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Terrorism Havens: Somalia

Author: Julie Cohn
Updated: June 2010

A Condensed History

Somalia was created in 1960 by the merger of British Somaliland Protectorate and the colony of Italian Somaliland. The United Republic of Somalia was ruled by a democratic government for nine years until it was toppled by a military coup and Major General Muhammad Siad Barre took power. Barre established a socialist state, which lasted until 1991 when opposition clans overthrew him. After Barre's expulsion, northern clans formed the de-facto, self-declared Republic of Somaliland, which, though internationally unrecognized, has maintained a relatively stable existence. In the south, violence between rival warlords killed thousands of civilians, prompting the UN Security Council to sponsor a U.S.-led intervention in 1993. The intervention ended shortly after a brutal firefight in the streets of Mogadishu led to an unsuccessful incident that has become known as Black Hawk Down.

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The revolving-door politics of Somalia brought the country fourteen separate governments between 1991 and 2010. On June 5, 2006, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) defeated a group of CIA-backed warlords and took control of Mogadishu, instigating what, for the first time, became a period of relative peace. Bronwyn Bruton, working at the time with about fifty local NGOs in Somalia, says, "Groups operating in Mogadishu were consistently telling me they had never had a better operating environment." However, fringe extremist voices within the ICU--particularly from terrorist group al-Shabaab that claimed affiliation with al-Qaeda--worried many in the West.

In December 2006, Ethiopia, with U.S. backing, intervened to end the ICU's rule and instated the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The courts fell in a day; however, the coup drastically stoked extremist flames and catapulted al-Shabaab--previously a mere fringe movement--into a full-blown insurgency. In 2008, alarmed by the prospect of Somalia "deteriorating into an Afghanistan like cauldron of militant Islamism" (NYT), the United States, the UN, the African Union, the League of Arab States, and other actors endorsed the UN-sponsored Djibouti Peace Process. This led to the election of Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad, a moderate figure in the ICU, as president of the TFG. However, these efforts backfired. Al-Shabaab and other hardliners quickly and successfully labeled Ahmad a Western puppet, and his appointment triggered the creation of a new fundamentalist Islamist group, Hisbul Islamiyya (HI), led by Shaykh Aweys, allied with al-Shabaab but with a more nationalist agenda.

In January 2009, Ethiopian soldiers withdrew from Somalia, leaving behind African Union forces (AMISOM) to help protect the coalition government and enforce its authority. On May 7, the opposition rebels attacked and captured most of the capital of Mogadishu. AMISOM managed to halt the opposition forces and protect a few square kilometers of government buildings, now the only territory under TFG authority. In June 2009, the TFG government declared a state of emergency (BBC) and requested immediate international support.

The TFG is currently organizing its last stand. Ethnic Somalis living in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and Sudan--some reportedly recruited from refugee camps--have been trained abroad and most are now back in the capital, waiting to fight (NYT). As many as 6,700 Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers will reinforce the effort, and the United States is providing funding and some tactical support.

Is Somalia a safe haven for terrorists?

On one hand, Somalia is a chaotic, poor, battle-weary Muslim country with no central government and a long, unguarded coastline. Its porous borders mean that individuals can enter without visas, and once inside the country, enjoy an almost complete lack of law enforcement. Somalia has long served as a passageway from Africa to the Middle East based on its coastal location on the Horn of Africa, just a boat ride away from Yemen. These aspects make Somalia a desirable haven for transnational terrorists, something al-Qaeda has tried to capitalize on before, and is trying again now.

On the other hand, Somalia is different from other failed states in several ways. While it is roughly the size of Afghanistan, its landscape lacks Afghanistan's many natural hiding places and does not offer the topographical haven of other states like Yemen. It is also a fiercely clan-oriented culture with an aversion to foreign presence of any kind, including Arab jihadi organizations. "When you get these extremist ideologies, the Somalis look at them and they are immediately perceived as foreign," says Bruton, "They're perceived as Arab. It's an Arab ideology. And just as the Somalis are hostile to American ideology, they're hostile to Arab ideology as well." Finally, the Somalis--Sufi Muslims since the birth of Islam in the seventh century--have moderate religious views; until recently, Taliban-style fundamentalism was unfamiliar in the country.

