Hope for Somalia? — Not Much, I’m Afraid

Stephen DeAngelis

September 28, 2009

This week I’m going to write about what’s happening in East Africa beginning with Somalia. In October of last year, I wrote post claiming that Somalia is the poster child of failed states. I reported that The Economist had declared Somalia “The world’s most utterly failed state.” I also noted that an entire generation of Somalis has now grown up within this failed state and asserted that “this lost generation is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the entire Somali saga.” A few months later, I concluded another post about Somalia by noting that “President-elect Obama certainly has plenty on his plate to keep him busy during the day and uneasy during the night. His ancestral ties to the [East African] area, however, provide him with an opportunity to make a difference where other western leaders could not. Aside from the issue of piracy, Somalia is not a strategically important country. The global economy can easily advance without it. But turning our backs on any part of the world is not the right thing to do. Finding a solution to the Somali problem will not be easy and it will not be quick; but ignoring it because it is difficult will only exacerbate the situation and will eventually lead to other unintended consequences like piracy and terrorism.”

 

A few more months later, I reported that Somalia had sworn in a new president, Sharif Ahmed and reported that he had reached out to the Muslim insurgents that control the southern portion of his country — which I thought was unwise. I also noted that President Ahmed is a widely respected moderate Muslim. The insurgents to whom Ahmed reached out are known as the al-Shabab (“youth” in Arabic). Last December, The Economist reported on “The rise of the Shabab” [20 December 2009 print issue]. The article noted that Shabab fighters train near Somalia’s border with Kenya. They receive funds and arms from Eritrea and recruits from several Arab countries.

“[These recruits] are expected to disavow music, videos, cigarettes and qat, the leaf Somali men chew most afternoons to get mildly high. Thus resolved, they wrap their faces in scarves and seek to fight the infidel. In return, they get $100 a month, are fed, and can expect medical treatment and payments if they are wounded, as well as burial costs and cash for their families if they are killed. The Shabab now controls much of south Somalia and chunks of Mogadishu. It took Kismayo a few months ago. The port of Marka, which takes in food aid, fell more recently. Many fighters are loosely grouped around two older jihadist commanders with strongholds near Kenya’s border, Mukhtar Robow and Hassan Turki. … The Shabab has learnt from its mistakes in 2006, when it was overwhelmed in a few days by the Ethiopian army. It is now more pragmatic and more aggressive. This time round, it is apparently not picking fights with wealthy qat merchants. Men can chew what they like—but won’t be ‘clean enough’ to get a lucrative job in Kismayo’s port. Education is encouraged. Girls can go to school. Charcoal burning is forbidden for the sake of the environment. But the Shabab has also tightened its own security. Alleged spies for the transitional government or for Ethiopia are routinely beheaded with blunt knives. Mr Turki, the jihadist leader who lives mostly in the bush near the Kenyan border, sleeps in different houses when he is in a town. Public floggings and executions strike fear. So do masked faces. … Most tellingly, the Shabab has learnt how to get hold of money faster. It concentrates its fighters in towns where there is money to be earned. The aim is to create an army that puts Islamist identity above divisive clan loyalties. Shabab commanders say a pious state will emerge once weaker militias have been disarmed. Some reckon that the Shabab shares some of the ransoms earned by pirates who operate out of the central Somali port of Haradheere. Those in Puntland, farther north, are apparently beyond the Shabab’s reach.”

Between December 2008 and May 2009, the fighting grew worse and The Economist reported that Al-Qaeda was on the march in Somalia [“Al-Qaeda on the march,” 23 May 2009 print issue]. The magazine was afraid that “Somalia’s new government [would] buckle under the latest wave of jihadist assaults.” Somalia appeared to be a lightning rod attracting radical Islamists. The article reported:

“A fresh flow of foreign fighters is said to be heading for Mogadishu. Some of them—Americans, Britons and Italians of Somali origin, as well as Arabs, Chechens, Pakistanis and Uzbeks—are no longer being hidden by their commanders but are being eagerly shown off to display the insurgents’ global support. … The jihadists are hitting Mr Ahmed’s government before it has had time to rebuild its own forces. Western governments have agreed to fork out $213m to set up a 6,000-strong army and a police force of 10,000. But the UN continues to reject pleas—from its own special envoy, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, among others—for it to send in a serious peacekeeping force, at least big enough to secure the capital and its immediate vicinity, including the airport and seaport. The 4,000 or so Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers now propping up the shaky government under the aegis of the African Union (AU) are increasingly targeted by suicide-bombers.”

