In the eight years between the fierce October 1993 "Blackhawk Down" battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, and their own 9-11 terror strike on Washington and New York, al-Qaida's leaders touted the U.S. military's indecisive venture in Somalia as conclusive evidence of Western decadence and flagging American will.
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.
The coalition's demonstrated combat capabilities, political resiliency, ability to coordinate efforts and diplomatic savvy would absolutely shock a time-traveling al-Qaida commander circa 1998 to 2001.
East Africa figured prominently in al-Qaida's strategic plans. In the late 1990s, al-Qaida's "Africa Corps" planted terror cells throughout the region. They were responsible for the August 1998 terror strikes on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Al-Qaida's leaders saw Kenya and Uganda as weak "Black African" nations susceptible to al-Qaida's version of "Islamization." Their corrupt governments, plagued by tribal rivalries, were easy targets for political subversion, and their Muslim citizens were potential recruits. Ethnicity is a sensitive subject, but ethnic prejudice, and centuries of Arab slaving in East Africa, shaped al-Qaida's assessment.
Yet today, in Somalia, these "weak" nations are actively defending their own interests using their own expeditionary military forces. These forces have a solid record for defeating al-Shabab fanatics in both urban and desert operations. The Kenyan and Ugandan military officer corps are increasingly professional. Both nations have improved their counterterror capabilities. Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda know how to share intelligence among themselves and use intelligence provided by the U.S.
On 9-11, al-Qaida's leader grossly underestimated America's will to resist and ability to respond. It appears they made the same mistake regarding their East African targets.