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Stalking Terrorists in Africa’s Horn

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: April 9, 2007

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When President Bush proclaims that his counterterrorism strategy consists of “taking the fight to the enemy,” it conjures up images of U.S. forces patrolling the streets of Baghdad or the mountains of Afghanistan. But increasingly this battlefield includes the Horn of Africa, where U.S. counterterrorism efforts have noticeably picked up, raising charges of heavy-handed activities along the way.

The most notable front is Somalia, where U.S. forces aided Ethiopian and Somali troops in the fight against Somalia’s powerful Islamist militias, launching air strikes at suspected al-Qaeda militants in January. Months earlier, before hard-line Islamists seized control of much of the country, U.S. agents attempted to thwart them by providing support to a band of warlords who called themselves the “Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism.” The alliance soon folded, but the Islamists were eventually routed by the Ethiopians, leaving a weak transitional government incapable of asserting control. Somalia has recently witnessed some of the worst fighting (CSMonitor) in sixteen years of anarchy, with rival clans, Ethiopian troops, and Somali forces trading offensives. A White House report to Congress in late March said Somalia remains a major security concern (AP) and the United States will continue to “take strong measures to deny terrorists safe haven within Somalia.”

Writing recently in Foreign Affairs, John Prendergast and Colin Thomas-Jensen of the International Crisis Group argue that Washington’s single-minded focus on combating terrorism in the Greater Horn of Africa “is overshadowing U.S. initiatives to resolve conflicts and promote good governance—with disastrous implications for regional stability and U.S. counterterrorism objectives themselves.” One case in point: As a result of Ethiopia’s assistance in Somalia, Bush administration officials looked the other way as Addis Ababa bought weapons from North Korea in January, despite UN sanctions (NYT).

Also potentially damaging to Washington’s image in the region is a new report by the Associated Press that U.S. intelligence officials are interrogating suspected terrorists in secret Ethiopian prisons. According to the report, which Ethiopia denies (VOA), most of the suspects were rounded up in January as they fled the Ethiopian offensive that drove out Somalia’s Islamists. A Human Rights Watch report lambastes the United States, Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia for operating a secret detention program, which one spokesman described as an “outsourced Guantanamo.” U.S. officials have hesitated to discuss these allegations, though a CIA representative told Reuters any U.S. actions have been lawful.  

Given Somalia’s present state of chaos (ISN), some observers believe the United States should do more. Counterterrorism consultant Daveed Gartenstein-Ross bemoans a lack of U.S. action as Somali violence worsens. But Africa as a whole is very much on the radar of U.S. strategic planners in the Defense Department; it recently announced it will create an African Command by 2008. This prospect worries Michael Scheuer, a retired CIA officer who in the late 1990s led the unit responsible for tracking Osama bin Laden. He tells CFR.org, “Our presence alone in some of those countries will increase the militancy of Muslims.”

Of course, concerns over terrorism stretch beyond Africa’s Horn. Terrorism appears resurgent in Algeria, where one prominent insurgent group recently renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. As this Backgrounder explains, the group has helped provide a steady stream of foreign fighters to help support insurgents in Iraq. The New York Times reports that North Africans are among the cadre of new leaders helping to revitalize the al-Qaeda organization. A recent Council Special Report on the Horn of Africa calls for increased aid and a heightened military presence in the region. A Council Task Force report suggests a more comprehensive U.S. policy toward the continent.

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