Somalia: A New Front Against Terrorism
Published on: Feb 05, 2007
The political crisis in Somalia reached the end of a cycle with the recent American-Ethiopian intervention. In the Horn of Africa, a new cycle has begun. Instead of making Somalia more secure, this intervention will, in the coming months, militarize opposing political and social groups in Somalia and beyond. For the third time since September 11th, the United States is pushing military involvement in a Muslim country. This time, they have joined forces with a purportedly Christian ally, yet another slight in the eyes of Islamic public opinion.1

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 Washingtonor at least some members of the administrationconcerning 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 contributingthrough some of its membersto 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 to Iraq.

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 businesseslarge and smallconfronted 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.

The Failures of the Islamic Courts

The UIC victory meant the de facto disappearance of the factions but it left open the question of building a political order. Potential Ethiopian involvement carried the risk of the return of some or all of the faction leaders to the fore. This threat served as a repeated justification for increased radicalism in the Islamic group.

At the same time, the UIC had to restore some order to the area it controlled. Although the public stalwartly defended its legitimacy, they had contradictory demands: they wanted security but were not always willing to pay for it; they wanted a working administration but one that was organized less in terms of competence than a highly unstable balance of clans.

The Courts had to learn how to work together. This was an ambitious task since their personnel were not always familiar with each other. Many had no real political experience and even fewer had political goals. This was not true of everyone, however, and those with experience had relative success in using it to their advantage.

The Islamic Courts Face Their Contradictions

The unsteady balance in the Courts between the followers of different religious groups (“sociological,” traditionalist, Brotherhood, Salafist, Islamist and Jihadist Muslims) became even less stable after June 2006. This difficulty was compounded by the challenges the Courts were to face in the following months.

The influence of the Courts spread rapidly beyond the borders of the capital. A first extension was linked to securing the capital: they could not leave the town of Jowhar in Alliance hands. The combat to secure the town was, however, very minimal. Second, Courts rapidly appeared in other cities and called for UIC assistance. The victory of the Courts in Mogadishu meant the end of the faction as a form for organizing Somali political life, a role it had held since 1991.15 Something that has not been mentioned is that this victory also signaled the arrival of a new generation of political figures. Behind the old leaders and religious figures, a younger generation of men had stepped forward, most of whom were less than forty. Opportunism also suggested that the creation of an Islamic Court could allow one to challenge the power of those who had assumed it or had directly benefited from the power of a faction. For example, in Beled Weyne and Jowhar, like in Mogadishu, there was no “religious revolution,” just the dismissal of an unpopular administration by sectors of the population that took advantage of the Islamic Courts’ rise to join them. These evolutions were fundamentally “political” but there was a third form that would give more credence to Ethiopian and American claims: military annexation, primarily in the Lower Juba region with the capture of Kismayo in September 2006.

The Courts committed this major mistake due to a convergence of several factors. The context was not good. The Juba Valley Alliance that controlled Kismayo since the spring of 2006 was divided for several months. It was not divided over interpretations of the Koran but over the more secular distribution of money from the port and the future structure of the local administration. Initially, the Courts did not wish to be involved in this affair because they did not feel ready to extend their influence before coming to terms with serious internal problems. After a few weeks of hesitation, however, they become involved. There were at least two motivating factors. First, Eritrean advisers warned that Kismayo would be occupied by Ugandans and Ethiopians; one more rumor, but one with radical implications. Second, Hasan Abdullah Hersi “al-Turki” and his followers in the Hizb al-Shabab and the Courts were pushing to secure Lower Juba and the frontier with Kenya. They won the debate on the strength of rumors of an American presence in northeast Kenya. Kismayo’s capture was not without consequence. It gave rise to the first popular opposition to the Courts, which sent one of its harshest leaders to the region. This action gave credence to the idea of an encirclement of the TFG.

But the developments outside the capitalwithout mentioning the incidents that occurred in Somaliland and Puntlandcontributed less to the dysfunction of the Union of Courts than other obstacles: problems with internal organization, ideological differences and clan troubles.