These factors were responsible for al-Qaeda's failure in the 1990s, when it tried working closely with al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI). Al-Qaeda was unable to root itself in Somalia's clan system, and, according to former ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn, "overestimated the degree to which Somalis would become jihadists." The experience of the al-Qaeda operatives was so treacherous that Bruton says: "U.S. intelligence officials came up with a verdict that Somalia was actually inoculated from foreign terrorist groups, that it's just fundamentally inhospitable, that the clan system is so closed to foreigners that there's just no way that these groups can operate."

Since the Ethiopian invasion, al-Qaeda has seen a resurgent connection to the country, and HI and al-Shabaab control most of the territory. However, experts disagree over whether Somalia could be the base for an international attack or whether the group will continue its domestic focus. "Personally, my view is that they don't have much to gain by [partnering with al-Qaeda to conduct an international attack]," Bruton says. "And they probably don't have the capacity to do it. But it's worrisome that they're making the threats, so I think it's something to be watched and assessed very carefully. But right now, I would say the odds of a transnational attack are very, very low."

However, a publication of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute investigated the credibility of the Shabaab threat, stating that since the Ethiopian invasion, "the group's rhetoric and behavior have shifted ... reflecting an eagerness to strike internationally." It added that "the group has made clear its desire and intention to strike beyond the borders of Somalia, and it currently has the means to prepare and execute such an attack. It is partners with and loyal to al-Qaeda."

What is the terror group al-Shabaab?

The principal terrorist threat in Somalia comes from al Shabaab--meaning literally "the Youth" in Arabic and designated a terror group by the United States in February 2008. Originally the militant wing of the Islamic Courts Union, the group imposes strict Sharia law in the southern territories it controls. It has claimed responsibility for several suicide attacks, including one in February 2009, which killed eleven Burundian soldiers in the deadliest attack on AU peacekeepers since their deployment. And following the lethal U.S. attack on Saleh Ali Nabhan, a top al-Qaeda leader, Shabaab launched a suicide attack that killed seventeen peacekeepers and a number of civilians.

Western Ties

Shabaab's recruitment of Western operatives, partly through the Internet, heightens the organization's threat. In late 2009, over twenty Somali-Americans disappeared from Saint Paul, MN, and similar disappearances have been reported in Ohio, Oregon, Toronto, and the Netherlands. Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Michael Leiter reported to Congress in 2009 that al-Shabaab sent "dozens" of Somali Americans and American Muslims through training conducted by al-Qaeda, and that seven have been killed in fighting so far. These Americans that leave to fight for al-Shabaab are fighting for solely Somali nationalist reasons, and have shown no anti-U.S. sentiment. Andrew Liepman, deputy director for intelligence at the Counterterrorism Center, affirms this fact, "They are going to Somalia to fight for their homeland, not to join al-Qaeda's jihad against the United States, so far." Nonetheless, according to a Committee on Foreign Relations report (PDF) to the Senate in 2010, Senator John Kerry states that "the prospect that U.S. citizens are being trained at al-Qaeda camps [in Somalia] deepens our concern and emphasizes the need to understand the nature of the evolving dangers."

Al-Qaeda Influence in Somalia

In the same report, Senator Kerry states that estimates of al-Qaeda fighters in Somalia vary widely, from a low of twenty to a high of three hundred. Al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda appear to coordinate the administration of training camps in the south. According to Andre Le Sage from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, "Some of these are reserved for imparting basic ideological precepts and infantry skills to newly enlisted Somali militia members, while others provide more advanced training in guerilla warfare, explosives, and assassination." However, other than training and funding, it is not clear what operational control or connection exists between the two organizations.

