When Navy SEALs crept ashore to attack the seaside hideaway of one of the al-Shabab's leaders, at nearly the same time a joint U.S. military-FBI-CIA team snatched a leader of al-Qaeda, a close affiliate of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), from the streets of Libya's capital, the events received worldwide attention but were likely little more than skirmishes.
These latest attacks dramatize how little the essence of the battle against Islamic extremism has really changed. The successful U.S. operation in Libya captured Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known by the alias Abu Anas al-Libi, who has been the subject of a 15-year manhunt since the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, four presidential elections ago.
Long time coming
Those al-Qaeda-linked bombings were before 9/11, before the invasion of Afghanistan, before the invasion of Iraq and before America's drone war spread across the region.
The Navy SEAL action against al-Shabab is most likely related to the events of Sept. 21, when a group of terrorists blasted their way into the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, leaving at least 72 dead in their wake.
Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack, which it labeled as a reprisal forKenyan military actions in Somalia, where Kenya and several other African nations are attempting to rebuild an effective national government.
U.S. involvement goes back even further than the 1998 embassy attacks to the first President Bush's invasion of Somalia in 1992.
Since then, al-Shabab has become to East Africa what al-Qaeda has been to the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Indeed, ties have developed between al-Shabab and al-Qaeda, as well as with other terrorist organizations operating in other regions of Africa — AQIM in northern Africa; its offshoot Ansar al-Dine in neighboring Mali that led to a full-scale French invasionearlier this year and the establishment of U.S. drone base in the nearby nation of Niger; and Boko Haram, which has held large swaths of Nigeria in its grip of terror.
All share a single goal — establishing violent regimes that rule all or part of their nations in the name of extremist Islamic law and culture, holding their people in virtual servitude. And each has at least two sworn enemies — the governments of their homeland who seek to hold them at bay, and the United States and the Western democracies, whom they are prepared to target at every opportunity. Apart from the mothership of al-Qaeda, however, few have had either the means or the opportunity to carry their fight far beyond their borders. At least not yet.
Held in check
Clearly, Navy SEALs, CIA and FBI teams are prepared to pounce on these targets when they present themselves. Each such action unquestionably keeps these groups off-balance, hopefully bottled up in their home bases, ill-equipped to project their terror operations to the United States.
But we should be under no illusions. For every terrorist leader neutralized, there are others, well equipped and determined, who will take their place. Continued vigilance is the only answer.
David A. Andelman is the editor in chief of World Policy Journal and author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.