Early on, in June 2006, the Courts established an executive committee presided over by Sheikh Sharif that quickly grew to twenty members. The advisory committee, the shura, led by Hasan Dahir Aweys, ballooned to more than 90 members.16 Which of the two bodies had the final say? What were the decision-making procedures? Who had the mandate to do what? No one ever knew, including the Courts themselves. Not only did they do nothing to eliminate these many ambiguities but decisions were often made by commanders in the field who only had relative respect for these two authoritative bodies and favored their own contacts on each committee. Simply accepting fait accompli rather than debating decisions became a common occurrence. The ban on qaat and on charcoal exports, the requirement for women to be accompanied outside by a male family member, the proscription of cinema and sport, etc. were all decisions made without a collective process at the top and only had local validity that spread through horizontal relationships between militia leaders.

Ironically, the Courts, who had wanted to preserve justice, renewed the arbitrary authority of the militias. This is not to say that the leaders (like Hasan Dahir17) accepted this situation. The terms of debate inside the country changed with the massing of Ethiopian troops in Somali territory, when unity became a question of life or death. We should also note that, contrary to what some have called a “Talibanization,” in many places in Somalia, daily life continued without any interference or coercion from Court representatives.18 Yet, the Prime Minister of the TFG and the Ethiopians singled out examples of coercion to prove the al-Qaeda influence within the UIC.

There were deep ideological differences in the Islamic Courts. Somali Islam and Islamism are profoundly connected to global dynamics, which should come as no surprise.19 There is no need to evoke al-Qaeda to explain the extremism of some and to explain the moderation of others. Neither of these arguments has any merit without historical contextualization. Many thought that discussions should be held with the TFG, which would return to govern in the long term while the Courts would continue to use their prerogative to maintain order. Others wanted a power-sharing agreement and welcomed the negotiations sponsored by the Arab League. They did not contest the president of the TFG; however, the Prime Minister was unanimously opposed. The latter, who welcomed the loss of the faction leaders, held the most radical position against the Courts, revealing his dependence on Addis Ababa and his desire to stay in his position no matter what the cost for Somalia. However, a radical and military popular elementthat some have oversimplified by saying it was the Youth Party alonerefused negotiations, saw them as a betrayal and even tried everything up until the last minute to sabotage them. Given the lack of ideological unity and the pressure from a foreign threat, this movement gained ground in the Court-controlled regions. It sparked increasing resistance in Court organizations but also among the populace. The people began to protest the drastic rise in taxes in October 2006, the ban on qaat that punished the thousands of people who earned their living in its trade, and the normative coercion that had young militia members with limited religious knowledge humiliating anyone in the street who did not seem sufficiently pious.20  

The relationship between the Islamic Courts and the clans is extraordinarily complex. On the one hand, Islamic affirmation is a way to reduce identification with a clan. But clan identity is not solely an explicit acknowledgement. There are accents and dialectal forms in the language that indicate a region of origin and often a clan. Sociability, economic support and place of residence, among other factors, are especially important. In a way, the Courts themselves are clan institutions even though they evolved after June and attempted to employ horizontal coordination instead of vertical coordination alone. For a number of reasons, the Courts have very diverse ties to the clans. In some instances, their influence is limited; in others, the ties are deep and longstanding. This very political reality was taken into account for nominations to the Executive Committee and the shura but it left an opening for criticism.21 Several times, when individual decisions were disputed, the individuals blamed the weakness of their clan or of its representation in Court institutions for allowing such questions to be raised. This argument usually silenced any criticism. The TFG, blindly followed by an easily manipulated panel of experts,22 identified the trouble-making clan as the Ayr, a sub-clan of the Habar Gidir. Other more perceptive experts underlined the Hawiye influence in the Islamic Courts. The reality is more complex. A large presence is not always a powerful one when the primary goal is unity. The impotence of the two Court leaders can be understood in this light. They each disagreed with some decisions but were more concerned with maintaining the unity of the UIC. This was a fatal mistake. Moreover, members of the most radical trend often came from more marginal groups or clans since radicalism was the only way they could influence the movement as a whole.23

Failed Negotiations and the Return to War

Given the context, the negotiations between the TFG and the UIT were rife with problems. Yet they could have taken a different course if the Arab League had been less superficial in its mediation and if other countries, like Ethiopia, had been less aggressive towards the UIT and less accommodating to the TFG. The first meetings in Khartoum in June 2006 produced meager results but could have gained some momentum. Not only was there mutual recognition, which is not negligible, but they declared a ceasefire. However, the Arab League did not insist on the creation of a joint commission for verification. This commission could have been a first instrument to limit incidents, put pressure on the war-mongerers in each camp and confirm the presence of foreign troops on Somali soil. During the second round of discussions in August, the idea was included in the final document but the TFG second-guessed its own delegates. The Europeans were on vacation and applied no pressure to enact the principle immediately.24  The situation was quite different than in southern Sudan where, starting in the fall of 2002, a unique mobilization was made to avoid ruining the peace process through an accumulation of incidents. The negotiations of Khartoum 3 in October 2006 had not even started when the courts committed a further strategic mistake. By placing preconditions on the negotiations, they appeared to be the cause of their failure despite the fact that every observer could see that the TFG had no intention of entering discussions. The United States and Ethiopia had their casus belli. War, once only probable, became certain.

