Somalia: A New Front Against Terrorism
Published on: Feb 05, 2007
If this analysis is correct, it means that the events of recent weeks were clearly guided by power struggles both inside the UIC and between the UIC and TFG. I have not discussed the internal situation of the TFG since it is basically limited to being little more than a road map – what the international community somewhat grandiloquently calls Transitional Federal Institutions – and to the relationship between its three leaders. The president knows he has support from Puntland, his native region and the one that supplied the so-called Somali troops that gave some semblance of legitimacy to the Ethiopian army’s invasion. This situation gives him an apparent advantage but supports the clan interpretation (the Darod using the Ethiopians to fight a war that the clan would have lost on its own.) The prime minister, aware of the president’s poor health and the powers granted him by the Transitional Constitution, is playing the Ethiopian card and trying to marginalize the president now that the speaker of the Parliament has been excluded. The president of Parliament, the only one who could have had a dialogue with the “Islamic trend” is now living in refuge in Europe. The TFG has never before appeared so reticent to negotiate or so much a pawn of Ethiopian influence.

The TFG is playing two cards after the intervention. On the one hand, it ratifies American and Ethiopian decisions, at least on a rhetorical level, to demonstrate its connections to its powerful allies. On the other, it is telling the international community that if it does not receive the support it deserves then chaos will emerge when all of the Islamists in the world descend on Mogadishu. In short: send money and troops, reconciliation can wait.

The Regional and International Implications of the Somali Crisis

The crisis in Somalia has only very partially been the crisis of one country. It has become the de facto crystallization of regional hostility at the expense of its citizens and, since 2001, Somalia has been the battlefield for a clandestine war as part of the American fight against international terrorism. I will explain both aspects below.

Interpreting the Somali crisis as a site in the war against international terrorism is not a neutral position. It means transcribing its components into a hierarchy and organizing them according to international events over which Somalis have no control. Starting with the likely but never proven presence of those responsible for the 1998 attacks and the arrival of military trainers from a terrorist organization, the situation has been characterized as justifying a “surgical” intervention. The intervention is Ethiopian but not exclusively Ethiopian. It would not have been possible without the American consent and, most of all, American funding. How could Ethiopia, with a budget dependent for more than 50% on international aid, afford a military sortie of this size without outside financing? The intervention is American but not only American. If Ethiopia had refused to invade, Washington would have returned to its policy of funding Somali groups to hunt down members of al-Qaeda. How these two agendas came together remains to be seen. It is an open question, given the clear disputes within the American administration over this involvement.

Ethiopia: the End of a Regional Power?

With a common frontier of more than 1500km, Ethiopia can hardly remain indifferent to the Somali situation. However, history and the situation in the region do not make the task any easier. Without returning to creation of modern Ethiopia and Somali/Somalian nationalism, one can say that Somalia does not consider Ethiopia to be a disinterested neighbor: Addis Ababa has been the enemy since independence in 1960. This hostile perspective comes from the history of the Oromos and the Somalis of Ethiopian nationality, two groups annexed in the 19th century with important ties to Somalia because of pan-Somalism and a number of wars between Somalia and Ethiopia in the 1960s and 1970s.

At the end of the Cold War, the new Ethiopian regime that gained power in 1991 was unable resolve claims in the Ogaden region on the Somali border. It co-opted the elites it wanted and repressed the others. Violent tensions and armed opposition groups arose, including the Oromo Liberation Front, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, the Western Somali Liberation Front and others. The popularity and extent of these armed organizations are subject to debate; not subject to debate are the strong-arm tactics used by Ethiopia to deal with the problem since 1992.

The war with Eritrea (May 1998 – June 2000) changed the configuration of this problem. It caused a regime crisis in Addis Ababa in 2001, which led to winnowing out the executive branches in favor of the current prime minister and his supporters. In 2005, the fatigue of authoritarianism brought the overconfident rulers electoral defeat. In response, the prime minister imprisoned 15,000 people including almost all of the opposition members of Parliament in November 2005. A regime this fragile internally can only react radically when it feels threatened.

Its extreme response is all the more logical given the Eritrean regime’s historic ties with the armed groups based in Ogaden to whom it has provided training facilities and weapons to the extent that it could afford them. As early as 1999, Eritrea had some success in sending Oromo fighters through Somalia. This project gained new currency with the rise of the Islamic Courts and their direct nationalist opposition to Ethiopian policies. Support for the Courts that began in the spring of 2006 was aimed at weakening the position of the TFG, which in the eyes of Eritrean leaders was from the start an instrument of Ethiopian power.

