The crisis is continuing in Somalia, the Horn of Africa country that’s been wracked by conflict for almost two decades. Last year Ethiopian forces drove the Union of Islamic Courts from power in Mogadishu, allowing the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) to establish a tenuous authority in the capital. But since then the situation has once again descended into violence, with loose groupings of so-called “insurgents” rising to combat the Ethiopian and the TFG troops. Civilians are being caught in the middle, with Human Rights Watch recently accusing all sides of committing gross violations that have resulted in the deaths and displacements of many people. The United States has also been heavily criticized for supporting the Ethiopians and the TFG, as it seeks to prevent Somalia from serving as a haven for terrorists. In the third part of a series focusing on the situation, VOA’s Darren Taylor examines the US’s current role in Somalia and the nature of the terrorist threat there.
“Just about everything the US does with regard to Somalia must be viewed through the prism of America’s global war on terror,” says Ahmed Samatar, dean of the Institute of Global Affairs at Macalester College in Minnesota.
“The US will tell you it’s concerned with providing aid to the poor Somalia people, and maybe it is. But its first priority is really its war on terror,” says the professor of international affairs, who moved to the US 30 years ago and is originally from a settlement in north-west Somalia.
James Swan, US deputy assistant secretary for African affairs, has pointed out that his country has contributed more than $550 million in assistance to Somalia since 1993 – mostly food aid – and supports the TFG, as it desperately wants to foster good governance in Mogadishu.
But US officials have also made no secret of the fact that they’re hunting alleged operatives of the al-Qaeda organization in the Horn of Africa. In January, the U.S. military said it had killed eight to 10 al-Qaeda suspects in an air strike in Somalia, but Somali groups later said the casualties had been “innocent civilians.”
Following the US’s disastrous intervention in Somalia in the early 1990’s, during which 18 Marines were killed during a mission in Mogadishu, the United States, save for humanitarian relief, largely disengaged from the chaos of Somalia.
But some observers of the unfolding drama say the US was forced into reengagement last year after the rapid and unexpected rise of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), and that, fearing the empowerment of al-Qaeda in the Horn of Africa, the US backed an invasion of Ethiopian troops to bolster the TFG. The US alleged that extremists within the UIC were sheltering al-Qaeda operatives, including some wanted for planning and carrying out the bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 that killed more than 200 people, as well as the deadly assault on an Israeli-owned holiday resort near Mombasa and a failed rocket attack on an Israeli charter aircraft near the city in 2002.
But critics of US policy say Washington, in supporting the transitional government in Mogadishu and the Ethiopian forces, is creating the very situation that it’s trying to prevent: a vacuum in which disaffected Somali forces are being recruited by militants to perpetrate jihad (holy war) against what they see as an illegitimate government and its foreign helpers.
“What we have now is an Iraq-type of situation. In all the years of fighting here, we have never before experienced what is happening now in Somalia. Every day, there are roadside bombs, assassinations and suicide attacks,” says Omar Faruk Hassan, the chairman of the National Union of Somali Journalists.
“Terror has found a home in Mogadishu and its target is the Somali public,” he says.
Dr. Andre Le Sage, the academic chairman of the Terrorism and Counterterrorism section of the US government-affiliated Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, says the US is presently balancing its policy in Somalia between its efforts to prevent violent extremism through counter-terrorism strategies with “willing partners” in Africa and its support for good governance and reconstruction in Mogadishu.
“The US Department of State, through the US embassy in Nairobi, has actively supported the Somali peace process and is trying to help the Transitional Federal Institutions to establish law and order. The embassy has supported the dialogue with clan communities and political communities in Mogadishu and from across the country through the (recent) National Reconciliation Congress,” explains Le Sage, the author of several publications on Islamic movements in Africa.
He acknowledges that it’s the “security component” to the US interest in Somalia that’s aroused the most suspicion, but says the US has legitimate concerns in the country.
“There are definitely terrorist groups that are operating in Somalia and moving from Somalia into different parts of the Horn of Africa and East Africa,” Le Sage emphasizes. “All the evidence is there and it would be foolish to ignore it.”
