Somalia, the Third Front Revisited


Somalia today is approaching a cataclysm not seen since the early 1990s, and the U.S. role has added in no small part to the misery that once again engulfs the war-weary Horn of Africa nation.

The brutal Ethiopian military occupation of Somalia that began on Christmas Eve 2006 has sustained heavy losses over the past 20 months. The conflict has strained Ethiopian resources and Addis Ababa is currently reviewing its overall strategy. What remains of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), barring a massive new foreign military intervention, teeters on the edge of collapse. In its place an already powerful Islamist insurgency is strengthening rapidly. Warlordism, criminality, and piracy are reaching new heights. All the while, the Somali population remains under siege, caught between abuses on all sides as its society literally disintegrates.

Underwriting a significant portion of the bloodshed has been a U.S. administration engaged in expansive warfare with a preference for covert military operations. Somalia has long been of strategic interest to U.S. policymakers. The country sits next to the strait of Bab al-Mandeb, a key oil transit waterway between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean—the second closest point between Africa and the Middle East. During the Cold War the dictatorship of General Siad Barre was the long-time recipient of generous amounts of U.S. military and economic largesse. In 1991, after years of unrest, rebellion, and protracted drought, Barre’s regime collapsed into famine, war, and chaos. George H. W. Bush ordered U.S. forces into the country a year later in support of the United Nations relief program, culminating in the Battle of Mogadishu and the now-famous Black Hawk Down incident.

At the time of the U.S. withdrawal and international disengagement, no single actor was strong enough to establish and maintain control. Somalia fractured along semi-permanent tribal lines and warlord fiefdoms that would come to define the country’s social and political landscape. For more than a decade and a half, the territory was left to fester in ungoverned criminality and violence, only rarely making international headlines.

September 2001 and the wars in the Middle East brought renewed U.S. focus to the Horn of Africa. For some time, a diverse group of Islamists, clan leaders, businesspeople, militia heads, and civic actors had been coalescing into what would in 2005 become the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a heterogeneous movement seeking to establish a semblance of law and order after years of chaos.

The Courts proved to be well organized, disciplined, and effective civil administrators. They were popular with average Somalis, even the less devout, all of whom were desperate for relief from the criminal gangs and brutality that had long ruled their country. The Islamists also began to challenge the weak, faction-ridden TFG—the successor to 13 previous failed attempts at creating a central government—which had been confined to the provincial town of Baidoa, headed by President Abdullahi Yusuf, closely linked to Mogadishu’s warlords.

Alarmed at the Islamic Courts’ growing strength and popularity, in early 2006 the CIA began supplying significant quantities of arms and money to a coalition of secular Mogadishu warlords under the name Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT). The CIA program had been a poorly conceived attempt to hunt down the small number of al-Qaeda affiliated individuals involved in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, then thought to be hiding in Somalia. But the operation failed disastrously and, according to reports, "the payoffs added to an anarchic situation that led many Somalis to turn to the Islamic Courts for protection" (Washington Post, May 13, 2007).

The Islamists struck preemptively and decisively, routing the warlords and seizing control of Mogadishu within a matter of weeks. For six months in 2006, the Union of Islamic Courts proceeded to establish security and the provision of basic social services in much of Somalia for the first time in 15 years. The peace provided by the Islamists also came with more conservative social policies and a type of sharia law. For average Somalis, however, the security of the Courts brought a brief respite from their usual suffering.

The Bush administration, seeing Somalia and the Islamic Courts through the lens of its war on terror and, having botched the earlier warlord program, began stepping up aid to long-time ally and neighboring Ethiopian autocrat Meles Zenawi. Zenawi has held power in Ethiopia since the early 1990s. During a crackdown against popular protests after fraudulent elections in 2005, Zenawi’s security forces massacred nearly 200 people, injured 760 more, and arrested an additional 20,000, among them opposition leaders, foreign aid workers, and journalists. Nonetheless, since 2002, Ethiopia has received nearly $25 million in overt U.S. military assistance while at least 100 U.S. military personnel currently work inside Ethiopia in advisory positions as part of what the Pentagon characterizes as a "close working relationship" with the Ethiopian military.

Less than two weeks before the invasion, in mid-December 2006, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer publicly declared, "The Council of Islamic Courts is now controlled by al-Qaeda cell individuals, east Africa al-Qaeda cell individuals." The claim was dubious and he provided no evidence. Horn of Africa specialist Ken Menkhaus noted in February 2007 that the Islamic Courts "movement as a whole was far from an al-Qaeda front. Only three foreign al-Qaeda operatives were said by the US to be in hiding in Mogadishu, a number far lower than those suspected of residing in neighboring Kenya."

Assistant Secretary Frazer warned of "a risk Al Qaeda may take up bases in Somalia," but denied that the United States would take military action against the Courts. Similarly, then-UN Ambassador John Bolton told reporters in early December 2006: "The United States strongly believes that a sustainable solution in Somalia should be based on credible dialogue between the [TFG] and the UIC and we continue to work with our African and other partners toward that end."

Behind the scenes, General John Abizaid, at the time U.S. Centcom commander, had already visited Addis Ababa to express some last minute reservations to Prime Minister Zenawi. The decision had been made, though, and ultimately Washington lent its support to the invasion.

