Atlantic Monthly

Indirect Hit

At $600,000 per Tomahawk cruise missile, the cost of whacking Ayro ran into the low millions. It would have been a bargain at twice the price. Somalis, victims of two decades of war and state breakdown, can bid farewell to a murderous madman, and their hapless provisional government will enjoy at least a slight boost in their efforts to quash the Islamist insurgency and repair the country. (Though turning Mogadishu back into a functioning city will be about as easy as turning foie gras back into a functioning goose liver.) For the U.S., however, the dividends from Ayro’s death will be more modest.

According to official sources, the U.S. air strike neutralized a key al-Qaeda figure, a Bin Laden-linked regional honcho who wanted to turn Somalia into an incubator for terrorists in the style of 1990s Afghanistan. What that account leaves out is a realistic assessment of why Somalia is a vastly less attractive haven for al-Qaeda than Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Even if more violent Salafists set up operations on the Horn of Africa, Somalia will remain the same war-torn, dysfunctional place it is now, and the Islamists will have to cope with an environment that offers way too much insecurity and way too little food. In Afghanistan, once the Taliban pushed the Northern Alliance back, rule of law prevailed, and the al-Qaeda camps flourished in part because they enjoyed the blessing of the government. Ayro stood no chance of establishing the same sort of dominance, or achieving the same sense of security. In Somalia, only the north has anything like order, and its government has made clear that it doesn’t intend to import or export jihad.

A mass migration of jihadists to Somalia would, in a way, be the ideal outcome for the U.S.: it would put al-Qaeda in a place where few of its members speak the language, and almost none of them could blend in with the local population. Somalia is a damnably difficult place to do business, and it is a place where loyalty can be bought. Nearly everyone lives at subsistence levels, so the influx of moneyed foreigners would be obvious and would attract attention from all over. Most important, the establishment of Somalia as al-Qaeda’s next base would demonstrate the success of efforts to evict it from other countries. No one moves to Somalia unless he is welcome nowhere else — unless every other neighborhood has become too secure, too pleasant, to permit terrorist training. Who knew gentrification would reach the Middle East so soon?

Originally appeared at


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