Al-Qa’ida’s (Mis)Adventures in the Horn of Africa

Jul 02, 2007

During the early 1990s, al-Qa’ida was beginning to coalesce as an organization, honing its operational techniques and dealing with its first internal conflicts. Its private deliberations during this period are revealed by a trove of documents captured in the course of operations supporting the Global War on Terror and maintained in the Department of Defense’s Harmony Database. Al-Qa’ida’s (Mis)Adventures in the Horn of Africa draws on recently declassified Harmony documents, predominately from the 1992-1994 time period, original field work by CTC personnel, and careful country studies.

The Horn provides the backdrop for an intriguing tale of al-Qa’ida’s first efforts to  expand beyond Afghanistan and Sudan. As recounted by its leaders and operatives, al- Qa’ida’s efforts to establish a presence in this region and use it as a base for attacks against Western targets elsewhere were largely a failure. Conventional wisdom suggests that Somalia, a failed state, would be an ideal safe haven for al-Qa’ida. Our analysis, however, indicates that weakly governed regions such as coastal Kenya, not failed states like Somalia, provide an environment more conducive to al-Qa’ida’s activities. In Somalia, al-Qa’ida’s members fell victim to many of the same challenges that plague Western interventions in the Horn. They were prone to extortion and betrayal, found themselves trapped in the middle of incomprehensible (to them) clan conflicts, faced suspicion from the indigenous population, had to overcome significant logistical constraints and were subject to the constant risk of Western military interdiction.

This report assesses al-Qa’ida’s operations in the Horn of Africa by identifying the organizational challenges al-Qa’ida faced in managing the jihad in the Horn. We also examine the individual motivations of the Somali clans and people that largely resisted al-Qa’ida’s recruitment efforts in the region.

After reviewing al-Qa`ida’s Horn operations from a theoretical standpoint, we analyze al-Qa`ida’s prospects in two key Horn countries: Somalia and Kenya. The nations composing the Horn of Africa are often aggregated into one overall counterterrorism strategy. However, each Horn country and even sub-regions within these countries present a unique set of socioeconomic, political and religious factors that create specific challenges and opportunities to both al-Qa’ida and to counterterrorism forces.

We conclude this study by identifying concepts and techniques that may be applicable in other regions based upon al-Qa’ida’s experiences in the Horn. Our primary conclusion is that the U.S. and its coalition partners should prioritize counterterrorism efforts on weak states–not failed ones. Both types of states demand attention but require different policy solutions. Effective and sustainable counterterrorism in failed states requires engaging with sub-state authorities to give them the means and the motivation to resist foreign intrusion. In weak states, successful counterterrorism policies must address core institutional and governance problems that render such states unable or unwilling to fully deal with the threat. Perversely, U.S. support to state and local counterterrorism efforts can create incentives to tolerate low levels of terrorism, a problem best addressed by conditioning aid on counterterrorism effort rather than on the presence of a threat.