Our rulers who run the GWOT can be counted on to observe one imperative: never miss an opportunity to exaggerate the threat and to sow anxiety. Each tragedy is used to touch-up the already grim picture of ruthless enemies, to heighten the sense of imminent danger, and to call for redoubled efforts to keep Americans safe. The event’s distance from the United States, the dissociation of the group(s) involved from any plot against the homeland, or the local grievances/motives that have inspired the violence are immaterial. For the GWOT is a juggernaut that recognizes no fine distinctions (or even crude distinctions) that impede its relentless pursuit of evil-doers while sustaining vast programs serving vast interests at home. The attack in a Nairobi shopping mall provided occasion for all these pre-programmed elements to display themselves quickly and vividly.
Step one: the Menace. Al-Shabhab Islamist rebels of Somalia have been a target of American counter-terrorism campaigns for more than a decade. A loose coalition of tribally based mayhem-makers, it has fought a complicated, multi-player civil war against a mixed back of local rivals. It is a fundamentalist outfit bent on imposing Sharia law on the country. For a while, it controlled large swaths of Somalia – including parts of Mogadishu itself. Al-Shabhab ambitions have been local. Although painted in scary colors as an arm of al-Qaida , it did not declare itself an affiliate of al-Qaida until February 2012. Opening a franchise with a recognizable brand name burnishes reputation, helps recruiting, and aids fund raising.
Despite the movement’s provincial identity and restricted capabilities (its members never have killed an American); it has been the object of unremitting drone attacks, Special Forces raids, a Washington organized invasion and occupation by the Ethiopian Army (largely Christian), military campaigns by an American sponsored African “peace-keeping” force from other non-Muslim countries, and an assault by the also largely Christian Kenyan Army. Over these years of combat against outsiders, it has become progressively more radical in doctrine and methods even as it suffered setbacks. Al-Shabhab, greatly weakened and on its heels under military pressure, had reverted to isolated actions of violence while licking its wounds. Now, a symbol of what was declared a noteworthy success in the GWOT, has reemerged as a lethal transnational force able to mount a large-scale operation against its Kenyan enemy – perhaps with local allies. American intelligence services were caught by surprise – as per usual – despite their global surveillance of everything and everyone remotely connected to Islamic fundamentalism.
Step two: cry havoc. Not a breath is wasted, though, in explaining this incongruous failure. Instead, the public relations machine kicks in instantaneously, loudly broadcasting the theme that al-Shabhab has moved up the ladder of transnational terrorist organizations in one fell swoop by its dramatic attack. Squads of FBI agents numbering in the scores are dispatched post-haste to Nairobi for a minute inspection of the site. The exact purpose of inundating the crime scene with detectives is obscure – especially as it has been thoroughly ransacked by the Kenyan soldiers in celebration of their victory in routing (most of) the still uncounted terrorists. Doubtless, fingerprints and DNA samples are being gathered that will be matched against the haystacks of evidence, electronic and tangible, that the NSA and FBI have been building back home. Their value for what purposes is not self-evident. Network matrixes and path analyses are nice paper exercises that are of little practical value in the absence of in-place human intelligence. Forensic evidence itself will tell Washington little if anything as to how a “defeated” al-Shabhab had transmuted itself into a potent transnational force. But that it is not the main point. Rather, it’s the flurry of action by the U.S. government seen to be cataloguing, assessing and hopefully forestalling further acts by-al-Shabhab that is meant to grab the headlines. A stenographic media ensured that it did so. “Your FBI In Peace & War” as the slogan of the Cold War television series used to proclaim.
Step 3: kinetic action. Within days, the Obama White House moved to show that it was pulling out all stops to protect Americans. Almost simultaneously, Special Forces launched two missions. One was a seaborne assault by SEALS against a supposed al-Shabhab camp in the town of Baraawe on the Somalian coast. There, we were told, was the planning cell that had directed the Nairobi operation. Moreover, a Kenyan national recruited and trained by al-Shabhab, and the alleged mastermind, one Abdikadir Mohamed Abdulkadir (Iknez is his nom de guerre), was believed to be there. To aim was to snatch him. We didn’t – and never even found out if he was resident.
The SEALS ran into unexpectedly heavy fire from the targeted compounds, were surprised as well to find numerous women and children who were getting in the way, and generally couldn’t figure out exactly who was who. So they retreated back into the sea. A Pentagon spokesman blamed “imperfect intelligence” for the failure. President Obama vowed that “we will have to continue to go after them” – the pronoun’s antecedent nouns still cloudy. The Pentagon did boast that “the military conducted the operation with unparalleled precision and demonstrated that the United States can put pressure on Al Shabab leadership at any time of our choosing.” Nairobi ten days earlier obviously was not a time or place of the Pentagon’s choosing. In addition, seemingly, the mythic Abbottabad mission itself did not match this one in precision. The Somali operation was a success in one respect – it garnered impressive headlines that left a lasting impression despite later qualifications. No (political) harm, no foul.
The sobering conclusion is that the United States’ vaunted but underperforming security intelligence agencies know less about the motives, movements and meaning of a declared major terrorist target than it does the pizza orders of the tens of millions of citizens whose communications they routinely record and register.