The strongest tie between Shabaab and al-Qaeda seems to be ideological. In September 2008, a senior Shabaab leader released a video in which he pledged allegiance (LongWarJournal) to Osama bin Laden and called for Muslim youth to come to Somalia. In February 2009, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's second-in-command, released a video that began by praising Shabaab's seizure of the Somali town of Baidoa. The group will "engage in Jihad against the American-made government in the same way they engaged in Jihad against the Ethiopians and the warlords before them," Zawahiri said. However, although al-Qaeda appears to support Shabaab's jihad, it's unclear whether Shabaab has ambitions beyond Somalia. The December 2008 International Crisis Group report labels the group a "self-radicalizing movement, whose aims are local and national." Bruton agrees, saying that "there's probably a flow of weapons and funds, certainly al-Qaeda is providing some training for the Shabaab, but is al-Shabaab a tool that al-Qaeda can use to launch transnational attacks? That's a really big question and so far there is no indication that it is." In March 2009, Liepman said (Reuters) al-Qaeda did not have strong organizational links to al-Shabaab, despite the leadership ties.

Do the Somali pirates have a relationship with jihadi terror groups?

No direct connection exists between al-Shabaab and Somali pirates, and the pirates show no interest in having any ideological affiliation with the jihadis. Western diplomats and military officials believe this is largely due to clan differences--the pirates hail from Somalia's Majourteen clan, which is based in Puntland and Somaliland in the central and northern parts of the country. Al-Shabaab is made up of Somalis of various clans from Mogadishu and southern Somalia. While al-Shabaab seeks to be less xenophobic and accept foreign fighters, so far the pirates prioritize their clan affiliations above any other alliance. The pirates, who now form a structured Mafia, are first and foremost businessmen, says Bruton, concerned with money.

However, she says, "If there is a danger of transnational terrorism, I would say that the potential linkage with piracy is it." The fear is that al-Qaeda could piggyback on these pirate activities, or could adopt pirate tactics in order to take a ship and sink it. She notes that al-Qaeda is currently threatening an economic blockade of a few of the straights in the Gulf of Aden, but they don't have the capacity to achieve that. "It is a worry that they'll start using the tactics, and they'll start taking various ships and their actions will be confused with piracy. Potentially, there would be a crackdown by naval forces on the pirates that then encourages the pirates to do something ridiculous like join forces with al-Qaeda."

Additionally, while the two groups are not directly affiliated, since 2009, the pirates have had to pay rent in order to operate out of southern ports controlled by Shabaab.

Has America intervened in Somalia before?

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush sent U.S. troops to Somalia to spearhead a UN-backed humanitarian mission to relieve famine. But the United States has kept its distance from Somalia since an October 1993 operation in pursuit of Somali warlord Muhammad Farah Aidid left eighteen U.S. soldiers dead--an episode dramatized in the film Black Hawk Down. The death toll and graphic TV images of an American soldier being dragged through Mogadishu led the Clinton administration to withdraw U.S. forces. However, the events of 9/11 brought renewed attention on the country.

U.S. Navy planes based in Oman have been flying reconnaissance missions over Somalia, and an international fleet is monitoring sea traffic. Meanwhile, the U.S. military has stationed an aircraft carrier and three other warships off the coast to patrol the waters, and in 2007 it began conducting "targeted killings," or air strikes on senior al-Qaeda leaders within the country. On May 1, 2008, American war planes reportedly killed Aden Hashi Ayro, the former leader of al-Shabaab. The U.S. backs the TFG, and supplies weapons and support to the AMISOM forces.

Under the Bush administration, the American military used long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles and AC-130 gunships to carry out strikes against terrorism suspects in Somalia. The military has learned from its experiences in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Obama administration favors commando missions using special-ops forces to reduce collateral damage. For example, on September 14, 2009, the United States attacked Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan (NYT)--an al-Qaeda trainer of Shabaab forces and a ringleader responsible for the 2002 bombing of an Israeli hotel on the Kenyan coast (NYT). This targeted killing was conducted by commando forces operating from helicopters rather than by remotely operated missiles, and if occurred during broad daylight to ensure a zero civilian casualty count and to be sure of the mission's success.

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