High Stakes in Somalia – ISN

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By Simon Roughneen in Nairobi for ISN Security Watch

Somalia Islamist militia members rest next to a truck carrying an anti aircraft gun that they have seized from the warlords. Photograph: Mohamed Sheikh Nor/AP

Somalia Islamist militia members rest next to a truck carrying an anti aircraft gun that they have seized from the warlords. Photograph: Mohamed Sheikh Nor/AP

With allegations and denials abounding that Ethiopian army regulars crossed into Somalia on 17 June, the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) -Islamic Court Union (ICU) talks scheduled for Yemen this week will take on added bite.

And with a UN official suggesting that arms are flowing into Somalia in contravention of an embargo, security in Somalia and in the Horn of Africa region could be set to deteriorate in the coming days and weeks.

Militias loyal to the ICU wrested control of Mogadishu on 5 June from secular warlords widely viewed as backed by Washington, after a three-month battle that cost upward of 300 lives. The US sees the ICU as being a potential seedbed for Islamic terrorism.

Reports suggest that the Islamist militias are debating an attack on the TFG outpost of Baidoa, torpedoing the talks scheduled for Yemen and foreshadowing an ICU take-over of Somalia.

The terror threat: overblown or mishandled?

Somali Islam has historically been a Sufi-mystical variant, with scant regard for politicization or militancy. Somali society is renowned for its openness and oral culture, which makes the sort of foreign or ill-fitting extremism that wahhabist or al-Qaida operatives promote difficult to conceal.

However, terrorist attacks have emanated from Somali soil. Washington’s involvement, proven or otherwise, is predicated on a desire to undermine any international terrorist threat to US interests, given that al-Qaida operatives used Somalia as a rear base to blow up the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998, to attempt to shoot down a British Airways jet at Nairobi’s international airport, and the October 2002 suicide attack at an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa. One of the leading ICU militants is implicated in the murders in Somalia of an Italian aid worker and a BBC journalist in recent years.

Stephen Morrison, director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Africa Programme, told ISN Security Watch that “it makes sense Somalia is the site of this type of network […] Somalia offers backward linkages to South Asia and the Middle East; there are local sympathies and partners, as well as easy entry and exit.”

The concern for the US now is that an Islamist state would provide refuge for the likes of al-Qaida, akin to the Taliban in Afghanistan sheltering Osama bin Laden prior to 9/11. However, dealing with terrorism in Somalia requires a policy framework that goes beyond arming or financing warlords. In a context of a failed state that is awash with weapons, riven by intrigue, debilitated by an ongoing humanitarian crisis and vulnerable to infiltration, the lack of support for Somalia’s transitional political institutions appears a mistake.

Princeton Lyman, director of Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told ISN Security Watch: “The American policy for the last several years has been to focus on counter-terrorist intelligence and apprehension in Somalia, basically an opportunistic, relatively short-term policy, not to participate with any seriousness on the political developments to fashion a united Somalia. Now we see the shortcomings of the American policy. A vacuum eventually gets filled.”

He described the US response as “too limited. To address Somalia’s future adequately, one needs to bring together not only the neighboring African countries but Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and others. This is difficult, as interests among them [and with the US] conflict. So it will be a long term process. We are years late, as we start on what will take years to fix.”

An African Taliban?

The top Shariah court hierarchy met in Jowhar on 17 June, with sources saying a split was emerging between moderates and hardliners. The latter want the Islamic militia to move towards Baidoa and oust the TFG from its base.

The clan-based courts were established in 1998 and have gained popular support by providing a semblance of order in Mogadishu. The ICU is a system of 11 autonomous courts, led by the apparently moderate Sheikh Ahmed, who has since sought to reassure the world of his antiterrorist credentials and suggested a willingness to do business with the US.

However, the weakness of the TFG has prompted the more hard-line elements to suggest a push on Baidoa, which would leave Somalia one step further on the way to forming an Islamist state. Whether Ahmed is sufficiently in control of the ICU militias to legitimize a deal with the TFG in Yemen remains difficult to gauge.

