When Al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. on September 11, all eyes turned to Afghanistan. A country little known to the average American suddenly became the focus of water cooler discussion. Ten years later, the assassination of Osama bin Laden, new terror plots, and escalating violence in the Middle East are shifting the focus to other hotbeds of Al-Qaeda activity: Yemen and Somalia. These two nations pose a terrorism threat that is equal to, if not greater than, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It should come as no surprise that Yemen and Somalia could emerge as the primary Al-Qaeda threat. The comparison is eerily familiar: failed governments, widespread civil strife, a history of Al-Qaeda activity. The confluence of political, social, and geographic factors in Yemen and Somalia are so similar to Afghanistan and Pakistan that the entire counter-terrorism effort could shift to this new epicenter.
Both Yemen and Somalia lack a functioning government. Somalia has long been the archetype of the failed state; it has not had a stable government since 1991. In Yemen, the failures of government are more recent but equally troubling. The government lost control of territory in the southern providence of Abyan, which is now controlled by Islamic militants that may be linked to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Just a few weeks ago Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh fled to Saudi Arabia to receive medical treatment after an attack on his presidential compound. The leadership situation in Yemen remains in disarray.
As coalition forces make slow and moderate gains in Afghanistan, Yemen seems to be supplanting the Afghanistan and Pakistan-based Al-Qaeda group, and AQAP is taking on an increased role in worldwide terrorism efforts. Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Al-Qaeda leader, is living in Yemen. Awlaki’s group is blamed for recent high-profile attacks including the Fort Hood, Texas shooting, the failed Christmas Day plane bombing, and the parcel bomb attacks on cargo planes.
In Somalia, the Al-Qaeda link is less pronounced but certainly active. Somalia was long home to Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the leader of Al-Qaeda in East Africa and the mastermind behind the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 200 people and injured thousands more. Somalia is also home to Al-Shabaab, another fundamentalist Islamic group with close ties to Al-Qaeda. Just last Friday, an al-Shabaab spokesman in Mogadishu announced the group’s support of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the new Al-Qaeda leader. And a suicide bomber who recently attacked the national police headquarters in Nigeria was supposedly trained by Al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia.
With Al-Qaeda activity in Yemen and Somalia accelerating, the million (or billion) dollar policy question arises: What are we going to do about it? The U.S. cannot afford another decade-plus conflict in countries where we have a poor understanding of the language, religion, and culture; we have neither the money nor the will. Instead, the U.S. must learn from its mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan by fighting smarter, not harder. But for how long? At what cost? I doubt that Americans can stomach this debate.
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