There is something reassuring about today's AC-130 gunship strike along the Somali-Kenyan border, targeted at Al Qaida leaders believed responsible for the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in eastern Africa.
It's reassuring because it reminds us that members of our intelligence and special operations communities remain fully engaged in the War on Terror, and are relentlessly pursuing Al Qaida cells and their leaders. While U.S. politicians fret over the lack of progress in Iraq, and advocate "strategic re-deployment to Okinawa--and the public is counting down to the return of "American Idol," the professionals from our intelligence services and special ops units are still on the job, and pursuing tasks that are fundamental in winning the struggle against Islamic terrorism.
The AC-130 strike was likely carried out in a matter of seconds; standard gunship tactics call for neutralizing a target in two minutes (or less), to minimize exposure to ground fire. But planning and preparation for the attack was literally years in the making, dating back to the bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. The culprits behind that strike were quickly identified, but reaching them proved problematic. They found refuge in the chaos that was Somalia, and (according to some reports) began building an expanded base for terrorist operations when the Islamic Courts took over that country. Not too many months ago, Somalia looked a lot like Afghanistan, circa 1986, when a certain Saudi terrorist stepped off a plane an found safehaven.
But appearances are often deceiving. While Al Qaida tried to build its support and operational base in east Africa, the United States was also at work. Our navy increased its patrols off the Somali coast, eventually imposing a blockade that prevented seaborne infiltration/reinforcement by terrorist elements, and blocked their escape as well. At the same time, U.S. air and ground units were establishing a large forward base in Djibouti, the former French colony on the horn of Africa. There is a sizeable special ops presence in Djibouti; Green Beret "A" teams, SEAL elements, USAF AC-130 gunships, MC-130 Combat Talon aircraft, Marine Force Recon elements--all rotate through the base on a regular basis, allowing them to conduct training, liaison and reconnaissance missions with friendly nations in the region. Many of those Ethiopian troop who stormed into Mogadishu a few days ago had been trained by U.S. special forces, or their officers were trained by our special operators.
Those relationships, in turn, helped develop the intelligence relationships that led to today's airstrikes. Ethiopian forces (and their Somali allies) knew the men we were looking for. When they developed hard evidence on their whereabouts, that information was relayed to our commanders in Djibouti, which sent the AC-130 on its way. We certainly hope that te rounds from the gunship found their mark, but even if they didn't the raid sent an important message. Even when our political leaders--and the public at large--seem distracted, the men and women who really matter are still on the job, and determined to finish it. As the President prepares to unveil his new course in Iraq, our leadership in Washington would do well to emulate the tenacity and unity of purpose on display in the skies over southern Somalia.