Somalia twists in the wind
- Somalia twists in the wind
12 - 4 - 2006
The local clan and territorial battles in Mogadishu are being reframed
by the global war. But what is really happening, asks Harun Hassan.
Somalia has been wracked by low-level violence between armed factions
for fifteen years. The collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, the
United States intervention of 1992-93, and long peace talks in
neighbouring Kenya under United Nations auspices have punctuated these
years of trauma for ordinary Somali citizens, as their country has
increasingly been awarded the contemptuous designation of "failed
state" in the eyes of the world.
Throughout this period, the vast majority of Somalis have wanted
nothing more than to resume their lives amidst security and a
sustainable economy. Today, that is looking an even more remote
prospect as the rule of arms has acquired a new, religious dimension
which raises the question: is Somalia becoming a pawn in the wider
"war on terror"?
In the last few weeks, the already war-ravaged capital city of
Mogadishu has experienced some of the heaviest and most costly
fighting of recent years. Scores of people have been killed and
hundreds injured in a dangerous new conflict that has divided
relatives and former allies while uniting former foes.
The combatants are two emerging rival groups: a faction led by the
same warlords who have been at the forefront of the country's civil
strife, supported by businessmen, and an element gathering under the
banner of the Islamic courts.
The Islamic courts, whose Mogadishu chairman is Sheik Sharif Sheik
Ahmed have so far had the upper hand in the fighting. The courts's
militias have seized heavy weapons and taken control of a seaport and
an airfield (while forcing the closure of another airfield by
threatening to shoot down any incoming planes). It is expected the
warlords will regroup and come back for more. Mogadishu is preparing
for the worst.
The mistrust between the two sides has been under the surface for a
long time, but the warlords have always been too busy with their
futile power-struggles to take on the Muslim scholars. At the same
time, the warlords have watched with alarm the gradual accretion of
authority by the Islamic courts, realising that this was both a result
of their own ineffectiveness and a threat to their future.
Meanwhile, in the vacuum of political and legal authority in recent
years and the frustration of the vast majority of the Somalis with the
warlords, the Islamic courts found their own opportunity. The courts
offered to restore peace and tranquillity to a people longing for an
alternative route, through the complete implementation of sharia law.
They point to evidence of its success in the areas that have tried it
so far. The warlords have opposed any such proposal for over a decade,
but the revival of the courts has given it a new momentum.
Thus, the all-out war that has exploded only in recent weeks has been
brewing for far longer. For more than a year, there have been
unexplained assassinations in Somalia that had every appearance of
careful planning. Among the victims were former military officers,
activists and moderate politicians, as well as human-rights and
justice workers like Abdulkadir Yahya Ali. More than twenty Muslim
scholars and top officials in the Islamic courts were also killed in
this kind of well-organised operation.
No one has been able to establish exactly who was behind the murders
on both sides. Off the record, the Islamic courts's leaders would
claim that the United States and Somalia's historic adversary Ethiopia
were recruiting former Somali army and intelligence officers to spy on
and hunt down those inside Somalia suspected of Muslim extremism.
These leaders were especially angered when a number of Muslim
dissidents of Ethiopian origin living as exiles in Somalia suddenly
disappeared, only to reappear in Ethiopian government custody.
Ethiopia has always denied any involvement in internal Somali affairs.
In any case, analysts believe that retaliation from Islamic activists
for the abductions has taken the lives of several of the former officers.