A spokesman for the TFG, Mohammed Abdirizak, says government troops continue to seize “terrorist bomb-making equipment” and have arrested a number of “foreign fighters,” who remain in custody in “safe locations” and will be tried at a “later date.”
Some analysts, however, say the threat of organized terrorism in Somalia is exaggerated.
“The main problem with the United States is the narrow interpretation of the global war on terror. Just because there may be a few fundamentalists in Somalia, or a few terrorists, it doesn’t make any sense to invade Somalia through proxy,” says Dr. Mohamed Diriye Abdullahi, a Somali linguist, historian and cultural expert based in Hargeisa, Somaliland.
Critics such as Abdullahi don’t deny that terrorists are – or were – hiding out in Somalia, but say US and Ethiopian actions in the country are “out of proportion.”
“Air strikes kill indiscriminately. Ethiopian bombs are killing indiscriminately. If there are terrorists in Somalia, they must be hunted using ground forces, using good intelligence, not with missiles fired from the air, or with an army of occupation that is causing suffering to thousands of people,” says Abdullahi.
Abdi Ismail, professor of geography at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, was until recently a regular visitor to Somalia, his country of birth. He says it’s “disingenuous” to place the current conflict within the context of the international war against terrorism.
“It’s a war between those that are supported by the West – particularly the United States and Ethiopian invading forces that want to dominate the society illegally – and those who want to have a free country and are therefore fighting and resisting that occupation of Ethiopia. That’s what this struggle is about,” Ismail maintains.
“My sense is that the US government’s claim that there were terrorists hiding in Somalia has yet to be vindicated. We have no evidence – despite the claims of the intelligence services – that these folks are or were there. But even if they were, it’s my opinion that you don’t damage a society so deeply because three criminals are hiding someplace. Go after those criminals and assist the Somali population to put their government together, so that no terrorists or criminals can hide in that place.”
Ismail says the US air strikes, and Washington’s “panicked” support for Ethiopian forces against the UIC, have only served to exacerbate the Somali conflict.
“It was, in my opinion, the wrong strategy. It was a jackhammer strategy of destroy first, and then figure out what went wrong later on,” he says.
Certain commentators, such as Ismail, continue to insist that the US “fundamentally miscalculated” when it targeted the UIC, which had, after all, restored a measure of stability to Mogadishu for the first time in many years by the time it was ousted.
“My assessment of the Union of Islamic Courts, or the vast majority of them, was that they were decent people who wanted to bring a sort of order to their own country. I think if the United States government thought more carefully and more intelligently about them, both the United States government’s interests and those of the Somali people would have been better served,” he says.
“But instead there was panic that led up to the US giving the green light to Ethiopian troops to invade, and then bombarding so-called terrorist targets, and that has made things worse today.”
Ismail does, however, acknowledge that some members of the UIC could have been “anti-American” but insists there’s “no evidence whatsoever that the Islamic Courts advocated the kind of violence against the international community that al-Qaeda does…. What happens today (is that) whenever there’s an Islamic political project, then a flag is raised – the terrorist flag is raised,” he says.
Ismail rejects the assertion that Somalia could become a haven for terrorists, because Islam in the country, he says, is “largely moderate in nature.”
“Somalia can never really become a base for al-Qaeda or anybody else because it’s a society that’s by and large homogenous, and any foreigner who tries to do things like that will easily become visible.”
Le Sage agrees that the number of extremists active in Somalia is “not so great that you’re going to see foreign fighters or al-Qaeda extremists on the streets” but says this doesn’t mean they’re not present and capable of doing great damage.
“Now that the Ethiopian military and the TFG are in Mogadishu, these insurgents have of course gone into hiding. However, the influence and the interests of Islamic extremists – many of who are associated with the al-Qaeda East Africa cell – was on public display during the time that the Union of Islamic Courts controlled Mogadishu.”
But Tom Porteous, Human Rights Watch Director in London, is also convinced that the threat posed by terrorism in Somalia is being overstated.
