Flawed Sheikhs and Failed Strategies: Lessons of the Jihadist Debacle in Somalia
Published on: Feb 20, 2007

Implications for the IGAD region

Since the SCIC takeover in central and southern Somalia, the question in Somalia was when, rather than whether, this would lead to escalation into a serious war that could spread beyond Somalia’s borders. With the defeat of the SCIC, this is no longer an issue, for now. But attention needs to be given to how this came about and how its recurrence might be prevented. This draws attention to several issues. An immediate one is the need to ensure the total eradication of Al-Ittihad alias SCIC to prevent its revival under yet another name. Ethiopia needs to assist the TFG to complete this task and apprehend the foreign jihadists before its withdrawal from Somalia and throw further light on the role of foreign state actors in the current crisis.

In this context, recent UN reports draw attention to arms deliveries to Mogadishu’s Council of the Islamic Courts—in violation of the UN arms embargo—and to the sharing of those arms with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). The ONLF is based on a few sections of the Ogaden sub-clan, the largest of the Darod sub-clans, who mainly inhabit the Ethiopian-Somali Regional State (the Ogaden), and northeastern Kenya. A much smaller proportion live in the Middle and Lower Juba regions of southern Somalia. This could have significant implications for both Ethiopia and Kenya, and generally for regional peace and security. The leaders of the SCIC, together with Eritrea, have long been patrons of the ONLF.

In attempting to expand its constituency, the SCIC has taken on the “Greater Somalia Policy” of past Somali governments as a key part of its ideology. It aims to forcibly incorporate the Ethiopian-Somali Region and northeastern Kenya, together with Djibouti, into a Taliban-like Islamic state under its control. The Arab jihadists seen fighting alongside the Somali Islamist militias in the battle for Mogadishu are an integral part of that strategy, both for training the Somali militias and providing a disciplined backbone in combat.

The stand of the SCIC, Al-Ittihad and its surrogates, whatever they may choose to call themselves at any particular moment, is quite clear. They see themselves as engaged in a protracted, semi-clandestine war against Ethiopia and, to a lesser extent, Kenya, directly and through such surrogates as the ONLF, among others. This stand has considerable potential to lead to a widening of the ongoing conflict and the involvement of other countries.

Countries that have already been subject to cross-border attacks by the leaders of Al-Ittihad—now the SCIC—have a legitimate interest in preventive action to avoid a recurrence of such attacks. One aspect of this could be strong support to Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) recognized by IGAD and the AU, as the legitimate government, to enable it to control Somalia’s borders with Ethiopia and Kenya, and thereby prevent the jihadist militias from undertaking cross-border attacks and arms shipments, that might force those countries to respond unilaterally to address the threat to their own national security.

Al-Ittihad, in its various guises, appears to maintain linkages with Al-Qaeda or other Al-Qaeda linked jihadist groups as sources of training and funds. Among others, this is indicated by the continuing flow of funds from fundamentalist sources in the Gulf and elsewhere, the continuing availability of Arab jihadist trainers and combatants, and broadcast exhortations from Al-Qaeda leaders to “continue their struggle.”

The longer-term strategy of the jihadi groups includes the use of terror to eliminate or intimidate non-fundamentalist opinion, and cross-border attacks to provoke retaliation and build support against what are presented as “violations of Somalia’s sovereignty.” The establishment of jihadist bases on or near the borders of neighbouring states provides ample opportunity for this—as both Ethiopia and Kenya have already experienced. This, therefore, needs to be prevented, particularly through proactive action to prevent jihadist groups such as the SCIC/Al-Ittihad that have conducted cross-border terrorist activities in the past, from establishing new bases in border areas from which to launch terrorist attacks.

The Jihadist groups are well versed in this strategy, and have access to the resources for it. Besides their sources from the fundamentalist charities, they have built up important business interests that have become significant sources of funding. In Mogadishu, and even in Bosasso, these groups and their adherents control large sectors of the local marketplace—often built up with initial capital from Islamist groups in the Gulf. Their businesses in Mogadishu, Bosasso and elsewhere obtain resources on attractive terms from their colleagues in the Gulf or even operate partnerships with them in a variety of trading businesses.   

If left alone to implement their strategies, the SCIC and its external supporters could have eventually built up a considerable infrastructure to support destabilization and insurgency across the region. This is something that the IGAD region—particularly the countries bordering on Somalia—can ill afford. Preventing it needs a timely and decisive response; the defeat of the SCIC militias is only the first step.

The Transitional Federal Government

Since its inception, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government has been crippled by lack of access to resources. The international community supporters, who contributed to the process of its formation, have done little to address this. Scattered across a gaggle of Inter-Governmental organizations (IGO’s), they have sat on their thumbs for the past two years, and are now fluttering about in confusion and disorder without a clue as to what to do next.

The TFG enjoyed support from three of the four main clan families in southern and central Somalia: the Darod, Dir and Rahanweyn (Digil-Mirifle). The SCIC’s support was mainly limited to the Hawiye. But the Hawiye are seen as outsiders in the South, few in number but well-armed, and generally considered as dangerous intruders. In the regions to the south of Mogadishu, they mainly consisted of the Habir-Gedir militias that subjugated the local populations and forcibly appropriated land and other resources.

