The recent interplay between al Shabaab and the African Union military mission in Somalia offers new data on the role of ground troops, the holding of territory, and Islamist recruiting. After conventional ground forces deprived the al Qaeda linked group of its last stronghold in Baraawe, al Shabaab retaliated with a failed assassination attempt on the Somali president in Baraawe. To a more tragic effect, they succeeded in killing thirteen innocent civilians in Mogadishu with a car bomb yesterday. The loss of Baraawe was a big loss for al Shabaab. They once enjoyed control of two major port cities where they could earn money in exports and bring in weapons and new recruits unchecked.
It is important to keep in mind that as far back as 2007, the FBI was mobilizing to counter al Shabaab’s successful recruiting of Americans among the Somali refugee community. In 2010, fourteen people were indicted for trying to support al Shabaab. Individuals among them came from California, Alabama, and Minnesota. One of the attackers at Westgate Mall in Kenya last year was believed to be from Kansas City, Missouri.
It also helps to keep in mind that al Shabaab was started by lieutenants of Osama Bin Laden. Now, ISIS internet recruiting strategies are being compared to Al Qaeda’s as next-generation in technical innovation. Why? The giant terrorist recruiting boon has long since begun. That fact overshadows the differences between the groups and highlights their overarching unity of purpose.
Harken back to when the pillar of our now president’s foreign policy debate was that Gitmo caused terrorist recruiting. If only we could close down Gitmo, we could stem terrorist recruiting world wide. Another re-hashing of counter recruiting strategy also emerges. Namely, did invading Iraq serve the cause of terrorist recruitment on a grand scale? Would another boots on the ground campaign amplify recruiting once again in Syria?
Consider the basic elements at work: 1. Globalized social media with a propaganda capability 2. Freedom and ease of individual travel 3. Porous borders and poorly governed territory
Now apply those elements to each case regarding Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and al Shabaab in Somalia. These categories clearly do not represent the complexity or all of the scenarios involved in the current threat matrix but do serve for an acceptable base line comparison.
In Afghanistan al Qaeda has good propaganda instincts but it is first generation stuff and there is physical distance between terrorist strongholds and a communications infrastructure. Freedom and ease of individual travel is made difficult by remoteness and lack of transportation infrastructure. The low level of governance, however, falls in the plus column.
In Iraq and Syria, ISIS is not only the benefactor of al Qaeda and former al Qaeda, they have more travel infrastructure and communications infrastructure. It is much easier for Americans and Europeans to travel in and out, gain battle experience, and receive training before they return home. Add to their globalized propaganda capability a free microphone from HBO’s Vice. Their ability to take territory and govern speaks for itself. But here is the twist. Upon return, their media capability extrapolates as it already had been doing among the Somali jihadists.
Al Shabaab in Somalia had success early on with recruiting and importing foreign fighters due to the absence of an opposing force on the ground and control of vital seaports. The freedom of individual travel beget effective globalized social media even without great communications infrastructure. The FBI remains deeply concerned about those who have joined the jihad in Somalia carrying out attacks in the U.S. after returning.
What does all of this say to the debate about putting boots on the ground? Does military intervention not play right in to Islamist strategy? To be fair, let us quickly paraphrase the Iraq invasion strategy. The idea was that it is better to fight terrorists with voluntary soldiers on foreign soil than to leave them unchecked and able to mobilize over seas to then launch attacks on U.S. soil.
It may sound simplistic but the ground force operations in Iraq and Afghanistan gave us an intelligence capability and a special forces capability we would have never had otherwise. Without it, we would have never gotten Bin Laden and a lot of other bad guys. That capability is no where near what it was since before the Iraq withdrawal. Further, the U.S. had the un-articulated strategic advantage of new strike capabilities in a theater where we needed more geo-strategic leverage. That’s gone too.
For the sake of argument, however, let’s say that the Iraq invasion did bring more terrorists out of the woodwork then would have ever otherwise confronted the U.S. unprovoked. As Sam Harris has recently highlighted, the same ideas animate the overarching actions of all three groups; al Qaeda, al Shabaab, and ISIS. It is a strategy for global dominance. In Somalia, early al Shabaab had an ideological enemy, the Siad Barre military regime, long before U.S. foreign policy provided the foil. His rise had to do with the Soviets whose foreign policy also provided the foil for Bin Laden’s early propaganda successes.
It will help Islamist propaganda generally when they can use a Western or secular foreign policy or ideology as a foil. Letting them determine when and where to fight is to concede that jihadists will name the tune that the West will dance to. As the list of no-good options grows, there is healthy debate and a lot of good reasons why we should not invade Iraq for a third time. But a recruiting coup is not one of them. The factors listed above can account for a robust propaganda and recruiting capability for ISIS, al Shabaab, and al Qaeda. Further, thanks to social media, the viral effect is in effect. That ship has sailed and Western leaders are in more dissarray than ever as to what to do about it.
Baraawe reminds us that taking territory away from Islamist terrorist groups can deprive them of money, weapons, and new recruits in the short term. Iraq teaches us that if we don’t hold the ground taken from Islamist groups, they will take it back. Neither case addresses the blood lust or sense of righteousness for their cause in the long run. Yet their ideas can draw fighters to their banner with or without a U.S. presence on the ground. A counter ideology capability for the West will not likely emerge in the American political climate.