Counter-terrorism in Somalia, or: how external interferences helped to produce militant Islamism
Published on: Dec 17, 2009

For the full version of this essay, download the pdf here (pdf, 260 KB).

Somalia has made international headlines for almost two decades now, first as a state of civil war characterized by clan warfare and humanitarian catastrophe, then as a failed state, and finally as a potential safe haven for Islamic terrorists. Contrary to the assumption about ‘black holes’ and ungoverned spaces voiced by politicians and some academics, the Harmony Project of the Center for Combating Terrorism at West Point has recently shown that the absence of a government in Somalia did not automatically provide fertile ground for Al Qaeda terrorism. Its researchers, who had access to declassified intelligence reports on Al Qaeda activities in the Horn in the early 1990s concluded that the foreign Islamist activists faced similar problems as did the UN and US humanitarian and military intervention in Somalia (1992-1995): they were partly distrusted as ‘foreigners’ who adhered to a version of Islam that was not popular in Somalia, they ran into problems with always changing clan and sub-clan alliances, they suffered from the weak infrastructure of the country, they lacked security, they were exposed to external interventions since no government could uphold Somalia’s sovereignty, and they were at risk of being ‘sold’ by petty criminals and others in Somalia to the enemy (the US).

Nonetheless, some terrorist attacks in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania (between 1996 and 2002) have been carried out by using Somalia as a ‘corridor’ into the region and for smuggling in weapons and personnel. After the attacks, some terrorists hid in Somalia. Clearly, a number of Somali extremists were trained in Somalia by foreign fighters, and some Somalis went to Afghanistan in the 1990s and early 2000s in order to receive training and gain combat experience at the Taliban’s side. Still, Somalia did not become a safe haven for Al Qaeda, and terrorist training facilities were extremely limited and quickly dismantled after the 9/11 attacks, for fear of US reprisals. UN missions to southern Somalia in the fall of 2001 concluded that no training camps or fundamentalist activities could be identified. In sum, Somalia was never a major field of Al Qaeda activities in the 1990s.

A further factor preventing Somalia from becoming an Islamist-controlled territory, at least up until 2005, was the heterogeneity of the local ‘Islamist camp’. Within groups such as Al Itihad and the courts, influential individuals held different views, for instance regarding the appropriateness of the use of violence. This led to schisms and uneasy alliances of convenience. Moreover, all Islamist groups had to consider the genealogical factor involved in the Somali civil war. Despite their aim to transcend ‘clan’ and establish an Islamic state, they had to cooperate with clan and sub-clan elders and warlords and their militias. Until 2005, militant Islamists did not enjoy popular support in Somalia. They also were not so well connected internationally. This increasingly changed with the violent external interference of Ethiopia and the US and the establishment of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) under Abdullahi Yusuf in late 2004, who gained international recognition while lacking legitimacy in most parts of Somalia (apart from Puntland, his ‘clan-homeland’ in north-eastern Somalia). Particularly the joint Ethiopian and US-American counter-terrorism strategy after the 9/11 attacks contributed to the radicalization of a small group of dedicated Jihadists, which provided the nucleus for the later unfolding of extremist violence in Somalia.

Between 2002 and 2005, dozens of Somalis were abducted and assassinated in a ‘dirty war’ between ‘terrorists’ and ‘counter-terrorists’ in Mogadishu. When Ethiopia and the US finally encouraged (and paid) a group of warlords in early 2006 to form the Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT) in order to snatch terror suspects in Mogadishu and keep the local shari’a courts in check, the situation escalated. The local Islamic courts, many of which existed for a decade and provided law and order in various neighborhoods in Mogadishu and surroundings, joined forces and attacked the warlord alliance. In June 2006 they unexpectedly managed to drive the warlords out of the capital. The latter had lost popular support long ago as most Somalis had grown tired of the continued low-intensity warfare and the insecurity in the country benefitting primarily the warlords. Initially, the Islamists were extremely popular and could quickly expand their sphere of influence. Since they delivered some basic law and order and nascent ‘state’ services, most people in southern and central Somalia welcomed them. The international community, worried about the little known Somali ‘Taliban’, called for negotiations between the Islamists and the TFG that was politically divided and spatially confined to the town of Baydhoa in central Somalia. The negotiations were facilitated by the Arab League. They finally foundered in fall 2006, due to the fact that, first, within the UIC militants had gained increasingly in influence. The above mentioned jihadist nucleus had become institutionalized in the form of the Al Shabaab ‘youth’ organization, which officially came under the UIC umbrella. However, it showed tendencies to split the courts movement. Second, also the TFG and Ethiopia had not really been interested in negotiating with the Islamists but favored a military ‘solution’. The US, following Jendayi Frazers (then U.S. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs) extremely Ethiopian-friendly assessment, finally accepted the claim that the UIC was controlled by Al Qaeda and politically and logistically supported the military intervention of around 14,000 Ethiopian troops in December 2006.

