Tuesday, September 24, 2013

How the US must respond to the Westgate Mall attack

As I commented yesterday, it will concern the US Government that an attack on this scale occurred without prior intelligence warning. As Bergen and Sterman explain, in recent years, Al-Shabab has garnered significant support from elements of the Somali-American community. Due to this fact, the US Intelligence Community regards Al-Shabab as a high priority collection target.
             Yet, even amidst this intense Intelligence scrutiny, Westgate proves that Al-Shabab's operational security is sufficient enough for the group to successfully plot and conduct a major attack. This reality encourages two conclusions. First, that Al-Shabab is following Al Qa'ida's evolving preference for ''going off the grid'' in its plotting (avoiding electronic communications, compartmentalizing operational cells etc.). Second, that the US/allies need to do more to penetrate the group's power base in southern Somalia.

In another area, it's equally important that we recognize the recent developments in Al-Shabab's organizing character. In short, though its still hampered by factionalism, the group is now orientated under a leadership that holds a significant and growing interest in global Jihad. Lead by Ahmed Abdi Godane; a young, hyper aggressive leader, over the last few months, Al-Shabab forces have ruthlessly purged former commanders and others (like Hammami) who have dared to criticize or challenge their new kingpin. 

Godane's consolidation necessitates a US response.

In this vein, we should expect increasingly aggressive US counter-terrorism operations inside Somalia - likely via both manned strike aircraft and UCAV platforms and potentially also from US Special Forces stationed at Camp Lemmonier, Djibouti and/or on US Navy vessels stationed off the Somali coast.

Alongside new counter-terrorism operations in Somalia, we should also expect some government responses here in the United States. From my perspective, three particular actions are necessary.

1) As I noted yesterday, the US law enforcement community must ensure that Somalia orbit counter-terrorism efforts are well resourced. 

2) State and local government authorities must update their crisis plans. During the recent Navy Yard shooting, DC authorities and the media failed miserably in their responsibility to deliver accurate, coherent and timely public advisories. Because of these failings, had Alexis acted alongside other attackers focused against other targets, Washingtonians would have been placed in unnecessary jeopardy. Defeating Mumbai 2008/Westgate style attacks is complex enough. But by learning from past incidents, US metropolitan authorities will maximize their ability to save lives in the future.

3) Echoing point 2, on the specific tactical side, it's also crucial that local law enforcement agencies work with the FBI to refine their planning. As is the case in the UK, ongoing and multi-faceted preparation is a critical endeavor. Ego contests (like that between the FBI and NYPD) are fundamentally unhelpful.

          Ultimately however, we, the American people, must wake up. Yes, in the moment of attacks we're glued to news reports. However, once incidents have concluded, our attention often becomes absorbed by blame games. Take the Navy Yard/Capitol CERT controversy. Had that tactical team stayed at the Navy Yard, it's possible that they may have saved lives. Yet, as mentioned above, had Alexis operated as part of a broader cell that also held the Capitol as a target (the extent of threat was unknown at the time of the CERT recall), the decision to remain at the Navy Yard could have been catastrophic. 

My overarching point here is a basic one - counter-terrorism isn't simple. Protecting America requires our shared and astute attention.

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