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President Obama is quietly expanding the war on terror in Africa while the world is distracted by Trump

Somali government security forces patrol the streets of Elasha
Reuters/Feisal Omar
Somali government security forces hunt for al-Shabaab suspects.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

On Nov. 28, a young man named Abdul Razak Ali Artan ran his car into a crowd of pedestrians on the campus of Ohio State University and then attempted to stab as many people as possible before he was fatally shot by a campus police officer.

According to preliminary reports, Artan, a student at the university, immigrated to the United States from Somalia in 2007 and became a permanent legal resident in 2014. While a motive for the attack is still being determined, law enforcement investigators have discovered a Facebook posted written by Artan that outlined his grievances over how Muslims are being treated and warned the United States to stay out of the affairs of other countries.

While it is way too early to definitively link the OSU attack to terrorism (ISIL has claimed responsibility online but officials have yet to uncover any direct ties between the group and the suspect), it happens to coincide with an important turning point in US-Somali relations.

Indeed, the attack comes just days after the New York Times reported that US president Barack Obama’s administration will now consider Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab an “associated force” of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. President Obama ruled previously that some commanders within Al-Shabaab are de-facto members of Al-Qaeda and are therefore prime targets for US military action. The administration’s latest legal interpretation means the US now reserves the right to target the entire organization.

In essence, the White House is once again redefining the limits of what the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force actually authorizes. Passed three days after the 9/11 attacks and signed by president George W. Bush four days later, the 2001 AUMF provided the Bush administration with the statutory power to use the US military to pursue and destroy Osama bin-Laden’s Al-Qaeda network. The resolution was short and sweet; congress introduced and debated the 60-word authorization on the very same day, a remarkable pace when taking into account how slow the legislative process usually is.

Unfortunately, as the war on terrorism has attempted to keep up with the establishment of new terrorist networks across the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia, America’s executive branch has taken the position that the AUMF signed over 15 years ago is essentially an unlimited grant of authority. Cynically speaking this strategy makes sense: Why ask members of congress for an additional resolution and risk a humiliating public defeat when you can just contort the 2001 AUMF into a legal pretzel?

And this isn’t the first time that the Obama administration has expanded the scope of the 2001 resolution. In 2014, administration lawyers argued—without much pushback from congress—that because the Islamic State was once Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Iraq, the group was technically within the bounds of the resolution. The argument didn’t convince some in the constitutional law community, however, including Yale Law School professor Bruce Ackerman, who helped US Army captain Nathan Smith bring a lawsuit against president Obama for overstepping his constitutional powers. (That lawsuit was dismissed by the US District Court for Washington, DC last week).

This past track record means the new legal position regarding Al-Shabaab, while problematic, isn’t exactly a surprise. The fact that the group didn’t even exist on 9/11 is immaterial in the government’s interpretation.

Much has been written about the immense power that the US executive branch has acquired during the long war on terrorism. But remember, this influence was made possible by congressional passivity and an overtly deferential attitude towards the president’s crop of constitutional lawyers. If congress doesn’t become more assertive in matters of US national security, there is little stopping a future president (like Donald Trump) from stretching the resolution against Al-Qaeda into even murkier legal terrain.

According to the United Nations, the US is home to about 7% of the world’s Somali migrant population (between 140,000 and 150,000 total.) These thousands of young Somalis apply for residency status in the United States for a reason; their country has been plagued by economic destitution, political paralysis, and warlordism for over 20 years. In this context, perhaps fighting fire with fire should not the centerpiece of America’s Somali policy. Lawmakers should instead explore whether increased US military operations in a country struggling with massive political and economic strife really is the most effective way to stamp out terrorism.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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