2-10-2012By Adam Jacobson
Program Assistant, Law and Security Program
Yesterday the head of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced that al Shabab, the Somali Islamist terrorist group, would become a formal part of al Qaeda. As terrorism analyst Aaron Zelin points out, the alliance could prove beneficial to both groups, combining al Qaeda’s legitimacy and Shabab’s ability to get attention in the media.
But the merger could also affect the United States’ so-called “war on terror.” One result could be the expansion of the Obama administration’s targeted killing list to include Shabab’s American members in Somalia. The administration has already targeted al Qaeda operatives fighting alongside Shabab, but as Wired’s Spencer Ackerman writes,
One of [Shabab’s] members, Omar Hammami — who doubles as the group’s lead emcee — was born in Arkansas. If a drone strike could kill the U.S. citizen and al-Qaida propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, then a formal Shabab/Qaida merger probably puts Hammami squarely on the U.S.’ kill/capture list, if he wasn’t already.
We don’t know if Hammami will now be included on the government’s targeted killing list, or if he’s already on it, because the list—and the criteria the government uses to produce it—is classified. Human Rights First, among many others, has called for more transparency in these decisions, but so far, the Obama administration has stayed mute.
And does this new alliance expand the “war on terror?” The new National Defense Authorization Act for 2012 broadens the president’s power to send troops anywhere in the world, allowing the US to detain indefinitely “a person who was a part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities in aid of such enemy forces.” “Associated forces” remains undefined, meaning that Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist terrorist group, which has acknowledged receiving training from al Shabab, may now qualify.
The incorporation of al Shabab into the al Qaeda organization highlights some of the problems the Obama administration has created in its counterterrorism operations. The administration needs to make clear whom we’re fighting and why.