Last week, terrorists associated with the Islamic fundamentalist group al-Shabaab attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing more than 60 civilians and injuring nearly 200. Al-Shabaab, formally allied with al-Qaida, holds much of the territory of Somalia, a country bordering Kenya to the east that has had decades of dysfunctional government.
Al-Shabaab militants reportedly attacked the Kenyan mall in order to take revenge upon Kenyan military forces in Somalia, which have assisted in transferring control of key Somalian cities from al-Shabaab to the young Somalian government.
Confusion regarding the identity of al-Shabaab and its affiliation with al-Qaida indicates a need to evaluate the present condition of al-Qaida and its allied Islamic fundamentalist groups across the globe.
First, defining what constitutes “al-Qaida” is prudent in 2013. In his testimony before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation divides al-Qaida into four tiers: al-Qaida central, affiliated groups, allied groups and inspired networks. Jones defines the role of al-Qaida central as resolving disputes between subsidiary al-Qaida groups and providing a degree of strategic guidance to these groups.
Affiliated groups, such as al-Shabaab in Somalia or the al-Nusrah Front in Syria, have conducted operations mostly within their region but have also sworn fealty to al-Qaida central. Neither allied groups nor inspired networks have sworn loyalty to al-Qaida central, although allied groups have worked with al-Qaida central for funding and training, and inspired networks have little formal interaction with al-Qaida central but share similar ideologies.
With the understanding that al-Qaida can be subdivided into four different tiers consisting of many different organizations across the world, recognizing the difficulty of pinning a central set of goals to al-Qaida becomes easier.
One central belief of all four types of groups seems to be a belief that an Islamic regime, based on strict application of Sharia law, is the most desirable form of government. However, the degree to which groups intend to apply this belief differs among organizations.For example, al-Qaida central espouses a desire to apply a central Islamic government to a wide region of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia to unite them by an Islamic empire as they were more than a thousand years ago, while al-Shabaab focuses on establishing an Islamic government within Somalia itself.
A second belief of al-Qaida and affiliated groups is a willingness to savagely attack both Muslims and non-Muslims who stand in the way of achieving Islamic governments across the world. This savageness entails the Taliban’s guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan, al-Qaida’s attack against the World Trade Center, the attack of the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi and now al-Shabaab’s attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, to name only a few of the many attacks launched by al-Qaida groups.
Then what are some solutions for the United States in dealing with a globally dispersed al-Qaida threat? First, the United States has to establish stronger security partnerships concerning this threat with countries around the world.
This holds especially true on the African continent with credible al-Qaida-affiliated threats in Algeria, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and Tunisia, to name just a few examples. In addition, the United States must continue to provide substantive support to countries such as France who are willing to put boots on the ground against Islamic groups.
Second, U.S. policymakers must be willing to keep all precision options against al-Qaida groups on the table, especially drone strikes. Although drone strikes are unpopular in the sphere of public opinion, they have proven critical in eliminating key al-Qaida officials, especially in Pakistan and Yemen.
Although U.S. policymakers must remain sensitive to the wishes of the countries in which these strikes are performed, American officials cannot weigh their wishes over strategic interests. U.S. policymakers must remain pragmatic and continue to utilize drone strikes where effective in taking out key militants.
Third, the United States must continue to engage the Muslim community around the world, the vast majority of which does not support the Islamic fundamentalism of al-Qaida and its affiliated groups. For example, St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith notes that interactions between police officials and the large Somali community in the Twin Cities have prevented Somali youth in Minnesota from traveling with other U.S. citizens of Somali descent who have joined al-Shabaab in Somalia.
Although these are not instant solutions, these are applications that fit the scope of Islamic fundamentalist groups like al-Qaida: They are long-standing threats that will take decades to overcome.
With strength of will by the United States and cooperation from those in the international community, Islamic fundamentalist groups, such as al-Qaida, can become less and less appealing for young men and women around the world to join in the years to come. That’s a more realistic goal for which to strive than some outright elimination of these groups.
Vinod Kannuthurai is a public policy leadership major from Hazlehurst.