“Somalia is not a very favorable operating environment for terrorists, any more than it is a favorable operating environment for any foreigners. Terrorist groups operating in Somalia would be – and perhaps are – subject to the same risks and dangers as anyone else; that is, they can be betrayed by their clan allies for reasons which they maybe wouldn’t understand very well – reasons to do with internal Somali politics. But for another thing, there simply isn’t the infrastructure there which terrorist organizations really need – banking infrastructure, transport infrastructure – which they really require in order to operate effectively,” Porteous says.
“It’s not clear that Somalia is any more at risk of penetration by Islamist terror groups than, for example, Kenya, or other parts of Africa” that also have porous borders and relatively weak security, he adds.
Le Sage responds that the 1998 al-Qaeda attacks on US embassies and the subsequent attacks on other targets in 2002 are irrefutable evidence of the “threat that is present in East Africa from the regional al-Qaeda cell.”
He agrees, though, that the “insurgency” in Somalia at the moment is a “complicated phenomenon” but maintains that its “backbone” is “remnant groups of the Union of Islamic Courts” – particularly the radical al-Shabaab group – that are “cooperating to a certain extent with clan and warlord-based militia” to form a more united and effective front against Ethiopian and TFG troops.
From the TFG’s perspective, Mohammed Abdirizak says the present chaos has largely been created by “some international terrorists and local extremist groups” who are taking advantage of the widespread availability of illegal weapons.
“A number of foreign fighters have been caught. We see instructions, books on how to make bombs and how to carry out terrorism attacks – all written in foreign language. And so I say that the threat of international terrorism in Somalia is very real,” says the TFG spokesman.
“Technology” that international terrorists use is being found in Somalia, Abdirizak says, and further evidence of the presence of an organized force of terrorists can be seen in the changing tactics being used by the insurgents.
“Suicide bombing is new in Somalia. Targeting of civilians indiscriminately is new; remote-controlled bombing, IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices) – all these things are new to Somalia,” says Abdirizak.
He emphasizes that the TFG and its partners know “exactly” who the terrorist groups active in Somalia are, and which countries their operatives are from, but he doesn’t want to divulge too much detail at this stage.
“At the moment I’ll (just) say it’s foreign terrorists. I don’t want to get into pointing out the specific countries. We know who they are. And until it’s the appropriate time to mention exactly the countries, I will not say so.”
But when pressed, Abdirizak discloses: “There were even Europeans, and a number of people from other countries – not from countries where you would expect that these terrorists came from. It’s international; it’s from a number of different countries. There are foreign fighters in Somalia.”
Porteous says Ethiopia has participated in a regional program of “arbitrary detentions and unlawful renditions of individuals of interest” to Addis Ababa and Washington. Many “terrorism suspects” – including women and children – have been imprisoned in jails in Ethiopia without access to legal help, he says.
Abdirizak says it’s the TFG’s “right and responsibility” to cooperate with whoever it wants to as it seeks to protect Somalis from the “threat of terror.” But Prof. Samatar and other critics say the TFG “knows which buttons to push” in order to gain US support, and that it’s using allegations of widespread terrorism in Somalia to gain legitimacy among the local population and the international community.
Le Sage says US policymakers are far too experienced to allow themselves to be used as pawns in a political game for power in Somalia, and that the US administration’s actions in the country thus far are based on hard evidence, not speculation.
But Samatar insists that the transitional authority’s close relationship with both Ethiopia and the US is merely setting the scene for further violence in the Horn of Africa.
“The more you push people like this, the more you invade and occupy their country, and the more you try to select for them who is going to be their leader and what kind of a government they are going to have, and the more you condemn their traditions and their religious faith, the more they become (militant). The idea that the militancy of Islamists will grow in Somalia is not so much that it is in the water or in the soil of the Somali people, but it’s a reaction to what’s happening to them,” he says.
Journalist Omar Faruk Hassan has witnessed the Somali public becoming increasingly “mistrustful” over the past few months.
