Somalia: The Next Challenge - Homeland Security Today

Sep 8, 2008
Phil Leggiere

Major terrorism threat against US interests looms in Horn of Africa, according to new report.

Even the most assiduous news consumer would be hard pressed to find much mention of Somalia in discussions this election year about either foreign policy or counterterrorism. Indeed, most current attention is on Pakistan and Afghanistan as the epicenter of planning and organizing of jihadist attacks on US interests. A new report by the Washington, DC based think-tank Center for American Progress and Enough, a Brussels, Belgium based human rights group, however, argues that Somalia is fast and alarmingly becoming an incubator for a new generation of terrorists, in part due to self-defeating strategies of US counterterrorism efforts there.

The report, titled Somalia: A Country in Peril, a Foreign Policy Nightmare, is authored by Ken Menkhaus, a Davidson College professor who is regarded as one of the foremost US experts on the Horn of Africa. It portrays Somalia in a condition of rapid humanitarian, political and military meltdown. The fallout from this meltdown, Menkhaus believes, is likely to be an epidemic of Islamist extremism. Click here to see full report.

“The world has grown numb to Somalia’s seemingly endless crises—18 years of state collapse, failed peace talks, violent lawlessness and warlordism, internal displacement and refugee flows, chronic underdevelopment, intermittent famine, piracy, and regional proxy wars,” Menkhaus writes.

Given that, he acknowledges, “It would be easy to conclude that today’s disaster is merely a continuation of a long pattern of intractable problems there, and move on to the next story in the newspaper.”

“So Somalia’s in flames again—what’s new?,” he asks semi-rhetorically, before answering that, “ much is new this time.”

What’s different now, says Menkhaus, is that, “Whereas in the past the country’s endemic political violence—whether Islamist, clan-based, factional, or criminal in nature—was local and regional in scope, it is now taking on global significance.”

Observing that this is the exact opposite of what the United States and its allies sought to promote when they supported the December 2006 Ethiopian military intervention in Somalia to oust an increasingly bellicose Islamist movement in Mogadishu, Menkhaus attempts to address the question of how it got to be this bad.

The catalyst of the current crisis in Somalia, Menkhaus believes, began in 2004 and 2005, when national reconciliation talks produced an agreement on a Transitional Federal Government, or TFG.1 The TFG, Menkhaus explains, led by President Abdullahi Yusuf, was intended to be a government of national unity, tasked with administering a five-year political transition.

In fact, however, he writes, “the TFG was viewed by many Somalis, especially some clans in and around the capital Mogadishu, as a narrow coalition dominated by the clans of the president and his prime minister, Mohamed Ghedi. It was also derided by its critics as being a puppet of neighboring Ethiopia.” Further, Yusuf’s deep animosity toward any and all forms of political Islam alarmed the increasingly powerful network of Islamists operating schools, hospitals, businesses, and local Islamic courts in Mogadishu. In opposition to the TGF a coalition of clans, militia leaders, civic groups, and Islamists called the Mogadishu Group arose. Though unified against the TGF this coalition, however, was riven by internal conflicts between a minority of hard line radical Islamists, in some cases supportive of foreign al Qaeda operations called shabaab, taking root in Somalia, and moderates.

As Menkhaus recounts it the hardliners, led by Hassan Dahir Aweys, one of only two Somalis designated as a terror suspect by the U.S. government, , began pushing the anti- TGF coalition into increasingly bellicose and radical positions that alarmed neighboring Ethiopia and the United States. “ the hardliners,” he writes, “did everything they could to provoke a war with Ethiopia, and in late December 2006 they got their wish. For its part, the United States understandably grew increasingly frustrated with the coalition’s dismissive non-cooperation regarding foreign al Qaeda operatives in Mogadishu, and as a result became more receptive to, and supportive of, an Ethiopian military solution.”

Over the past two years then Ethiopian military force and support for an Ethiopian backed TGF government have, according to Menkhaus, become the centerpieces of US antiterrorism strategy in the region. In the short run, he says, this strategy was ostensibly successful in militarily defeating the hardliners and installing an anti-radical Islamist government in Mogadishu.

Viewed more strategically, he warns,, the strategy has actually inflamed both anti-US sentiment among then Somalia population and given rise to what he describes as a complex anti-Ethiopian and anti-US insurgency—composed of regrouped shabaab, clan militias, and other armed groups..