The leaders of the Courts shared the idea of a strong, centralized and united Somalia. They saw the creation of Somaliland in 1991 and Puntland in 1998 as attempts by Ethiopia to balkanize Somalia and to weaken Somalis as well as the Muslims of the Horn of Africa. The Courts issued several contradictory statements about pan-Somalism and their claims for Ethiopian territories inhabited by Somalis. One would have to be truly paranoid to take these statements very seriously given the size and number of problems faced by the UIC: thinking that the UIC could invade Ethiopia and “liberate” Ogaden was childish in 2006. Yet Addis Ababa never saw an opportunity it did not take; it reacted in the same manner when TNG Parliament members held the same positions in 2000. And as before, a military rout brought the reality of the threat back down to its true size.

The leaders of the Courts received Eritrean support in the form of materials and military advisors in exchange for logistical facilities granted to armed Ethiopian groups. A final contingent of Oromo fighters transited through central Somalia into Ethiopia in July 2006.

Islamism, as we can see from this analysis, is not Ethiopia’s primary concern, despite its public pronouncements.25 When the Ethiopian prime minister speaks of the hundreds of foreign combatants who are obviously terrorists, he is glossing over the facts. For one thing, he has allowed no independent verification. For another, he is not the first leader of a contested regime to call any armed opponents “terrorists.” And finally, he confuses Oromo fighters, Somalis and Oromos of the diaspora who often have a second nationality, and Eritrean military advisors with jihadists from Pakistan and the Persian Gulf. To avoid questions from the West, it is best to scare them first.

Addis Ababa has several priorities. The first is to block Asmara and maintain Eritrea’s isolation in the region, especially now that relations between Asmara and Khartoum have been improving since the summer of 2006. Resolving the conflict between the two countries would frame the Oromo and Ethiopian Somali question quite differently and would push the international community to respect the values it generally professes.26 The second priority is to ensure that these armed groups do not have sanctuary in Somalia. Since 1992, the Ethiopian army has entered Somali territory several times against what Ethiopia claims are enemy bases. We may remember the Ethiopian intervention in Gedo in August 1996 but we may not recall how Ethiopia in 1992 provided decisive aid to Abdullahi Yusuf in taking back the port of Boosaaso that was held by the Islamists of al-Ittehad. The third would be to secure its southern flank by controlling the emergence of a Somali government: instead of dividing Somalia into “little republics” it could prevent the appearance of autonomous political agents. That is what it did by helping create the TFG.

This imperial approach to security is problematic but Addis Ababa holds a strong diplomatic argument: the fight against terrorism.

The End of a Presidency in Washington and the  Fight against Al-Qaeda

Since 1998, the United States has considered Somalia to be a security problem: the preparations for the attacks against the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in summer of 1998 and for the attack on a Mombasa hotel in November 2002 are well known. Some journalists seem to credit the claims by Osama Bin Laden’s organization that it played a role in the American “defeat” in October 1993. Other than the fact that al-Qaeda did not yet exist, we should remember that this defeat was more political than military and that the players were different. American Special Forces struck out into a neighborhood completely under the control of the man they were seeking, General Mohamed Farah Aidid. The inhabitants joined the fray, and not only the Islamists, who in fact were deeply divided over whether to support this faction leader.

Once the idea of entering Somalia was abandoned in December 2001, the United States established a containment policy that was successful until the mistake of February 2006 when the CIA offered massive support to the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism. For several years, they had funded faction leaders, informers and gangs to enact their counter-terrorism policies. Adan Eyro narrowly escaped capture while the members of his inner circle living in his house were killed. We can see how the existence of a government was not a real priority for the Americans at that time. In a lawless country, money and chance are king. The Islamists responded by executing officers or members of civil society who were suspected of working for American and Ethiopian intelligence services.

It is difficult to distinguish between truth and falsehood in this secret war. In 2004, the press in Mogadishu mentioned dozens of victims, which is clearly an exaggeration. However, the recall in 2005 of the diplomat in charge of Somalia at the American embassy in Nairobi pointed to deep differences within the American administration over the characterization of Somali “targets.” Once again, there was the question of the quality of the information coming from Somalia and the possible use of American services by their Ethiopian allies for their own goals.27

This recall sheds light on the conviction of the American services in early 2006 and their great naiveté regarding the interests of their stand-ins in Somalia as the press revealed in subsequent months.28 The massive injection of funds to support the factions of the short-lived Alliance did not have only negative effects: it led to a reevaluation of the Somali shilling while decreasing the legitimacy of the factions. This security-based reasoning suffered a stinging defeat, but only a temporary one.

The State Department moved quickly to push for the creation of an International Somalia Contact Group. The Group initially appeared to be an attempt by the United States to rehabilitate itself and promote political solutions to the Somali question. By the fall, however, it became clear that this was just a maneuver to stave off criticism from the media and public opinion and that security concerns continued to dominate policy. Norway and Italy needed firm resolution on several occasions to counter Jendayi Frazer, U.S. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, who had fully accepted Ethiopian claims.