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

Introduction

There are indications that the Americans have finally taken their revenge, and made it clear that it was the motive of air attacks on the SCIC terrorist bases around Ras Kamboni at the southern tip of the Somalia coast, where certain Al-Qaeda terrorists were reportedly hiding. Revenge is the honourable thing to do in this part of the Horn of Africa and allows people to respect you. It is taken much better than interfering in other people’s affairs, or across other countries’ borders, which is often a source of trouble. So the Americans have not only recovered their honour, they have, incidentally, also done a service to Somalia and the region, by helping them rid themselves of the jihadists, who were making their lives difficult, as well as inviting trouble. This region will understand.

Launching attacks across other countries’ borders is often a serious mistake, as it entitles them to return the compliment. You cannot rationally expect to just go home and claim sovereignty. It is a lesson that Sheikh Aweys would have done well to learn at a much earlier stage, when after launching terrorist attacks into Ethiopia from bases in Somalia, he had to flee to Ras Kamboni and Mogadishu, when Ethiopia eventually responded.

The leader of Somalia’s Supreme Council of the Islamic Courts (SCIC), the Al-Qaeda linked Islamist group of Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, whose militia over-ran much of southern and central Somalia, between June and December 2006, used an initially successful strategy of talking peace and making war. For months, it helped to diffuse resistance, lull opponents into a false sense of security, and divert the attention of regional organizations and the international community from the nature of the SCIS and its potential threat to Somali, regional, and basic human security. The ambivalent attitude of much of the international community, and the engagement of some elements of the Arab League appeared to contribute to the problem.

Now the SCIC strategy has run its course, with disastrous results for the SCIC and its followers. The Islamist extremist group tried to jump too far, too fast and wound up taking a very bad fall. On 22 December 2006, following yet another SCIC cross-border incursion into Ethiopian territory, the Ethiopian Government issued a final warning that was apparently dismissed by the SCIC. Ethiopia reacted on 24 December, with multiple strikes against the SCIC militias. On the same day, the Associated Press quoted an Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying that Ethiopia was taking measures to counterattack the SCIC and foreign terrorist groups.1  

Following the initial clashes, the SCIC militias were soon in full flight across much of central and southern Somalia, abandoning their positions ahead of the advance of the Ethiopian and Somali Transitional Federal Government forces. Clearly, the SCIC policy of talking peace and making war had reached its limits. For the previous five months, they had expanded their sway to towns across most of central and southern Somalia, by the simple expedient of arriving in towns and communities with massive displays of armed force that local residents had found too dangerous to resist.

The Ethiopian response was hard and fast, and the SCIC militias quickly lost their will to fight, abandoning after town before the fast-moving Ethiopian and TFG forces could reach them. On 28 December, the TFG forces with Ethiopian backup entered Mogadishu, to the cheers of the population, while others continued to chase the remnants of the SCIC and their foreign allies, who had already fled toward the southern port city of Kismayo. During the night of 31 December, the SCIC abandoned Kismayo without a fight and fled under cover of darkness, towards a small dhow port at Ras Kamboni and the nearby Kenyan border.

Initially, the Islamist victory in Mogadishu had appeared to many observers to represent a step forward, as indicated by the restoration of peace in Mogadishu. Initially, as well, some of those who appeared to be among the key Islamist leaders were making peaceful noises, hinting at willingness to talk to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), based in Baidoa, and disclaiming any intention of forming their own government, or of imposing an Islamist regime by force.

During their brief occupation of central and southern Somalia, the SCIC leadership had thoroughly alienated most of the population by its erratic behavior and attempts to impose an extremist version of Islam—unknown in Somalia. They distinguished themselves in the commission of diverse crimes against humanity, including shooting young people for watching videos of football games, ordering the execution of any Somalian who did not pray five times daily, and forcible recruitment of young children into their militia forces, along the lines of the “Lord’s Resistance Army” (LRA) in Uganda. Here there might be a useful role for the  International Criminal Court (ICC) as regards members of the SCIC leadership who may have managed to escape.