Both sides the courts's leaders and Mogadishu's warlords were
until recently united against the Somali government of President
Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, which was appointed in October 2004 as a result
of negotiations in Kenya but has since failed to establish a secure
base in Mogadishu. Instead, the government formed temporary
headquarters in several other Somali cities. This led both the
courts's leaders and the Mogadishu warlords to accuse President Yusuf
of a sinister plot to undermine Somali sovereignty in collaboration
Then, suddenly and out of nowhere, Mogadishu's main politicians turned
against the courts. A number of powerful faction leaders and
businessmen met to set up a new group called The Alliance for
Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism. Terrorism has never been
an issue in Somalia and there have never been any terrorism-related
incidents in Somalia. This made the change of tone evident in the
formation and title of this new alliance all the more striking. The
political hostility the alliance expressed had the shape of a definite
One of the main warlords behind the alliance (and the second most
powerful in the capital) is Mohamed Qanyare Afrah. Afrah has accused
the Islamic courts of harbouring foreign terrorists and assassins;
while one of the alliance's businessmen, Bashir Rage, went further: he
claimed that Interpol had given the new grouping a list of more than
seventy "suspected foreign terrorists" in Somalia under the auspices
of the Islamic courts. Rage, who has led the alliance's latest
campaign, is rumoured to be the CIA's "best man in Mogadishu".
Colonel Hassan Dahir Aweys, the most prominent Islamic courts leader,
denied these allegations and in turn accused the warlords of
"opportunism". He claimed that the warlords themselves were acting on
"the orders of foreign elements". Aweys insisted that he himself had
nothing to hide, that he had just retuned from Saudi Arabia, and that
he does not belong to any unlawful group.
There is no independent verification as to whether there are seventy
or more terrorists in Somalia. However, Kenya as well as the United
States claims that those who masterminded the attempted downing of an
Israeli plane in Mombasa in November 2002 may have planned the attack
from Somalia. The United States also regards the Somali religious
group Al-Itihad Al-Islam (AIAI) as a "terrorist organisation". Hassan
Dahir Aweys is a former head of AIAI's military wing. The group as a
whole has never concealed that its principal objective is to turn
Somalia into a religious state ruled by sharia law.
The next intervention
The clash between the warlords and the Islamic courts thus has an
international as well as a Somali dimension. It seems likely that some
help in the form of moral and financial "incentives" from other
countries presumably the United States, Italy and Ethiopia, three
countries whose designs on Somalia are (it might be said without
exaggeration) hardly "pure" has encouraged the warlords to mobilise
their forces against the courts under the guise of the new alliance.
Indeed, a US state department official who monitors Somalia is quite
explicit about US involvement in the conflict; he told AP on condition
of anonymity that "U.S. officials had made contact with a wide range
of Somalis." He declined to say what kind of support the US was supplying.
The militias involved in the latest Somali fighting belong to the same
clan groupings that are normally deployed in the field (occasionally
shifting sides in accordance with the balance of forces). What is
different is the fresh ideological dimension underlying the tension
and violence. Somalia's earlier wars have been based on local
rivalries, power-struggles and disgruntlements among ruthless but
secular warlords; this one is propelled by a more strategic but
potentially more complicated dispute.
This is making an already grim situation even more serious. What
scares many ordinary Somalis is the scale of the hostility and the
deep hatred that both sides have shown for each other; one index of
this is the way they have exchanged shellfire and heavy-weapons fire
indiscriminately in and around the 2 million inhabitants of Mogadishu.
The big question is whether this exercise will prompt another
intervention by the United States, even in the light of the failure
and humiliation that attended its "operation restore hope". The US
conducts regular sea and air surveillance over Somalia, and has
military facilities in the region that could be a stepping-stone to
such involvement (including a large military base in neighbouring
The US's predicament in Iraq makes an immediate US commitment to a
physical presence in Somalia unlikely. But the US worries that the
lack of political progress and popular disaffection with the warlords
will lead Somalis to give more support to the Islamic courts.
Some leaders, including President Yusuf, are in favour of some
international intervention. Both sides involved in the current
Mogadishu fighting oppose the idea, but they face their own dilemma:
how to afford to continue fighting. The warlords have more money,
militias and guns compared to the Islamic courts, but the courts are
determined and well-organised, and can draw on significant backing
The United Nations, which monitors the situation from Kenya, wants
both sides to stop fighting. Its agencies are afraid that a worsening
humanitarian crisis could be intensified by severe starvation, as the
absence of a functioning administration makes it near-impossible to
cope with the pressures of drought. Somalis fear that the disaster
that has engulfed the country since 1991 shows as yet no sign of ending.