By July, the Shabab controlled most of south and central Somalia, and much of Mogadishu. “Western security sources worry they could stage attacks outside the country, of the kind that destroyed the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998” [“The next jihad,” The Economist, 4 July 2009 print issue]. Despite his initial efforts to reach out to them, “the Shabab, for their part, have nothing but contempt for President Ahmed.” The article also noted, however, that those fighting against Ahmed’s government are al-Shabab supporters.

“Not all those who bear arms in the name of Islam support the Shabab. Several hundred kilometers north-east of Buale, in the town of Dusamareb, Sheikh Omar Sharif Muhammad, a Sufi religious leader, has mobilized fighters to “liberate” Mogadishu from the Shabab. … Sheikh Omar’s men do not have the strength to march on Mogadishu any time soon, but in several recent battles they have halted the northward advance of the Shabab. They claim to have killed all manner of foreign fighters, and to have recently intercepted two Canadians of Somali extraction sent out as suicide-bombers.”

As I noted earlier, the West’s primary concern is that Somalia could be used as a training and staging base for terrorist organizations. Al Qaeda appears to be strengthening in Muslim Africa [“Qaeda Branch Steps Up Raids in North Africa,” by Eric Schmitt and Souad Mekhennet, New York Times, 10 July 2009]. Schmitt and Mekhennet report that “Al Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa has carried out a string of killings, bombings and other lethal attacks against Westerners and African security forces in recent weeks that have raised fears that the terrorist group may be taking a deadlier turn.” They continue:

“American and European security and counterterrorism officials say the attacks may signal the return of foreign fighters from the Iraq war, where they honed their bomb-making skills. The attacks also reflect Al Qaeda’s growing tentacles in the northern tier of Africa, outside the group’s main sanctuary in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the officials say. In just the past six weeks, the group has claimed responsibility for killing a British hostage in Mali and an American aid worker in Mauritania, murdering a senior Malian Army officer in his home and ambushing a convoy of nearly two dozen Algerian paramilitary forces.”

One of the African countries extremely concerned about Al Qaeda’s and Shabab’s presence in Somalia is the bordering country of Kenya [“Radical Islamists Slip Easily Into Kenya,” by Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times, 22 July 2009]. Gettleman reports:

“Kenya is widely seen as a frontline state against the Islamist extremism smoldering across the Horn of Africa. Few expect the Shabab to make good on its threats to march en masse across the border. But the creeping fear, the one that keeps the security staffs at Western embassies awake at night, is that the Shabab or its foreign jihadist allies will infiltrate Kenya and attack some of the tens of thousands of Westerners living in the country, possibly in a major strike like Al Qaeda did in 1998. [In June], Western counterterrorism experts in Kenya sent out text messages warning expatriates to stay away from malls in Nairobi, Kenya’s usually laid-back capital, because of possible suicide attacks by the Shabab. A few weeks later, the group threatened to destroy Nairobi’s ‘tall, glass buildings.’ The Shabab has already penetrated refugee camps inside Kenya, according to camp elders, luring away dozens of young men with promises of paradise — and $300 each. It has carried out cross-border attacks, kidnapping an outspoken cleric in May from a refugee camp 50 miles inside Kenya. [In July], in one of its boldest cross-border moves yet, a squad of uniformed, heavily armed Shabab fighters stormed into a Kenyan school in a remote town, rounding up all the children and telling them to quit their classes and join the jihad.”

Al Qaeda affiliates in Somalia became the target of a special forces’ raid conducted earlier this month [“U.S. careful of civilians in Somalia raid, official says,” by Julian E. Barnes and Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times, 16 September 2009]. The raid targeted and killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the reported leader of Al Qaeda forces in Somalia.

