The Somalia Raid: Part of a Wider War

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A file photo of a U.S. AC-130H Spectre gunship dropping flares during a training mission. A jet of this kind was used in air strikes in Mogadishu, the first overt U.S. military intervention in Somalia since the early 1990s.

The U.S. military air strike on a suspected al-Qaeda target in Somalia reported Monday is but one of a number of U.S. operations there in recent days and weeks. In confirming the attack to TIME, a Pentagon official speaking on condition of anonymity said: "We have been active there for a lot longer than the past 48 hours.... Somalia is one of those troublesome 'ungoverned areas' — perhaps the worst in the world — and the U.S. has the authority to strike where it needs to there, and we did."

The U.S. military pursuit of "high-value" Qaeda targets in Somalia, where three key operatives accused of carrying out the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania are believed to hiding, is made easier by the fact that a central state authority has scarcely existed in the East African nation for more than a decade. "It's one of those places where even the State Department, which is usually very cautious about us acting, in this case, said, hey, go ahead," said the Pentagon official. The three al-Qaeda operatives were the target of the gunship raid in southern Somalia reported Monday, and one Pentagon official Tuesday morning said it appeared likely the strike had killed at least one of the men.

The Pentagon source also contended that the ability to target Qaeda figures in Somalia is a positive by-product of the Iraq war. "We have a much better handle on Al Qaeda and its operations than we ever would have had we not gone to war in Iraq," he said. "That is not a reason for going to war, or trying to backdate a rationale, but it is a fact now. It is an unintended positive consequence of the war."

Somalia falls within the military's CENTCOM command area, and as a longtime Qaeda theater of operations has been a focus of U.S. military interest for years. Special Operations command has been active in the Horn of Africa with psychological operations and civil projects, such as building water wells and providing veterinary services, in several countries in the region for a number of years. The CENTCOM base in the tiny country of Djibouti — from which the gunship raid was staged — has become an important focus of regional counterterror efforts. Units based there have also played a central role in helping train the Ethiopian army, which last week swept across Somalia and scattered the Islamist militias that had taken control of much of the country. The central government had appealed for international support by arguing that its Islamist enemies were in league with al-Qaeda. The "nation-building" objective of restoring the central government's authority in a failed state and the counterterror objective of eliminating three key Qaeda operatives appear in this instance to have worked in tandem.