“Since early 2007,” he writes, “ attacks on the TFG and the Ethiopian military have been daily, involving mortars, roadside bombs, ambushes, and even suicide bombings. The Ethiopian and TFG response has been extremely heavy-handed, involving attacks on whole neighborhoods, indiscriminate violence targeting civilians, and widespread arrest and detention.” “TFG security forces,” he adds, “ have been especially predatory toward civilians, engaging in looting, assault, and rape.”

In the past eighteen this cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency has produced, according to Menkhaus, a massive wave of displacement with over 400,000 of Mogadishu’s population of 1.3 million forced to flee from their homes, the virtual collapse of the already fragile economy of south central Somalia, failure by the TFG to establish even a token civil service or advance a national political solution, a military quagmire for Ethiopia and, most ominously for the future, the “radicalization” of masses of formerly secular and moderate Somalis by their treatment at the hands of the TFG and Ethiopian forces. Thousands of Somalis, Menkhaus argues, “despite deep misgivings about the insurgents’ indiscriminate use of violence,” have become “ either active or passive supporters of the increasingly violent shabaab and other armed groups.”

Exacerbating the crisis has been the behavior of the TGF government in blocking humanitarian aid to the hundreds of thousands of Somalis displaced from Mogadishu and facing starvation conditions. “Humanitarian agencies in Somalia are facing daunting obstacles to delivery of food aid,” writes Menkhaus. “There is now virtually no “humanitarian space” in which aid can safely be delivered. Until recently, the TFG and its uncontrolled security forces were mainly responsible for most obstacles to delivery of food aid. TFG hardliners view the provision of assistance to ID Ps as support to an enemy population—terrorists and terrorist sympathizers in their view—and have sought to impede the flow of aid convoys through a combination of bureaucratic and security impediments. They also harass and detain staff of local and international non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, and U.N. agencies, accusing them of supporting the insurgency. Uncontrolled and predatory TFG security forces, along with opportunistic criminal gangs, have erected over 400 militia roadblocks (each of which demands as much as $500 per truck to pass) and have kidnapped local aid workers for ransom.”

“Far from rendering Somalia a less dangerous terrorist threat,” Menkhaus concludes, “ the effect of the Ethiopian occupation has been to make Somalia a much more dangerous place for the United States, the West, and Ethiopia itself. Somalis are being radicalized, blaming the Ethiopian occupation and the uncontrolled TFG security forces for the extraordinary level of violence, displacement, and humanitarian need. But the blame does not stop there. Most Somalis are convinced that the Ethiopian occupation is directed by the United States. Though this is a misinterpretation of the complex and often turbulent relationship between Addis Ababa and Washington—two allies with distinct agendas and preferences in the Horn of Africa—it is an article of faith in the Somali community.”

And the Somalis are not entirely wrong,” he adds. “The United States has provided intelligence to the Ethiopians, is a major source of development and military assistance to Ethiopia, has shielded Ethiopia from criticism of its occupation in the U.N. Security Council, has collaborated with the Ethiopians and the TFG in multiple cases of rendition of Somali suspected of terrorist involvement, and has engaged in gunship and missile attacks on suspected terrorist targets inside Somalia. These and other policies give Somalis the clear impression that the United States has orchestrated the Ethiopian occupation and is therefore responsible for its impact.”

The report urges that US policy in the Gates of Horn must strategically shift from a counter terror strategy based on military support for the TGF and Ethiopia to a strategy that hastens Ethiopia's withdrawal from Somalia, marginalizes hardliners in the TGF and strengthens the possibilities for a centrists coalition of TGF moderates and Islamic moderates against extremists on both sides.

“The cornerstone of international policy in Somalia today is peace-building,” Menkhaus writes, “specifically, the hope that moderates from the TFG and the opposition can be brought together in a new centrist coalition that will lead to a cease-fire, a power-sharing accord.” However, a peace-building agenda, he warns, ”that is built on a strategy of building up a centrist coalition of government and opposition leaders is unlikely to succeed if those moderates are far weaker than hardliners on both sides. The peace-building agenda needs to be linked to a robust strategy designed to strengthen the moderates and contain or marginalize the hardliners in both camps, not arm hardliners.”

The cautionary concept of “unintended consequences”is widely acknowledged in discussions of domestic issues. Menkhaus’s study strongly suggests that this concept should inform counter terror strategy as well.