The Rise of the SCIC

The residents of Mogadishu and other central Somali towns had welcomed the expulsion of the warlords, but their replacement by the SCIC, much less so. The warlords had made their lives difficult for more than a decade and they hoped for something better. They were happy to see the warlords go, but they were not expecting the Islamic Courts to be transformed into an armed political group attempting to impose a fundamentalist ‘Salafi’ version of Islam on Somali society. The new Islamist rulers had brought a measure of peace, but also a new type of clerical control and limitation of individual freedom that most Somalis neither believed in nor could accept—and one very open to abuse.

Mogadishu had represented the face of a stateless Somalia, where brutal warlords ruled in lawless fiefdoms. In much of southern Somalia, similar conditions prevailed, where those same warlords, alone or in alliance with their local equivalents, had subjugated local populations—often from different clans—and forcefully appropriated land and resources. But that is not the whole story.

Further north, in central Somalia, the origin of most of the Mogadishu warlords, many local communities had already restored a measure of peace, and established their own sub-clan based governance mechanisms. Here, the legitimacy of the factions was being challenged and alternative forms of leadership and authority were beginning to emerge, with new leaders ruling with the broad consent of their people and supported by legitimate taxes and duties rather than extortion.

In Northern Somalia, which comprises the regions least affected by the collapse of the Somali State, and with more than a third of its population, this process had gone much further.2 In the Northwest, the former British Somaliland declared its independence in 1991, and went about the difficult but ultimately successful process of rebuilding its Somaliland Republic, with a robust and stable democracy, and a growing economy. In the Northeast, the regions largely inhabited by the Mijerteen clan restored peace and a measure of law and order and established their own autonomous state under the name of Puntland, with a functional government and economy and little connection with the stateless turbulence of central and southern Somalia.3  

In the Northeast, Northwest and in the Rahanweyn regions of southwestern Somalia, the aggression of the SCIC and its efforts to forcibly impose a Taliban-like hardcore fundamentalist regime on populations under its control came to pose the principal threats to human security. Both Somaliland and Puntland came out strongly against any establishment of the SCIC’s “Islamic courts” in their territory.

The Puntland Authorities quickly deployed their troops to their border with central Somalia to repulse any incursions by the SCIC militias. This is where a peacekeeping force with a proper mandate might have made a contribution to peace. The UN finally approved sending such a force, but, hindered by opposing voices in the Security Council, it did so far too late, when it was no longer relevant.

The SCIC was highly dependent on its strategy of threatening to bring foreign jihadis if a peacekeeping mission should come to Somalia. In fact, they were already bringing in contingents of foreign jihadis, with weaponry and terrorist technology that has increasingly been used in terrorist attacks within Somalia. Many of these foreign terrorists fled to Kismayo with their SCIC hosts. Some were believed to be heading to Ras Kamboni, from where they could try to escape by boat.

The SCIC and some of their foreign advocates claimed that the Islamist group controlled the majority of Somalia’s population. But this was never true. They controlled Mogadishu; eventually most of the Hawiye-populated regions of central Somalia, and the non-Hawiye regions overrun by their militias in the South. But they continued to talk peace while conquering new territory. If no effective measures had been taken to stop them, they just might have eventually controlled the majority of Somalia’s population.  

At that point, in view of the known recklessness of Sheikh Aweys, it is entirely possible that he might undertake the second part of his frequently announced agenda, that is, taking over the areas of the countries bordering on Somalia that are inhabited by nearly half of the region’s ethnic Somali population. That would almost certainly have led to a devastating regional war. As it is, he apparently sent his militia on one too many cross-border incursions into Ethiopian territory, even after being warned.

The Turbulent South and the SCIC/ICU

When the representatives of the TFG and the SCIC met in Khartoum on 22 June 2006, the ICU agreed that it recognized the TFG as the legal and legitimate government of Somalia. For its part, the TFG recognized that the SCIC represented a political reality in Somalia. Having agreed on these points, the SCIC rejected them immediately on the return of its delegation to Mogadishu. At the same time, they continued their rapid advance to the North—aimed at seizing control of much of the rest of the country and setting up their own regime.

Actually, the peace talks in Khartoum, facilitated by the Arab League, with its own pro-SCIC agenda to push, were never likely to get very far. For the SCIC, this was primarily a means of diverting attention and buying time to occupy as much as possible of the country, while discouraging any potential efforts to reinforce the TFG. At the same time, certain Arab League counties, and others, were using the talks to divert attention from their own intensification of arms supply and training for the SCIC militias.