“President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the leader of Somalia’s transitional government, has urged the U.S. and African Union troops to use more precise tactics in dealing with insurgents, Somali government officials said. But Ahmed has also been calling upon the U.S. and other countries to assist him in defeating Shabab, an insurgent group in southern Somalia that has employed terrorist tactics against the transitional government. In May the U.S. provided more than 40 tons of weapons, enabling the government to launch an offensive against Shabab this summer that retook several cities along the Ethiopian border. Nabhan was believed to be an Al Qaeda cell leader as well as a leader of Shabab.”

The militants are not going to fade away peacefully. Earlier this month they retaliated for Nabhan’s death by detonating suicide car bombs in an African Union peacekeeping base [“Insurgents in Somalia retaliate with suicide blasts,” by Mohamed Olad Hassan and Elizabeth A. Kennedy, Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 September 2009].

“Witnesses and officials said the bombings and a counterstrike from the AU base killed at least 16 people, including four bombers, and injured dozens, including one American. The sophisticated suicide attack underscored links between al-Qaeda’s terror network and Somalia’s homegrown insurgency. Many fear this impoverished and lawless nation is becoming a haven for al-Qaeda. … The suicide bombings are a hallmark of al-Qaeda that can be traced to training from extremists like the operative killed this week by helicopter-borne U.S. special forces, said Ted Dagne, a Washington-based Africa specialist. Suicide attacks were virtually unknown in Somalia before 2007, even though the nation has been wracked by war for almost two decades.

Amid all of this bad news could there be any good news? Jeffrey Gettleman believes there is [“In Somalia, a Leader Is Raising Hopes for Stability,” New York Times, 17 September 2009].

“President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed … is ringed by enemies and guarded around the clock by Ugandan soldiers who literally camp outside his door and, for the rare occasions he leaves [his] palace, drive him to the airport in an armored personnel carrier. The few glimpses he gets of Mogadishu’s deserted streets are through two-inch-thick bulletproof glass. … The odds against Sheik Sharif are still long, but his moderate Islamist government is widely considered to be Somalia’s best chance for stability in years. For the first time in decades — including 21 years of dictatorship and the 18 years of chaos that followed — Somalia’s leader has both widespread grass-roots support inside the country and extensive help from outside nations, analysts and many Somalis say. … Much of the world is counting on Sheik Sharif to tackle piracy and beat back the spread of militant Islam, two Somali problems that have flared into major geopolitical ones. Al Qaeda appears to be drawing closer to Somali insurgents in an effort to turn this country into a launching pad for global jihad. … After years of ambivalence about Somalia, the United States is playing an increasingly active role here, and recently shipped 40 tons of weapons to Somalia to keep Sheik Sharif’s government alive.”

In a country that has witnessed nothing but lawlessness over the past twenty years, people hedge their bets. “Many of [President Ahmed’s] commanders still have ties to the Shabab, the Islamist insurgents working with Al Qaeda to overthrow Sheik Sharif’s government, and several government officers here conceded that a large share of the American weapons quickly slipped into Shabab hands.” The single most important group holding the government afloat is “the 5,000 African Union troops guarding the port, airport and Villa Somalia,” the presidential palace. Without the African Union troops, “many Somalis believe Sheik Sharif’s government would quickly fall.” Still President Ahmed is hanging on.

“Sheik Sharif is a novel politician for Somalia. To start with, he is a politician. For decades, generals, warlords and warrior types have reduced this once languid coastal country to rubble. Sheik Sharif, 43, is used to carrying a compass, not a gun. Studious and reserved, he has triangulated his country’s clannish politics and found something that resembles Somalia’s political center, a blend of moderate and more strident Islamic beliefs, with the emphasis on religion, not clan. To help, he has assembled an impressive brain trust of Somali-Americans, Somali-Canadians and Somali-Europeans with Ph.D.’s who had been waiting on the sidelines for years to help rebuild their country. But the clock is ticking. Each day Sheik Sharif remains holed up in his hilltop palace, with millions of his people on the brink of starvation because of drought and grenades exploding just outside the palace gates, the euphoria that greeted his ascension slides into cynicism. Villa Somalia may be safe, but the rest of Mogadishu, the capital, is a death trap of assassinations, land mines and senseless violence. Errant mortar shells routinely sheer off the arms and legs of children.”

