The usually low profile of U.S. military operations in Africa leaped into view over the weekend with news of two Special Forces operations, one an American victory and the other apparently no better than a draw. The rising prominence of active al-Qaida-like groups on that continent points to the likelihood of more such operations.
That could increase the need for, and the risks of, much larger U.S. military engagements in Africa. For example, militants might attack a U.S. base in East Africa in an operation on the scale of the “Black Hawk Down” episode in Somalia in October 1993, when U.S. forces lost 18 men, another 80 were wounded and a helicopter pilot was captured.
On Saturday, U.S. special forces grabbed terrorist Nazih Abdul-Hamid al-Ruqai from his house in Tripoli, Libya, and flew him out of the country in an action strongly protested by the Libyan government as “kidnapping.” Also known as Abu Anas al-Liby, he was indicted by the U.S. government for a role in the 2000 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. He will presumably be brought to the United States for trial.
Earlier on the same day, Navy SEALS attacked a shoreside terrorist camp in Somalia in a failed attempt to kidnap a leader of al-Shabab, the al-Qaida affiliate responsible for the recent massacre at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.
Announcing the two operations, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, “These operations in Libya and Somalia send a strong message to the world that the United States will spare no effort to hold terrorists accountable, no matter where they hide or how long they evade justice.”
But all four individuals indicted for the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya remain at large. And the leader of that murderous mission, Ahmed Khattalah, lives openly in Tripoli.
The SEALs operation was called off without a successful capture when the team became concerned about danger to innocent civilians at the camp.
The operations were conducted under the aegis of Africom, a unified military command created by President George. W. Bush in 2008 to combat al-Qaida in Africa and train African armed forces to aid in the struggle.
Africom has had mixed success. A promising relationship with the army of Mali turned sour in 2012 when it overthrew the democratically elected government. That forced a U.S. aid cutoff hastily restored when al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb came close to taking over a large part of the country. Ultimately, it took French boosts on the ground to defeat the terrorists.
Another coup, in the Central African Republic this year, caused Uganda to call off a major, American-backed military operation authorized by Congress to capture rebel terrorist warlord Joseph Kony. He remains at large, though the United States has put a $5 million reward on his head.
Meanwhile, terrorist operations in Nigeria and the al-Shabab raid on the Westgate Mall are signals that al-Qaida remains a real threat to stability in Africa and to Africom’s mission.
They also are a grim indication that U.S. forces could soon face more hazardous — but necessary — duty in Africa.