It began with a wrong turn on Mogadishu’s maze-like city streets. Now a top al-Qaida terrorist is dead, the victim of an internationally-backed government campaign that could help bring order to one of the world’s worst failed states, and provide a model for U.S. intervention in the post-Afghanistan era.
The June 7 death of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, one of the masterminds of the bloody 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, is the latest sign that the 20-year old civil war in Somalia is entering a new phase.
A moderate Islamic government with strong U.S. and U.N. backing, plus a reinforced African Union army and secretive U.S. special operations forces, are working together to steadily chip away at the strongholds of al-Shabab, an al-Qaida affiliate and one of the most fearsome insurgent groups in the world.
The ongoing Somalia campaign represents a smaller, cheaper alternative to large-scale American interventions like that in Afghanistan. It has taken the U.S. time, patience, cash, restraint and the wisdom to bet on the right guy. The result, in time, could be a more peaceful and prosperous Somalia — one that does not harbor so many insurgents, terrorists and pirates, and that does not invite destabilizing foreign invasions.
The biggest question, as usual in this fractious state, is whether Somalia’s federal government can hold together long enough for military efforts to gain traction. Even as forces close in on al-Shabab, tension between the influential Somali president and his popular prime minister threatens to undo the recent progress.
And that’s the big risk as Washington mulls “off-shoring” its wars against insurgents and terrorists. Full-scale interventions like Afghanistan are probably a thing of the past. Somalia-style, “hands-off” campaigns are the future. But it’s a future rife with uncertainty, as the delicate situation in Mogadishu illustrates.