It has become axiomatic: the torment of counter-terrorism is, “the counter-terrorists have to win all the time; the terrorists only have to win once.”
To do what?
To convince people that the terrorists are a constant, powerful threat who can make people and states do things they would otherwise not choose to do.
A perfect example of that is this weekend’s bloody mass murder at a Nairobi shopping mall. Even once the Kenyan authorities can finally correctly claim that the attack is over, that the terrorists are all dead or captured, in their own terms, the bad guys “won.”
They achieved their ultimate goal: global coverage, global recognition of their ability to kill and frighten, of their “mission” to reclaim Somalia for radical absolutist Islam, of their division of the world into Muslims and targets, and of their identification of both “international” and wannabe-cosmopolitan Kenyan consumers as their particular enemies.
But, today, on NPR’s great news broadcast All Things Considered, I heard the implications of their triumph further magnified by the analysis of an accredited “expert,” J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center.
Pham rightly scorned exaggerated claims by Western powers, especially the Obama White House, that the war against Al Shabaab, the Somalia-based Islamist militia and claimed director of the Nairobi mall attack has been a success, that it has crushed Al Shabaab and left them a spent force.
Asked what he concluded from the events in Kenya, Pham said, the attack showed exactly what the terrorists had hoped, that they were still a formidable enemy. Then, he added, that the US was undermining its own efforts against terrorism and Al Shabaab by trying to keep distance from Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and the government of Ethiopia, both of whom, he said, could be valuable allies in the counter-terror war.
Pham did have the intellectual honesty to note that President Kenyatta is presently under indictment by the International Criminal Court for his own widely-reported role in fostering mass-murder of his civilian Kenyan political and/or tribal opponents following national elections in 2007. But he recommended mending fences with Ethiopia without noting that government’s well-established record of mass-oppression and murder of its civilian political and/or tribal opponents.
One could call this reluctant pragmatism, but I would call it foolishness of the sort that makes countering terrorism so hard.
What the mass murders at the Westgate Mall shows me is how little it takes, beyond great malignity of will, to commit a terrorist atrocity. The dirty little secret of counter-terrorism is not how mighty are our enemies, but how miniscule. But, in a world awash in desperate, truly marginalized people, full of powerful, easily portable weapons, and religiously or ideologically-driven benefactors who will buy the guns and bombs that make losers into terrorist “winners,” a lot of bad shit is going to happen. And no one, not even the collective efforts of the world’s professional counter-terrorists, can consistently stop them.
Mosquitos can cause deadly epidemics, but they are still mosquitos.
Remember John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the “DC Sniper” and his teenaged running-mate? Back in 2002, they killed 10 people and critically injured 3 more in a series of random attacks in the Washington metropolitan area before they were finally captured by police. The truth is, they could have killed many more, and escaped arrest a lot longer if Muhammad, like many criminals, wasn’t so stupid and ego-controlled that he called CNN to brag about his vicious prowess and thereby helped police to track him and Malvo down.
If he had been content to kill randomly and indiscriminately without demanding credit, he might have been unstoppable. Killing people with no motive but murder is easy.
Yes, bringing together and arming a dozen or more people is harder to do than firing up one plus one; and co-ordinating them to run amok through a shopping center might be marginally more complex than pairing up to pick off people walking in their neighborhoods or pumping gas at service stations in the suburbs of Virginia and Maryland.
Muhammad and Malvo were no criminal geniuses, just guys with guns who didn’t care whom they killed. How much more credit do you really want to give the killers of the Westgate Mall? How much organizational skill do you want to credit to their Islamist masters back in the Somali bush?
Enough to make us as a nation want to snuggle up to an accused mass-murderer or two?
Our campaign against Al Shabaab has had its successes. It has, with the help of “invited” invaders from Kenya and Ethiopia, driven the Islamists from their strongholds in virtually every urban agglomeration in Somalia, and weakened their hold on many parts of the countryside, thus buying for the still new government in Mogadishu both space and time to develop. But in an impoverished country which for 20 years had no credible central government and where rule of law is still barely above non-existent, it doesn’t take much in the way of organization, financial support and armed force to create an opposition.
In Somalia, Al Shabaab may be far from defeated (and claims to the contrary from distant Washington are nothing but obnoxious, if not delusional), but the shocking headlines from Nairobi don’t change the fact that it is losing. A loser’s occasional win does not make them winners, although panicky overreactions to their terrorist deeds can make them feel like they are.
As far as I can tell, the Kenyan Army’s incursion into southern Somalia has had at least mixed results, and one should note, it and they have been sustained notwithstanding America’s estrangement from President Kenyatta. On the other hand, American collaboration with air and ground attacks inside Somalia by Ethiopian forces has not been as well-received. In part because the Ethiopian Air Force, with US “trainers” on board some of the planes, have killed more innocent civilians than targeted terrorists, and in part because Christian-majority Ethiopia is generally considered an “ancient enemy” in mostly-Muslim Somalia, the US’ involvement with the Ethiopians likely strengthened popular tolerance if not support for Al Shabaab more than it weakened it.
Better we invest in the Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud and try to build his government which seems to aspire to rule of law values from the inside, than swallow our principles and ally ourselves with outsiders like the indicted Kenyatta or the latest autocrat in Addis Ababa, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
The true triumph of terrorism is not in killing innocent victims, but in corrupting the daily lives and political decisions of those who survive.
It is the true terror of our times that it takes so few degraded people to accomplish that.