Al Qaeda in Somalia: Expansion or Retreat?

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The Long War Journal put out an article yesterday highlighting the significant presence that al Qaeda has been developing in the upper echelons of al Shabaab’s leadership.

Identifying individual Shabaab leaders with direct connection to al Qaeda is useful, but I think the most interesting thing to note in this article  is the statement from U.S. intelligence officials speaking about the possible reasons for al Qaeda leaders’ migration from AfPak to Yemen and Somalia:

While many analysts characterized this [migration] as evidence that al Qaeda was fleeing the region due to the increase in covert U.S. Predator strikes against terror leaders in Pakistan’s tribal areas, intelligence officials told The Long War Journal that they believed al Qaeda was repositioning its leaders into regions where they could work most effectively and contribute to expanding al Qaeda’s reach.

It is of course possible that al Qaeda’s key administrative figures and logisticians are being squeezed from Afghanistan and Pakistan and are going to Somalia out of desperation, but the above analysis seems to fit al Qaeda’s past patterns much more closely. If its actions in Somalia in the early 90s and 2000s and in Kenya before the embassy bombings are any useful prelude, al Qaeda’s tendency to send logisticians to help facilitate expansion and broaden its reach isn’t an negative act of desperation to create a strategic fallback position so much as an attempt to place talented operatives in the right place to create additional launchpads from which to conduct attacks, incite others to action, and promote its brand. This motive seems especially likely given that, as AQ discovered in the early 2000s, Somalia’s clannism and the collapsed state environment that still persists doesn’t really make for a good operational base or haven to fall back to en masse anyway.

There’s no reason to believe that AQ, pressured or not, has changed its core strategic objectives, one of which has always been incitement and development to broaden the battlefield against the U.S. Eager as we are to see different occurrences as proof that AQ is on the ropes, it seems more likely that this is another indication AQ is sending its tentacles out to expand its reach and just like in the old days.

Though the bombings in Uganda suggest that these efforts may be bearing fruit, whether regional expansion efforts will be as successful as when they brought al Qaeda’s East Africa Cell into it’s heyday remains to be seen.

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