The violent and unstable situation in Somalia was the subject of a U.S. congressional hearing on Thursday. Testimony by officials from Somalia, the United Nations and the African Union, and experts came as the Obama administration confirmed it has decided to bolster Somalia's embattled Transitional Federal Government against Islamist forces.
With each day bringing further deterioration in Somalia, including among other things the recent bomb attack that killed the Somali transitional government security minister, Thursday's hearing was timely.
Coinciding with the hearing, the State Department confirmed that the U.S. is providing urgent shipments of weapons and ammunition to Somalia's Transitional Federal Government, the TFG, to help it avoid a complete takeover by Islamist rebels the U.S. suspects has ties to al-Qaida.
Ted Dagne, African Affairs Specialist with the Congressional Research Service, predicted that violence is likely to increase in coming months as the Islamist group al-Shabaab, backed by foreign fighters, attempts to oust the transitional government. "The primary objective of this offensive is to force the collapse of the TFG (Transitional Federal Government), and to force AMISOM (African Union Mission to Somalia) to leave Somalia," he said.
Al-Shabaab has taken over much of Mogadishu and southern Somalia, and is on a U.S. government list of international terrorist groups.
Dagne says highly de-centralized and mobile al-Shabaab forces threaten the Transitional Federal Government, and noted that African Union forces are constrained because they are not authorized to take offensive action. He said al-Shabaab is supported by more than 400 foreign fighters, and is funded by al-Qaida and certain foreign governments.
Peter Pham, Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science and Africana Studies at James Madison University, says conditions in Somalia threaten security and stability of the Horn of Africa:
"Even without toppling the TFG, al-Shabaab has already achieved a major objective by securing a territorial base from which like-minded militants and terrorists can carry out attacks elsewhere, especially against targets in the Arabian Peninsula as well as participating in the current violence against Somalis," he said.
Representative Donald Payne, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, said further violence can be avoided only if Somalis from all three regions of the country come together: "As we gather today many Somalis continue to be displaced, maimed and killed. The dream and aspirations of millions of Somalis are on hold or crushed," he said.
Of Somalia transitional government and regional officials invited to the hearing, the foreign minister of the Republic of Somaliland declined to attend.
But the President of the Puntland State of Somalia, Abdirahman Mohamed Farole, appealed for foreign assistance to stable areas of the country, saying this would be the best way to prevent extremist groups from expanding areas they control:
"There are limited options for dealing with extremists and terrorist threats in Somalia. The international community must support stable regions, for example Puntland, and offer long-awaited development incentives in order to attract the attention of other Somali regions that see the benefits as counter-weight to joining extremists," he said.
Speaking for the Transitional Federal Government, Idd BedelMohamed,Deputy Permanent Minister of Somalia at the United Nations, read a statement accusing al-Shabaab and some hardliners of rejecting reconciliation, and acknowledged that the transitional government faces intensified attacks:
"Insurgent groups continue to attack [the] Somali government and AMISOM forces with a new influx of foreign fighters allied and in support of al-Shabaab and its radical agenda. Attacks by radical groups against the combined forces of TFG and AMISOM are becoming more sophisticated, coordinated and lethal," he said.
Ugandan Minister of Defense, Crispus Kiyonga, said the African Union force, composed of 2,590 Ugandan troops 1,600 from Burundi, has so far been able to defend the transitional government's state house, Mogadishu port and airport, but said reinforcements to al-Shabaab have created a difficult situation.
"What we have in Somalia is an extraordinary situation that requires extraordinary means. For the U.N. to keep urging that peace be created first before a U.N. peacekeeping force can be sent continues to deny the Somali people badly-needed international forces to assist in the stabilization of that country," he said.
Ngoga Gateretse, Senior Advisor to the African Union Special Envoy for Somalia, called the situation in Mogadishu grave and said al-Shabaab is trying to force an extreme form of Islam on the Somali people, "This is completely new and shocking to the majority of the Somalis. It is unfortunate that some would use the religious zeal of sincere Somalis to prosecute what amounts to terrorism and the promotion of their agenda," he said.
A State Department official did not provide details of military aid going to the U.N.-backed transitional government. However, news reports quoting U.S. officials said it consisted of small arms as well as training which would be conducted outside the country.