Still the Most Lawless Place on Earth

Somalia, after twenty years of civil war, has become a hotspot for the global jihadist movement

News | Justin McCauley | October 2010

Around 11 p.m. on Jul. 11, 2010, sports fans were packed into the Kyadondo Rugby Club in Kampala, Uganda, eagerly watching Spain and the Netherlands duke it out in the FIFA World Cup Final. Minutes before the culmination of the 90-minute match and the commencement of overtime, an explosion detonated directly in front of the large screen where the football was being telecast. In planned succession, a second blast immediately rocked the club. This was the second bombing attack in Kampala that night, the first being at a restaurant called Ethiopian Village, and when it was all over, 74 people were left dead. Upon inspection, the Ugandan authorities concluded that the explosions were delivered via suicide bombers. The message: stay out of Somalia.

The attacks were the work of Haraket al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, Somalia’s powerful militant Islamist group, which currently controls the southern and central parts of the country, including most of the capital, Mogadishu. This is the first time that the jihadists have struck outside of the war-torn country, a response to Uganda’s hefty troop contribution to the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). AMISOM is currently deployed in the Somali capital to help keep the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) afloat, and has recently been given a peace enforcement mandate, allowing them to more aggressively take the fight to al-Shabaab.

But the lawless East African state has been an untenable situation for twenty years now. After the overthrow of General Siad Barre’s brutal communist dictatorship in 1991, a power vacuum was created that has been filled only by civil war. The 1990s saw clan warfare reach genocidal heights; the international community responded to alleviate thousands suffering from famine, which resulted in the strongest of the warlords, Mohammed Farrah Adid, intercepting the aid shipments and declaring war on the United Nations, killing dozens of peacekeepers. The United States responded, deploying special operations troops to apprehend Adid, but after the bloody 1993 Battle of Mogadishu (the famous "Black Hawk Down" mission), the operation became politically unsustainable for the Clinton administration, and the Americans withdrew. Adid was eventually killed by factional violence.

What followed was chaos and disorder, which eventually culminated in the rise of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an Islamic fundamentalist coalition, who took control of Mogadishu in 2006. Their reign was short-lived however, and the ICU was driven from power by U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces, who re-established the TFG.

Enter al-Shabaab. An Islamist insurgency, the group’s stated goal is to create a fundamentalist state across the Horn of Africa. Its core leadership are remnants of a jihadist group al-Ittihaad al-Islamiyh, which provided protection and training camps for al-Qaeda’s East Africa cell in the early 1990s. Regrouping later in the decade after a series of decimating Ethiopian raids, al-Shabaab began targeting secular warlords and international aid workers, before becoming the ICU’s elite fighting force. After the downfall of the ICU, al-Shabaab positioned itself as the spearhead of the jihadist fight against the internationally-recognized TFG.

What is of particular concern to international observers is al-Shabaab’s potential trajectory. The group has usually confined itself to southern Somalia, sometimes executing audacious attacks in the relatively peaceful northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland. The Kampala attacks, at first, were likely just a deterrence measure, a warning to governments not to come to the TFG’s assistance.

But although al-Shabaab’s aims may remain within Somalia, it is clear that the group is becoming an important component in the al-Qaeda network and the global jihadist movement. This is likely caused by the increasing internationalization of the group, even at top levels. Al-Shabaab’s military leader, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, is a Kenyan and former leader of al-Qaeda’s East African cell, where he was involved in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. AMISOM has reported encountering foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen, Chechnya and the U.S. (where a large Somali diaspora has been a major jihadist recruiting pool).

What some experts fear is that Somalia will serve two functions: as a safe haven and a training ground. Although al-Shabaab’s ambitions are largely local, they have no qualms hosting jihadists from across the world, as evidenced by the increasing number of foreigners in their ranks – in a sense, al-Shabaab’s Somalia could look very similar to the Taliban’s Afghanistan. Moreover, like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya and Iraq, Somalia seems poised to become another training ground where jihadists can rotate in, gain experience and test and trade new tactics, ultimately creating a more dangerous and formidable enemy.

This exchange of methods is apparent by al-Shabaab’s adoption of suicide tactics, which Somali Islamists have not traditionally employed, but have long been attributed to militants in the Middle East. AMISOM forces increasingly have had to deal with this kind of violence – but so have Somali civilians. Al-Shabaab’s tactics are not only thoroughly indiscriminate – which has caused thousands of deaths – but their efforts to enforce an oppressive, Taliban-style form of Sharia have resulted in countless murders, floggings and amputations.

The international community initially refocused on Somalia as a result of the piracy problems in the Gulf of Aden. The U.S., China, Britain and many other European countries formed a naval task force to patrol the gulf to ensure the security of international shipping. But many say that the problem cannot be combated from the sea, and that what must be addressed are pirate bases and infrastructure. But Somalia is so dangerous, so non-permissive, that intelligence agencies have found it nearly impossible to operate there. What’s more is the likelihood that, if the pirates and the jihadists haven’t joined forces already, they soon will.

The U.S. has committed $185 million in funding to AMISOM, which has been matched by the European Union at €142 million. Both the EU and the U.S. are aware of the growing problems in Somalia, and seem to be willing to foot the bill to combat them. However, the bulk of the weight will fall on the soldiers of AMISOM. These troops, 6,000 from Uganda and Burundi, are engaged in a brutal war with al-Shabaab for control of Mogadishu.

The Somali Army, untrained, unpaid and malnourished, numbers at around 10,000 – they are poorly equipped, medical conditions are abysmal and desertion rates are high. They hold only a few buildings in the city, and it is clear that without the support from AMISOM, they would quickly crumble.

Al-Shabaab is around 7,000 strong, well-trained and extremely well-armed. What’s more, if jihadists continue to flow into the country, bringing with them methods tried and trusted from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, AMISOM will find itself facing a rapidly growing – and skilled – enemy force. The responsibility these African soldiers have taken upon themselves is great, and success would not only benefit the Somali government and its people, but also the international community. But now, these troops concentrate on taking back the war-ravaged ghost town of Mogadishu, street by street, house by house.

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