While the better-known extremists were initially keeping a lower profile, it was quite rational to avoid alarming potential victims or prematurely provoking known adversaries. Having taken the strategic town of Beledweyne, over 300 kms to the northwest of Mogadishu, without a fight but through a show of overwhelming force, this strategy seemed to be working well. But in the wake of inconclusive peace talks in Khartoum the announcement of the transformation of the ICU into a new organization led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys left little room for wishful thinking about the “moderate” intentions of the Council of the Islamic Courts (ICU)/Supreme Council of the Islamic Courts (SCIC).

The SCIC leader, ex-Colonel Hassan Dahir Aweys, had long before established his terrorist credentials in the region in the mid-1990’s when his Al-Ittihad group carried out terrorist attacks in Ethiopia from bases in Somalia’s Gedo region. When the bases were eventually destroyed, a number of Arab jihadists were among the casualties. But, Sheikh Aweys, the commander of the Al-Ittihad militia was able to escape to Mogadishu, where he began rebuilding his organization. The Al-Ittihad logistics base at Ras Kamboni, a small dhow port on the coast of the southern-most tip of Somalia near the Kenyan town of Lamu—a key entry-point for Al-Ittihad’s arms supplies and Arab trainers sent by their supporters in the Gulf—was left untouched.   

The Ras Kamboni base may have also been the entry point for some of the arms and terrorists later infiltrated into Kenya’s coast region. It was reportedly abandoned, following the Al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, when Ittihad leaders feared retaliation from the Americans and deemed Mogadishu a much safer place to hide. More recently, however, since the ICU takeover in Mogadishu, one of the Ittihad militia leaders, Hassan “Turki,” was reported passing through the Juba Valley from Ras Kamboni with a group of militia, moving towards Mogadishu.

The initially "moderate" stance of the ICU soon gave way to the much harsher reality of hard-core fundamentalists with increasingly visible similarities to Afghanistan’s Taliban, who along with Al-Qaeda, reportedly trained some of them. Their extremist Salafi concepts of Islam tend to clash with the more tolerant Sufi traditions of Somali Muslims. The ICU militias, having spread across most of central Somalia, launched an attack to the south in late September and captured the port city of Kismayo near the border of Kenya.

For some foreign “experts,” the real surprise came after the June 2006 defeat of the Mogadishu warlords, when Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, who served as the moderate face of the ICU and front man for Aweys, was sidelined, and the ICU suddenly transformed into a new “Supreme Council of the Islamic Courts” (SCIC), headed by Hassan Dahir Aweys, the founder of Al-Itihad Al-Islamiya, which carried out a series of terrorist attacks in Ethiopia in the 1990’s.

For Somalis, the implications took longer to materialize, but were, in many ways, less surprising. The conflict in Mogadishu soon turned into an intricate combination of inter-clan and intra-clan conflicts, with fighting between Habr-Gidir and Abgal subclans, and among both. The battle between the SCIS and the Mogadishu warlords was also a battle between two key Hawiye subclans, the Abgal and Habir-Gedir. In the event, the Habir-Gedir won. It also established that the SCIS is essentially a Hawiye clan organization, largely controlled by the Habir-Gidir Ayr sub-clan, and within it, the Ayaanle lineage. The perception of this among the Hawiye and other clans posed an important constraint on the growth of the SCIS beyond the Hawiye clan and reportedly has contributed to tensions between different sub-clans of the Hawiye.

The Strange Concept of the “Moderate” Jihadis

Sheikh Aweys said that he planned to take over the ethnic Somali regions of Ethiopia and Kenya to form a “Greater Somalia.” He was speaking in an interview with Radio Shabelle, a local Somali broadcaster. Meanwhile, the other face of the SCIC, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, continued his part of the act, which is talking peace and dialogue for the benefit of Western observers and “experts,” and maintaining the fiction of the existence of  “moderate Islamists” within the SCIC for those who still insist on believing in the existence of “moderate” jihadis.

The basic reality however, was that even if such moderates did exist, they could only follow orders. Should they attempt to do otherwise, they would have to face the reality that Sheikh Aweys controlled  the militias, the guns, and access to external resources. Aweys and his Al-Ittihad leadership were in control. They gave the orders, and those who were being portrayed as "moderates," could only follow the orders that they were given. That was the reality that enabled Aweys to sideline Sheikh Sharif, once his function as a "cover" was no longer needed.

