Before dawn Saturday, U.S. Navy SEALs launched an amphibious assault on an al Shabaab facility in Somalia, turning away under heavier-than-expected fire.
The SEALs didn't get their man, a top commander of the Islamic terrorist group that carried out the horrific massacre at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, two weeks ago. But the aborted raid raises an important question: Are we now at war with al Shabaab?
It's not clear, and President Obama likes it that way. As legal justification for the raid, administration officials point to the post-Sept. 11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, empowering the president to go after those responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, atrocities and anyone who "harbored" them.
That could mean one of two things: one, that the target of the raid, an al Shabaab commander, alias "Ikrima," has "dual membership" in al Qaeda, in which case, targeting him was business as usual.
Or two, that the administration has designated the group itself — al Shabaab as a whole — one of al Qaeda's "associated forces," all members of which are thus wartime targets.
If it's the latter, the president has unilaterally opened "a major new front" in the war on terror. But good luck finding out. The Obama team keeps the list of the organizations we're at war with on a need-to-know basis — and you don't need to know.
"We have classified the list," a Pentagon spokesman told journalists this summer: "We cannot afford to inflate these organizations that rely on violent extremist ideology to strengthen their ranks."
The Washington Post reports that shortly after Obama's inauguration, the Obama team rebuffed a Defense Department proposal to target al Shabaab, "arguing that the group was focused primarily on domestic attacks."
True, as al Shabaab is a repugnant and evil bunch, formally allied with al Qaeda, but the group's focus thus far has been regional: the creation of an Islamic state in Somalia, and, as a group spokesman put it in 2010, "sending a message to every country who is willing to send troops to Somalia," like Uganda and Kenya.
After the mass murder at Westgate, however, "United States officials fear that the Shabab could attempt a similar attack on American soil, perhaps employing Somali-American recruits."
That's worth worrying about. So far, the few Somali-Americans who've aided al Shabaab have sent money or traveled to Somalia to fight. "The concern," says Rep. Peter King, R-New York, "would be if any of them have come back to the United States and would use those abilities here in the United States."
But would widening the war make that scenario less or more likely? Shouldn't we have a debate about this, perhaps in Congress?
In recent years, Obama has opened new fronts in the war on terror, constructing an archipelago of secret drone bases in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, while claiming to worry that "perpetual war" will "alter our country in troubling ways."
If any of these operations lead to "blowback" in the form of domestic terror attacks, that in itself will be taken as proof of the need for a more aggressive response abroad and new restrictions on liberties at home.
"The global war on terror has acquired a life of its own," says intelligence analyst Patrick Lang: "It's a self-licking ice cream cone."
"The September 2013 Terrorist Attack in Kenya," a new backgrounder from the Congressional Research Service, looks at U.S. policy in Somalia and comes up with as many questions as answers.
Among the questions: "What has been the legal justification for U.S. strikes in Somalia?" and "Does al Shabaab pose a direct threat to the United States?"
Good questions, but as usual, we're stuck trying to answer them with limited information, after the key decisions have already been made.
This article originally appeared in The Washington Examiner.