Kenya attack shows limits of U.S. strategy against al-Shabab
President Obama has cited the
battle against al-Shabab militants in Somalia as a model of success for
his relatively low-investment, light-footprint approach to
By some measures, it has paid dividends. U.S.
drones have killed several of the Islamist group’s leaders, including
two top planners in just the past month, a senior administration
official said Friday. African Union troops backed by the United States
have forced al-Shabab fighters to flee huge swaths of territory.
this week’s massacre of 148 people at Garissa University College, the
deadliest terrorist attack on Kenyan soil in two decades, demonstrates
the limits of the administration’s approach and the difficulty of
producing lasting victories over resilient enemies.
Only last fall, Obama was touting his counterterrorism strategy in the region as one that “we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”
collapse of the American-backed government in Yemen forced the Pentagon
last month to pull its Special Operations forces from the country. The
chaos in Yemen and the absence of an effective partner has essentially
halted U.S. counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda’s affiliate
In Somalia and neighboring Kenya, the record is less clear.
Despite this week’s killings, senior administration officials
characterized their campaign against al-Shabab as highly effective. The
organization, a onetime youth militia that began affiliating with
al-Qaeda in the mid-2000s, once controlled virtually all of southern
Somalia but has lost more than 75 percent of its territory in recent
Its grip on Kismayo, where it controlled the lucrative
port, had been broken, robbing it of a key source of revenue. These
days, the group’s finances have been drained.
This week’s vicious
killings in Kenya, carried out by only a small team of masked gunmen,
were cited by White House officials as further evidence of the group’s
“They are desperate,” said the senior
administration official, who was authorized to speak only on the
condition of anonymity. “And as much as we hate to think about it, this
is what desperate groups do. They try to have smaller teams go out and
[conduct] higher-impact operations.”
But analysts who follow
al-Shabab’s activities said the recent attacks demonstrate how difficult
it is to destroy militant groups in places such as Somalia, where
decades of war and famine have created vast, chaotic and largely
ungovernable areas. After troops from a coalition of countries acting
under the banner of the African Union dislodged al-Shabab from the area
it controlled, ill-disciplined militia forces filled the vacuum. Kenya’s
participation in the African Union mission has made it a target for
“There’s no question that there was not an
effective plan to win the peace after winning the war,” said Kenneth
Menkhaus, an expert on Somalia and a professor at Davidson College.
“Now, who’s to blame for that is another matter.”
criticized the international community for its failure to deliver the
money and support the fledgling Somali government needed to function,
Menkhaus said. Other experts contended that the government’s corruption
and incompetence had caused potential backers in the West to pull their
Al-Shabab’s brutal rule gave way to chaos and crime.
Clan-based militia forces, which took over territory vacated by
al-Shabab, began taking land from villagers. “They made things worse,”
Menkhaus said. “The area became less secure after al-Shabab left. The
reality is that there is only so much you can do if the government is
pocketing all the money and not following through.”
officials have counseled patience, noting that the reconstituted Somali
government is not even three years old. “This is still a relatively new
project,” said the senior administration official.
House’s approach reflects Obama’s firm belief that outside military
forces can’t compel change in troubled parts of the world. “For a
society to function long term, the people themselves have to make
decisions about how they are going to live together,” Obama said last
August in an interview with the New York Times.
The United States can offer advice, aid and support, “but we can’t do it for them,” Obama added.
philosophy has guided Obama’s relatively light-footprint approach in
places as diverse as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia.
of deploying large formations of American ground troops, as he did in
Afghanistan during the first years of his presidency, Obama has
increasingly relied on small Special Operations teams to advise local
troops and conduct targeted raids. In Somalia, the United States
maintains a small military coordination cell that advises Somali and
African Union forces, which have received about $1 billion in training,
equipment and assistance since 2007.
In the early days of the Obama administration, senior officials in the White House and Pentagon debated
whether to launch airstrikes against al-Shabab training camps. Some
administration officials were skeptical that the group intended to
strike U.S. or European targets.
Since 2011, as al-Shabab’s affiliation with al-Qaeda deepened, the president has periodically authorized strikes
against senior al-Shabab leaders who U.S. intelligence officials have
said are planning attacks on U.S. soil. “There have been a series of
them that have definitely degraded [al-Shabab] in Somalia,” said the
senior administration official.
The White House has supplemented
the military training and targeted strikes with modest aid programs and
efforts to undermine the appeal of extremist groups.
In a country
as large and troubled as Somalia, stability and effective governance
inevitably will be slow in coming. There are only about 22,000 African
Union troops in the country, which has a coastline roughly as long as
the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. “People look at a map and they don’t realize
the tyranny of distance and size there,” said the senior administration
official. “These rebuilding efforts take time.”
Some critics said
that the international community’s insufficient response had allowed
al-Shabab to survive.
“Al-Shabab is not defeated, it has just changed,”
said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic
Council. Instead of trying to hold territory, like an army or militia,
it functions today almost entirely as a regional terrorist group.
“Arguably, their terror attacks have gone up as they lost territory,” Pham said.
House officials said such an assessment overstates the group’s
strength. “This is a group that in its heyday attracted lots of
foreigners, to include Westerners,” said the senior administration
official. The group’s ability to rally foreign recruits has been badly
damaged, the official said.
“We saw the attack in Garissa earlier
this week,” he said. “But we haven’t seen the group . . . become the
threat that many people feared. It is still our assessment that
al-Shabab doesn’t pose a direct threat to the U.S. and the West.”