These are among the indications that the assistance that Sheikh Aweys was receiving from a variety of foreign extremists considerably surpassed that mentioned in a recent UN report focusing on arms shipments. External aid also included considerable cash and technical assistance from Gulf States and  “charities” delivered through a wide variety of foreign mujihadeen. One of the latter, with western public relations expertise, was reportedly the architect of Sheikh Aweys’ admittedly clever propaganda strategy.

Despite its rapidly territorial expansion and its self-portrayal as a non-clan based Islamist force, the SCIC remained a largely Hawiye organization with a leadership dominated by members of Sheik Aweys’ Ayaanle lineage of the Habr-Gidir Ayr subclan. The territories that it controlled were again largely the Hawiye-inhabited regions of Mogadishu and central Somalia, except for the southern regions recently conquered by the Habr-Gidir Ayr militias, which sent thousands of refugees fleeing into Northeastern Kenya. The Habr-Gidir Ayr identity of the SCIC proved to be one of its major weaknesses as it tried to pursue its ambition to rule Somalia through the mechanism of a Habr-Gidir Ayr-dominated Islamist theocracy.   
 
This also became a constraint to its expansion into Mudug, the northernmost region of Hawiye habitation. The region is divided between the Habr-Gidir/Saad, the traditional rivals of the Ayr for leadership of the Habr-Gidir, and the Darod/Mijerteen of Puntland, whose territory includes the northern parts of Mudug, starting from the northern part of Galkayo, the region’s main town, where the Saad elders proclaimed their opposition to any establishment of SCIC-linked Islamic courts in Saad territory.

The Saad soon began building up their forces around Galkayo, where a former Mogadishu warlord, Col. Abdi Awale “Qeybdiid” found significant support from his Saad clan elders, and prepared to resist a widely perceived attempt by the Ayr to take over the leadership of the Hawiye through setting up an Ayr controlled Salafi theocracy. This enabled Qeybdiid to raise a substantial force of militias and technicals that was soon engaged in clashes with the advancing SCIC militias. This led to a de-facto Saad/Mijerteen alliance aimed at halting the northward advance of the largely Habr-Gidir Ayr SCIC militias.

In the far south of Somalia, the ICU takeover in Kismayo had been accompanied by rising tensions—demonstrations against the occupation of the town by the ICU militias—and a flow of thousands of refugees from Kismayo and other southern towns to neighbouring  Kenya. Meanwhile, encouraged by the demonstrations, the local militia of Juba Valley Alliance (JVA) leader, Col. Abdikadir Aden Shire “Barre Hiraale,” comprising Darod Marehan and Ogaden subclans, which had fled before the Islamist offensive, began preparing a counterattack to try to retake Kismayo. The Islamist militias who had taken over Kismayo were largely from Hawiye Habr-Gedir subclans and seen by the locals as an alien occupation force.

There is often a tendency among Somali intellectuals to be in a state of denial when it comes to clan issues and particularly the clan influence on politics and various other key issues. There appears to be an extreme reluctance in some quarters to accept the reality of the presence and extent of such influence. Nevertheless, this is part of reality; it is there and it is central to Somalis’ perception of their own interests as bundled together with those of their lineage, sub-clan and clan. For example, once the SCIC seized control of Mogadishu, Habir-Gedir politicians who had failed in their attempts to take over the TFG, led a mass exodus from the TFG to seek better opportunities with the Habir-Gedir controlled SCIC.

Taken in the context of these realities, the current conflict was following the normal course of events and explains why the SCIC had little success in extending its base of support beyond the Hawiye regions. There is little Hawiye territory left for it to control, and the non-Hawiye areas that it had occupied had been taken by the use or threat of superior force, and maintained by force. The extent of their support in such areas can be best assessed by the massive flow of refugees across Somalia’s borders.

