On Saturday, ten to fifteen gunmen launched a deadly attack on a mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The gunmen entered the mall and started shooting people going from store to store. Somali based Al Qaeda affiliate, Al-Shabaab, was quick to claim credit for the terrorist attack.
Reports indicate that the gunmen were questioning people to determine whether they were Muslim, and if not, were executing them. At least 62 people have been killed, with another 175 wounded. CNN is reporting that “most of the dead are Kenyan, although four British citizens, two French nationals and two Canadians, including one diplomat, also died.”
At least some of the gunmen remain in the mall amid reports that hostages have been taken. Kenyan forces today launched an assault to end the siege and the operation is currently ongoing.
This latest attack from an Al Qaeda affiliate marks a growing threat posed by the new decentralized organization of the group. While military operations and drone attacks have effectively sidelined the core Al Qaeda group, Al Qaeda central, holed up in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, it appears that the group has effectively changed its structure in response. The growing number of Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Algeria is alarming.
We are now engaged in a proverbial game of whack-a-mole. Take out the core of Al Qaeda and other affiliates immediately pop up. And there is no good answer on how to deal with this growing threat.
Dealing with Al Qaeda central was relatively straightforward. They were directly linked to the 9-11 attacks and in response we drove them out of Afghanistan with overwhelming force. We have now continued that fight with a sustain drone attack campaign in the brutal mountain regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This campaign, along with the daring raid on Bin Laden deep in Pakistani territory, has effectively decapitated Al Qaeda central. And when I say this was relatively straightforward it is because all of those actions were supremely justified and had the support of most of the Western world.
Now that Al Qaeda’s strength has shifted from its core to its affiliates, the way forward in fighting and defeating Al Qaeda becomes less clear. Can we really carry on a sustained drone campaign in all corners of the world where Al Qaeda affiliates pop up? Are we justified in doing so without a direct link between one of the affiliates and an attack on America or American interests? Can we count on the local governments in places like Yemen, Somalia and Algeria to effectively crack down on these groups? These are just some of the myriad of problems that Al Qaeda’s new decentralized organization poses for America and its allies.
There are no good military options here. I am still a firm believer that our war against Al Qaeda is a war of ideas and opportunity. America must continue to promote democratic ideals and economic opportunity. Indeed, Al Qaeda and its affiliates have gained footholds only in places where economic opportunity is virtually non-existent and despair is the prevailing norm. Places such like Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Algeria. America’s focus in the war on Al Qaeda should be on protecting the homeland and promoting economic opportunity. These goals must go hand in hand if we are to prevail in what will surely be a lengthy battle of ideas and opportunity.
I still believe that where a man is given a real choice between opening a business and providing for his family, or joining a violent religious movement, he will choose providing for his family. I believe that because I must. If we believe that a man would choose the latter, then we have already lost the battle of ideas.
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