Counter-terrorism in Somalia, or: how external interferences helped to produce militant Islamism

Article by: Markus Virgil Hoehne, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

Note: For more detailed analysis, download the full version of this essay on the Crisis in the Horn of Africa essay forum.

Somalia has made international headlines for almost two decades now, first as a state of civil war characterized by clan warfare and humanitarian catastrophe, then as a failed state, and finally as a potential safe haven for Islamic terrorists. Contrary to the assumption about “˜black holes’ and ungoverned spaces voiced by politicians and some academics, the Harmony Project of the Center for Combating Terrorism at West Point has recently shown that the absence of a government in Somalia did not automatically provide fertile ground for Al Qaeda terrorism. Its researchers, who had access to declassified intelligence reports on Al Qaeda activities in the Horn in the early 1990s concluded that the foreign Islamist activists faced similar problems as did the UN and US humanitarian and military intervention in Somalia (1992-1995): they were partly distrusted as “˜foreigners’ who adhered to a version of Islam that was not popular in Somalia, they ran into problems with always changing clan and sub-clan alliances, they suffered from the weak infrastructure of the country, they lacked security, they were exposed to external interventions since no government could uphold Somalia’s sovereignty, and they were at risk of being “˜sold’ by petty criminals and others in Somalia to the enemy (the US).

Nonetheless, some terrorist attacks in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania (between 1996 and 2002) have been carried out by using Somalia as a “˜corridor’ into the region and for smuggling in weapons and personnel. After the attacks, some terrorists hid in Somalia. Clearly, a number of Somali extremists were trained in Somalia by foreign fighters, and some Somalis went to Afghanistan in the 1990s and early 2000s in order to receive training and gain combat experience at the Taliban’s side. Still, Somalia did not become a safe haven for Al Qaeda, and terrorist training facilities were extremely limited and quickly dismantled after the 9/11 attacks, for fear of US reprisals. UN missions to southern Somalia in the fall of 2001 concluded that no training camps or fundamentalist activities could be identified. In sum, Somalia was never a major field of Al Qaeda activities in the 1990s.

A further factor preventing Somalia from becoming an Islamist-controlled territory, at least up until 2005, was the heterogeneity of the local “˜Islamist camp’. Within groups such as Al Itihad and the courts, influential individuals held different views, for instance regarding the appropriateness of the use of violence. This led to schisms and uneasy alliances of convenience. Moreover, all Islamist groups had to consider the genealogical factor involved in the Somali civil war. Despite their aim to transcend “˜clan’ and establish an Islamic state, they had to cooperate with clan and sub-clan elders and warlords and their militias. Until 2005, militant Islamists did not enjoy popular support in Somalia. They also were not so well connected internationally. This increasingly changed with the violent external interference of Ethiopia and the US and the establishment of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) under Abdullahi Yusuf in late 2004, who gained international recognition while lacking legitimacy in most parts of Somalia (apart from Puntland, his “˜clan-homeland’ in north-eastern Somalia). Particularly the joint Ethiopian and US-American counter-terrorism strategy after the 9/11 attacks contributed to the radicalization of a small group of dedicated Jihadists, which provided the nucleus for the later unfolding of extremist violence in Somalia.

Between 2002 and 2005, dozens of Somalis were abducted and assassinated in a “˜dirty war’ between “˜terrorists’ and “˜counter-terrorists’ in Mogadishu. When Ethiopia and the US finally encouraged (and paid) a group of warlords in early 2006 to form the Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT) in order to snatch terror suspects in Mogadishu and keep the local shari’a courts in check, the situation escalated. The local Islamic courts, many of which existed for a decade and provided law and order in various neighborhoods in Mogadishu and surroundings, joined forces and attacked the warlord alliance. In June 2006 they unexpectedly managed to drive the warlords out of the capital. The latter had lost popular support long ago as most Somalis had grown tired of the continued low-intensity warfare and the insecurity in the country benefitting primarily the warlords. Initially, the Islamists were extremely popular and could quickly expand their sphere of influence. Since they delivered some basic law and order and nascent “˜state’ services, most people in southern and central Somalia welcomed them. The international community, worried about the little known Somali “˜Taliban’, called for negotiations between the Islamists and the TFG that was politically divided and spatially confined to the town of Baydhoa in central Somalia. The negotiations were facilitated by the Arab League. They finally foundered in fall 2006, due to the fact that, first, within the UIC militants had gained increasingly in influence. The above mentioned jihadist nucleus had become institutionalized in the form of the Al Shabaab “˜youth’ organization, which officially came under the UIC umbrella. However, it showed tendencies to split the courts movement. Second, also the TFG and Ethiopia had not really been interested in negotiating with the Islamists but favored a military “˜solution’. The US, following Jendayi Frazers (then U.S. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs) extremely Ethiopian-friendly assessment, finally accepted the claim that the UIC was controlled by Al Qaeda and politically and logistically supported the military intervention of around 14,000 Ethiopian troops in December 2006.

