6727Return to Somalia: The war on terror - a new front
- Jun 4, 2006Return to Somalia: The war on terror - a new front
Thirteen years ago, the US pulled out of the east
African country after the bloody events that inspired
'Black Hawk Down'. Now it is back, supporting warlords
in their battle with Islamist militants. Kim Sengupta
reports from Merka
Published: 02 June 2006
Living in the anarchy of Somalia, the sights of
violence are nothing new to Halima Ahmed. But a
one-year-old baby lying in the street, one leg severed
by a mortar shell, is an image of horror that still
"I saw him at Yakshik district, someone's little boy,"
said Mrs Ahmed, 50. "There was nothing I could do. His
leg has been cut off, and he died. There were lots of
dead bodies, but it is the boy I cannot forget. I keep
on seeing him. It is terrible what is happening here,
Like many among her people, Mrs Ahmed is used to
hardship which would shatter many from more
comfortable, affluent societies. Her husband was
killed in a sporadic shooting last year, and her
85-year-old mother is severely ill and has no access
to medicine. But for her and others, the carnage now
in the capital, Mogadishu, has tipped this failed
state to a particularly barbaric point of no return.
Thirteen years after the US suffered one of its most
humiliating military defeats - an ignoble retreat
casting a shadow over Washington's foreign policy for
a generation - the Americans are back in Somalia.
This is now the latest battleground in US's global,
post-9/11 war on terror. Hundreds have been killed and
wounded in the worst fighting in the country in 15
years as American-backed warlords engage Islamist
militias in fierce house-to-house fighting in the
There is little food or water. Those not trapped by
the pulverising shelling are desperately trying to get
out of the city, by foot, with younger men carrying
the elderly and the infirm; by carts; or, for the
precious few who can afford it, on battered buses and
coaches straining with twice the load they were meant
The dead lie on the streets with people often afraid
to move the bodies for fear of snipers. The wounded,
some dug from under rubble, are taken to hospital by
Mogadishu's unofficial ambulance service,
But the hospitals themselves are scenes of chaos with
patients huddled in filthy corridors. An acute
shortage of medicine and trained staff is exacerbated
by Kalashnikov-waving militia fighters commandeering
supplies and demanding priority treatment.
A temporary ceasefire between the two warring factions
ended at the weekend with renewed artillery, mortar
and rocket-propelled grenades pounding through the
city. Many of the rounds were fired indiscriminately
into civilian areas, claiming more lives and causing
The Keysane Hospital, the main treatment centre during
the present conflict, was itself hit by mortar rounds.
Four people, including a two-year-old boy and a
14-year-old girl, were among those killed. At another
hospital, the Medina, Sheikh Doon Salad Elmi shrugs
his shoulders wearily. "We are finding it very hard to
cope with the huge number of wounded. There are more
than 100 of them at the hospital. A 24-year-old boy
who had a bullet lodged in his brain just died in
front of me. I could do nothing to save him."
Out in the pot-holed streets, rival militia fighters
roar along on their gun-mounted "technicals",
Somalia's infamous four-wheel-drive war wagons, the
pickups churning up billowing clouds of dust, trading
fire from machine guns and rocket-propelled-grenade
launchers. They seldom hit each other, but civilians
are often shot.
But most of the destruction inflicted in the latest
bout of fighting has been through the use of heavy
artillery and mortars in an urban landscape of
condensed and crumbling housing. "I saw five bodies
lying near the road to the airport," said Mohammed
Lamane. "They were there for days, and people fear to
be attacked when collecting them."
Isa Mohammed Gul, 60, fled from his home with his
family of 14 after nights of pulverising bombardment.
"I said to my wife that if we stay for one more night,
surely we will die," he said. "So we just ran away the
next day, leaving everything behind. We had no other
choice." Mr Gul's sister has been killed and he is now
frantically trying to find her children and get them
out of the city.
Others, especially the elderly and the infirm, are not
able to escape, stuck in their houses, often injured,
often cut off from other members of their extended
family by the shifting frontline.
Khalida Bassem, 30, said: "They are just firing the
shells in every direction. The wounded are not getting
any treatment, and some are in their seventies and
eighties. Some have been taken in by neighbours; we
have taken some, but others cannot go anywhere."
As darkness fell yesterday there was little sign of an
end to the fighting. Ali Nur, a warlord's militia
commander, said: "I cannot say there is calm because
both groups are preparing for war." He was visiting
wounded fellow fighters at the Medina Hospital.
"Islamic forces have barricaded the road and fighting
can start again any time."
The Islamist militias are under the nominal control of
a committee of sharia courts. Its chairman, Sheikh
Sharif Ahmed, a man who cultivates a scholastic
demeanour, claimed CIA officials had been into the
city to liaise with their client warlords. "The
warlords have no powers to enforce a ceasefire without
American approval because they are under a contract,"
In 1993, the US sent in a massively armed task force,
the overwhelmingly dominant member of a United Nations
mission to Somalia, to smash the warlords. The end to
the operation, with an American helicopter shot down,
is recalled in celluloid in the endless showings of
the film Black Hawk Down.
By the time Operation Restore Hope ended, between
6,000 and 10,000 Somalis had died. The shock of the
reversal, one of the most embarrassing episodes in the
recent history of the world's only superpower,
paralysed the administration of President Bill Clinton
for years and was a major factor in Washington's
unwillingness to intervene in the Bosnia conflict.
Now the US is backing the same warlords who humiliated
them the last time. Among the beneficiaries of
Washington's new policy is Hussein Mohammed Aidid, the
son of Mohammed Farah Aidid, on whom the Americans had
once placed a bounty of $1m (£535,000). Aidid died 10
Somalia's supposed rulers, the Transitional Federal
Government, cannot get into Mogadishu and has set up
headquarters in internal exile, at the provincial town
of Baidoa. Its President, Abdullahi Yusuf, has
bitterly complained that American support for the
warlords is severely undermining his government's
chances of gaining power.
