The decision to intervene in Somalia is the result of a dual logic that the international media has yet to examine closely. On the one hand, there is the global agenda based on the vision professed by Washington—or at least some members of the administration—concerning the war on terror and the hunt for members of Al-Qaeda. On the other, there are the self-serving interests of the Ethiopian regime, which is contested from inside the country and is also trying to prevent a new power from emerging along its southern flank that would have cordial relations with its Eritrean enemies and armed Ethiopian opposition groups. The coincidence of these two motives provided the context for intervention. Its implications are widespread on the regional and international level and, for better or worse, it will change the Somali question.
This intervention is problematic on several levels. First there is the obvious effect on the political dynamics of Somalia: why has intervention in a crisis that has lasted since 1991 suddenly become indispensable now? Then there are the regional consequences. As with any intervention in a foreign country, Ethiopia used the conventional justifications for its actions by claiming the need to protect itself from terrorists and belligerent aggressors. What should we make of these claims when the “dangerous” Islamic Courts were defeated in less than a week? Finally, confirming rumors that had spread since late December, the bombing of a village in the far south of Somalia by an American AC 130 and the presence of Special Forces on the ground were clear signs of American involvement. How do we analyze this situation? Can we believe the public statements that the goal of this intervention was to capture three people responsible for the attacks in Kenya in 1998 and 2002?2 Or are we witnessing the start of a new military doctrine similar to the one President Nixon practiced during the Cold War: co-opting regional powers who would serve as allies to achieve the specific objectives that the American administration deems essential for the war against terrorism?This article will seek to provide some answers and add to the debate over these questions. It will describe what appears, at mid-January 2007, to be the most likely scenario for the evolution of this situation and explain what an “African Iraq” might look like.
It cannot, however, answer an important question: Why now? The start of combat coincided with the visit of European Commissioner Louis Michel to Somalia. He had succeeded in bringing the two Somali protagonists back to political dialogue when the fighting rendered his efforts moot. This intervention is also taking place at a time when debate over the Bush administration’s “new” Iraq policy is raging in Washington. Is it a coincidence? Or is it a deliberate choice by one or both of the parties involved?
The Rise of the Islamic Courts
To understand the so-called victory of the Islamic Courts in June 2006, we
must first return to the aftermath of September 11, 2001. In November and
December 2001, the American government debated for several weeks whether to
enter Somalia, which was described as a potential al-Qaeda base. Allegedly, the
sympathies of the Transitional National Government (TNG), established in August
2000 in Arta, Djibouti, tended to lie with the Islamists3 and there
were ties between Somali businessmen and suspected Islamic organizations in the
Gulf region. One Islamist organization, al-Ittihad al-Islami, was put on the
list of terrorist organizations for planning several attacks in Ethiopia and
some of its members—to the
preparation of the attacks against the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es
Salaam in August 1998. The largest Somali company, al-Barakat, active in
telecommunications and money transfers, had its funds frozen because it was
accused of having ties with Osama Bin Laden’s organization.4 The
Pentagon, however, quickly decided not to invade and turned its full attention
The international community then decided to organize a new national reconciliation conference sponsored by Kenya under the auspices of the IGAD, the regional organization.5 The conference began in October 2002 and ended two years later with the election of Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed6 to the presidency of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). A new attack near Mombasa in November 2002 demonstrated the urgent need for a solution in Somalia, which was once again viewed as the rear base of a terrorist group.
A Government in Exile, Divided from the Start
This conference, however, was a caricature of what it claimed to be7: a political reconciliation process encompassing all of the former Italian colony, with Somaliland intentionally excluded by the international community. The United States’ interest in yet another conference was limited and in December 2002, Washington set up a military base in Djibouti. American Special Forces troops used Camp Lemonnier to watch Somalia, train soldiers in Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya, and employ militia groups in Somalia to capture people suspected of ties to al-Qaeda.8 American diplomats were in fact quite clear about the multiple problems with the so-called reconciliation process and did not gloss over any of the weak points that quickly developed. The same was not true of the European Union, which generously financed this long conference but was scarcely involved politically—with the exception of Italy. Somalia was not a topic of interest. The IGAD was left to its own devices and soon was dominated by Ethiopia, even though for the sake of protocol the Ethiopians left the leading role to friendly Kenyan diplomats.
Addis Ababa, despite several clashes with other IGAD members such as Djibouti, quickly gained control of the organization of the conference and imposed its policy with little pretense. And it obtained the result it wanted. Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, a longtime ally, was elected in October 2004. A few days after his election, he traveled to Addis Ababa to ask for troops to ensure his country’s security. The Ethiopian Prime Minister gave a favorable response. Pressure from Addis Ababa also led to the naming of Ali Mohamed Geedi, member of a strong clan from the capital9 and rumored to be very close to the Ethiopian authorities, as Prime Minister. 80% of the ministers belonged to the alliance of factions that Ethiopia supported against the Transitional National Government in 2001. The tensions caused by the President’s voyage and the choice of ministers led the international community to declare sanctimoniously that more reconciliation was needed and that the conference was over.