“They don’t trust anyone, and that includes the US. They say the US doesn’t care for helping them; it only cares about destroying the parts of the Islamic Courts that may be hiding al-Qaeda members. The US says it’s giving aid, but most people see nothing of this aid. They see destruction, not reconstruction. So this makes them very suspicious of the US.”
Hassan says the Ethiopians aren’t proving to be very effective in counterterrorism.
“The Ethiopians are trying to wipe out the insurgents by targeting specific places where they think the insurgents are based. But what they are still failing to realize is that these armed groups have no bases; they are always on the move to different parts of Mogadishu. So the Ethiopians can do little except to stay in their camps and to respond to specific attacks, like when the insurgents attack their camps with mortars. So they are little more than a reactionary force; they are not hunting terrorists.”
Ismail and other commentators argue that the US could redeem itself in Somalia if it embarks on a few “crucial” steps as soon as possible.
“The first one, and the most critical one, is the immediate withdrawal of all Ethiopian troops and their weapons from Somalia back into Ethiopia. As long as the Ethiopians are there, and are seen as an occupying force, this reignites the hostilities between the Ethiopians and the Somalis. And if the American government is seen as supporting the Ethiopians in this, then I think the reputation of the United States among Somalis will go deeper and deeper into trouble,” he predicts.
Many Somali analysts also call upon Washington to support efforts aimed at an eventual disbandment of the TFG, which is seen by many as being largely a creation of the Ethiopians and not being fully representative, but Le Sage says this is unlikely to happen given the US’s continued support of the transitional authority.
“I think Washington’s view is that any government in Somalia is better than no government,” adds Porteous.
Abdullahi says US policy regarding Somalia should be focused not on terrorism, but on facilitating a
“serious” peace conference to be held in the near future in Somalia, with “no involvement from outside actors.”
Abdullahi says, “The best way to discourage (terrorism) and to take the wind out of the sails of any kind of militant Islamist movement in Somalia is to withdraw the Ethiopians and for the US and others to accept that Somalia is an Islamic society. Now there might be elements on the margins (of Somali society) that are closed-minded, but that is not going to work in the Somali context. The Somalis have never been puritanical Muslims; they’ve always been very moderate in terms of their traditions. Somalis must finally be left alone to solve their problems.”
But Prof. Hagi Mukhtar, a Somali academic who teaches history at the Savanna State University in Georgia, says he’s “tired” of Somalis always pleading to be “left alone.”
“One of the biggest problems right now with many Somalis – they are always in a very, very narrow or parochial way – wanting to always look at Somalia as Somalia (in isolation). That doesn’t work at all. Somalia cannot be removed from its global context,” he maintains.
“And the global world order today is even unlike the Cold War – it’s a very serious situation. We are part of this world. We are part of the global war on terror, and we can impact and influence other countries. Many Somalis are so narrow minded that they’re not even looking at Somalia in terms of its place in the Horn of Africa, which is a very, very serious mistake.”
While the US is indeed focused on combating terrorism, Le Sage says, it should also have “diplomatic and development priorities” in Somalia.
“The challenge, of course, is to harmonize these together and to build a strong, stable and representative Somali state, that will then be able to police its own territory and prevent terrorists from operating there,” he explains.
According to Swan, the US will continue to stress four policy priorities for Somalia: the encouragement of “inclusive political dialogue” among key Somali stakeholders; the mobilization of international support to help build governance and provide development and humanitarian assistance for Somalis; the deployment of an African Peace Support operation; and, finally, the combating of the threat of terrorism.
But Samatar says US policy pertaining to Somalia continues to ignore the fact that it’s not Islamic fundamentalism that’s driving most of the violence, it’s “something else – and that’s enormous poverty and desperation on the part of people. And when men and women are desperate and so poor, they have very little sense of civic responsibility and what they ought to give to their own country to rebuild it.”
Somalia, though, in the eyes of many observers and policymakers, continues to be fertile ground for al-Qaeda, for these very reasons. The country is also awash with weapons, militant clans and legions of unemployed, and a largely ineffective government. And this situation is seen as unlikely to change in the very near future.