Gettleman reports that Shabab fighters operate “just a few hundred yards beyond Villa Somalia’s chipped plaster walls” and await any opportunity they can find to kill him. He continues:

“The Shabab are as much of a political anomaly as the president. The president’s advisers contend that they have never seen a force as cohesive, well-trained and ideologically driven. The Shabab and their insurgent brethren now control most of Mogadishu and much of the country. They are often referred to as the Somali Taliban, sawing off thieves’ hands and recently yanking out people’s teeth, saying gold fillings were un-Islamic. But Somalis are not as religiously extreme as the Shabab’s presence might imply, and many say they are getting sick of the Shabab. That could spell a huge opportunity for Sheik Sharif, though critics say he must get out of Villa Somalia more and connect with the beleaguered population.”

Gettleman reports that “the Shabab have their own defectors and may be losing critical support. Two young men who recently quit said the Shabab’s pipeline of money, which used to flow from rich Somalis outside the country, was drying up as more Somalis backed Sheik Sharif. Aid workers said the Shabab were taxing food in their territory, a very unpopular move when food prices are already high because of the drought.” People are probably also getting tired of being afraid and watching atrocities committed in the name of Allah.

“The Shabab used to be seen as genuine freedom fighters, those leading the battle against the thousands of Ethiopian troops in Somalia propping up the previous transitional government. But now that the Ethiopians have left, the Shabab seem to be going through an ideological drift. Their focus is no longer on liberating Somalia, the defectors said, but on something bigger. ‘Our commanders were trying to tell us that there’s no Somali national flag and no national borders,’ said one recent defector, Mohamed, who feared identifying himself further. ‘They told us the jihad will never end. Once we finish in Somalia, we go to Kenya and then elsewhere.’ While that global agenda may be alienating Somalis, it seems to be a magnet for wayward jihadists looking for the next holy war. Former insurgent commanders paint a much more alarming picture than American officials, who contend that there are only several hundred foreign fighters inside Somalia.”

The fact that Somalia represents the “next holy war” and sits beside the world’s most dangerous seas is why Somalia has once again grabbed the world’s attention. Every crisis has a moment, however, when conditions are ripe for bold action and decisive moves. Many people believe that time is now for Somalia.

“Many Western diplomats say now is the time for Sheik Sharif to sow divisions within the Shabab and entice relatively moderate insurgent leaders, like Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys and Sheik Muktar Robow, also known as Abu Monsoor, into the government. That was what Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stressed when she met last month with Sheik Sharif in Nairobi, Kenya, a meeting that Sheik Sharif called his ‘golden chance.'”

In order to take advantage of this golden moment, the Somali government will require resources from outside and integrity from within (so that those resources aren’t passed along to the rebels).

“At a donor conference in Brussels in April, [President Ahmed] got pledges of more than $200 million, though much of it has not materialized. ‘The problem with international aid is that it often comes late and is limited,’ Sheik Sharif sighed. More help may be on the way. According to United Nations and Somali officials, the Ugandan military plans to invade Kismayo, a port town in southern Somalia controlled by a Shabab-allied group, as soon as more peacekeeping funds arrive. And Somali officials say the C.I.A. will open a base in the old officer quarters near Mogadishu’s airport. They said three C.I.A. officers visited Villa Somalia in late August to discuss training Sheik Sharif’s struggling intelligence services. American officials acknowledged that the United States was helping in unconventional ways, but would not specify further.”

For a country that has suffered so much for so long, it’s surprising to find any hope alive in Somalia. Yet the people of Somalia have demonstrated time and again a remarkable resiliency in the face of the worst conditions on earth. Let’s hope President Ahmed’s government, with support from the international community, can take advantage of this moment in history to make a difference in the lives of people who deserve better than they have received.