There was also growing tension between the Habir-Gidir/Ayr and the Abgaal, the other main branch of the Hawiye, who had always considered Mogadishu as their territory and believed that they had the right to control it rather than the Habir-Gedir, who mainly arrived with General Aidid from their central Somalia homeland in 1991. There was significant opposition to the SCIC among the Harti, Daud, Wabudaan and Waesle subclans of the Abgaal. The downgrading of their clansman, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, in the SCIC leadership, upset the Harti elders. Meanwhile Mohamed “Dheere,” the former “Governor” of the Middle Shabelle region, until forced out from his headquarters in Jowhar—retained considerable support among the Abgal. He had reorganized his militia and joined the opposition to the SCIC. The Prime Minister of the Baidoa-based Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Ali Mohamed Gedi, a Hawiye Abgal, also had his own constituency opposed to the SCIC and to Habir-Gedir hegemony.

Meanwhile, the SCIC leadership was well aware of the tendency of Somali clan coalitions and agreements to collapse. Having failed to gain total Hawiye support, it desperately needed to build influence outside the Hawiye area. But its efforts to set up Islamic courts in Puntland and other areas outside its control had been blocked, and its establishment of Islamic courts in the occupied southern regions, depended on the continued presence of the SCIC militia, a situation that became unsustainable. 

Clan, Theocracy, and the Hazards of Isolation

The failure of Sheikh Aweys to establish full control over the Hawiye, or even all of the Habir-Gedir, put his Habir-Gedir Ayr sub-clan into an exposed, and potentially dangerous position. The recent clashes between the SCIC and Col. Abdi Awale "Qeybdiid’s" Habir-Gedir Saad militia around Bandiradley served to emphasize this. It also shows that the unpopularity of some warlords in Mogadishu had not destroyed their influence with the elders in their home areas. By successfully resisting the SCIC advance on Galkayo, "Qeybdiid" strengthened his position among the Saad and contributed to weakening the SCIC.

The SCIC militias and particularly their Ayr component also became seriously overstretched, while those absorbed from some of the non-Ayr former warlord militias were often less enthusiastic about fighting what many saw as the Ayr’s battles rather than their own. They were, therefore, less reliable, which proved a serious weakness when the SCIC faced reversals in the field. In such circumstances Somali militias have often been known to change sides at critical points, especially when their elders favor the other side.

To establish sufficient legitimacy, to be able to rule through consent rather than force, Sheikh Aweys needed to gain a wider acceptance of the SCIC’s particular brand of Islamic orthodoxy and its Islamic court, which are considerably at variance with local religious tradition. He also needed the existing public perception of Habir-Gedir Ayr domination of the SCIC hierarchy. But both of these proved difficult to achieve, and Somalis tend to be strongly opposed to the predominance of any single clan, particularly if it is not their own. The SCIC’s influence over the population of the areas it controlled was largely based on intimidation, and therefore, was unlikely to survive the flight or removal of the SCIC.

The prospect of predominance of a single sub clan has often evoked memories of the former dictatorship of General Mohamed Siyaad Barre, widely perceived by other Somalis as based upon and exploited by his Darod/Marehan sub-clan together with two other Darod sub-clans, the Ogaden and Dhulbahante, the so-called “M.O.D.” This perception contributed to the multi-clan insurgency that eventually led to the collapse of the Siyaad Barre regime and the Somali State. The SCIC had hoped that by setting up a theocratic structure it could obscure the reality of its control by the Habir-Gidir Ayr, but this was found to be more easily conceived than achieved.

Clan, Theocracy, and Economic Issues

Sheikh Aweys’ repeated announcements that he planned to take over the ethnic Somali regions of Ethiopia and Kenya to form a "Greater Somalia," was not only intended to threaten Ethiopia and Kenya, it was particularly intended to rally Somali sentiment against a  perceived external enemy and to fire up Somali nationalism in an effort to divert attention of the Hawiye from their internal issue of dealing with increasing Habir-Gidir/Ayr domination through the mechanism of the Islamic Courts. This became a structural problem of the SCIC that it could not easily resolve, as it was not simply a matter of political power sharing, but one of fundamental Habir-Gidir economic interests.

One of the key issues that has always impeded any real progress towards a comprehensive peace in Somalia is that the Habir-Gidir are relative newcomers to Mogadishu and the South. They came in 1991-92 with General Aidiid from the poverty-stricken, drought-devastated pastoral lands of central Somalia to take over South Mogadishu and the agricultural lands of Lower Shabelle and Lower Juba. During 1990-1995, Mogadishu changed from being a multi-clan capital with a non-Hawiye majority to a Hawiye-occupied city—as most of the non-Hawiye population fled. The Habir-Gidir, in particular, took over the most developed part of the city.

