Nationalist Insurgencies and the al-Qaeda Narrative

Francisco Martin Rayo

By Francisco Martin-Rayo

The Obama administration’s heavy-handed approach to drone strikes in Yemen has blurred the distinction between terrorist and innocent civilian.  As administration officials continue to identify nearly all military-aged males in strike zones as possible combatants, media outlets have inadvertently drawn attention to another major misstep in the administration’s counter-terrorism strategy: its refusal to differentiate between local insurgencies with nationalist goals and groups focused on global terrorism.

Islamic nationalist movements over the last 20 years have found it beneficial to pledge allegiance to the broader al-Qaeda movement, which has provided them with access to a well defined financing network and to highly experienced operatives who are able to train their fighters.  General Carter Ham, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, highlighted this pattern recently, arguing that al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are sharing funds and training on how to use bombs.  Unfortunately, American policymakers today fail to differentiate between nationalist movements and global terrorist groups.  This lack of nuance is likely to lead to increased U.S. military involvement in domestic conflicts and enhanced cooperation between armed Islamic groups with previously disparate agendas.

Since 9/11, both the Bush administration and Obama administration have grouped together all armed Islamic groups, many of whom view themselves as the continuation of anti-colonial movements and as the representation of their population’s frustrations with oppressive governments, with the broader al-Qaeda narrative against the West.  When the Bush administration targeted the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) government in Somalia in 2006, which many Somali experts considered the best opportunity Somalia has had in the last 21 years for a functioning government, it squandered a crucial opening for a dialogue to end the civil war. The ICU was an amalgamation of moderate and more extremist Islamic elements within Somalia that joined together to fight against the CIA-backed Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism (ARPCT).  The U.S. initially funded the warlords who made up the ARPCT as a counter to the armed Islamic group al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (AIAI), which was believed to have had ties to al-Qaeda.  Somali experts cautioned the U.S. government against this over-generalization, arguing that there were significant differences between AQ and AIAI and that AIAI was seen in part as a nationalist movement.  The Bush administration, however, ignored these concerns and blindly targeted all Islamic armed groups.

After the ARPCT lost Mogadishu to the ICU troops, the U.S., in conjunction with the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFG), encouraged the Ethiopian Army (with funds, arms and training) to invade Somalia.  Ethiopian and TFG troops battled militias operating under the ICU, and in late December 2006 retook Mogadishu.  Around this time al-Shabaab, formerly an organization within the ICU, split from the umbrella group and became independent, using guerrilla tactics to target Ethiopian forces.  Ethiopia didn’t remove its troops from Somalia until January 2009, when it was finally forced out due to the vicious insurgency campaign led by al-Shabaab.  The Ethiopian Army’s reputation for killing and raping civilians increased local support for al-Shabaab dramatically during this period.  Amnesty International accused the Ethiopian Army in 2009 of indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks in densely populated areas, of attacking mosques and of kidnapping children.  In addition, U.S. support for Ethiopia’s actions in Somalia, seen as tacit approval of these tactics, fueled the migration of Somali-Americans from the United States to Somalia, many to join al-Shabaab, and increased radicalization in the Somali-American community.  At least 21 men have left Minnesota, which hosts the largest Somali-American community in the country,  to join al-Shabaab, bringing the total number of American recruits to over 40, including the infamous Omar Hammami from Alabama and Jehad Mostafa from California.

During this period, U.S. policymakers conflated the ICU’s nationalist goals with the broader global terrorist agenda, which the ICU never espoused, and displaced a moderate Islamic unity government in favor of supporting an Ethiopian invasion.  In turn, this decision led to the legitimization of the most extremist wing of the formerly moderate group, a mistake that was further bolstered by the February 2008 designation of al-Shabaab as a foreign terrorist organization.  Following this designation, in September of that year a senior al-Shabaab commander publicly pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden.

Though it is clear that policymakers’ decision to merge armed Islamic groups with a nationalist agenda with those interested in global terrorism worsened the situation in Somalia and negatively impacted U.S. national security, the Obama administration has continued with these failed policies.  Many commentators argue that there is little difference between the Bush administration’s and the Obama administration’s counter-terrorism policies, and unlike other areas of U.S. foreign policy, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, there was no strategic review of Bush’s counter-terrorism doctrine.

