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Editorial / Op-ed

U.S. stirring pot in Somalia



February 10, 2007

Montreal Gazette


KIUNGA, Somalia - He was a quiet American, and an oddity in Kiunga. For 20 hours I had rammed the Range Rover through tse-tse fly-infested jungles teeming with buffalo. When earlier this month I limped into this Indian Ocean village, within earshot of U.S. air strikes against Islamists across the frontier in Somalia, astonished Swahili fishermen said mine was the first vehicle to arrive for three months. Soon afterward, the American - let's call him "Carter" - appeared out of nowhere.


Two U.S. navy warships bobbed on the horizon and we could hear fighter jets hunting for Islamic militants a few miles to the north. Carter said he worked for U.S. Civil Affairs. He had the awkward manner of a stage actor who doesn't know what to do with his hands. His skin was pallid beneath the equatorial sun and for hours he sat alone, watching children play among fish bones in the dust. When we went to eat with the locals, Carter refused to join us. He had brought his own food. He was unable to speak Swahili and said he was no good at languages, having failed in his attempts to learn Arabic.


If young Carter seems out of his depth, then so is the United States, which is helping to transform a backwater tribal conflict in Africa's Horn into what could turn out to be the worst Islamist insurgency in the world after Iraq and Afghanistan.


For almost a decade, Washington's policy in Somalia has hinged on the hunt for Al-Qa'ida terrorists, and particularly the men wanted for killing 225 people in the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam U.S. embassy bombings of 1998, and the 2002 attacks on Israelis in Mombasa. The U.S. air strikes earlier this month were specifically aimed at these men - Fazul Abdallah Mohamed, Abu Taha al-Sudani, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. They escaped.


So did Aden Hashi Ayro, a Somali linked to Al-Qa'ida, but some of his followers were killed. For Washington, it was the second bungled attempt to kill or capture Ayro, who was linked to a string of assassinations when he was leader of an extremist militia known as Shabaab (Arabic for "youth").


Somalia's current phase of chaos is not simply the latest episode in a civil conflict that has dragged on since 1991; it is also the direct result of a rogue CIA operation that went badly wrong. Al-Qa'ida fugitives have long taken refuge in Mogadishu. After 9/11, Washington did a policy U-turn by recruiting as bounty-hunters the very same warlords its forces had fought during the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" battle. In return for suitcases of cash, the warlords handed over a flow of Al-Qa'ida suspects, who were ferried on rendition flights to the new U.S. base at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti.


No really "high-value" terrorists were captured, but U.S. intelligence at least got some good information and was able to avert several terrorism plots in Kenya. One of them was the 2003 plan to drive a truck-bomb into a taxiing British Airways jet in Nairobi.


The terrorists are associated by the Americans with the Islamic Courts Union, which has operated in Mogadishu since the 1990s. A couple of years ago, this coalition of Muslims, by no means all of them militants, began to assert themselves as a political force, and quickly gained popularity among residents exhausted by the gun rule of the warlords. To the Americans, however, the courts were just another manifestation of Al-Qa'ida. The CIA tried to organize some of the most brutal warlords into an "anti-terrorism" political alliance against the them. The policy backfired: Mogadishu residents rose up against the warlords in support of the Islamists, who last June seized control of the ruined city and became its de facto government.


When I visited Mogadishu in November, I observed how the Islamic Courts had kick-started the economy and established peace on the streets for the first time in 16 years. But U.S. propaganda had turned them into international pariahs, and in response to the perceived threat from the West, Ayro and the extremists gained control of the courts. Taliban-style rule was imposed. The popular stimulant qat was banned, along with cinemas, long hair and World Cup football on TV. The West and African countries put their confidence in a "transitional government" formed in 2004 and led by President Abdullahi Yusuf. This government, dominated by former warlords, sat in the farming town of Baidoa, bankrolled by the UN and protected by forces from neighbouring Ethiopia. A Christian-led country with a majority Muslim population, Ethiopia is motivated in this saga by its deep fear of Islamic militancy in the Horn.


Just before Christmas, Washington gave Ethiopia the green light to invade Somalia. The offensive wiped out about 1,000 Islamists. The de facto government of the courts fell. Its leaders fled. U.S. neocons gloated over what they saw as a victory for the good guys in the war on terror. But they overlooked the complexities of the conflict. Somalia is facing a fresh surge of civil conflict.


The militants' network of schools, mosques and finances is still intact. Most of the Islamist clan forces melted away in Mogadishu with enough weapons to fight an Iraqi-style insurgency. After vowing to disarm the capital, the Ethiopians and their government allies have on a daily basis fallen victim to bloody hit-and-run attacks.


Not only that, but Ethiopia's invasion and the U.S. strikes have also made heroes of the Somali militants among jihadis across the world and have, thus, further internationalized the conflict. Even before the Ethiopian/U.S. intervention, when I was in Mogadishu in November, I was struck by the large number of Somali youths with British accents.


Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said this month he wanted to start withdrawing his troops "within days," but the transitional government is so loathed in Mogadishu that without Addis Ababa's support it would probably quickly implode. This is because at root Somalia's conflict is still driven by clan politics: The transitional government is dominated by Darood, and the Islamic Courts and the majority of Mogadishu's residents are from the Hawiye clans. The only way to avert catastrophe, it seems, is for Yusuf to offer an olive branch to moderate Islamists and the Hawiye, but chances of that happening are slim. The president is an ex-warlord in his 70s who owns the transplanted liver of a young Englishman. He has declared martial law, which has done nothing to calm passions.


If a U.S.-backed African Union plan to deploy 8,000 peacekeepers goes ahead, prepare for bloody disaster. How can it do any better than the 30,000-strong U.S.-led UN mission that collapsed in 1995?


The Somalis are fearless fighters who often call other black non-Muslim Africans "adon," or "slave." In 1994, they disarmed an entire battalion of Zimbabwean blue helmets, looted their weapons and sent them walking back to Mogadishu in their underpants.


Before the Islamists' retreat, I sipped camel's milk at the front line with their field commander, Abu Mansoor. I asked what he would do if it came to fighting the Ethiopians.


"My arms will become tired from beheading them," he laughed. And what about Americans and foreign peacekeepers? Abu Mansoor told me he had prayed at his sons' births that their lives would bring them the opportunity to die as martyrs in holy war.


Copyright 2007 Montreal Gazette










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