Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Real Jihadis of New Jersey

By now you’ve probably heard the story of Mohamed Alessa and Carlos Almonte, two naturalized American citizens arrested in New Jersey last Saturday night on charges of terrorism – the allegations are that the two men were headed to Somalia to join up with the Islamist group al-Shabab to join a jihad against “non-Muslims”, though some reports say more specifically that they planned to kill US troops overseas.

Overall, the television news reporters I saw on the story did a fairly good job of discussing al-Shabab, quite obviously a group they’d never heard of before (though one we’ve discussed on this site numerous times); one exception though was Fox News’ “Security Expert”, former NYPD officer Bo Dietl, who mistakenly tied al-Shabab to the Somali pirates (in fact al-Shabab has been fighting against the pirates, branding them as “un-Islamic”, just about the worst condemnation that you can get from a militant Islamic group like al-Shabab). As more information is coming out about Alessa and Almonte though, it’s seeming less like they are hardcore jihadis and more like they are a couple of screwed-up young men who fell under the sway of a radical preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki, who preaches global jihad via the Internet from his base in Yemen.

Newspapers in New Jersey this morning are portraying Alessa as a troubled youth who local officials felt was such a threat those around him that at one point during high school he was not allowed to be taught in a classroom with other students. Almonte’s family describe him as a shy kid who fell in with the wrong crowd – namely, Alessa, who they blame for filling his head with violent ideas. While the two were arrested while on their way to the airport to catch a flight to Egypt, it’s unclear how they planned to then get to Somalia, or to link up with al-Shabab if they did manage to get to the country. And Al-Shabab probably isn’t the best group to link up with if you’re goal is to participate in a global jihad. Even though al-Shabab has pledged its allegiance to al-Qaida, al-Shabab hasn’t engaged in acts of international terrorism, instead they are locked in a quasi-civil war in Somalia, trying to dislodge the weak Somali transitional government in Mogadishu, while also skirmishing off-and-on with other rival Islamist groups in the country, like Hizbul Islam, and occasionally with the Somali pirates as well. Killing US troops would also be problematic, since at the moment (officially at least), there are no US troops involved in operations in Somalia.

The case of Alessa and Almonte does raise two points worth pondering:

First – it again shows how the current mission in Afghanistan is an utter waste of time, money and, most importantly, the lives of American soldiers. The oft-stated reason for having American and coalition troops in Afghanistan for the past nine years is to keep the country from again turning into a haven for terrorist groups like al-Qaida. But what’s always overlooked in this argument is that Afghanistan was a base of last resort for al-Qaida, a place to flee to when they were kicked out of Sudan in the mid-90s. Remote and with little modern infrastructure, Afghanistan is a lousy place to try to fight a global jihad from (unlike Somalia, which has an 1,100 mile long coastline along some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes). Since the US-led military campaign began in Afghanistan, al-Qaida has increasingly used the Internet to recruit and organize – see preachers like Anwar al-Awlaki who radicalized Alessa and Almonte via the Web; meaning that having a physical “base” is far less important to al-Qaida, and other global jihadists, than it was a decade ago. So even if all the foreign troops withdrew from Afghanistan tomorrow, there’s no reason to assume it would revert to being a terrorist base camp, or that it would lead to a new 9/11.

Second – it will be interesting to see if the escapist jihadi fantasies of Alessa and Almonte increase the pressure for American intervention in Somalia. Last October in The Mantle, I predicted that Somalia would eventually become the next front in America’s “Global War on Terror”, likely in 2011. I picked that date based on political reasons: by mid-2011 US troops will be out of Iraq, Afghanistan will remain a quagmire and heading into the 2012 elections, Barack Obama will feel pressure to show “action” against global jihadists. Since last October, Obama has continued to show that he’s committed to the Bush-era idea of the GWOT, while the situation in Afghanistan has certainly not improved - arguably it has gotten worse. According to a report on NBC’s Nightly News two weeks ago, meanwhile, American drone aircraft are already active over the skies of Mogadishu on a nightly basis. If Alessa and Almonte increase American focus on (and paranoia about) the Islamist groups active in Somalia, it could increase the likelihood of the opening of a Somali front in the War on Terror.
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