There were, however, two glimmers of hope. First, the Parliament speaker traveled to Mogadishu in early November following the failure of Khartoum 3 and made an agreement to return to real negotiations on December 15. But the TFG once again turned a deaf ear. On December 20, the European Commissioner for Development, Louis Michel went to Baidoa and Mogadishu to obtain signatures on a memorandum to return to negotiations, establish a joint commission and ensure European involvement. But his political success, which took more work with the TFG than the UIC, was swept aside by fighting between the Ethiopian army and the militias of the Courts. We know the rest.

Before the intervention, the Security Council passed resolution 1725 on December 6. The text proposed by the United States was very surprising. It authorized an organization, the African Union, to intervene in Somalia and asked the international community to finance it. The United Nations was not included in any way! France and Qatar had to convince the other members of the Council, especially the British, paralyzed by their disagreement with George W. Bush over the appropriate policy for Iraq, to amend the text but they were unable to reach agreement on the European position: no troop deployment without the consent of all parties. Why did they pass this resolution when negotiations were supposed to resume ten days later and the vote itself placed enormous pressure on the two Somali parties to have substantive discussions? Was it a diplomatic gaffe or an intentional affront? Predictably, after violently criticizing the resolution, the UIC declared an ultimatum on December 13 demanding the departure of Ethiopian troops. They lifted their threat when Louis Michel’s visit was announced. But skirmishes began on the night of December 19 and by December 20 war had begun.

How should we interpret the swift defeat of the Court fighters? There are at least two explanations. First, there is the heterogeneity of the forces involved. The Ethiopian contingent was comprised of more experienced soldiers who had received training from American advisors in Djibouti. They were a professional army with air support (combat planes and helicopters.) The UIC militias were very different. There were many last-minute recruits who died in large numbers in the first three days of combat since they fought more with their faith than their heads. Then there were professional militiamen who had served with the factions and then recycled themselves with the Islamic Courts. They wanted to live and their experience told them the battle was already lost, so they rushed back to Mogadishu. The militia members closest to the Courts quickly decided that they had to take a different approach to the war. This is what we will see in the coming months. In any case, the swiftness of this defeat or rout dispels any Ethiopian claim of a military threat from the UIC.

Second, there was less popular support for the militias of the Courts than expected. People were traumatized by the number of deaths during the first three days: they were rumored to be in the hundreds. Awash in nationalist and bellicose rhetoric, Somalis had no idea the battle would be so deadly. But there was also a deep feeling of disillusionment with the Courts. Nominations for the leaders came from a small group made up exclusively of Islamists, taxes were high and prohibitions weighed on daily life. The UIC did not respect its repeated promises to respect the diversity of support it received during its war with the factions. And the UIC paid the price. It is hard to imagine the return of an Islamic movement like the one present in the second half of 2006.

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.

On December 14, Mrs. Frazer finally announced that the UIC was controlled by al-Qaeda.29 While the presence of members of al-Qaeda in Mogadishu (like in Paris or London) was not impossible, how could it become the crux of the situation? Washington’s approach during the summer was based on a simple hypothesis, one that had not worked elsewhere: it was most important to engage the moderates and isolate the radicals, who were identified without nuance as al-Qaeda clones. This approach was doomed for several reasons. First, the foreign threatwhether one agrees with Ethiopia or notwas an important motivation for the diverse Courts to stay together. Second, the political situation was very unstable and everyone’s position would change greatly from June to December. As noted above, Hasan Dahir first appeared to be an extremist. However, to use two examples that are usually at the heart of American diplomacy, he is the one who proposed including women in the advisory council and he participated in a civil ceremony for World AIDS Day. It is always possible to distinguish the moderates and radicals at a given instant over a given problem but these divisions are not permanent and do not apply to every major question. Finally, there is the idea that the United States purposefully heightened the divisions for an American-made fitna: instead of encouraging dialogue, the American position prevented it. In this sense, the European attitude was more realistic since they wagered on the decanting of a solution through political dialogue and the internal adjustments that dialogue requires. The result, however, was not wonderful. We would have to take into account the petty rivalries between EU representatives in Nairobi, the practice of dealing with Somali problems from their embassies in Kenya without setting foot in the country, and the relative lack of interest among European governments in Somalia, all of which do not bode well for initiatives that might anger American allies.

