American Foreign Policy Has Failed in the Horn of Africa

Al Shabab continue to wreak havoc despite U.S. policy since 9/11


On Saturday, militants stormed a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, starting a standoff that lasted four days and, according to Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, killed 61 civilians and six members of Kenya's security forces. According to the Kenya Red Cross more than 50 people are missing. The Somali Islamist group Al Shabab has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was a response to Kenya's participation in a military mission in Somalia. What has been unfortunately overlooked in the wake of the attack in Nairobi is the extent to which the U.S. has been a part of the operations against Al Shabab in Somalia, too.

Almost 20 years ago, 18 Americans were killed in what became known as the Battle of Mogadishu, a failed attempt to capture the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. The incident occurred only months into Bill Clinton's presidency, and it contributed to the Clinton administration's hesitancy to get involved in Rwanda once the genocide there began. Yet the U.S. continues to be actively involved in Somali affairs. In 2007, for example, Washington conducted secretive airstrikes in Somalia as part of the Ethiopian-led invasion. And in August 2011, The Nation's Jeremy Scahill reported on CIA sites in Somalia, including the prison beneath the headquarters of Somalia's National Security Agency, where American personnel interrogated suspected members of Al Shabab and others with alleged links to the group. According to Scahill, the U.S. pays the salaries of Somali intelligence officials at the prison.

The U.S. does not merely wield its influence in Somalia from the ground. From a base in nearby Djibouti, the Obama administration continues to wage its drone war in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Wired reports that the Djibouti base has also been the launching pad for Special Forces operations in the region. The U.S. has other bases in the area too, including spots in Ethiopia, Kenya, and, yes, Somalia. According to Omar Jamal, a diplomat working for the U.N. mission in Somalia, those who help the Somali government in its fight against Al Shabab "are given a license to completely ignore any local or international law."

In September 2012 American trained-Kenyan troops launched a raid on the port town of Kismayo, an Al Shabab stronghold. The BBC's Martin Plaut reports that residents saw American and European soldiers lead the attack, though a Kenyan military spokesman and U.S. Africa Command both denied that the U.S. was directly involved in the operation. There are also credible reports that U.S. drones have killed two people in the country.

Yet despite having been involved in counterterrorism efforts in Somalia from both the air and the ground, the U.S. has failed to stop Al Shabab activities within Somalia and abroad, from a 2010 attack in the Ugandan capital of Kampala to the recent tragic mass killing in Nairobi.

Last October Johnnie Carson, America's assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said that "Somalia is a good news story for the region, for the international community, but most especially for the people of Somalia itself." The events in Nairobi are the latest example of how wrong Carson was.