On July 11, horrific bombings in the capital of Uganda killed scores of innocent people, including an American, and wounded many others who had peacefully gathered to watch the World Cup. Shortly after this cowardly attack, a group called al-Shabaab claimed responsibility. This group is based in nearby Somalia, on Africaâ€™s eastern tip, and has ties to al-Qaeda.
For months, al-Shabaab has been threatening to carry out attacks in eastern Africa, and if in fact they did commit this attack in Uganda, it would be their first attack outside Somaliaâ€™s borders. Confirmation of their responsibility would demonstrate that this terrorist groupâ€™s threat is expanding throughout Africa and could soon impact the US.
To reduce and ultimately eliminate this risk, we have to address the conditions in Somalia that have bolstered al-Shabaab, and by extension, al-Qaeda.
Somalia has not had a functioning central government for almost two decades and has been beset by lawlessness and instability. The country has been in a state of outright war since neighbouring Ethiopia invaded several years ago, resulting in at least 21,000 deaths and more than 1.5 million persons being displaced. Thousands of Somalis continue to pour into overcrowded camps in the region in what some United Nations officials call the worldâ€™s worst humanitarian crisis.
Meanwhile, al-Shabaab has used increasingly brutal tactics to maintain its control over local populations in southern Somalia â€” carrying out executions, chopping off hands and legs, and forcibly conscripting youth. They have sought to impose repressive social controls in the name of Islamic law, reportedly banning dancing at wedding ceremonies, listening to music on the radio, and playing or watching soccer.
To make matters even worse, al-Shabaab has recruited some Americans, including some from the Twin Cities, to travel to the region and join their fight.
In October 2008, a Somali-American from Minneapolis, in a coordinated attack by al-Shabaab in Somalia, reportedly became the first-known suicide bomber with US citizenship.
Late last year, The New York Times reported that roughly 20 young men from Minnesota had been recruited by al-Shabaab to join the fight in Somalia. The Justice Department has since brought terrorist charges against more than a dozen people for recruiting and raising funds for these Americans. This is very troubling news and shows that Somaliaâ€™s ongoing crisis has very real implications for our national security.
Under President Bush, our approach toward Somalia lacked an understanding of local dynamics and was short-sighted at best. Although the Obama administration is paying greater attention to Somalia, we still do not have a strategic, long-term vision for the country.
Targeted strikes against some individuals in Somalia can be part of our counter terror strategy, especially if those individuals have clear ties to al-Qaeda and pose a direct threat to the US. But we cannot just rely on a strategy of killing the bad guys. We also must work to address the local conditions and divisions that allow al Shabaab to succeed.
In Somalia, this means working to encourage political consensus and reconciliation among different groups, and supporting inclusive and functional governance at both the national and local levels.
Fighting terrorists is more than just a manhunt â€” you can pull out some weeds, but until you have addressed the conditions that enable them to grow, they will keep coming back. Weak states, chronic instability, vast ungoverned areas, and unresolved local tensions have created idyllic safe havens in which terrorists can recruit and operate. These are the underlying problems we need to address.
In Somalia and elsewhere, we need to place counter-terrorism within a broader framework that includes support for a sustainable and inclusive peace, as well as the promotion of human rights, economic development, transparency, and the rule of law.
We cannot afford to focus so much of our attention on Afghanistan, where CIA director Leon Panetta has said there are at most 100 al-Qaeda members, while overlooking the gathering threat in places such as Somalia.
By implementing policies that address local problems and resolve related conflicts, we will have a better chance of reducing the instability that makes Somalia, and other countries in the region, a safe haven for al-Qaeda and its affiliates. With this, we can finally get to the root of the problem, and strengthen our national security.
The writer is a Democrat, representing Wisconsin in the US Senate. He is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chairs its sub-committee on African affairs. Heâ€™s also a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee
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