US Counter Terror in Africa: A Shift Away from Drones?

Last month the US military carried out two operations in Africa within a 24-hour time period. Both aimed to capture high-value leaders of terrorist organizations. One in Libya was successful while another in Somalia ended without a capture. Do these operations represent a change in strategy for the Obama administration away from targeted assassinations via drone to more discriminate capture missions?

In the case of Libya the US Intel community has a significant ground presence and a friendlier environment than Yemen and Pakistan. CIA and Delta Force operators were able to zero in on the target and snatch him without a shot being fired. The whole operation went down without a hitch, although there seems to be some confusion over whether or not the Libyan government gave its consent to the operation. The significance of this raid on larger US CT strategy seems minor considering that the groundwork to prosecute Anas al-Libi, a suspect in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies, had already been laid. Prosecuting terrorists as criminals in court harkens back to how the US fought terrorism pre-9/11. (Fighting terrorism was once a matter for the Justice Department, with Defense only assisting when needed. Oh how things have changed!).

The strategy behind the operation in Somalia is a little tougher to figure out. We know that SEALs arrived via assault craft near Baraawe, a seaside town in the south of the country. The target was supposedly Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, an al-Shaabab leader who likely took a role in planning the Westgate mall attacks in neighboring Kenya. The SEALs quickly became engaged in a firefight and withdraw with the help of light air support. Reports seem to point that once the SEALs lost the element of surprise, and realized they could not easily capture their target, they choose to withdraw. It appears the military showed great restraint during the operation, being careful not to cause collateral damage or risk friendly casualties.

Why wasn’t a drone or some other airstrike used in place of a capture raid or after the SEALs left? The US has undertaken a smattering of operations in Somalia over the last ten years. These include a few air strikes in Mogadishu during the Ethiopian-led overthrown of the Islamic Courts Union from 2006-2009, a helicopter strike near Baraawe that killed al-Shabaab militants in 2009, and a SEAL operation that rescued two American hostages in 2012. But overall the US has avoided the large-scale drone campaigns we have seen in Yemen and Pakistan.

Perhaps the US has high hopes that Somalia is turning the corner from a failed state, and that a softer CT strategy would prevent the type of drone backlash that has weakened the governments in Pakistan and Yemen. While the ‘soft target’ Westgate mall attacks in Kenya look bad, it may be a sign that al-Shaabab finds attacks within its own state harder to carry out or less productive. Could al-Shaabab be in its death throes? Or does the US lack information on the organization, making a high value capture all the more important?

Perhaps as the US pivots more resources to Africa the drone strikes will increase, but it will be interesting to see if the US decides to try a more COIN-friendly strategy in Somalia, one that could assist the semi-functioning government and lead to greater stability in a country ravaged by nearly 25 years of civil war.

-Sp403 contributor Andrew Tyndall

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