In the minds of al-Qaida propagandists, the American superpower's decision to retreat rather than stay and defeat a Muslim militia demonstrated that al-Qaida's violent mix of political fanaticism and religious zealotry was a global tool for militant Islamist expansion, indisputably forged with God's blessing.
Yet today, 19 years after the Blackhawk Down incident, al-Qaida and its Somali affiliate, the al-Shabab militia, are confronting their own Somali defeat, one with extraordinary cultural and political significance for an Arab militant outfit that cast itself as the armed vanguard of a new wave of Islamization in sub-Saharan Africa.
Since fall 2011, a surprisingly robust African military coalition, consisting of anti-al-Shabab (but Muslim) Somalis, forces from three bordering states -- Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti -- and contingents from Uganda and Burundi, has been on the offensive against al-Shabab. The East African coalition drove al-Shabab from its Mogadishu stronghold. It has selectively attacked chunks of al-Shabab territory in central and southern Somalia.
This offensive has proceeded slowly, for many reasons. Yet the coalition, which is supported logistically and financially by the United States, has been insistently victorious. Now, two coalition columns are approaching al-Shabab's most important chunk of Somali territory, the seaport of Kismayo in southern Somalia. Kismayo connects al-Shabab to its al-Qaida cohorts in Yemen. Kenyan naval vessels already shell the port with impunity. Kenyan ground forces are approaching from the west and south. A column with Ugandan, Burundian and anti-al-Shabab Somalis is north of the port.
A third column could arrive, the Ethiopians with their tanks, but Ethiopian participation is politically tricky. At the moment, the Kenyan, Ugandan and Burundian units nearing Kismayo are serving as peacekeepers in the African Union's Somali peacekeeping mission (AMISOM). Ethiopia is an invader, but Kenyan forces in Somalia were as well, until this summer. Kenya invaded a year ago, provoked by border attacks and kidnappings linked to al-Shabab.
Seizing Kismayo will damage al-Shabab, but it won't eliminate it. Al-Shabab has fighters in the southwest and northeast. Nor will it end Somalia's complex internal conflicts.
However, the coalition's success so far has already made an important statement about East Africa's political future.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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