The Ethiopian military crossed the Somali border on December 24, 2006 and later reports indicated that "CIA agents traveled with the Ethiopian troops, helping to direct operations" (the London Independent, February 9, 2008). The United States provided important satellite intelligence and other battleground information from unmanned Predator drones. "A lot of what we taught them was used to fight that global War on Terror," observed a U.S. military advisor who had trained Ethiopian soldiers now fighting in Somalia. In terms of weaponry, he noted, "They got what they needed."

U.S. Special Forces also conducted periodic operations inside Somali territory, possibly moving out of a rumored CIA base in eastern Ethiopia. The full extent and exact type of activity is not known, but reports of their movements have been confirmed by Somali officials. As TFG Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein explained to reporters in February 2008, "The presence of the CIA, the presence of [U.S.] troops, is not a big issue. We like that they are here. But right now they don’t have a permanent military presence. They come in and out."

U.S. warships moved into position off the coast of Somalia in anticipation of the invasion. Acting on intelligence from the ground, Washington ordered bombing raids targeting what it believed to be Islamic militants. U.S.-piloted AC-130 gunships and cruise missiles have blasted Somali territory at least a half dozen times since January 2007. The first of these air raids killed what turned out to be 70 Somali goat herders whom the Pentagon had initially claimed were Islamic fighters. After several other attempts, in May 2008, the bombings finally succeeded in killing the leader of the al-Shabaab militia, Aden Hashi Ayro. The strike also demolished the surrounding homes, killing ten others and leading to anti-U.S. protests.

The Ethiopian military captured Mogadishu before New Year’s Day 2007. The most powerful army in the region devastated organized UIC forces. But the remaining militants fled and quickly melted back into the larger civilian population. As predicted, the collapse of the Islamic Courts and the subsequent Ethiopian occupation led to a relentless Iraq-style insurgency—one that has been rapidly gaining strength.

The insurgents have successfully used roadside bombs, hit-and-run attacks, and assassinations targeted at government officials to assault the TFG and its Ethiopian backers. Increasingly, they have routed Ethiopian and TFG military forces in direct confrontations, moving to capture and hold swathes of territory for extended periods of time.

Ethiopian and TFG forces, for their part, responded with a ferocious campaign to root out militants in Mogadishu and surrounding areas. The vicious counterinsurgency has seen the regular shelling of densely populated urban neighborhoods. Distinctions between civilians and insurgents are often irrelevant to security forces that frequently prey on the Somali population. Looting, rape, torture, mutilation, and cutting the throats of victims are regular tactics of Ethiopian and TFG forces. These are the same methods the Ethiopian military has used to suppress another ongoing insurgency in the Ogaden desert. The most recent report from Amnesty International recounts episodes too horrific to quote here.

Thus, Somalis are caught in the crossfire between Ethiopian and TFG security forces, insurgents, warlords, criminals, and U.S. gunships. The "more common complaint among ordinary Somalis," according to reporters, however, "is that the Ethiopians are ‘indiscriminate’ in their reprisals—and that this is why Mogadishu has been emptied of people."

The human cost has been staggering. The forces of war and drought are rapidly converging on the Horn of Africa nation in a perfect storm against the Somali population. The civilian death toll since the invasion is fast approaching 10,000. More than a million people have fled their homes, including half of Mogadishu, and are now living in squalid, makeshift refugee camps.

The food and fuel crisis that has affected international markets has combined with the disruption of fighting, looting, inflation, and a failure of the seasonal rains to push Somalia to the absolute brink. The country now stands on the verge of famine on a scale not seen since the early 1990s when an estimated 300,000 Somalis starved to death. Recent UN estimates hold that more than 3.25 million people, nearly half the population, are currently in need of food aid. International officials have long been calling the situation the most horrific humanitarian disaster on the African continent.

As in Iraq, the war on terror in Somalia has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, sowing the increasing radicalization and anti-Westernization of an entire population of poor Third World people. In recent months there has been new evidence of foreign fighters inside Somalia—decidedly not the case when Jendayi Frazer declared two weeks prior to the invasion that Somalia was "now controlled by al-Qaeda cell individuals."

While the leadership of the Islamic Courts was originally a mix of moderate and conservative Islamic actors, the insurgency no longer maintains this character. A peace agreement between the former moderate elements of the Courts, now called the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, and the TFG has already concluded to no effect. The old leaders of the Courts no longer control the insurgency. Battle-hardened al-Shabaab militants, perhaps poised to succeed the Transitional Federal Government, espouse a far more radical and anti-Western Islamic ideology.

For the moment, the intervention in Somalia appears to be coming full circle. In September two Somalis in their early 20s were arrested at a German airport on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks somewhere in the West. They were released due to insufficient evidence, but German intelligence officials believe the men were arrested too early.

Somalia has indeed been a third front in the war on terror. A quiet front, but a front nonetheless. Six months after the Ethiopian invasion, Defense Department spokesperson Bryan Whitman told reporters, "The very nature of some of our operations, as well as the success of those operations, is often predicated on our ability to work quietly with our partners and allies." Now, almost two years into the occupation, few can still maintain delusions of success in the Horn of Africa. Perhaps most troubling is that the current episode must be seen against the background of the recent creation of AFRICOM and the larger militarization of U.S. foreign policy in Africa.

What becomes of Somalia remains to be seen. What is certain is that the U.S. has taken a group of the world’s most destitute, desperate, and brutalized people and brutalized them some more. We might expect to see angry young Somali bringing violence to the West in the future. Whether we know it or not, we have certainly brought it to them. This is the Bush administration’s legacy and it will be with us for a long time to come.

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Matthew Blood is an independent journalist who has lived and traveled in sub-Saharan Africa.