The recent killing in Somalia of a top US target shows that the Obama administration is fully committed to taking military action in support of the shaky Transitional Federal Government.
The September 14 helicopter attack that killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who had long been hunted by the US for his alleged role in terror attacks in Kenya, signalled to militant Islamist groups that “we have a long reach and a long memory,” US counterterrorism expert Jack Cloonan told the Associated Press.
Nabhan, linked to the 1998 East African embassy bombings and the 2002 suicide attack on the Paradise Hotel near Mombasa, ranked alongside fellow Kenyan Fazul Abdullah Mohammed as the US’ most wanted foreign fighters in Somalia.
The United States regards Fazul as the leader of Al Qaida’s East Africa cell.
He is also said to be a principal figure behind both the attacks with which Nabhan was associated.
The daytime raid that reportedly killed five other foreign fighters, in addition to Nabhan, leaves no doubt that the United States will try to kill Fazul whenever a suitable opportunity arises.
And Washington may feel growing urgency to act. Somali sources recently told The New York Times that Fazul is training a cell of suicide bombers in Mogadishu.
At the same time, the Obama administration appears determined to proceed cautiously in its military operations in Somalia.
“We’ve all learned how important it is to avoid civilian casualties,” a US official told Reuters following the helicopter strike which was carried out only after Nabhan had entered an unpopulated area.
The United States launched cruise missiles at targets in Somalia on at least five occasions during the Bush years, resulting in the deaths of dozens of Somali villagers.
That collateral damage enraged many Somalis, and thus benefited the Islamist forces seeking to overthrow the US-supported transitional government.
Somalis generally welcomed the most recent operation, according to an unnamed activist in Somalia quoted by Reuters.
“On the one hand, people are relieved. It happened in an isolated place with very little damage or killing of innocents,” he said. “And no one is crying about the loss of individuals who are not Somali.”
Kenya, however, was critical of the American operation.
Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula complained in an interview with Reuters last week that the US had carried out the mission “without information or cooperation or collaboration.”
“That lone ranger behaviour has often not succeeded in many places,” Mr Wetangula said.
The Al Shabaab insurgent force targeted in the US attack made good on a vow of retaliation.
The Islamist group killed 21 members of the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia (Amisom) in a September 17 suicide bombing in Mogadishu carried out with stolen United Nations vehicles.
In addition to taking direct military action against Shabaab, the Obama administration is increasing weapons shipments and financial support to the TFG, as well as training Somali forces at sites in Djibouti and, possibly, in Kenya, too.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Nairobi recently after holding talks with TFG head Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed that she and President Obama “want to expand and extend our support” for the Somalia government.
American officials subsequently indicated that this would involve a doubling of the 40 tonnes of weapons and ammunition that the United States has already supplied the TFG this year.
The US is also giving the TFG cash to buy weapons.
Recently, for example, $1.2 million was handed over to Somali leaders in “a brown paper bag,” according to an account published on the website of Washington-based Foreign Policy magazine.
The money had been flown to Mogadishu from Nairobi, the magazine said, citing letters sent to the United Nations Security Council by a top diplomat at the American UN mission in New York.
Alejandro Wolff, deputy permanent US representative to the United Nations, wrote the letter to request a Security Council exemption from the UN’s 17-year-long arms embargo on Somalia.
The council subsequently agreed that the US arms shipments could proceed.
The United States is also the principal underwriter of Amisom, which currently consists of about 5,000 Ugandan and Burundian troops.
Amisom is seen as the main bulwark against the overthrow of the TFG by Al Shabaab, which is said to be linked to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qa’ida network.
Washington has contributed about $135 million to Amisom since its deployment in 2007.
Ugandan forces, which account for most of the Amison troops, may soon go on the offensive in Somalia.
There are plans for the Ugandans to invade Kismayo, a port town in southern Somalia controlled by a Al Shabaab-allied group, The New York Times reported last week.
The Obama administration also intends to increase the clandestine US presence in Somalia. In a story filed from Mogadishu, Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman indicated that the CIA plans to open a base in former officers quarters near the Amison-guarded airport in the Somali capital.
Somali sources told Mr Gettleman that three CIA agents visited the presidential palace in Mogadishu last month to discuss training of Sheik Sharif’s intelligence services.
Obama administration officials are emboldened to deepen the US commitment to the TFG due to the virtual absence of domestic or international opposition to such a strategy.
No influential US politician spoke out against the recent military strike in Somalia, nor did the attack spark any diplomatic protests, according to Johnnie Carson, the State Department’s top Africa official.
Al Shabaab has very few defenders in North America and Europe, given its apparent ties to jihadis intent on striking civilian targets in the West. And Al Shabaab may also be losing support in Somalia.
Mr Gettelman reported that two recent Al Shabaab defectors say that financial backers outside Somalia are contributing less money to the group as Sheik Sharif’s government wins greater favour among Somalis.
In addition, Mr Gettleman wrote, “Aid workers said Al Shabaab were taxing food in their territory, a very unpopular move when food prices are already high because of drought.”
Somalis may be wearying of Al Shabaab’s vision and composition, as well.
Thousands of foreigners have come to Somalia to fight in Al Shabaab’s ranks, according to sources cited by Mr Gettleman — as compared with the few hundred that US officials have said are operating in Somalia.
“Our commanders were trying to tell us that there’s no Somali national flag and no national borders,’’ one Al Shabaab defector, identified only as Mohamed, is quoted as saying in the Times story.
“They told us the jihad will never end. Once we finish in Somalia, we go to Kenya and then elsewhere.’’