Blocking Al Qaeda's Hold on Africa's Horn Imperative

By David Eshel

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US officials confirm at least one American AC-130 gunship (video) strike against al Qaeda fugitives in Somalia last Monday night. Witnesses reported that two such strikes left several casualties. The Bahrain-based US navy’s Fifth Fleet announced Tuesday that the USS carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower has joined three other warships in the coastal waters off Somalia "due to rapidly developing events in this area." According to intelligence sources, aircraft from the carrier had already begun flying over the country in a series of pre-strike intelligence-gathering missions. The Eisenhower’s complement of F/A-18 Hornet and Superhornet fighter-bombers, EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft and E-2C Hawkeye airborne command-and-control craft had been operating recently over Afghanistan.

US Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Brown said the guided-missile cruisers Bunker Hill and Anzio and the amphibious landing ship Ashland were already patrolling the Somali coast in search of al-Qaida members thought to be fleeing Somalia in the wake of Ethiopia’s December invasion.

Unconfirmed reports indicate that US special forces have joined the hunt for long wanted al Qaeda leaders. Latest Intelligence sources identify three top al Qaeda leaders as Abdullah Fazul, from the Comoro Islands, Ali Saleh Nabhan, from Kenya and Abu Taha al-Sudani, from Sudan. Fazul, the most senior among them, masterminded the 1998 US embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, the 1996 Ethiopian Airline hijack in which four Israeli air industry directors and 3 Israeli civilians were murdered. The October 2000 ramming of the USS Cole in Aden Harbor also goes to Fazul's notorious account. One of the men is believed, by Israeli intelligence to have coordinated the 2002 attacks on the 2002 Mombassa Paradise hotel and the aborted twin shoulder-launched SA-7 SAM attack on the Israeli Arkia airliner. A major target for the hunt seems to be Ras Chiamboni peninsula, which sits on the Indian ocean, and is situated less than two miles from the Kenyan border.
US Special Forces launched a night attack by AC-130 Spectre gunships and attack helicopters, against Al Qaeda operatives located at Ras Chiamboni area in Somalia, near the border with Kenya.

However, regional analysts warn that the United States' decision to bomb Islamists holed up in a corner of Somalia near the border with Kenya may yet prove a high-risk tactic which could ignite an Iraqi-style insurgency across a large area of strategic East Africa. Moreover, the surprising American move, should it remain an isolated incident, could backfire, just as did the Israeli fiasco in Lebanon, last summer. As Israel was extremely reserved in re-entering the Lebanese quagmire, the US are highly reluctant to enter into a high-risk game, based on their painful past experiences, in Somalia. One has only to remember the futile American role in the hunt for for one Somali warlord which resulted in the "Black Hawk Down" incident in the early nineties, when 18 US special forces troops were killed in downtown Mogadishu, an incident, for which Osama Bin Laden subsequently claimed credit.

it remains highly questionable whether sufficient encouragement will follow for a combat effective military contingent to be deployed in Somalia and for that matter to the Horn of Africa, in spite of its sensitive strategic posture.

In an urgent meeting convened last Friday in neighboring Kenya, the U.S., United Nations, European Union, African Union, Arab League and several East African states called for immediate funding for an 8,000-strong peacekeeping mission in Somalia. The talks were led by the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Jendayi Frazer. Unfortunately, so far, only Uganda has pledged sending troops.

The U.S. has authorized a total of $40 million for development aid and the peacekeeping force. Based on recent experiences in NATO out-of-area deployment to Afghanistan, it remains highly questionable whether sufficient encouragement will follow for a combat effective military contingent to be deployed in Somalia and for that matter to the Horn of Africa, in spite of its sensitive strategic posture. Failure to act without delay energetically, would almost certainly see al Qaeda's establishing a Taliban-model base in this region, with catastrophic consequences for American and NATO military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention Iran. With Al Qaeda actively operating in this sensitive area, maintaining a safe logistic life-line to sustain such activities would be placed in jeopardy, requiring huge naval and military efforts, which are already stretched to maximum, in order to secure safe passage of supporting elements by sea.

In fact, the present conflict in Somalia may only become the prelude for much more sinister forebodings, if Washington refuses to act more decisively, in a last minute effort, preventing al Qaeda building its new strategic base around the Horn of Africa. Regional analysts fear, that if this fails, it may already be too late.

One of the major concerns to military planners, is an Al Qaeda And Maritime Terrorism upsurge, presenting a nightmare scenario, to the strategic allied shipping lanes in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, en-route to the Persian Gulf.

Although Al Qaeda's former chief of naval operations was "Prince of the Sea," Abdulrahim Mohammed Abda al-Nasheri (also known as Mulla Ahmad Belal), is fortunately in custody, this does not mean that another chief has not taken over his notorious duties. Al Qaeda has already demonstrated its maritime terror capability. Al-Nasheri masterminded the October 12, 2000, USS Cole. Seventeen months later, it scored another grim success against a French oil tanker on the morning of October 6, 2002. The 299,364 DWT-ton Limburg, was rammed by an explosives-laden boat off the port of Ash Shihr at Mukallah, offshore Aden.

The ultimate nightmare to security specialists, is a growing threat from nuclear devices smuggled on ships, seized by maritime piracy in the high seas, from terrorists havens, operating from clandestine shore bases, like Ras Kamboni Island. And there is no shortage in professional skill either. The formidably skilled, organized, and equipped maritime arm of the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Elam (LTTE) can present an al Qaeda naval arm with a valuable source to train their own experts for maritime terrorism. The knowledge and combat experience of the maritime branch of the LTTE, the "Sea Tigers" will certainly be of primary assistance, once the command decision for action timing is right. This, based on the current developments in the Horn of Africa and both NATO and American military predicaments, in Iraq and Afghanistan with forces already extremely mission-stretched, seems virtually 'round the corner'. As matters stand time is of essence to act decisively-without delay to prevent a new catastrophe in the region.

Read David Eshel's past commentary here



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