Somalia, de facto divided into three regions – the secular and unrecognized Somaliland and Puntland in the north of the country, and the chaotic warlord patchwork of southern and central Somalia – has not seen central government since the fall of the Soviet-backed Barre regime in 1991.

Sally Healy, Associate Fellow at the Africa Programme at Chatham House, told ISN Security Watch that “Somalia’s capital had been divided up for well over a decade among these individuals who used their control of strategic assets – airports, roads, etc – principally to make money. They have been a major barrier to previous efforts to form a government.

Part of the ICU rationale has apparently been the reestablishment of law, order, and the eventual reestablishment of a functioning Somali state.

According to Princeton Lyman: “The ICU has repeated the strategy of the Taliban in building support through providing some degree of local order out of chaos and then translating that into a very effective war machine. It has control of large pieces of the country now.”

However, Lyman cautioned that “the outcome would in any case be a fragile one, no more stable than today’s Afghanistan and probably less so.”

The odds against stability

The stakes are high for local, regional, and international actors – probably too high to allow the ICU establish a viable Sharia state in Somalia.

Secular warlords provided four ministers to the TFG, and it is likely that vested commercial interests, clan linkages, and an aversion to a Shariah state could lead to stiff and prolonged resistance to the ICU militias, even if the latter succeed in extending their control over much of southern and central Somalia.

Beyond, the would-be secessionist regions of Somaliland and Puntland, de jure part of Somalia, but in reality autochthonous entities with secular administrations of their own, will regard the ICU offensive as a threat to their nascent sovereignty.

Ethiopia intervened militarily to destroy the al-Ittihad bases in Somalia throughout the 1990s, and the recent allegations that the Ethiopian army was moving across the defunct Somali border would serve to bolster the militant voices in the ICU.

Ethiopia is viewed by suspicion by Somalis, irrespective of the fervor of their Islamic beliefs, as a Christian-secular US proxy and would-be hegemon in the Horn of Africa.

However, Ethiopia has its own concerns in Somalia, where ethnic Oromo dissidents mix in with Oromo refugees in Somalia, fleeing their drought-ridden and impoverished part of Ethiopia.

It is not inconceivable that an Ethiopian incursion into Somalia to confront the ICU would lead to an upsurge of Oromo activity and/or terrorist attacks in the Amharic heartland of Ethiopia. In recent months, a number of unexplained bomb attacks have killed almost 20 people in Addis Ababa

And neighboring African states may seek to intervene to prevent the emergence of a threat to their interests. Already, the TFG has approved the deployment of Kenyan and Sudanese peacekeepers in Somalia, a move opposed by the ICU. Kenya’s vital tourist industry took a hit after the 1998 and 2002 al-Qaida attacks, and doubtless would prefer to see a secular state in Somalia.

What response?

While African states look to deploying peacekeepers in Somalia, the US convened a meeting of the Somalia Contact Group in New York on 15 June. The meeting brought 67 states together – but only Tanzania from the immediate region. Other important actors – Ethiopia, Gulf States such as Yemen, now to be the site of peace talks, were not involved. Given the international indifference to Somalia since the fall of the Barre regime, the latest developments are not encouraging.

Stephen Morrison reminded ISN Security Watch that “by contrast with Sudan, there is no strong domestic US constituency for serious engagement on Somalia,” adding that “I do not expect the US will realistically get very serious about a policy of engagement in reconstructing Somalia versus the current strategy of containment.”

Over a dozen reconciliation conferences have been held in Somalia since the early 1990s. The TFG that emerged from the regional peace process has been powerless and lacks legitimacy. Somalia’s humanitarian needs are immense. The intense and high-level policy engagement needed to revive a functioning administration and polity in Somalia has not been provided, and by all accounts will not come to pass. The thesis that an Islamist government would provide stability seems premature, and may well prolong or exacerbate Somalia’s decade-old misery, and contribute to tension and insecurity in the Horn of Africa and beyond.

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