The situation quickly grew worse. Parliament members were divided over the question of foreign troops and the status of the capital. After a vast brawl started by the Prime Minister’s supporters in a Nairobi hotel during a Parliament meeting in March, a dozen ministers and more than a hundred MPs who supported the Parliament’s Speaker, Sharif Hasan Sheikh Adan, left for Mogadishu.10
The situation in the Somali capital grew even more difficult in 2002. Not only did the different factions fight each other to change the amount of their bargaining power at the Kenyan conference, but security collapsed with the appearance of gangs of delinquents and a veritable kidnapping industry. The city’s inhabitants and businesses—large and small—confronted this situation by creating neighborhood militias, and then in very limited zones of the capital, Islamic Courts were created, whose jurisdiction only extended to around ten city blocks.
With the return of the faction leaders and their inner circles to Mogadishu, city dwellers hoped for a return to normalcy. It began but swiftly collapsed when the faction leaders, who had also become ministers and members of parliament, were unable to overcome their self-serving interests and petty jealousies. The success of the Islamic Courts took shape in the acute resentment of the city’s inhabitants toward the faction leaders.
The Islamic Courts and the War in Mogadishu
The Islamic Courts were initially local responses to the lack of security. Their creation followed more or less the same format. In a war-torn urban environment, some zones were numerically dominated by a clan. In several cases, because of gang violence, the clan elders decided to form an Islamic Court. When naming members, they were careful to choose judges who represented the diverse spectrum of Islam in Somalia (this is post 9/11!). The militias had no connection to a particular religious trend. Islamic and Islamist movements were obviously present in these institutions because their leaders had prestige and often had the organizational skills that were otherwise lacking. These Courts, which numbered less than ten before 2006, led a determined struggle against bandits and gangs. The situation did not improve because of the return of the faction leaders. The improvement was the result of the actions of these Courts.
In January 2006 the TFG president and the president of Parliament met in Aden and reached an agreement for the reunification of transitional institutions in the city of Baidoa (Baydhabo). The revolt of the faction leaders in Mogadishu was cut short. They were unable to secure the capital, and if they returned to Baidoa they would be politically marginalized. In this context, a conflict erupted between what was soon called the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, and the Islamic Courts.
Several tensions merged into a series of extremely violent confrontations between January and June 2006. First, there was the clan element: faction leaders tried to establish a local parliament in Mogadishu in the fall of 2005 but refused to give it an elected president. In the ensuing debate, threats were made against certain clans, which could explain their participation in the war against the factions. These tensions, however, were not enough to provoke such violence and the Courts did not even take part in this dispute. Simultaneously, there was a conflict between two groups of businessmen, one led by an American ally (Bashir Rage) and one by an ally of the Courts (Abuker Omar Adane). These two men were each members of the same sub-clan.11 Their increasingly violent skirmishes in fact concerned a piece of land on the coast that was to house a port for exporting charcoal, one of Somalia’s most profitable and environmentally destructive exports.12 This bloody competition began in 2005, but in 2006 the Islamic Courts became involved. They had received substantial donations from Abukar Omar Adane and he requested their assistance.13 Bashir Rage used his American allies in the CIA and established the famous Alliance against international terrorism.
American involvement changed the nature of the war. Anti-American sentiment brought the local population together along with its hostility to a series of assassinations and kidnappings of religious figures that were thought to be ordered by the Americans and Ethiopians and carried out by the factions. American involvement mobilized Islamic movements well beyond Mogadishu. While these movements were very different in terms of rites, ideology and recruitment, they were united in their opposition to the United States. Hundreds of combatants arrived from Somaliland and others came from southern Somalia. In the less populated Puntland, there were fewer recruits but large donations were collected; the diaspora supporting the Courts also made substantial donations. The heterogeneity of the war meant that support did not come solely from radicals and Islamists. Some factions, like the Juba Valley Alliance based in Kismaayo, joined in the combat.
The victory of the Islamic Courts was the result of a very particular situation. It was a popular uprising even though the population was not unanimous. Members of the faction militias were pressured by their relatives not to fight “for the Americans.” The streets of the capital were suddenly littered with large stones left by civilians that prevented military coordination. And military coordination itself indeed was problematic. The mutual distrust between members of the Alliance lasted until its fall and could be explained by their inability to measure the strength of the popular mobilization even though they knew that the military strength of the Islamic Courts was not a real threat.
When the faction leaders fled the capital, the Islamic Courts were the only ones who could take advantage of the victory since the clans and the businessmen supporting the war effort were not organized. It was a victory by default and the leaders of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and Hasan Dahir Aweys, were well aware of it from the start.14
It is crucial to come back to the details of this period. It inaugurated a radical transformation of the political arena in Mogadishu and, quickly, beyond the capital. It also changed the balance and reshaped the relationships between the Courts and their components. Just as in 1991 when Mohamed Siyad Barre was overthrown and the militiamen close to General Aydiid gained strength by looting barracks, some Islamic groups took control of faction arsenals and methodically consolidated their influence in the movement. Hizb al-Shabab, the Youth Party characterized by its radical Islamist populism, gained a strength and appeal from the arsenals that it did not have in prior months. The inhabitants of the capital had not appreciated the desecration of the Italian cemetery in February 2005 by its leader, Adan Hashi Farah Eyro, when Italy was giving an almost official and religious burial to Somali immigrants who had drowned during their Mediterranean crossing. But his involvements in the front lines of the war and his control of a powerful arsenal changed public opinion for a time.