Terrorist Safe Havens: Weak States vs. Failed States

During last week’s Somalia discussions, I argued:

“1- Weak states support terrorism better than failed states- As Dr. Ken Menkhaus has noted many times, failed states like Somalia are hard for everyone. It doesn’t matter if your AQ or Western peacekeepers. The cost of operating in chaos makes terrorism tough.”

In the comments, Petr posted some counterarguments noting:

You are basing this statement on more or less intuitive logic and two case studies (Somalia 92-94, Kenya 92-98). But if you see the broader picture (i.e. more case studies) it gets more complicated.
– it is problematic, even though not unsolvable to treat those countries as one entity and then classify the strength of the statehood.
– in my research it came out that not the strength of a given state but presence of a strategic ally (or radical islamist subculture) is the key variable when it comes to success of al-Qa´ida. I do not want to bother you with details, but simply to say al-Ittihaad could not provide AQ with the safe haven, unlike ash-Shabaab, which in my understanding is a good case of al-Qa´ida success.

The ‘weak state vs. failed state’ debate is one of my favorites (this makes me incredibly dull by the way).  I originally went into the HOA research following the “failed states equals terrorism” equation.  Having read the Harmony documents, spent some time in Kenya, and did some further research, I came to agree strongly with the claim that weak states support terrorism better than failed states thereby following the Menkhaus doctrine :

The case of Somalia suggests that external observers may have been mistaken
in our assumptions about the relationship between terrorism and collapsed
states. The reality is that, at least up to now, transnational criminals and terrorists have found zones of complete state collapse to be relatively inhospitable territory out of which to operate. There are certainly exceptions – the fiefdoms of
drug-lords and radicals in parts of Colombia, for instance. But in general, terrorist networks have instead found safety in weak, corrupted, quasi-states –
Pakistan, Yemen, Kenya, the Philippines, Guinea, Indonesia. Terrorist networks,
like mafias, appear to flourish where states are governed badly rather than not at

Here are my reasons and I’ll address Petr’s notes above.

  1. Case Studies- I actually don’t see my case studies as two fold and defined to the dates mentioned.  I use Somalia (Failed) and Kenya (Weak) as two case studies extending from 1992 to the present.  Somalia’s safe haven support for AQ through the present day has been relatively weak and chaotic.  Sure, AQ has smuggled weapons, done some financing, etc.  But, major terrorist attacks on the West stemming from Somalia have not occurred.  Instead, Kenya has hosted a string of terrorist attacks and provided safe haven for AQ terrorists throughout the past 18 years.  During ’92-’94, AQ members transited through Nairobi airports, drove along the coast, and trafficked through ports in Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu.  The embassy bombings (’98) provide an obvious example of AQ action in Kenya.  AQ members did travel in and out of Somalia from ’94-’98, but they actually lived in Nairobi where they ran front charities and targeted the embassy.  After a brief departure from HOA, Harun Fazul, AQ’s East African commander, didn’t move back to Somalia.  In 2002, Fazul settled near Lamu, Kenya, built his own mosque, developed a fishing business and prepared for two more plots in Kenya: the 2002 Paradise Hotel bombing and the failed SAM missile attack on an El Al jet departing Mombasa.  Fazul has been seen in and out of Kenya for almost 20 years.  He might briefly stop in Somalia to move arms try to influence local groups, etc.  But the longer he stays there, the greater the chance CT folks or a rival clan will identify and interdict him.  The best example of AQ’s freedom of movement in Kenya is seen in the confessions of Omar Said Omar while in Kenyan custody.
  2. Three party problem in Kenya– Petr’s comments above approach only the terrorist side of the failed state story. Weak states provide greater safe haven than failed states because they impede counterterrorists.  In Kenya, there are three parties: AQ, Western CT forces, and the Kenyan government.  Kenya’s weak capacity permits AQ operations and limits Western CT efforts.  In Kenya, Western CT forces can’t interdict AQ and its affiliates militarily, use drones, or build intelligence without restrictions.  Weak state sovereignty requires the U.S. to use partners.  In Somalia, Western CT forces can act without restraint.  Individual AQ training camps or AQ leaders can be targeted.  Indigenous militias can be co-opted to counter AQ.
  3. Predictable Graft is better than Chaotic Graft– In Kenya, AQ operatives can navigate corruption fairly well. Graft is routine and predictable.  Legitimate businesses and charities can be established to generate revenue and augment illicit funding.  In Somalia, AQ’s costs are variable.  As seen in the Somalia Harmony records, operating costs in an austere environment, void of any legitimate transportation and exchange mechanisms, quickly soared to unsustainable levels.  Clan leaders extracted rents haphazardly and often.  Rarely did these clan payments result in AQ accomplishing its goals.

I’ll stop with these three large reasons.  To clarify, I think AQ operates in both Somalia and Kenya.  But, similar weak state issues can be seen in Yemen, Pakistan, and the Sahel today.  Meanwhile, the U.S. has dismantled terrorist operations in Afghanistan and Iraq where it has freedom of movement and no weak state limitations.  Although Iraq may be entering a weak state era soon.

Lastly, Vahid Brown wrote a great biography of Harun Fazul which provides an excellent account of terrorists taking advantage of weak states.  Also, I encourage all interested in the “Failed vs. Weak” state debate to read Dr. Ken Menkhaus article in The Journal of Conflict Studies entitled “Quasi-State, Nation-Building, and Terrorist Safe Havens.”  He explains this much better than I.

I’m taking sometime off for Festivus but I’ll chime in later in the week reference new Somali clan alliances.

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