This leads to a major problem for any future administration: the issue of land ownership in Mogadishu, particularly South Mogadishu, Lower Shabelle and the Lower Juba Valley. The bottom line is that the former owners of urban property in South Mogadishu, and rural property in Lower Shabelle and Lower Juba, will want their property back. It is unlikely that the Habir-Gidir will be prepared to return it. This has made it difficult for the SCIC to build reliable constituencies in the non-Hawiye regions of southern Somalia. It also makes retaining control of the SCIC or whatever government might arise, an imperative for the effective protection of Habir-Gidir economic interests. The awareness of this was always likely to ensure strong opposition from other clans to Habir-Gidir control of government, even when cloaked in the guise of a supposedly non-clan theocracy.

Clan Issues, Theocracy, and the Return to ‘Greater Somalia’

Sheikh Aweys’ threat to revive Siyaad Barre’s "Greater Somalia" policy to take over the ethnic Somali regions of Ethiopia and Kenya also had very serious implications with respect to the national sovereignty of both countries and to regional peace. As it was always unlikely that either Ethiopia or Kenya would allow this to happen without resistance, Sheikh Aweys appeared to be threatening war, consistent with his earlier declaration of jihad (holy war) against Ethiopia.

In this context, it should be noted that previous Somali regimes have used the same idea to revive weakening support at home, and some have attempted to implement it. For example, between 1964 and 1988, both Kenya and Ethiopia experienced incursions of armed groups trained, armed and funded by successive regimes in Mogadishu. The activities of the SCIC and the foreign states that provided it support, as mentioned in the Report of the Monitoring Group, were clearly aimed to promoting a similar new round of destabilization.

This was part of the “Greater Somalia Policy,” of former Mogadishu governments’ claiming the regions of neighbouring states inhabited by ethnic Somalis. It was a popular crowd-pleasing slogan and source of legitimacy in Mogadishu for successive Somali governments, but was forcibly rejected by the neighbouring states.

This aggressive policy led eventually to the 1977 invasion of the Ethiopian Somali Region (the "Ogaden") by the Somali National Army. The defeat of the Somali National Army in the “Ogaden War” set off the train of events leading to the collapse in 1991 of the Siyaad Barre regime and the Somali State; and the rise of the Mogadishu warlords. This brings us to where we are today. Sheikh Aweys, ex-Colonel Aweys, having participated in these events, and seen their results, must presumably have given them some serious thought. In this context, such threats need to be taken seriously.

The external and internal conflicts initiated by a succession of Somali governments during the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, often in the guise of pursuit of a "Greater Somalia" eventually led to the disintegration of Somalia as an effective nation state, and one difficult to reassemble. It also led to the reinvigoration of the most extreme forms of ethnic politics led by a new class of warlords, who were at the center of chronic conflict in Somalia for a decade and a half and have now been displaced by a newly renamed, but no less belligerent, version of the Al-Ittihad terrorist group in the form of the SCIC.

The activities of such groups have seldom been confined within the borders of Somalia but have tended to spread across and destabilize a region that can ill afford such distractions. The countries of the region, therefore, and particularly those that border on Somalia, need to give serious attention to such threats when they occur.

The UN and the Flow of Arms to the SCIC

The UN Security Council Monitoring Group—responsible for monitoring the UN’s ineffective 1992 embargo on supply of arms to Somalia—reported that several countries had been involved in the supply of arms to the SCIC, and through it, to the ONLF and similar groups in Ethiopia. Those mentioned are generally the usual culprits: Egypt, which has long had its particular interest in destabilization in Ethiopia and reportedly in seeking a foothold in Somalia for that purpose, and certain of its Arab League colleagues in support of the Egyptian effort.

