Why raids against terrorists aren’t enough

Over the weekend, the U.S. conducted two raids in Africa against terrorists. In Libya, we captured Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, alias Abu Anas al-Liby, who is wanted for the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. In Somalia, we targeted a senior leader of the Shabab, the Islamist terrorist group responsible for the massacre at the Westgate mall in Nairobi. We don’t know whether we killed the target. Scott wrote about the raids here.

The Obama administration should be commended for ordering the raids. However, we shouldn’t think for one moment that they are an adequate response to the growing success of al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorists in the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa, and to the threat this success poses to our security.

The raids are analogous to pulling a few weeds in a few isolated flower beds. That isn’t gardening.

I agree with Max Boot that countering the threat of Islamist terrorism requires much more than occasional raids. It requires engagement in areas where terrorists are planting roots. The engagement can take various forms, and typically will not involve direct, sustained U.S. military action, though that option should not be ruled out.

Engagement can mean aiding non-Islamist factions that are not anti-U.S., as we should have done (and still should do) in Syria. It can mean working with governments that are combating terrorist groups, like the government in Egypt about which the Obama administration has been too ambivalent.

According to Boot, the Obama administration has worked with the government of Somalia to combat the Shabab, and with some success:

Somalia, although still lawless, has been a success story of sorts because U.S.-backed African Union forces have bolstered the sway of the government in Mogadishu and pushed back the Shabab, leading the group to lash out in high-profile terrorist attacks outside the country, in Uganda and Kenya.

But in Libya, Boot finds that “the U.S. and its allies have not provided enough support to the pro-Western government in Tripoli to allow it to build up security forces capable of pushing back the militias that still rule the streets.”

In engaging with governments or factions that oppose our terrorist enemies and/or their state supporters, we should be prepared to tolerate serious imperfections. We should not back away from such factions or governments just because their vision of civil society does not match ours, or because their leaders don’t have completely clean hands.

Egypt is a good example. The current regime of General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi leaves much to be desired. And, as I was perhaps too quick to complain in 2012, the general himself had a reputation within the military as a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer.

Yet Sisi is currently leading the rout of key elements of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. And his military apparently is working with Israel to combat Islamists in the Sinai.

The fact that Sisi may have had some sympathy for Brotherhood and the fact that he had virginity tests conducted on female protesters during the 2011 revolution make him hard to swallow. But they shouldn’t prevent us from supporting him as tries to move Egypt in a new, more favorable direction, from the U.S. point of view.

If the U.S. isn’t willing to work with less than fully savory elements in the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa, we won’t be able meaningfully engage in those regions except through massive military intervention, which no one wants. Our anti-terrorism efforts in these hothouses of Islamist terrorism will be limited to occasional strikes like those of this weekend.

We need to be better gardeners than that.

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