Since then, militant Islamism gained momentum in Somalia. Between January 2007 and December 2008, the Ethiopian and TFG forces were confronted by an Islamist and clan insurgency against what many in Mogadishu and southern Somalia perceived as foreign and Darood occupation (Abdullahi Yusuf belongs to the Darood clan family; after his election as President of Somalia, many clan-relatives joined him as soldiers in the Somali “˜national’ army; Mogadishu is dominated by members of the Hawiye clan family that historically had been involved in brutal fighting with the Darood in the early 1990s). Thousands of civilians were killed in the war. The UIC leadership went into exile in Eritrea where it split into a “˜moderate’ and an “˜extremist’ faction in 2008. The former, headed by the former UIC-Chairman Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, entered into negotiations with parts of the TFG and the United Nations, and was finally invited to Djibouti to form a new government, after Abdullahi Yusuf had lost the backing of Ethiopia and the international community. Ethiopia wished to withdraw from the extremely violent war theater it had helped to create. When Sheikh Sharif was elected as new TFG-President in January 2009, many Somalis and external observers briefly hoped for a new start of the transitional government. However, it was clear from the beginning that the extremists, particularly the militants of Al Shabaab, refused to accept Sheikh Sharif’s authority. Al Shabaab had started as a small group of extremists. But after the Ethiopian intervention it had become independent and transformed into the most militant and powerful southern Somali front fielding several thousand trained and ideologically oriented fighters. Even the “˜targeted’ killing of its long-term leader, Aadan Hashi Ayro, by a US missile in May 2008 did not weaken the movement. To the contrary, its new leader, Abdi Ahmed Godane, took over immediately after Ayro’s death and pledged support to Osma Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. After the withdrawal of the Ethiopian army, Al Shabaab took over most of the vacant positions and began to govern large parts of southern and central Somalia. It became notorious for administering harsh corporal punishment and death sentences against enemies and criminals.

The militant opposition against Sheik Sharif took shape when Hassan Dahir Aweys, Sheikh Sharifs former co-leader in the UIC, who had not joined his “˜moderate turn’ in 2008, came to Mogadishu in April 2009 and took over the chairmanship of the newly founded Hizbul Islam. Hizbul Islam and Al Shabaab joined forces; fighting with the TFG started in May 2009. Currently, the “˜moderate’ Islamists of the TFG (which actually includes a variety of opportunistic and corrupt Somali politicians, some warlords and Islamists of various orientations) can only survive with the strong support of the AMISOM (African Union “˜peacekeepers’ sent to Somalia originally in 2007 to aide the TFG; since then the AU troops have stayed on and gotten involved in the local fighting on various occasions) and the US. In June 2009, Washington had arranged for a 40 tons weapons and ammunition shipment to the TFG.

Arguably, the comparison of the UIC to the Taliban that was popular in 2006 was not well founded. There had been major discrepancies between both movements, such as the actual absence of much combat experience on the side of the UIC, and the lack of a consistent ideology among the Somali Islamists back then. Yet, in 2009, after three years of insurgency and fighting, the militant Somali Islamists, particularly Al Shabaab, in fact resemble the battle hardened and ideologically uncompromising Taliban of 1996, ready to rule a country. In this sense, the anti-Islamist propaganda of 2006 has fulfilled itself.

Somalia since 2006 is possibly the clearest example for the failure of US (and Ethiopian) counter-terrorism policy, which actually has produced what it was supposed to counter. Sociologically speaking, these developments demonstrate the entrapments of unintended consequences even for the globally most powerful actors.

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7 thoughts on “Counter-terrorism in Somalia, or: how external interferences helped to produce militant Islamism

  1.   There are several factor that put the Somali people in this condition. One is the type of leadership and two standing united. Those two factors are element that is killing the African continent like poison entering heart of a human being without a cure.