As far as Egypt is concerned, this is nothing new. Historically, efforts at destabilizing Ethiopia—to prevent it from using its Nile waters—have always been part of Egypt’s foreign policy. This, in fact, led in 1958 to Egypt’s involvement in the formation of the Eritrean Liberation Front, as part of its destabilization effort.4

Egyptian, and subsequently other external support to the ELF, enabled it to launch and sustain a protracted armed conflict.5 This sufficiently destabilized Ethiopia to reduce its capacity to implement its Blue Nile development plans. In 1977, Egypt provided significant support to Somalia in its invasion of Ethiopia’s Ogaden region (the "Ogaden War"), aimed at destabilization also to deter Ethiopia’s planned development of its Nile Basin water resources.6 President Siyaad Barre may have also intended to take over part of Ethiopia’s eastern highlands, including the headwaters of the Shabelle and Genalle rivers that provide the only major sources of surface water in central and southern Somalia.7   

After Ethiopia announced hydrological studies in the Nile basin in 1977, Egypt threatened military action against Ethiopia.8 During the recent Ethio-Eritrean war, there were reports of Egyptian arms deliveries to the former Baledogle airbase in Somalia to groups engaged in attempts at destabilization in southern Ethiopia.9 The continuing involvement of Egypt and its Arab partners in Somalia would appear to have the same roots in Egypt’s Nile Basin policy.   

The report also refers to Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran and Djibouti as supplying arms and finance, and specifically refers to the involvement of Eritrea in supplying arms, training and troops to the SCIC, and facilitating collaboration between it and the ONLF. This is likely to further heighten the growing tension in the region. Part of the solution would have been to enforce the arms embargo. But this was always unlikely to happen, as the UN lacked the capacity to make it happen.

According to the report of the Monitoring Group:

“[I]t is the view of the Monitoring Group that the very core of ICU strength and its ability to maintain its position of dominance comes from outside Somalia. The know-how, arms, military materiel and financial support come chiefly from outside Somalia and are essentially arms embargo violations. Without these forms of support, ICU would have the will, but not the means. However, as of the writing of this report, means continue to flow to the ICU.”10  

The UN Monitoring Group’s report also details some of the types of weapons provided to the SCIC:

“The majority of arms provided to the ICU by states—seven of them—arms traders, includes the types that are typically used in Somalia. But ominously, new and more sophisticated types of weapons are also coming into Somalia, including man-portable surface-to-air missiles such as the Strela2 and 2m, also known as SA-7a and 7b 'Grail' and SA-6 'Gainful' low to medium altitude surface-to-air missile. Other new types of arms include multiple rocket launchers and second generation infrared-guided anti-tank weapons.”11

The report said that since April, Eritrea had supplied the ICU with at least 28 consignments of arms, ammunition and military equipment in addition to providing training both within Somalia and in Eritrea. It added that Eritrea had been arming and supporting Ethiopian rebel groups via the SCIC/ICU and gave details of one such shipment that entered Ethiopia through the Abudwak district of Somalia’s Galgadud region escorted by 70 SCIC militia together with 160 armed ONLF members.12   

The Report also draws attention to the participation of Eritrean troops and foreign forces in the SCIC/ICU military operations, stating that, “The ICU military forces that took control of Kismaayo consisted of a coalition of troops from the sharia courts, Eritrea, ONLF and OLF.”13 The report also mentions senior Egyptian military officers as taking part in “providing training to some 3,800 ICU fighters in the Hileweyne military camp located north of Mogadishu.”14

The presence of Eritrean military forces in Somalia engaged in joint military operations with the SCIC, ONLF and OLF, appeared to be intended as a threat to Ethiopia’s security. Eritrea is not itself an Islamist state and has no known interest in becoming one, or generally, anything to gain from the strengthening of jihadist regimes in the region other than its hope of gaining a base for the destabilization of Ethiopia’s southeastern borders in collaboration with the SCIC/ICU and ONLF.

The flow of arms to the SCIC in violation of the international arms embargo, and the onward transmission of those arms to rebel groups or terrorists operating in neighboring countries provided those countries with a legitimate cause of concern for their own security. For example, the delivery of arms by the SCIC to rebel groups and terrorists in a neighboring country was a hostile action that would entitle that country to take unilateral action to defend its security.

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.  