Jendayi Frazer’s position was not unanimously accepted in her administration30 or in the intelligence community31 since John Negroponte, director of the intelligence services, rejected such a categorical interpretation a few days before the invasion. In fact, based on the information available when this article was written, it appears that several cards were played to provide American support for Ethiopian intervention. More time is needed before the following hypotheses can be confirmed or disallowed.

The first hypothesis is that this invasion is a turning point in the fight against terrorism. As some authors have noted,32 in conformance with the priorities listed in the Quadrennial Defense Review in 2005, American policy intends to grant certain countries the status of “new regional power” in the fight against terrorism. This designation has several advantages in the case of Ethiopia: its army does not hesitate to respond to attacks and the regime has already dismissed the criticism of the international media. This strategy also gives an increased role to the Pentagon over the CIA and State Department. Although international events argue for a police approach to fighting terrorism, this policy favors a military approach. The effects of this development will only be negative as we will witness in the evolution of the Somali situation over the coming months and the mobilization of international Islamist and Jihadist movements to turn Somalia into a new front. Jendayi Frazer would finally be right.

The second hypothesis is that this intervention occurred at a time when America’s Iraq policy was called into question by the victory of the Democrats in the November 2006 elections. By increasing the American presence in Djibouti and warning of the al-Qaeda threat, sectors of the administration wanted to show that they were not wrong and that opposition to its policies should be limited. Military success does not seem to have led to political victory. The security situation in the territory formerly held by the Courts is growing worse. The TFG has not listened to Jendayi Frazer’s calls for dialogue.

After creating the conditions for the crisis, the United States is now turning to the Europeans to manage a situation for which the Americans are responsible and to finance the African force that is supposed to stabilize Somalia. As neo-conservative Robert Kagan put it in 2001, “superpowers don’t do windows.” It is also revealing to see Washington call for an African force in Somalia at the same time as it criticizes the failure of African Union soldiers in Darfur. But with the administration living out the final days of its reign, contradictions are not its concern.

An African Iraq?

The question now facing us is how the situation will evolve. With Ethiopian troops in the Somali capital, the war is over but so is security. Disturbances are limited in other parts of the country: the Ethiopians are hunting both militant and refugee Oromos; rumors are spreading of executions of dozens of Court partisans but no independent observation has corroborated them for the moment. The Jihad announced by the leaders of the Courts seems unlikely. Yet the most likely scenario in the absence of real political dialogue is an African Iraq. What does this expression mean?

Like in Iraq, the American-Ethiopian invasion removed the conditions of national authority in Somalia. The end of the UIC marks the provisional end of the centralization that took place in June with the arrival of a single influence over a large portion of the country. Now there is a return to the constellation of local situations that evolve more in terms of local history and local interests than national or foreign policies.

Like the Iraqi people in the spring of 2003, the Somali people took note of the TFG and Ethiopian victory. It noted the relative international silence over Ethiopian intervention and expects the international aid promised by Washington to arrive. Hostility towards the Ethiopian presence is, generally speaking, counterbalanced by this hope. But it will not last. It seems clear that the TFG has no intention of sharing the resources allocated to it now or in the future. Since its creation, it has never shared its resources and has not changed on returning to the capital. In the best case scenario, the international community will try to work around the TFG, but the lack of security (and its own bureaucracy) will significantly reduce the impact of international action. Social unrest will therefore grow. The Somali people will not be unanimous; just as in Iraq, old antagonisms will not miraculously converge into national unity against an aggressor. On the contrary, there is a greater risk of social involution and an increase of divisions and contradictions. We can again make the comparison with Iraq where the international presence pushed the Shiite and Sunni communities to compete for power while rapidly eroding ties between communities.

