A recent American commando raid against a high-profile Islamic State leader in East Africa offers a reminder that terrorist groups continue to pose a major threat to the United States and its allies, even if U.S. policymakers have shifted most of their focus to Russia and China.
It’d be a grave mistake for Washington to ease the pressure on violent extremist organizations in remote terrorist hotbeds such as northeastern Somalia. Terrorists have already openly celebrated the possibility that the war in Ukraine will distract Western leaders and enable these groups to repeat their deadly past successes. We can't let that happen.
The American public's frustration with "endless wars" is understandable, especially given the long engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan that cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars for little tangible gain. That frustration prompted President Donald Trump to order U.S. forces to withdraw from Somalia in late 2020.
But terrorist groups, in Somalia and elsewhere, have not been defeated, and it does not seem that they will be in the near future. In fact, the rapidly deteriorating security situation in East Africa necessitated the redeployment of American troops by the Biden administration, provoking harsh criticism.
Although the branches of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda have suffered serious setbacks over the last two decades, they still control hundreds of thousands of square miles and millions of people from the Lake Chad Basin across south-central Somalia to Yemen and Afghanistan. They also have the capacity to launch attacks far from their original strongholds. And thanks to modern telecommunications technology, their propaganda, recruitment, and fundraising networks reach all parts of the world—including the United States.
The recent operations of al-Shabaab and the Islamic State in East Africa demonstrate that they are professional, adaptive, and lethal—not only for local governments but also for American citizens. In 2019, al-Shabaab attacked the DusitD2 Hotel in Nairobi, killing twenty-one people, including Jason Spindler, an American tech CEO who survived the 9/11 World Trade Center terror attack.
The following year, a Kenyan man who attended flight school in the Philippines was accused of plotting to hijack a plane and fly it into a tall building in a U.S. city. According to the FBI, he had direct connections with senior al-Shabaab leaders. In the same year, Somali jihadists attacked Camp Simba in Manda Bay, Kenya, killing a U.S. soldier and two Department of Defense contractors, wounding two other U.S. service members and a third contractor, and destroying and damaging at least half a dozen aircraft valued at nearly $72 million.
The target of the latest commando raid in Somalia, Bilal al-Sudani, offers a typical example of a high-level terrorist commander who maintained and facilitated global networks and operations. Sudani, who left al-Shabaab for the Islamic State, was a key figure in the organization's Al-Karrar regional office, which serves as a coordination hub for all Islamic State activity in East Africa. Sudani also facilitated connections between local branches and the Islamic State network beyond Africa.
The liquidation of Sudani significantly degrades the Islamic State's financial capacities, limiting its ability to launch new attacks—at least for a while. Support for friendly local forces—such as the U.S. military’s strikes in Somalia on January 23—is a cost-effective tool to counter violent extremists' operations.
Increasing great power competition and the return of interstate wars are the realities of the current international system. But that doesn't mean that we can forget about terrorists—mainly because they do not forget us.
Violent extremist organizations are closely following global events and are trying to exploit them. Consider the ongoing border crisis. In the fiscal year 2022, Border Patrol caught ninety-eight foreign nationals on the FBI's terror watch list, obliterating the previous record of fifteen set the year before. And this year will likely set another record; in just the past five months, Border Patrol has apprehended fifty-three suspected terrorists.
And that's only the ones that agents caught. There have been 1.2 million known "got aways"—illegal aliens who successfully crossed into the United States and evaded law enforcement—since President Joe Biden took office.
If the United States wants to avoid the possibility of a new terrorist attack on its soil, its leaders cannot neglect what's brewing in Africa—or on its southern border, for that matter. The days of extended military engagements like the war in Afghanistan may have passed, but keeping the pressure on violent extremist organizations and conducting small-scale commando raids, similar to the killing of Sudani, must continue.
Viktor Marsai, Ph.D., is the Director of the Budapest-based Migration Research Institute, an associate professor of the National University of Public Service in Hungary, and an Andrássy Fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, DC.