THE MAGAZINE

Too Focused on Safe Havens?

By Laura Spadanuta

The White House National Strategy for Counterterrorism states that al Qaeda relies on ungoverned and poorly governed territories—in other words, failed states—for sanctuary. “The United States will continue to [take actions] designed to prevent al-Qa’ida from taking advantage of these ungoverned spaces,” the recently issued report states. But some experts note that weak and corrupt states may be more dangerous than failed states when it comes to providing terrorist safe havens.

For that reason, Stewart M. Patrick, of the Council on Foreign Relations, says he thinks that the United States may be spending too much of its time and resources focusing on “failed states.” Patrick’s research has found that a state’s weakness does not exactly correlate with its potential to be a terrorist safe haven. He says that it is much more likely that a weak state with a corrupt government will provide a better safe haven to terrorists than a state that is completely failed.

A report by the Harmony Project, Al-Qaida’s MisAdventures in the Horn of Africa, provides some explanation for why weak states are even more dangerous than failed states. The report looks at al Qaeda’s first attempts to expand beyond Afghanistan and Sudan in the early 1990s. The report states: “Conventional wisdom suggests that Somalia, a failed state, would be an ideal safe haven for al-Qaida. Our analysis, however, indicates that weakly governed regions such as coastal Kenya, not failed states like Somalia, provide an environment more conducive to al-Qa’ida’s activities.”

The report explains that in Somalia, al-Qaeda’s members faced extortion and betrayal and “were subject to the constant risk of Western military interdiction. In Kenya, by contrast, the state’s poor governance, combined with relative stability and basic infrastructure, created a potential base area from which to support operations” and “outside military forces could not conduct operations because of Kenyan sovereignty, yet the state had little ability to interdict the terror group’s actions or effectively police its activities.”

Patrick says the United States should take a more fine-grained approach to assessing the situations in nations that hold the potential to offer terrorists safe havens. The U.S. government has devoted insufficient attention to examining the social and cultural factors, such as the presence of amenable tribal groups, radical ideology, and an ambivalent host state attitude, according to Patrick. “These are some of the factors that turn potential safe havens into actual ones.”
 

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