Conclusions

The SCIC’s “jihad” in Somalia has been brought to an abrupt halt and with it the concern that this could grow into a wider conflict that might spread beyond Somalia’s borders. What remains is to eradicate the hardcore remnants that fled to the southern port town of Kismayo, on to the old Al-Ittihad base at Ras Kamboni and have now been attempting to infiltrate into Kenya. Prompt and decisive action is needed to catch them and bring the Al-Ittihad/SCIC saga to an appropriate and final end. Ethiopia has demonstrated the seriousness of its commitment to defend itself and its territory when it becomes necessary. That is an important lesson to enable living in peace in a rough neighbourhood

The rise in Somalia of the “Supreme Council of the Islamic Courts” (SCIC) a new form of the armed extremist group, Al-Ittihad Al-Islamiya, and the rapid expansion of its militias across southern and central Somalia, poses significant threats to the security of the neighboring countries, particularly Ethiopia and Kenya. The Al-Ittihad leadership, reportedly linked to Al-Qaeda, is believed to have played a significant role in past terrorist attacks in both countries.  

The SCIC, however, had its own internal problems that it failed to resolve. One such problem was its clan composition. Its membership, almost entirely from Hawiye sub-clans, facilitated its spread throughout most of the Hawiye homeland with little fighting required. But this same factor made it difficult for it to expand further. The northeast and the northwest, regions inhabited by different clans that have largely avoided the chronic turmoil of central and southern Somalia, made it clear that they were prepared to fight any invasion of their territories by the SCIC militias.

This, together with the armed resistance to the SCIC of Qeybdiid’s Habir-Gidir Saad militia, brought an abrupt halt to the northward expansion of the SCIC. It also demonstrated that the SCIC could not claim the support of all the Hawiye sub-clans. There were alternatives, which could encourage others to challenge the SCIC. And then there was Mohammed Dheere, with potential to mobilize some subclans of the Abgal. This put added pressure on the SCIC to push its jihadist credentials. No one really knew what it might attempt next, but on 21 December 2006, after agreeing with an EU envoy to pursue a ceasefire and negotiations, the SCIC again declared war.

That was a serious miscalculation on their part. This, reportedly followed by a further cross-border incursion into Ethiopian territory, appears to have tipped the balance. On 24 December, Ethiopia finally took action, and after seven days on the run, the SCIC abandoned its last stronghold under cover of darkness. The SCIC no longer exists as an effective force, although some of its remnants have gone back to join their subclan militias in Mogadishu and need to found and disarmed.  

The establishment of sustainable peace in Somalia in the foreseeable future, will require a significant effort on the part of those concerned, to strengthen the TFG to a degree that can enable it to effectively control its territory and disarm the various armed factions, including the remnants of the SCIC. It also needs the prompt putting in place of a comprehensive DDR program for all armed groups not forming part of the TFG’s security forces. This being the case, the IGAD states and the international community with interests in regional and human security need to carefully weigh their options and assess the possible opportunities to assist the TFG to become an effective governing body.

Among others, addressing the basic issues of sustainable livelihoods in Somalia will need to be undertaken through forms of regional economic integration. 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, road interconnection could both enhance trade between the two countries and enable Ethiopia to use Somali ports to the economic benefit of both countries.

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.

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, property and increasing poverty. For example, the recent floods in the Shabelle and Juba basins that have displaced hundreds of thousands of people in central and southern Somalia, dropping them deeper into destitution.

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 cooperative development of the shared water resources of this drought disaster-prone region comprising central and southern Somalia, and the Ethiopian Somali region offers considerable potential to rehabilitate the livelihoods of their populations and put them on the path to sustainable development and sustainable peace. Both countries and their neighbors have a great deal to gain from this.

Endnotes

1 http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20061224/ap_on_re_af/somalia

2 Seifulaziz Milas, "Causes and Consequences of the Somalia Conflict," UNICEF Somalia, Nairobi, 1994, rev. Feb. 1997.

3 Ibid.

4 Mohamed Hatem Al-Atawy, Nilopolitics: A Hydrological Regime 1870-1990, AUC Press, Cairo, 1996, pp44-52, cited in Tom Hockley, “Nile Valley Case Study, Saferworld.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Informal conversations with a former senior officer of Somali National Army, Mogadishu, October, 1992.

8 Mohamed Hatem Al-Atawy, Nilopolitics: A Hydrological Regime 1870-1990, AUC Press, Cairo, 1996, pp44-52, cited in Tom Hockley, “Nile Valley Case Study, Saferworld.

9 Ibid.

10 Report of the Monitoring Group, p.41, para.208.

11 UN Monitors’ report, cited in “Adding fuel to fire,” The Reporter, 18 November, 2006.

12 Ibid.

13 UN Monitors’ report p.41, para.210.

14 Ibid.