      The people of Somalia need to go back to basics. Take a step back, take stock and redirect their anger into more positive approach to get themselves out of this terrible condition they are in. 

  2. Maybe American and Ethiopian policies towards Somalia were not always the wisest. Can be debated. With hindsight some people become very clever.

    However, the primary actors responsible for Islamic totalitarianism and terrorism running rampant in Somalia are not the Ethiopians and Americans, but the Somalis. Somali Islamic totalitarainism and terrorism was there before the Ethiopian intervention — in fact it triggered it — and American missile attacks.

    Moreover, why react to Ethiopian / American actions with Islamic militancy? Why not with other ideologies and actions of resistance? There is no fully deterministic nexus between Ethiopian / American interference and Islamic militancy. The latter is only chosen by people who are already highly prone to such totalitarian thinking and the violent path of action it prescribes.

    There are hierarchies of responsibility and blame which the author conveniently neglects. He focuses exclusively on the secondary, tertiary, quarternary, whatever responsibility/culpability of outsiders, while ignoring the primary responsibility of the local Somali actors. Ultimately, it amounts to little less than a piece of clever Euro social scientist US bashing.

    And what exactly, by the way, is the contribution of stoning “adulterers” or “adulturesses” to resistance against (now absent) Ethiopians or Americans?

  3. Just to reply to Herzog:
    Of course we all are cleverer with the benefit of hindsight. The US administration and its analysts are not different in this regard (look at current analyses of decision taking and interferences concerning Iraq and Afghanistan). In my paper, however, I tried to show exactly that there was a fertile soil for Islamism in Somalia (which is a very wide term which refers to political and socially active agents who refuse violence as well as to those who pursue their political and other visions violently). Yet, it was the Ethiopian and US interventions that added the fertilizer to make the existing movement first, violent, and second, acceptable (from end of 2006 to end of 2008) to large parts of the Somali population that previously did NOT sympathize with militant Islamists, at least. This last point directly translated into crowds of young Somalis giving up their ‘meaningless life’ in a failed state and joining Al Shabaab for a ‘good cause’. This is the reason why we today have about 5000 Al Shabaab fighters and not 2-300 as in 2006.
    Regarding Islamic totalitarianism – one could easily argue that this is an answer to ‘democratic totalitarianism’ that anyway only insufficiently disguises economic and geo-political interests of the currently dominating posers – led by the USA, followed suit by European governments, and increasingly played along with by Russia, China, India, Iran and so forth (whose interests of course partly conflict with the interests of the USA and European states). Certainly, not all of the dynamics of Islamic violence always answer ‘Western’ or better: neo-imperial violence. But very often they actually do – beginning with the Mujahediin’s response to the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, which was greatly aided by the US.
    To pretend that neo-imperial politics would not have a very great part in the current mess of Somalia and other violent places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and maybe soon Yemen etc. would mean to be utterly blind to the consequences of contemporary geo-politics.

  4. Mr. Hoehne,

    you are being disingenious on a number of counts.

    You only mention Al-Shabaab, but ignore the Mah’aakim islaamiyya (Islamic Courts). While the former indeed are mostly a post-intervention phenomenon, the former were there before the Ethiopian army ever crossed into Somalia. Moreover, the IC boasted very publicly that they intended to march into Ethiopia (with the ultimate goal of turning it into an Islamic country even); and they were highly violent at that time already.

    The IC don’t fit your narrative matrix — large-scale violent Somali Islamism (and there never is a collectively non-violent one; or can you name an example?) only as a reaction to outside intervention — so you have conveniently chosen to ignore them.

    Islamic totalitarianism a response to “Democratic totalitarianism”? Ah, sure, that’s why, for instance, Numayri, Turabi and al-Bashiir (until recently) opted for culturally exterminating the Southern Sudanese, those powerful agents of “DT”. Now I see the light. The enslaved and impregnated Dinka women should simply not have adopted the cause of the US and its nefarious allies.

    And of course it makes sense to stone adulterers and adulteresses to death as a tool of resistance to DT. For the same reason, kill Muslims who convert to another or no religion; and artists who (mildly) mock Islam. It’s just what they do in the “DT” states of the West with their converts our of Christianity and with artists who mock Christianity.

