Make Hobyo Great Again
President Trump’s new acting secretary of defense began a since-aborted diplomatic gambit last month to negotiate with a Somali terrorist group — drawing the ire of the secretary of state.
WASHINGTON — A little-known counterterrorism official named Christopher C. Miller flew to the Middle East last month to pursue a diplomatic idea: asking Qatar to help devise plans to buy off or otherwise marginalize some senior leaders of the Shabab, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia, who are more committed to attacking the West.
Mr. Miller had obtained a blessing from Kash Patel, then a senior official at the National Security Council. President Trump’s national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, was also aware of the trip, officials said. But they bypassed the nation’s chief diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — and when he found out, he deemed the idea half-baked and shut it down.
Now, control over American national security and foreign policy has been upended. Mr. Trump abruptly installed Mr. Miller as acting defense secretary this week — making him, at least on paper, Mr. Pompeo’s equal for the administration’s last two months. Mr. Patel is becoming Mr. Miller’s chief of staff.
Mr. Miller’s previously unreported trip to Qatar offers insight into the acting secretary’s mind-set. The awkward shuttering of the effort was an embarrassing outcome for the U.S. government, in part because Qatar’s emir had already apparently given his approval to explore Mr. Miller’s proposal.
This year, Mr. Miller briefly moved to a counterterrorism role at the Pentagon before the Senate in August confirmed him to lead the National Counterterrorism Center, an agency created after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that is supposed to serve as a clearinghouse for terrorism threat information and coordinate intelligence sharing between organizations including the C.I.A., the F.B.I. and the National Security Agency.
The center is not supposed to play an operational role. But as Mr. Miller studied intelligence reports about the Shabab’s senior leadership and Somalia, he told colleagues that it might be possible to change the equation that has kept the United States locked in irregular warfare with the Shabab — including periodic drone strikes targeting suspected militants and the deadly Shabab assault on an American air base at Manda Bay, Kenya, in January.
American officials have long struggled with how to think about the Shabab — a loosely organized collection of factions, most of whom are focused on the parochial goal of controlling Somalia but some of whom want to participate in Al Qaeda’s global jihad, carrying out terrorist attacks beyond its borders.
A Shabab attack caused destruction in Mogadishu, Somalia, last year.
Near the end of the Obama administration, the executive branch deemed the entire group an enemy in the war on terrorism, and Mr. Trump eased limits on military strikes in Somalia. But years of fairly regular bombings have failed to bring the Shabab to heel, and in its fourth year the Trump administration has flirted with the idea of pulling back from the Horn of Africa.
Amid that churn, Mr. Miller wondered whether it would be possible to separate key Shabab factions from Al Qaeda to reduce its threat to American interests beyond Somalia’s borders. He focused on a group of about 10 older leaders with strong personal ties to Al Qaeda, rather than younger, more nationalistic Shabab leaders.
It was difficult to obtain accurate, timely intelligence to target and kill the Qaeda-linked Shabab leaders. Mr. Miller raised ideas for isolating or eliminating them: Perhaps the younger leaders could be persuaded to rebel against them, or the older cohort could be bought off to sideline themselves from the struggle, the officials said.
The Qataris had experience as the intermediary for peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. Mr. Miller went to Mr. Patel with his idea of enlisting them for a similar outreach effort. With the National Security Council’s blessing, Mr. Miller approached Qatar’s ambassador to the United States to obtain the blessing of the country’s emir to pursue the idea.
Then, over the Columbus Day weekend, Mr. Miller and aides flew to Doha to open talks with senior Qatari officials, including its foreign minister and top counterterrorism leaders. The Qataris were said to have expressed interest in some of the ideas but were cautious about how to proceed. As a preliminary step, they proposed looping in Norwegian diplomats who had also served as go-betweens with the Taliban.
Mr. Miller returned from his trip with a proposal to schedule three-way talks with Qatar and Norway to flesh out the proposals, according to the officials. At that point, however, Mr. Pompeo and his top aides became aware of his efforts.
After seeing what they were doing with the Taliban, I knew they would try this in Somalia. What happened to "we don't negotiate with terrorists"? This plan was aborted, but I feel like it's only a matter of time.The move was seen within the State Department as freelance diplomacy — an intrusion into Mr. Pompeo’s turf — and, more broadly, many counterterrorism policy officials viewed it as insufficiently thought out.
Among the problems: figuring out whom to talk to in the Shabab, whose leaders tend to kill one another when they have ideological disputes; figuring out what the effort would mean for the fledgling Somali government the United States is supporting; and vetting the public-relations risks of negotiating with Qaeda-linked figures.
Mr. Pompeo insisted that the State Department take over the initiative from Mr. Miller. He referred the matter to the department’s Africa Bureau, where officials said it was widely seen as bureaucratically dead even before Mr. Trump lost the election — and a reversal that has exposed the American government to looking flighty in the Middle East.
“This story is strange on so many levels,” Ms. Bacon said. “Reducing the threat to U.S. interests by eliminating 10 Shabab operatives doesn’t hold up. The threat from Shabab isn’t that simple. We have already tried that, and it hasn’t worked.”
I also don't like this idea of only targeting Al Shabaab members who were directly trained by Al Qaeda. They are all the same and they should all be killed without mercy. There should be no negotiations under any circumstances. This is a holy war against pure evil and it should be fought to the end.
The sense that I have been getting with the U.S. is that they are basically done with all that and are willing to tolerate the existence of terror groups so long as they don't target the U.S. and their interests. If they apply this thinking to Somalia then anti-terrorist Somalis will be left to fend for themselves and the country will be finished because, let's be honest, we're outnumbered.