public that al-Qaeda was still the bad guy, and that President Obama could still get it done.

It is possible that al-Libi was a card President Obama has had in his back pocket for some time, given our presence in Libya it is difficult to believe that US intelligence was unaware of his presence until now. Either way, regardless of motive, the raid did much to affirm that we are still in the fight.

Third, it may show a shift in concentration from the Middle East to Africa in terms of combating terrorism. In the case of al-Shabaab in Somalia, the World needed to show the al-Qaeda offshoot that atrocities such as the Nairobi mall shooting would not go unpunished. It is almost as if al-Shabaab would have been better served not perpetrating such a high profile attack because of the incredible amount of international attention it has garnered. Sticking to running and gunning with local militias and planting IED’s in Africa might get you on the news, but killing 60 plus people and injuring hundreds more in a major African city will get you a knock on the door from US Special Operations Command, and they will not be there to talk about Jesus Christ.

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If this is a policy shift which includes the realization that Africa is the new sandbox to play in then it is better late than never. Emboldened by a lack of international attention al-Qaeda on the Islamic Maghreb has been making territorial grabs, Boko Haram has been making territorial grabs and killing Christians in Nigeria, and Al-Shabaab has vowed that events like Nairobi are only the beginning. Africa is a fight that any nation interested in stopping radical Islam needs to have a dog in, and these raids may be reflecting a growing international shift to that affect.

However these raids come at interesting times, and against interesting targets which should serve to warn us about events which have been unfolding for the last two years.

The raid in Libya was against an al-Qaeda target. Al-Qaeda has gained much control in that nation since the NATO backed revolution which saw the death of long-time dictator President al-Gadhafi. That is a nation that saw Western involvement in the midst of a bloody civil war, the ousting of a tyrannical regime, and then widespread infighting and insurgency in the wake of the change in leadership. It has been flooded with weapons and fighters, and is now a hotbed for radical Islamists.

Al-Shabaab is an ally of al-Qaeda. The US is currently supplying al-Qaeda backed forces in Syria, yet they are sending in SEALs against them in Somalia and in Libya, while still waging war against their allies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is possible that these raids, while serving the military and strategic purpose of taking out wanted and dangerous targets, had a heavier political purpose.

President Obama has openly supplied al-Qaeda in Syria with lethal aid, and perhaps feels as though he still needs to prove to the World and to the Nation that he is aware that al-Qaeda is still the enemy. All of the symptoms of a political move are there. Two quick raids in a short span of time, conducting to show al-Qaeda and the public of the United States that the President was doing something to combat the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, and not just sending them weapons.

The raids were announced almost immediately after they took place, giving the intelligence community no chance to act on the element of panic which ensues after a raid such as that and the loss of a leader, which was much of what happened after the Bin Laden raid. The raids were against high value or high visibility targets, the mastermind of attacks from 15 years ago and the perpetrators of a widely publicized raid make for very good press.

Whatever the reason for this new shift onto Africa, it is important that it is sustained. These raids on al-Qaeda in Libya, and al-Shabaab in Somalia cannot be flash in the pan operations aimed at adding credibility to President Obama’s record in fighting terrorism. Whether or not this was a political move, or long planned surgical operations, or both, is unclear. What is clear is that if these raids continue, Africa will become the new playground of Western Special operators, as they come to realize that the spread of radical Islam further into the Dark Continent must be checked; and not by a massive invading army, but by the quiet footsteps of the silent warriors.

If these attacks prove to be a policy shift and not just a political move, allies of al-Qaeda in Africa will be forced to watch the skies and the seas for the next possible raid which would divert some of their efforts and attention away from planning and implementing terror attacks, and finally begin to check the advance of radical Islam in Africa. 


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Conor Higgins

Conor Higgins has a B.A. from Catholic University in DC in American History, with a concentration on guerrilla warfare on American soil. He has an M.A. in US History from George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, with a concentration on Cold War insurgency. He believes that all news and all information should be taken with a grain of salt, and implores people everywhere to seek news stories everywhere. 

Higgins is also a fervent believer in the traditional role of media, in terms of acting as a balanced check on government policies and individuals regardless of party affiliation. But in the end, he believes that no matter how heated an issue is, there is nothing that can't be discussed over a smoke and some whiskey. 

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