We should also discuss the forms of involvement in the war. In Iraq, talk of foreign Jihadists is less prevalent than of a plurality of groups with different political agendas and different attitudes towards Iraqi citizens. Similarly, in Somalia, armed opposition groups will reveal the deep ideological differences, diverse political projects and varying attitudes towards civilians that were already present in the Islamic Courts. To no one’s surprise, there will be an international Jihadist element corresponding to the self-fulfilling prophecy of the American world view. But there will also be local Islamist groups who will be unwilling to relinquish control to foreigners in a national struggle. Militias will also appear reflecting the failure of the clans, sub-clans and trans-clan interest groups to join in the allocation of international aid.

If these predictions have any truth to them, the neighboring countries of Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia will also experience repercussions from this interventionism. There are Islamic identity groups in these countries who now have no reason to resort to violence. But if their countries decide to follow Washington and Addis Ababa, they will have a reason. The use of preventative measures would criminalize these Muslim communities and marginalize them as citizens. The current attitude of the Kenyan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Raphael Tuju, who aligned himself with the TFG hardliners, can only serve to heighten tensions in his country.


Analysis of the American-Ethiopian intervention argues in favor of a series of political decisions that will probably never be considered since they require the international community to display some measure of self-reflection and realism.

The first thing to be done is a modification in the regional framework. The Algiers Agreement must be enacted. The Ethiopian regime can no longer claim the role of regional police officer as an excuse to imprison its parliamentary opposition and sometimes physically eliminate its opponents who take refuge in neighboring countries. By the same token, Eritrea can no longer play the regional spoiler as it has done with diligence since 2002. Its behavior can only be explained by the ambiguity of its relations with Washington. We should note Jendayi Frazer’s silence concerning Eritrean influence in the Islamic Courts: suddenly criticizing the most secular state in Africa when attempting to condemn radical Islam might be confusing.

The European Union cannot accept the current TFG and Ethiopian blackmail passing through Washington: pick us or chaos, an African force that we control or the return of al-Qaeda. An African or UN force with no concomitant political process is doomed to fail. We can see the frightening results in Darfur and there is no need to submit the African Union with its American pressures and institutional solidarities (like the IGAD and others) to a further major failure. Instead of discussing the composition of a military force, it would be better to establish a political context where it makes sense.

The countries of Europe must convince themselves that a realistic solution is not one that rubber stamps Ethiopian wishes. Ethiopia has benefited from the lack of security on its southern border: it has been promoted to the status of strategic ally with Washington for that very reason. If the region were normalized, the Ethiopian regime would appear as the fading authoritarian government that it is. By bowing to American and Ethiopian interpretations, Europeans would establish the framework for a lasting crisis.

But what political process is needed? At present, if nothing is done, we run the risk of seeing the people responsible for the failure of the Islamic Courts return as leaders of an armed opposition to the occupation. This would bode ill for Somalia’s future. We need to deal a new hand. That means organizing a new reconciliation conference where the TFG would be reduced to its component elements without particular support or recognition from the international community and where the different Islamic organizations excluded in 2002 and the other groups already represented in 2002 would be full participants.

Political dialogue without exclusivity, dialogue that does not take a shape dictated by a foreign occupying force is now the only, albeit difficult, way to prevent the return of war and a new front between the United States and the Jihadists.


1 Prejudices are hard to erase, and not only in the West. The Muslim community in Ethiopia is the largest religious community in the country but it is not a majority. The Ethiopian regime is secular, as reflected by its leaders, Marxist-Leninists from Tigray who converted to free trade policies in the early 1990's.

2 “Africa: U.S. Official Sees 'Credible and Capable' Force As Key to Peace in Somalia” at

3 Full of errors and incredibly biased for those who know Somali politicians and businessmen, a book from the period demonstrated this idea: Medhane Tadesse, Al-Ittihad. Political Islam and Black Economy in Somalia, Addis Ababa: Meag Press, 2002.

4 More than five years later, no proof of these accusations has even been given despite the seizure of the company’s assets in Dubai. Its director was able to return to Mogadishu as a free man in 2003 and played an important role in the Islamic Courts.

5 Intergovenmental Authority on Development, whose members include Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan.

6 An opponent of Mohamed Siyad Barre as early as 1979, Abdullahi Yusuf is a member of the Majerten/Darod clan and was president of Puntland (northeast of Somalia where his clan lives).