    Your ideological blindness and moral equivalency indeed make you a worthy representative of what frequently today passes for social science. I am virtually certain that you have a great future in academia ahead of you.

    Finally, I am greatly encouraged to learn that Iran is now increasingly aligned with the “DT” camp.

  5. Dear Mr Herzog,
    maybe some of your outrage at my ‘blindness’ about what – in your view – is ‘really’ going on stems from the fact that you only read the dramatically shortened version of my text posted as ‘appetizer’ on this home page called ‘african arguments’. If you would have followed the link there to the SSRC homepage, and would have clicked there on the download button to read the full PDF version of my text (30 pages) you would have seen that I dealt at length with the pre-Al Shabaab Islamist dynamics in Somalia. In fact, it was my main aim to situate the phenomenon of Al Shabaab in ‘history’ (of the 1990s and early 2000s) in Somalia. So, if you still would like to check it out, here is the direct link:
    Regarding your other arguments about Numayri, Turabi and al-Bashiir  and the enslaved and impregnated Dinka women (and many others): I do not mean to say that the ‘others’ (call them Islamists, power hungry elites, drug-crazed guerrillas, some of them long-term allies of some Western powers in the past) are ‘good’ (or even ‘better’ than allegedly democratic powers), and certainly I despise those slaughtering and enslaving others, who ever they are. But this was not my point here. My point was that one has to understand militant Islamism in Somalia in its proper historical and political context. This context, I argue, is very much shaped by overt and covert military and other interferences of the USA and Ethiopia (and the scandalous indifference of the EU about all that) since the early 1990s. And these interferences have eventually led to the escalation of militant Islamism in Somalia in its current form. And this form IS (this has to be emphasized) substantially different from all that was there before Al Shabaab. All of this is outlined in great detail in the full version of my paper, with lots of references to some of the most knowledgeable Somalia experts, some of which happen to be American citizens.
    PS: on a rather polemic note: killing dozens of people through missiles and remote controlled drones for the sake of ‘snatching’ one alleged ‘high profile target’ (in Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq etc.) is in my eyes another form of massacring blindly, not much different from those suicide bombers and other terrorists who also legitimize the killing of dozens of innocents in a strike with the ‘higher aim’ – targeting ‘the USA’ or ‘the unbelievers’.

  6. Hoehne has none nothing that would be a big surprise, so Herzog’s ire appears a bit unreasonable – in fact, this (careful and meticulous, and also very nicely prosopographic) analysis does not present anything that would be considered as new in tbe discourse of the region itself (though maybe in some benighted US newsrooms and among Faux News watchers). It fact, the Kenyan online magazine “Kenyaimagine” has printed a short  essay with excatly the same main thrust and main argument already years ago – I daresay it is common knowledge.

    This having been put into perspective, the precise and subtile analysis of Hoehne is insightful, and a further discussion would, in my opinion, gain from two additional widenings of scope:

    a) A look further back into the history of Somalia and Italian/British Somaliland. This was not necessary to make the author’s case, so he cannot be criticized for stopping in the early 1990s; but for a deeper analysis of the lingering failure that is Somalia, a much farther-reaching explanation might be helpful. Clichés like “clannism” do not help, since e.g. Muhammad was not deterred nor ultimately hindered by it. The old (colonial and pre-colonial) dichotomy between coastal urban and hinterland rural pastoral societies in Somalia might help to understand the collapse.

    b) The ineptitude of US and foreign intervention (too late, too little, too cowardly, AND too heavy-handed) was indeed striking. To quote from Hoehne’s main article: ” The events in Somalia in 2006 and afterward were embedded in a brief history of Islamism in Somalia after state collapse that clearly shows the decisive break in 2005/06. The ascent to power of the UIC marked the first time in fifteen years that Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia had been under one rule and mostly peaceful, if only for a few months. Certainly, the U.S. ‘failed to judge the Union [UIC] for its deeds: the stabilization and pacification of one of the world’s most lawless areas. The question is, however, if Washington ever was interested in accurately judging the UIC.”

    c) But again, what really is worthwhile, is to show that this was not an individual failure of political decision on a given crisis (crisis in the positive sense), nor a blunder due to rabid ideologically rooted reality-blindness in the White House. Rather, we can see an almost  repetitive pattern if we compare this e.g. to the equally failed US and European policies in case of Angola. Comparable misjudgements based on ideology and myopia, and immeasurable suffering and decades-long mayhem as a result.

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