The synchronized and unconscionable bombings by the Somali group al-Shabab—of people doing nothing more than watching soccer games in Kampala, Uganda—counterintuitively illustrates why the United States should not be fighting Islamic militancy worldwide. Many of America’s editorial writers are screaming for stepped-up U.S. counterterrorism strikes in Somalia against the group. This option would be the worst possible course of action.
Many leading American newspapers and government officials see the soccer bombings as part of an ominous trend of local terror groups going international. As evidence they also cite al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s attempted bombing of a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas day, the Pakistani Taliban’s assistance of the clumsy attempt to bomb New York’s Times Square, and the recent arrest in Norway and Germany of three members of a separatist group from western China for allegedly orchestrating a terrorist bomb plot. Yet these international attacks by local groups, as with the strikes by the Somali al-Shabab, aren’t coming out of nowhere with radical Islamism as their sole cause, as the editorial writers imply. The groups are unforgivably attempting to attack innocent civilians; yet the U.S. government needs to carefully examine why these local groups might be taking their respective shows on the road. This would require looking in the mirror, which can sometimes be tough.
For example, al-Shabab was a local Islamist group that wasn’t getting much support from Somalia’s mostly moderate Muslims until the United States started supporting corrupt Somali warlords against it. The United States has funneled much economic and military aid into the country, and conducts counterterrorism attacks within its borders. Even now, al-Shabab explicitly said that it targeted Uganda in the soccer bombing because the nation is one of the two countries providing soldiers for the African Union (AU) forces that are combating the group. Also, the United States and its European allies are using Uganda to train Somalis to fight against al-Shabab. The group has threatened future attacks against Uganda and Burundi, the other country providing troops to the AU force, if they did not withdraw from Somalia. Although radical Islam is present, al-Shabab’s main motivation for the international attacks is much the same as the other local Islamist groups—to get rid of foreign interference in their countries.
Thus, many analysts now fear that al-Shabab—as local groups al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Pakistani Taliban have—will also attempt to strike U.S. targets. Not coincidentally, the Christmas Day bombing by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula came several days after the United States significantly augmented its support of a Yemeni government offensive against the group. Similarly, the Pakistani Taliban, like its Afghan brethren, has been concerned less with attacking internationally and more with overthrowing the local government. For the Pakistani Taliban, that changed with the Obama administration’s zealous drone attacks on the group in western Pakistan. The group’s unsuccessful bombing attempt on Times Square ensued.
Finally, leading American newspapers attribute a Chinese separatist group’s involvement in plotting terrorist strikes in the West to giving their members something to do because China has foiled them at home. This tack conveniently ignores Western support for China’s assertion that Uighur separatists are part of the wider threat of militant Islam, that the group has been placed on the U.S. terrorist watch list, and that some Uighurs were held in Guantanamo prison for years and then were finally released because they posed no threat to the United States.
In short, the United States is “internationalizing” local Islamist groups and their causes by needlessly helping the governments of Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and China fight radical Islam. U.S. intervention in such conflicts merely strengthens such groups, because they can adopt a powerful nationalist cloak and get greater popular support by battling to evict the unpopular superpower from their home soil. Contrary to U.S. government rhetoric, retaliatory terrorist strikes are not primarily underlied by poverty, hunger, refugees, bad economies, or illegal trade in arms, but by resistance to foreign interference and occupation.
The blowback from U.S. meddling in conflicts that don’t threaten American vital interests is no longer local. Retaliatory attacks from such groups are being directed toward the home turf of the United States and its major allies, and that does affect U.S. vital interests.
Thus, the United States need not and should not be at war with radical Islam. In the past, when it suited American interests, the United States actually has encouraged and supported certain Islamists, such as the Saudi Arabian royal family, Mohammad Zia al-Haq’s Pakistani government, and mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan. Instead, the United States should concentrate on neutralizing the main trunk of al-Qaeda and quit making new enemies by unnecessarily meddling in local conflicts that don’t threaten U.S. vital interests.