The devastating attack on Kenya’s Westgate Mall on September 21, in addition to the horrifying massacre and loss of life and the fear it has put in the hearts of Kenyans, it also unfortunately underscores some strategic concerns that I have raised in many of my national security lectures both in the United States and abroad when it comes to asymmetrical tactics used by these ever-evolving terrorist groups like Al Shabaab, or the Al Qaedas in the Islamic Maghreb (Algeria's AQIM) or in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – more commonly called Al Qaeda Affiliates. I want to restate some of these strategic concerns in terms of lessons learned and not learned as a result of the Kenya tragedy.
There was an assumption that Al Shabaab infighting and the group’s 2011 routing from Somalia’s capital Mogadishu by African Union forces weakened it. Instead, it appears that – Ahmed Godane – the apparent mastermind of the Kenya attack, prevailed eliminating a key rival such as the Alabama-born Omar Hammni (aka Al Amriki), on the direction of the group. There are likely still tensions in the group. The tenor of the relationship between Godane and Abdulkadir is not clear; Abdulkadir, the kill or capture target of the Barawe, Somalia October 6 raid by US Seal Team Six. Below are some things on my lessons to be fully learned list:
-- Extremists are as committed to their beliefs as we are to ours.
-- Don’t sum up extremism to just poverty, lack of education or unemployment: Certainly these are drivers toward extremism, but in my view, not the entire picture. Terrorism is more complex than this. We need to factor in the more intangible philosophical aspect of a clash of civilizations or world views that makes these groups more lethal than anything we have faced before. Extremists want to see the world shaped quietly differently than it is and differently than we do. Many extremists leader are not only smart, but very smart, educated (even if not formally), and can be oddly-charismatic -- all which helps draw young people to them. American- born Iman and AQAP Al Awlaki, killed in a September 2011 U.S. drone strike and Al Shabaab’s Godane are good examples of this.
-- Complicity: We have not been able to developed strategic approaches to stem this aspect of the problem. Sympathizers who provide information and access to targets are major challenges to counter terrorism. I have experienced this firsthand in my two ambassadorships on how complicity can undermine counter terrorism and law enforcement efforts.
-- Retaliation: Be prepared as possible for retaliation. What, for example, is the U.S. putting in place today to counter retaliation from Al Qaeda or Al Shabaab for the October 6, 2013, U.S. Libya and Somalia raids? Al Shabaab has already stated it will. Remember, retaliation could come 6-10 months from now.
As we look at some of these lessons not yet fully learned, they are tough with no quick solutions. In sum, we need to have a sustained 20-30 year plans, step away from cookie cutter approaches on tactics and strategies, and unfortunately try to think like an extremist in order to be 4-to-5 steps ahead or just even two – analyzing the way forward for the long haul, but most importantly, in the end, we cannot be afraid.