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Somalia Exporting Discord?

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: November 20, 2006

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Over the past year, developments in Somalia have fueled fears that a growing Islamist movement could spawn regional instability and provide safe haven for terrorists (TIME). But a new report by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia claims that nation’s throes could have a graver global impact. According to the report, around 720 battle-hardened Somali militants traveled to Lebanon to fight alongside Hezbollah (NYT) in the month-long war against Israel last summer. Even more worrisome, the report suggests Iran attempted to exchange arms (Telegraph) for the rights to exploit Somalia’s modest uranium cache.

But experts and diplomats alike were skeptical of the report, and many of the countries accused of violating the UN arms embargo against Somalia have denied its allegations (Daily Star). The suggestion that Somali fighters aided Hezbollah seems to bolster fears that Somalia’s Islamists will provide active support to major terrorist organizations, while accounts of Syrian and Iranian support for Somali jihadis underscore those states’ willingness to oppose U.S. interests outside their traditional spheres of influence. But in the face of scant evidence, one diplomat anonymously told the Guardian the UN report provides a “very useful propaganda tool” for Western hawks.

Indeed, the report does beg some questions. Though Somalia is an Islamic nation, the predominantly Sunni population seems an unlikely recipient of Shiite Iran’s assistance. Experts also wonder how, amid intense international focus on the Lebanon war, the presence of hundreds of Somali fighters went unnoticed by international observers and media. The report’s authors presented their work to a UN Security Council committee on November 17, where they were pressed to produce evidence verifying their allegations (AP).

Though anarchy has reigned in Somalia for the past fifteen years, recent months have seen a pitched battle for control of the nation between an internationally recognized but ineffective transitional government and a band of Islamists backed by well armed militias. The UN report suggests several outside nations helped stoke the conflict (WashPost) with arms shipments, including such sophisticated munitions (Reuters) as surface-to-air missiles, multiple rocket launchers, and infrared-guided anti-tank weapons.

The feuding Somali leaders met in Khartoum earlier this month for peace talks. But negotiations quickly reached an impasse (IRIN) over the widely reported presence of Ethiopian troops outside the transitional government’s stronghold in the southern city of Baidoa. After coaxing by Kenyan officials trying to contain a growing refugee crisis on their common border, the Islamists have agreed to return (AllAfrica.com) to the bargaining table.

To date, most fears over Somalia’s strife revolved around the potential to spawn a regional conflict. Others surmised the growing Islamist influence would create a hub for terrorist activity much like Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks. But concerns over nefarious uses of Somali uranium are not new either: A September 2002 Defense Intelligence Assessment cited Somalia, along with Niger and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as potential sources of fuel (Globalsecurity.org) for Iraq’s nuclear program. The assertions with regard to Niger, of course, based on faulty Italian intelligence, wound up in President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech and other official documents even after they had been proven false.

The proper U.S. response to the report remains unclear. Ted Dagne, a Congressional Research Service analyst, recently testified “The options for the United States are limited and success largely depends on how Somalis manage their own affairs” (PDF). An International Crisis Group report cautions that unless the nation can overcome its societal schisms, “jihadis will gradually find growing purchase among Somalia's despairing and disaffected citizenry.”

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