But cheering Islamist fighters, their faces covered by
jihadist scarves, and technicals displaying quotes
from the Koran, have gained the upper hand. Their
militias have driven through the positions of the
warlords' "Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and
Counterterrorism" and have taken over almost 90 per
cent of the capital. They have captured a strategic
junction, K4, giving control of two crucial road
links: to the airport and towards the TFG headquarters
The Islamist fighters have also made the symbolic gain
of a hotel in the centre of the city, The Sahafi, a
landmark traditionally used by visiting diplomats,
politicians and journalists. But the real prize is
that they now control the Bakaraaha market, one of the
biggest arms bazaars in Africa, giving them access to
even more weaponry, which means more civilian
Ibrahim Hussein Ali, a 33-year-old carpenter, has lost
a brother and a cousin to the fighting.
"It is the worst I have ever seen, I would say worse
than the last time [in 1993]. My brother was 38 and my
cousin 22. They did not belong to any armed groups.
They were killed when their homes were shelled. I do
not know anything about al-Qa'ida or the Americans.
But these people are getting their guns from
The growing violence in Somalia has brought increasing
comparisons with Afghanistan, another poverty-stricken
Third World state used by the United States in its
confrontation with resurgent Islam.
Somalia was abandoned by the West after the American
withdrawal in much the same way Afghanistan was
abandoned at the end of the Russian war. The vacuum in
Afghanistan was filled by the emergence of the
Taliban, initially seen as an antidote to the
lawlessness of the warlords, and the subsequent
arrival of Osama bin Laden.
In Somalia, too, the Islamists, supported by Sunni
Wahabi groups in the Gulf and some neighbouring
states, are now getting a degree of support for
bringing a semblance of order the semi-anarchic state.
The methods they use are the brutal punishments meted
out through their sharia courts. The son of a man
murdered by stab wounds asked to inflict the same
number of wounds with a knife on the convicted killer;
women are stoned; and thieves have their hands
The Americans claim this "Talibanisation" has allowed
al-Qa'ida to make Somalia their headquarters in the
horn of Africa. US officials make little effort in
private to disguise their role in Somalia. Questioned
about links with the warlords, Tony Snow, the White
House press secretary, drew a thinly veiled analogy
"There is concern about the presence of foreign
terrorists, particularly al-Qa'ida, within Somalia
right now. In an environment of instability, as we
have seen, al-Qai'da may take root, and we want to
make sure al-Qa'ida does not in fact establish a
beachhead in Somalia."
A report for the United Nations Security Council has
charted the American role in Somalia in what is
described as "clandestine third-country involvement".
Without explicitly naming the US, it says Washington
has provided covert funding "to help organise and
structure a military force created to counter the
threat posed by the growing fundamentalist movement in
central and southern Somalia".
The US has set up the 2,000-strong Combined Joint Task
Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in neighbouring
Djibouti to counter the Islamist threat. Human rights
groups say armed gangs paid by Americans have abducted
people. Some have turned up at Guantanamo Bay and the
US base at Bagram in Afghanistan.
In Mogadishu, warlords are keen to talk about "foreign
fighters". One, Muse Sudi Yalahow, said they have come
mostly from neighbouring countries - Djibouti,
Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Sudan - and further
afield, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.
Another commander, Mohammed Qanyare Afrah, shows
photographs of Islamist fighters, one a light-skinned
man who he insists is non-Somali, and a darker-skinned
man who is said to be from Sudan.
The supreme spiritual leader of the Islamic courts,
Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, is believed to be
sympathetic to al-Qa'ida and has allegedly set up
madrassas in Mogadishu, where boys and young men are
allegedly trained to use weapons and explosives.
His nephew, Aden Hashi Ayro, an Islamist leader, is
said to have trained as a terrorist in Afghan-istan
and is suspected of being behind a string of bombings
and assassinations in the past year.
But the claims of al-Qa'ida presence, and the American
method of dealing with it, has led to dissent within
the administration and questions from European and
African allies. Critics believe the warlords have
significantly exaggerated the foreign fighters' scare
to ensure the supply of money from Washington does not
dry up. The reports of US involvement is said to be,
in fact, counter-productive, enabling the Islamists to
claim the anti-imperialist mantle.
Michael Zorick, an American diplomat, was moved from
his posting in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, the State
Department hub for East Africa, to Chad after, it is
said, he wrote a critical report about the Somalia
The US embassy in Kenya refused to discuss the reasons
for Mr Zorick's transfer, but it is believed the
Somali policy is being reviewed for the State
Department's head of counter-terrorism, Henry "Hank"
Crumpton. Diplomatic sources say the State Department
view of this is unlikely to have any impact on what
the CIA and the Pentagon want to do.
In Somalia, thousands of refugees have fled Mogadishu
for the town of Merka, 40 miles away. They have ended
up in the outskirts of the town, on arid land miles
from food and water, in makeshift tents made from
The UN's special adviser on displaced people, Dennis
McNamara, took a delegation to the town to prepare
emergency efforts to cope with the influx.
Hadida Mahmoud, 25, arrived there with three of her
children after walking for three days. Her
seven-year-old daughter runs away crying at the sight
of a group of policemen. "She is scared of men with
guns, all the children are scared," said the young
"We have had to leave because if we had stayed in
Mogadishu our children would not have survived. My
husband is back there looking after the house. I do
not know when we will see him again. Here we have
peace, but no food. I don't know what we are going to
do. We need help."
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