U.S. Air Force Predator taking off from a base in Iraq in 2011 (U.S. Air Force)

Other than targeted assassinations and military and intelligence support for governments fighting armed Islamic groups, which U.S. media reports have indicated have been very successful at targeting al-Qaeda’s leaders, there has been no overarching counter-terrorism and counter-radicalization strategy put in place since 9/11.  The use of drone strikes and increased military cooperation have been successful counter-terrorism tactics, but these alone do not comprise a well thought out strategy that counters the various aspects of al-Qaeda’s global message.  This lack of focus has led not only to a broad interpretation of what groups constitute a threat to U.S. interests, but also to a worrisome “mission creep” that has led the U.S. to take sides in national conflicts.

The lack of a clearly defined strategy has led the Obama administration to allow the CIA to expand its drone strike campaign in Yemen to include signature strikes, which allows it to target individuals without identifying them first.  For example, if the CIA were to see a group of armed men in Yemen next to a weapons cache it would probably target them with drones, even though they are just as likely to be part of the popular Southern Separatist movement as they are likely to be members of AQAP.  Just like its targeting of the ICU in Somalia, the U.S. is again taking sides in a potential civil war by taking aim at a nationalist movement.  As the U.S. targets this popular independence movement, its leaders too are likely to forge closer ties to AQAP.

This lack of differentiation and broad targeting of all armed Islamic groups has forced many of them to form closer ties with each other than would have happened organically and has united those groups with nationalist aspirations with those initially formed to target the U.S. and its allies.  As drone strikes have increased in the communities that host these groups, showcasing U.S. support for existing autocratic regimes and a disregard for due process, they too have become more inclined to support groups which seek to attack U.S. interests.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross’ recent article for Foreign Policy magazine, “Is Nigeria the Next Front on Terror?” highlights the dangers associated with the Obama administration’s current posture, arguing for the expansion of U.S. counter-terrorism operations to Nigeria.  Under this scenario, the drone strike campaign would likely be extended to target all armed Islamic groups (including those in Nigeria and Mali), in combination with existing American support for autocratic regimes against Islamic movements.  As signature strikes are expanded to these communities, and target both terrorists and nationalist leaders alike, the U.S. could be forced to atone for the deaths of ever larger groups of civilians in these areas.  General Ham’s response to the increased cooperation among terrorist groups is indicative of probable next steps, including expanding U.S. intelligence cooperation and military training in Africa, to the growing threat of armed Islamic groups.

Some of these groups could be weaned from their global terrorism agenda if they were to see tangible benefits to this separation.  U.S. policymakers should differentiate between real and perceived threats, rather than expend political and military capital targeting local insurgencies.  As new insurgencies use Islam as a banner for their cause, the U.S. should refrain from blindly targeting them and instead address their concerns, which could separate them from al-Qaeda’s narrative and weaken this powerful global terrorist network.

Francisco Martin-Rayo earned a master in public policy degree from Harvard Kennedy School in 2011, and was a Belfer Center student fellow in the International and Global Affairs concentration. His forthcoming book is “Winning the Minds: Travels through the terrorist recruiting grounds of Yemen, Pakistan, and the Somali border,” being published on Sept. 7. This article includes excerpts from the book.

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One Response to Nationalist Insurgencies and the al-Qaeda Narrative

  1. Tony says:

    It can be argued that the ICU/CIC was not a “moderate” organization with purely nationalist goals. In 2006, the CIC controlled portions of Mogadishu and did not even enjoy a small percentage of popular support within Somalia. To state that the group had no “broader global jihadist agenda” is disingenuous as the leadership of the organization – centered within the Ifka Halane Islamic Cournt – included UBL confidante Talha al-Sudani, 1998 U.S. Embassy attack mastermind Harun Fazul, and 2002 Mombassa attack mastermind Saleh Nabhan. Additionally, as has been witnessed since then, key Somali members of al-Shabaab have had extensive training with, conducted operations for, and continue to maintain contact with AQ (Ahmed Abdi, Aden Ayrow, Mukhtar Robow, etc). Hardly the resume for a moderate Islamist group only interested in establishing a “nationalist” movement within Somalia.
    Your argument for confusion of nationalist insurgency and global terrorism labels could be better made through examples like Boko Haram and the radical Salafi-jihadist movement in Sudan.

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