Since its formation in 2004, the TFG has been starved of the resources it needs to operate effectively or to establish security forces. The international community that supported the process of establishment of the TFG did not see fit to provide resources to enable it to function. Curiously, once the TFG was established, through a long and difficult process, the international community declined to support a peacekeeping force for Somalia, while maintaining the 1992 arms embargo that prevented the TFG from legal access to the arms needed to defend itself from the warlords and restore law and order. This served to undermine the legitimacy of the TFG, enabled the continued dominance of Mogadishu by the warlords, and eventually opened the way to the rise of the SCIC.

The recent selective lifting of the arms embargo strengthened international recognition of the legitimacy of the TFG, its right to purchase the military equipment it requires through legal channels, and to receive related military assistance. Normally, this would have been expected to take two years ago as one of the outcomes of the recognition of the TFG as the legal transitional government of Somalia. Had it been done it could have prevented the SCIC expansion that led to the recent conflict.

Now, however, recent reports indicate that Ethiopia had begun training the TFG armed forces to enable it to defend itself and the civilian population from the SCIC militias, maintain order in the areas under its control, and prevent the launching of attacks against Ethiopia from within its territory.

Following on the most recent announcements by the SCIC of its declaration of jihad against Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Authorities stated their view that the SCIC had now become a “clear and present threat” to Ethiopia. They also stated their intention to take such steps as might be necessary to defend the country’s security, a position reinforced by the resolution voted by Ethiopia’s Parliament, including ethnic Somali members.

The Way Forward

The SCIC has been decisively defeated, but the task is not yet finished. The TFG still has a job to do to dig out the roots of the jihadist movement. Many of the SCIC militia have taken off their uniforms and gone back to their sub-clan militias, where some could constitute a pool for future jihadist recruitment. The rapid demobilization and reintegration of the ex-SCIC militias, as well as the various sub-clan militias, should be recognized as an imperative for sustainable peace in Somalia. The disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of militias and ex-militias needs to be one of the first priorities for the TFG and for those members of the international community with a serious interest in sustainable peace in Somalia and the Horn of Africa.

Underlying the continuing SCIC threat to Somalia is the Wahabi fundamentalist control of much of the economy and of key social sectors, such as health and education, which has been consolidated over the past fifteen years. The TFG will need to find ways to effectively address this, particularly in Mogadishu and other major towns.

Much of the problem of Somalia over the past two decades has been closely linked to poor governance or lack of governance, recurrent disaster, widespread destitution, and lack of access to livelihood. All of these—especially the latter ones—have largely contributed to the beginning of the Somali conflict, its persistence, and the entry and rise of religious extremism. The combination of these factors has brought Somalia to where it is today. To achieve significant and sustainable change and enable peace in the region, these factors need to be effectively addressed. To do so Somalia needs economic development, which will require significant external assistance as well as increased cooperation with its neighbors.

Along with conflict, drought and desertification are key causes of impoverishment and destitution in large areas of the country. With increasing population, there is more pressure on the land and its limited resources. Drought and desertification disasters are occurring at increasingly shorter intervals, with less opportunity for recovery. Hundreds of thousands of rural households in Somalia and neighboring regions of Ethiopia and Kenya have lost most of the livestock on which depend, dropping households and entire communities into chronic destitution.

Much of rural Somalia is gripped in a livelihood crisis that is rapidly becoming worse, with increasingly serious implications for human security. It is a situation that demands substantial investment in the integrated development of the region’s land and water resources and creating sustainable alternative livelihoods. The key requirements for this include improved infrastructure to provide reliable access to transport, water and affordable energy. In particular, the rehabilitation of the country’s internal roads and their interconnection with those of the neighboring countries could open the way to increased trade, economic growth and poverty reduction.  For example interconnection of road infrastructure could allow Ethiopian use of Somali ports to the economic benefit of both countries.

Similarly, the ongoing oil price crisis makes affordable energy a key problem faced by countries that like Somalia depend on oil fired generation of the electricity they need to build alternatives livelihoods. But this could be addressed by interconnection with Ethiopia’s electricity grid to enable it to purchase much cheaper hydroelectricity, a solution already agreed by Djibouti, Kenya and Sudan.

Among others, addressing the basic issues of sustainable rural livelihoods will need to be undertaken through forms of regional economic integration that will encourage the cooperative development of the shared water resources of this drought disaster-prone region comprising Somalia, the Ethiopian Somali region, and possibly, the neighbouring areas of northeastern Kenya. These areas are inextricably linked in terms of ethnic ties, economic exchange and inter-dependence, shared natural resources, and the constant cross-border movement of their pastoral populations.

Prospects for Infrastructure-led Regional Economic Integration with Somalia

This draws attention to the important opportunities that exist for joint development of the hydroelectric potential of the Shabelle and Gennale-Juba river basins in the context of infrastructure-led regional economic integration. Multi-purpose dams on the Shabelle and Gennale-Juba rivers could meet the hydroelectric power needs of both countries, enhance their irrigation potential, and prevent the recurrent floods that from time to time devastate large areas of the lower Shabelle and Gennale-Juba basins, leading to serious loss of life and property, and increasing poverty.