U.S. airstrikes and other actions against Islamist terrorists have expanded to Yemen, Somalia and — above all — Pakistan in the nearly 10 years since the Afghanistan invasion. “We are disrupting Al Qaeda's operations in the tribal areas of Pakistan,” Central Intelligence Director Leon Panetta said in late June. Most, if not all, the airstrikes against jihadist leaders in Pakistan are by remotely piloted drone aircraft.
“Long War Journal,” a Web publication that has been tracking the drone campaign — and whose statistics are cited by The New York Times and other publications — counts 46 airstrikes this year, as of July 15, compared with 53 in all of 2009.
Some Afghan war critics see the drone-centered counterterror war as more efficient than a full-scale military campaign in Afghanistan. “Then if we spend I don't know how many more billions of dollars and how many more dead kids and wounded kids to drive [jihadists] out of [Afghanistan],” Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., said in May, “they will go to Somalia and Yemen. It's quite clear that we cannot deny them sanctuary, so why is this not the ultimate exercise in futility?”
Defense Undersecretary Michèle Flournoy responded, “If you look at the totality of our campaign on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border and globally, we are having tremendous success in putting pressure on this network and disrupting their operations and denying their ability to launch spectacular attacks.”
In the most widely reported recent strike in Pakistan, a U.S. missile on May 30 killed the operations chief for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda acknowledged. “His death will only be a severe curse … upon the infidels,” the organization said in an online statement translated by the private SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist Internet traffic.
Pakistan's autonomous tribal area along the Afghanistan border — free of central government rule even before Pakistan became a nation in 1948 — is, so far, the major battleground of the U.S. campaign on jihadist sanctuaries. The region is Al-Qaeda's major hideout, the cradle of jihadism and a home of the Pashtun tribe, which lives on both sides of the border and supplies most Taliban leaders and members. In effect, the Pakistani tribal zone is virtually a part of the war in Afghanistan.
Jihadists planning attacks in the West have also gotten training in the tribal area. In June, Faisal Shahzad, an American citizen born and raised in Pakistan pleaded guilty to trying to explode a car bomb in Times Square; he said he'd gotten explosives training in his homeland.
“I consider myself a Mujahid, a Muslim soldier,” he said in an extraordinary explanation in open court. “The U.S. and NATO forces have attacked the Muslim lands. It's a war.” He added, “I am part of that. I am part of the answer of the U.S. terrorizing the Muslim nations and the Muslim people, and on behalf of that, I'm revenging the attacks.”
But the jihadist movement has taken root outside Pakistan as well. Over the Christmas holiday, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young Nigerian who had been living in Yemen, was arrested after trying to bring down an airliner on which he was flying to Detroit by igniting explosives in his underwear. He has pleaded not guilty to attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, attempted murder on an airplane and other charges but has been cooperating with investigators.
Information that has surfaced from interrogations includes contacts between the failed bomber and Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born Yemeni Muslim cleric, now hiding out in his ancestral country. Al-Awlaki has confirmed that he had been in touch with Muhtallab and praised his attempted attack, though he denied playing an operational part in it. “I did not tell him to do this operation, but I support it,” al-Awlaki said.
CIA boss Panetta, when asked in a recent TV appearance if al-Awlaki was on an “assassination list,” said: “We don't have an assassination list, but I can tell you this — we have a terrorist list and he's on it.”
Beyond Awlaki, the United States has made strikes against other alleged jihadists in Yemen. Last December, a U.S. missile killed Fahd al-Quso, an Al Qaeda operative who had been wanted for allegedly taking part in the bombing of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000, killing 17 crew members.
Other strikes have also hit targets in Yemen, at least as far back in 2002, when a drone-fired missile killed six suspected Al Qaeda agents traveling in a vehicle. The main target was reported to be Qaed Sinan Harithi, said to be the chief organizer of the Cole attack.
Now the U.S.-jihadist war has moved beyond Afghanistan and the Middle East. Most recently, a jihadist group from Somalia with ties to Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for two bombings in Kampala, Uganda, that killed 76 people watching the final match of the World Cup soccer championship.
“I say to the Ugandan president what has happened in Kampala was only the beginning,” Sheik Muktar Abu Zubayr, leader of the group, known as al-Shabab, said in a recorded message sent to Ugandan radio stations. “We will keep revenging what your soldiers remorselessly did to our people.”
Ugandan military participation in an African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia might not seem to involve American interests. But the United States has been deeply involved in the Somali conflict and its jihadist connections. In March, Osama bin Laden urged supporters to “help the Somali mujahedin fight until Somalia is an Islamic state.”
In 2009, helicopter-borne U.S. commandos in Somalia killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Somali who was suspected of having taken part in the Al Qaeda bombing of two U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1991, in which more than 200 people were killed. Nabhan was killed in a vehicle with members of al-Shabab.
Significantly, the Shabab announced the recent Uganda attacks were carried out by the “Saleh Ali Nabhan Brigade.”
Moreover, the Somalia war has reached directly into U.S. households. In 2007–2008, about 20 Somali-Americans from an emigré community in Minneapolis went to Somalia to fight with al-Shabab, and at least half a dozen of them were killed in combat. Earlier in July, the FBI arrested two New Jersey men, Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, who had planned to travel to Somalia to join the Somali jihadists.
“We need to work to deny sanctuaries to transnational threats,” says a veteran U.S. security official, speaking on condition he not be named. “It's a messy strategy, but it's the right strategy.”
— Peter Katel