A convoy of Kenyan soldiers makes its way
Anvils have a tendency to outlast hammers, and the same goes for al Qaeda in Africa. In September, a joint Kenyan and African Union force stormed the Somali port city of Kismayo, the al Shabaab network's last major stronghold. "Operation Sledgehammer" was an exhausting, months-long march to reach the city, culminating in a four-day land, sea and air assault.
While Sledgehammer was lauded as a decisive blow—images of cheering Kenyan soldiers were strewn across African media—al Shabaab is hardly crushed. It's a warning that should be heeded from Nairobi to New York, particularly as West African nations gear up to wrest control of northern Mali from a plethora of equally dangerous al Qaeda affiliates.
One year ago, al Shabaab controlled more than half of Somalia, including the capital Mogadishu. Its grip began to unravel following a Kenyan-led invasion, triggered by the kidnapping of several European aid workers near the Kenya-Somali border. By September 2012, al Shabaab had been flushed out of Mogadishu and other towns, taking its seemingly last stand in the port city of Kismayo. From there, the organization was able to import weapons and foreign fighters, launch pirate attacks and collect millions in tax revenues and profits from charcoal exports to the Persian Gulf.
Despite the loss of Kismayo, al Shabaab's resilience has been demonstrated by a resurgence of attacks and terror plots targeting both Somalia and neighboring Kenya. On Oct. 10, two bombings in Kismayo killed a civilian and wounded several others. In Mogadishu, al Shabaab militants attacked Somali soldiers with RPGs on Oct. 14, and attacked a wedding party with grenades a week later. The terror campaign demonstrates al Shabaab's ability to embed itself in local populations using intimidation and indoctrination.
By fleeing into Somalia's vast southern desert and northern Golis mountains, al Shabaab militants have proved difficult to track by the African Union Mission in Somalia and the Somali transitional government, whose forces lack the manpower or technology used by NATO to dismember al Qaeda networks in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, cracks in Kenya's political resolve are beginning to show, particularly ahead of upcoming elections in March. Kenyan voters are becoming more concerned with tribal divides and the economy than foreign adventures.
Having officially sworn allegiance to al Qaeda in February of this year, al Shabaab has already begun to improve its operations by sharing other terror networks' resources. The capture of northern Mali in March by Islamic extremists has created a base from which al Shabaab and other groups have been able to train and arm their members. Mali has since become synonymous with "gangster terrorism," with militants uniting with transnational smuggling syndicates. This unholy alliance has given al Qaeda extremists across Africa the ability to funnel money and drugs into European capitals, not to mention anti-aircraft missiles.
As Sahelian countries gradually fall in line to support another Sledgehammer-like operation in northern Mali, shortcomings are already beginning to emerge. The force being assembled by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) will initially number only 3,300 men. It remains unclear how so few men are supposed to capture and hold a territory slightly larger than France. What is clear is that, should Ecowas succeed in retaking northern Mali, militants will likely mimic the al Shabaab strategy of retreat, regroup and re-attack, with pockets of violence popping up in neighboring Niger and Mauritania.
Although good news in Saharan Africa is about as abundant as water sources, curbing terrorism on the continent isn't insurmountable. As in Somalia, al Qaeda affiliates in Mali such as Ansar al-Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa are heavily dependent on support from local tribes. The attraction of tribal leaders to extremism stems largely from economic opportunity, not ideological, religious or nationalistic aspirations.
Unlike in Central Asia and the Middle East, Islamic extremists in Sub-Saharan Africa aren't guaranteed the support of the local population. This, and the generally flat terrain of their areas of operation, suggest that an aggressive Pakistan-style drone campaign can have results.
Yet even with a growing covert presence across the continent, the U.S. and its allies continue to take a back seat in Africa's war on terror. The U.S. base in Djibouti remains largely devoted to operations in Yemen, while newly deployed drones in the Sahel are limited to gathering intelligence.
The current willingness of African nations to pound Islamic extremism into the sands should be seen as a boon for the West. With al Qaeda on its heels, the West must match that resolve, arm its drones and take to the offensive in Africa with the same vigor seen in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. As al Shabaab has begun to demonstrate, the window of opportunity won't be open for long.