March 26, 2009

HARRISONBURG—Today in his weekly “Strategic Interests” column for the World Defense Review, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, analyzes al-Qaeda chieftain Usama bin Laden’s foray last week into the ongoing conflict in Somalia with a call for the overthrow of the president of the country’s weak “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG), former Islamic Courts Union leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

After examining bin Laden’s 11-minute audio recording, including its praise for al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-linked group that was formally designated a “foreign terrorist organization” last year by the U.S. Department of State, as well as the context of the message’s release, Dr. Pham makes some general observations, including:

First, despite all the wishful thinking with which the international community has invested in Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, he has nothing to show for his first two months in office…

Second, the reality of the situation is that by even the most flexible reading of the Transitional Federal Charter that forms the basis for the TFG has the interim government’s mandate expiring within six months. Reports are already coming in that many factions are merely waiting for the time to run out and…are stockpiling weapons and recruiting fighters for the anticipated free-for-all for control of central and southern Somalia once the TFG loses even its notional claim to authority.

Third, in the short-term, bin Laden is probably sensing a chance to opportunistically share credit the likely success that al-Shabaab, which already effectively controls large parts of southern Somalia, will enjoy in the eventual scramble…Hence, even if its fighters do not directly bring it about, al-Shabaab is well-poised to profit from the overthrow of Sharif Ahmed and/or the collapse of the TFG.

Fourth, in a clever ploy, bin Laden may be attempting to lure the United States and its allies into reflexively backing a leader with little chance of success, Sharif Ahmed…Bin Laden’s hope is that his enemies will then become mired as they stubbornly prop up an unpopular losing cause…

Fifth, despite their operational strength and strategic positioning, al-Qaeda’s friends in al-Shabaab also face considerable social resistance from the Somali populace precisely because their extremism grates against traditional sensibilities.

Dr. Pham then concludes:

Like a chess player who opens with a gambit, bin Laden is apparently willing to risk calling attention to his links to al-Shabaab in order to gain time on other fronts and lure his opponents into dividing their attention and forces. While Somalia—or, more accurately, the disorders arising there—present important security challenges to regional and global order, in themselves neither the unitary integrity of the country nor its present, ineffective “government” constitutes a vital strategic interest to the United States. In great game of geopolitics, like in chess, it is necessary to distinguish between the vital and the non-vital pieces on the board, declining to take the obvious bait when the former is not directly at stake.

To read the full text of the article, “Bin Laden’s Somali Gambit,” click here.