Since then, militant Islamism gained momentum in Somalia. Between January 2007 and December 2008, the Ethiopian and TFG forces were confronted by an Islamist and clan insurgency against what many in Mogadishu and southern Somalia perceived as foreign and Darood occupation (Abdullahi Yusuf belongs to the Darood clan family; after his election as President of Somalia, many clan-relatives joined him as soldiers in the Somali ‘national’ army; Mogadishu is dominated by members of the Hawiye clan family that historically had been involved in brutal fighting with the Darood in the early 1990s). Thousands of civilians were killed in the war. The UIC leadership went into exile in Eritrea where it split into a ‘moderate’ and an ‘extremist’ faction in 2008. The former, headed by the former UIC-Chairman Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, entered into negotiations with parts of the TFG and the United Nations, and was finally invited to Djibouti to form a new government, after Abdullahi Yusuf had lost the backing of Ethiopia and the international community. Ethiopia wished to withdraw from the extremely violent war theater it had helped to create. When Sheikh Sharif was elected as new TFG-President in January 2009, many Somalis and external observers briefly hoped for a new start of the transitional government. However, it was clear from the beginning that the extremists, particularly the militants of Al Shabaab, refused to accept Sheikh Sharif’s authority. Al Shabaab had started as a small group of extremists. But after the Ethiopian intervention it had become independent and transformed into the most militant and powerful southern Somali front fielding several thousand trained and ideologically oriented fighters. Even the ‘targeted’ killing of its long-term leader, Aadan Hashi Ayro, by a US missile in May 2008 did not weaken the movement. To the contrary, its new leader, Abdi Ahmed Godane, took over immediately after Ayro’s death and pledged support to Osma Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. After the withdrawal of the Ethiopian army, Al Shabaab took over most of the vacant positions and began to govern large parts of southern and central Somalia. It became notorious for administering harsh corporal punishment and death sentences against enemies and criminals.

The militant opposition against Sheik Sharif took shape when Hassan Dahir Aweys, Sheikh Sharifs former co-leader in the UIC, who had not joined his ‘moderate turn’ in 2008, came to Mogadishu in April 2009 and took over the chairmanship of the newly founded Hizbul Islam. Hizbul Islam and Al Shabaab joined forces; fighting with the TFG started in May 2009. Currently, the ‘moderate’ Islamists of the TFG (which actually includes a variety of opportunistic and corrupt Somali politicians, some warlords and Islamists of various orientations) can only survive with the strong support of the AMISOM (African Union ‘peacekeepers’ sent to Somalia originally in 2007 to aide the TFG; since then the AU troops have stayed on and gotten involved in the local fighting on various occasions) and the US. In June 2009, Washington had arranged for a 40 tons weapons and ammunition shipment to the TFG.

Arguably, the comparison of the UIC to the Taliban that was popular in 2006 was not well founded. There had been major discrepancies between both movements, such as the actual absence of much combat experience on the side of the UIC, and the lack of a consistent ideology among the Somali Islamists back then. Yet, in 2009, after three years of insurgency and fighting, the militant Somali Islamists, particularly Al Shabaab, in fact resemble the battle hardened and ideologically uncompromising Taliban of 1996, ready to rule a country. In this sense, the anti-Islamist propaganda of 2006 has fulfilled itself. Somalia since 2006 is possibly the clearest example for the failure of US (and Ethiopian) counter-terrorism policy, which actually has produced what it was supposed to counter. Sociologically speaking, these developments demonstrate the entrapments of unintended consequences even for the globally most powerful actors.