The biggest punch in the Obama counterattack against international terrorism was thrown in Tripoli, Libya. There, another Special Forces unit nabbed a ‘high value’ al-Qaeda militant, Nazi Abdu-Hamid al-Ruqai – also known as Ansar al-Libi. His kidnapping and transfer to a specially dedicated naval vessel for interrogation was pronounced a major coup in the GWOT. AL-Libi, it was stated, has been a member of bin-Laden’s inner circle back in the old days, an operations planner allegedly involved in the 1998 African embassy bombings, and now a key figure in the shadowy network of jihadist groups trying to turn the chaos of post-Gadhafi Libya to their advantage. Indeed, unidentified high officials alerted us that he was a veritable treasure trove of first-hand information about al-Qaeda’s organization and personnel – past, present and future. The greatest find since those boxes of documents were taken from bin-Laden’s house which, too, were described as being of such historic value as to turn the tide of the GWOT. A closer look at al-Libi’s biography shows him to have been a mid-level al-Qaeda operative who fled Afghanistan in 2001 after earlier having sought asylum with his family in Britain. He was captured and imprisoned by the Iranians for four years and then faded into the background.
Whatever intelligence value al-Libi turns out to have, it is now clear that this dramatic tale is more prosaic than the Hollywood version propagated by the Obama administration. He, in fact, has been living in the center of Tripoli for the past couple of years as a honored Libyan nationalist by a number of fundamentalist groups who lost a son in the fight to topple Gadhafi. He had no guards and took no security precautions. He was seized in broad daylight while strolling back home from a shopping trip in the neighborhood. There is little hard evidence that he is a significant figure in any of the various violent Islamist militias currently causing havoc in Libya – whatever knowledge he may have of their leaders or activities. The present government has not identified him as a threat. His link to the old al-Qaeda Central is ancient history. From what we do know, one can say with some confidence that his capture and interrogation will have little bearing on the fortunes of militant groups in Libya or the security of the United States. In support of this contention, there is the awkward fact that Washington knew about his location for months. Its decision to pounce within days of the Nairobi attack, and in synch with the abortive Somali raid, of course may just be a coincidence.
The official explanation for the timing is that it took several months to win the Libyan government’s approval for the seizure on its soil of a Libyan citizen. Just what constitutes formal approval in Libya these days is not easy to say. A reasonable surmise is that some office gave the nod and we interpreted that as official approval. There is no government apparatus functioning legitimately and effectively in the country. That was demonstrated on Thursday when a militia group that took umbrage at the American kidnapping of al-Libi in turn kidnapped the Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan, from his hotel residence, and held him for several hours on the grounds that he was a traitor to his country. The abductors, the so-called Operations Room of Libya’s Revolutionaries, did not stash Zeidan in some cellar; rather, he was put in a room at the Interior Ministry’s anti-crime department, where some of the rebels may be employed. No violence was used. His captors’ claim that they had acted with the approval of a federal government prosecutor was denied by the Attorney General. This murky picture probably never will be entirely cleared up. One thing is clear: the days of free lance Special Forces operations in Libya are over. For no Libyan government leader or agency could, in the future, accept the political damage of being caught in such an embarrassing posture again.
The overall scorecard for the Obama administration’s schemes to spin the Nairobi attack to its advantage awaits a final tally. We apparently gained nothing from the failed Somali raid. Whatever we gain from grilling al-Libi might be outweighed by what we have lost in terms of political standing within Libya and elsewhere, the costs perhaps raised by the timing. Fuel has been added to the combustible mix that fires Islamic radicalism. However, there is reason for the skeptical suspicion that those at the top of the country’s security apparatus do not place the greatest value on what actually is going down in Kenya, Somalia or Libya. Sad to say, there is abundant evidence that the principle concern is keeping the GWOT going at full throttle, keeping it well funded, and keeping the American people in a state of dread that gives their leaders wide latitude to do what they please at home as well as abroad for whatever reason. Success, therefore, is the New York Times headline: “U.S. Views Terrorist Attack at Mall in Kenya as Threat to American Security” – with no explanation then or now as to ‘how’ or ‘why.’ Questions that the NYT did not bother to pose – of the Obama White House or of itself.
The GWOT is an industry that has achieved a unique capacity for self perpetuation. Its very actions generate further demand for its services. Each “battle” in the war expands the pool of potential enemies whose supposed threat to America heightens public calls for “protection.” It is an endless cycle. Our leaders play upon a deep and powerful need to ritualize the fear provoked by 9/11, to be seen pursuing the implacable quest for ultimate security and performing violent acts of vengeance that in truth neither cure nor satiate. It is the saga that counts -as we search the seven seas hunting for monsters to slay – be they accessories, accomplices, enablers, facilitators, emulators, sympathizers – or just innocent bystanders in the GWOT.
The GWOT is like other ill conceived wars: “at first, the hope that one will be better off; next, the expectation that the other fellow will be worse off; then, the satisfaction that he isn’t any better off; and, finally, the surprise at everyone’s being worse off.” — Karl Kraus.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.