7 The only published record comes from the reports of the International Crisis Group during this period:


9 Ali Mohamed Geedi belongs to the Warsengeli/Harti/Abgal. He is a close relative to a powerful faction leader, Mohamed Dhere, based in Jowhar north of Mogadishu and comes from the same sub-clan as Bashir Rage with whom American missionaries stay when visiting the Somali capital.

10 Roland Marchal, “Somalia” in Andreas Mehler, Henning Melber, Klass van Walraven, eds., Africa Yearbook: Politics, Economy and Society South of the Sahara in 2005, Leiden & Boston, Brill, 2006. The other TFG faction was practically thrown out of Kenya in June and took up residence in Jowhar.

11 A further example to counter those who hold the simplistic view that the clan is the basic unit of analysis in Somali politics.

12 Craig Timberg, “Mistaken entry into clan dispute led to US black eyes on Somalia”, Washington Post, July 2, 2006.

13 He was rewarded since he and his associates gained around ten seats on the advisory council of the Islamic Courts. Proof that Somali Islamism is not immune to economic reality.

14 Interviews Dhuusa Maareeb, July 2006; Mogadishu, September 2006.

15 Roland Marchal, "Mogadiscio dans la guerre civile : rêves d’Etat ", Paris, Les Etudes du CERI, N° 69, 2000.

16 At the risk of shocking common understanding, a large portion of its members are more sociological Muslims or apolitical religious personalities instead of Osama Bin Laden disciples. Their true weakness was not religious devotion but the inability to work together. 

17 Described as one of the most radical leaders by the international media, Hasan Dahir was not viewed the same way by the people of Mogadishu. International opinion is based on his presence on an American list of leaders of terrorist organizations and not on the concrete choices he made in 2006. Another blind spot in the international perspective.

18 Martin Fletcher, “Battle-scarred nation is at peace with itself… but still facing war”, The Times (London), December 16, 2006.

19 Roland Marchal, “Islamic political dynamics in the Somali civil war” in Alex de Waal (ed.), Islamism and its Enemies in the Horn of Africa, London: Hurst and Co., 2004.

20 Many militia members worked for the factions before June 2006 and hoped to demonstrate their “return” to Islam through this religious radicalism.

21 Early in the war, Skikh Janagow was nominated to convince the Mogadishu clans to choose the Courts over a powerful faction leader, Mohamed Quanyere.

22 Read their three latest reports, which are full of mistakes and fabrications but contributed to naming the UIT as a branch of al-Qaeda:

23 One would be surprised to see how many Rahanweyn, Bantus and Dir in the most radical Islamist movements. The same type of positioning took place in Puntland: the Islamists mostly come from small coastal clans that are more in sync with Persian Gulf Islam but marginalized in regional clan politics because of their small numbers and their inability to summon a significant militia force.

24 We should distinguish the Italian special envoy who was the only one during this crisis who constantly tried to bring the parties together. But the other Europeans were often absent: the French became partially involved in August, the British wavered between their analysis and their alliance with Washington, the Norwegians were fitfully active and the others did not show up. 

25 The relative conversion of the armed opposition groups in Ethiopia to Islam is undeniable even though its reality in the field is less concrete. Hostility to a regime that continues to claim its national representation when it only encompasses a small clique from an ethnic minority has led to numerous ideological shifts, especially when the opposition in Parliament has paid such a heavy price for being opponents of the regime. But rather than question the local reasons that caused these changes, the Ethiopian government has skillfully played the international terrorism card. As for the Europeans, they are politely silent.

26 Unable to enact the decision of the International Court of Justice concerning the border between these two countries, the international community has allowed the conflict to persist in Ethiopia without getting involved.

27 While there are obviously no public documents that would allow us to answer this question, reading the reports of the experts delegated by the United Nations Security Council can give us a good idea of the manipulations possible.

28 Marc Lazaretti and Marc Lacey, “Efforts by CIA Fail in Somalia, Officials Charge,” The New York Times, June 8, 2006.

29 Agence France Presse, "Somalie: Al-Qaïda a pris le contrôle des tribunaux islamistes, selon Washington", December 15, 2006.

30 Interview December 2006.

31 Karen de Young, “US Sees Growing Threats in Somalia”, The Washington Post, December 18, 2006.

32 Peter Beinart, “Return of the Nixon doctrine”, Time Magazine, January 5, 2007. Vance Serchuk, “Ethiopia versus the Islamists”, The Weekly Standard, January 15, 2007.