President Obama said in his speech Wednesday night that the strategy the U.S. would pursue against the so-called Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria would be similar to how it targeted al-Qaida affiliates in Yemen and Somalia.
“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” Obama said. “And it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order.”
In Yemen, the U.S. has conducted more than 100 airstrikes since 2002, killing at least 490 militants and 105 civilians, according to a database maintained by the Long War Journal. It also pursues what one senior administration official called “direct action” against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the al-Qaida affiliate in the country. This includes targeted drone strikes of the kind that killed U.S.-born al-Qaida cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.
In Somalia, the strikes have been fewer but have succeeded in killing key militant leaders, such as Ahmed Abdi Godane, the head of al-Shabab, al-Qaida’s franchise in Somalia, who died in a drone strike last week.
A senior administration official told reporters the U.S. strategy against the Islamic State “is going to look like the type of counterterrorism campaign that we waged against different al-Qaida affiliates.”
“I think that there is a rhythm that people are accustomed to in Yemen and Somalia, where we are providing support to security forces on the ground and we are taking airstrikes as necessary,” the official said in a background briefing.
But how effective has U.S. strategy in Somalia and Yemen been?
As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof said, “Obama may be the only Both countries remain insecure and have unstable governments despite years of U.S. involvement. person in the world who would cite conflict-torn Yemen and Somalia as triumphs.”
Gregory Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda and America’s War in Arabia, told NPR that despite U.S. operations in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has only grown in size.
“The problem however is that in Yemen, at least, the U.S. has confused killing with winning,” Johnsen says.
Indeed, the State Department said in its most recent worldwide terrorism report: “Of the AQ affiliates, AQAP continues to pose the most significant threat to the United States and U.S. citizens and interests in Yemen.”
The State Department report added that the Yemeni government has struggled to contain the group “due to an ongoing political and security restructuring within the government itself. AQAP continued to exhibit its capability by targeting government installations and security and intelligence officials, but also struck at soft targets, such as hospitals.”
Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal, says al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen has “continued to gain territory in the country.”
“It’s not enough,” Roggio says of the U.S. effort there.
The State Department terrorism report also called al-Shabab, the group that carried out the bloody attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, “the primary terrorist threat” in Africa.
The report stated that while Somali security forces combined with African Union troops had made gains against the group, “an inability to undertake consistent offensive operations against the group allowed al-Shabab to develop and carry out asymmetric attacks, including outside of Somalia.”
Using Somalia and Yemen — despite their instability — as successful examples for the U.S. strategy against the Islamic State poses a problem, Roggio says.
“Yemen and Somalia both have governments willing to work with us,” he says, adding that this is questionable in Iraq, because of Iran’s influence, and not true of Syria, where the U.S. wants President Bashar Assad to go.
And, Roggio adds, Obama has committed to a counterterrorism strategy against the Islamic State, using airstrikes against its militants in Iraq and Syria. But the Islamic State is more like an insurgent group. It has seized territory in two countries, governs those areas and is capable of fighting opposing forces.
To take on an insurgent group “requires troops on the ground,” Roggio says. “The administration is not willing to do that.”
Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security adviser, said in an interview with NPR that Somalia and Yemen are not considered successful models because they are successful states. Rather, she pointed to the use of U.S. air power in both countries, noting that “it is fair to say that we haven’t been attacked directly out of Somalia or Yemen in several years.”
“I will knock on wood as I say that,” Rice said. “But it is a fact that cooperating with Yemenis cooperating, with Somalis and the African Union we have been able to contain and roll back the terrorist threat in both those countries and to do so with partners on the ground and U.S. air power.”