Somalia’s Terrorist Infestation

The United States lists Somalia as a haven for terrorists, and indeed, evidence suggests terrorists are using the fractured state as an operational hub. Yet Somalia’s current links to terrorism are tiny in comparison to the potential problem the country poses.

Last updated June 6, 2006 8:00 am (EST)

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Ever since the deaths of eighteen U.S. soldiers in a UN-backed intervention in 1993, Somalia has weighed on the minds of U.S. officials. Without a functioning government since 1991, the country has been home to a lawless society dominated by violence. Beyond the humanitarian concerns caused by such prolonged instability, there is evidence to suggest that international terrorist organizations are using the fractured state on the tip of Africa’s Horn as a safe haven and base of operations. According to the U.S. State Department’s most recent Country Reports on Terrorism, terrorist activities in Somalia are "threatening the security of the whole region."

What is Somalia’s recent 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, several northern clans declared independence as the Republic of Somaliland. Though unrecognized, the area has maintained a relatively stable existence under clan rule. In the south, however, violence between rival warlords vying for power killed thousands of civilians, prompting the UN Security Council to sponsor a U.S.-led intervention. The mission ended shortly after a disastrous firefight in the streets of Mogadishu led to unexpected U.S. losses.

What efforts are being made to establish a government in Somalia?

Since General Barre’s flight from power, thirteen different attempts to form a government have failed. A fourteenth effort, the product of two years of thorough international mediation, produced a transitional government known as the Somalia Transitional Federal Institutions (TFIs) in October 2004. This includes a 275-member parliamentary body which elected a president, the Ethiopian-backed warlord Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed. Experts say warlords are members of the transitional parliament as well. Many of these warlords have an interest in preventing the establishment of a stable government, as the status quo enables them to maintain control over their fiefdoms.

Actually convening the government has been no easy task. Until June 2005, the TFIs existed in exile, and when they returned to Somalia several members of the government faced assassination attempts. When the transitional parliament finally convened on Somali soil in February 2006, they did so in the city of Baidoa, in large part because meeting in Mogadishu, the capital, was deemed too dangerous. Since then, renewed violence has caused experts to question whether the TFIs can introduce any semblance of stability.

International organizations have called for African Union peacekeepers to help establish a stable environment in which a government could flourish. Somali leaders have said they would welcome peacekeepers from Sudan and Uganda, but not from Djibouti, Ethiopia, or Kenya, as they are concerned their neighbors would be too eager to meddle in Somali affairs.

Who holds the power in Somalia?

After fifteen years of recurring violence and absent leadership, Somalia is the very definition of a failed state. Providing a modicum of order in this power vacuum are sharia (Islamic law) courts, which have sprung up across much of southern Somalia over the past decade. More recently, these courts have obtained the support of Islamist militias, further projecting their influence. Just prior to this year’s transitional parliament meeting, a group of Mogadishu-based warlords calling themselves the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism organized in opposition to the militias. Clashes between the alliance and the Islamist militias escalated in May 2006, resulting in some of the worst violence in Somalia in more than a decade, and on June 5, militia members announced they had seized complete control of Mogadishu. Members of the transitional parliament have accused the United States of supporting the allied warlords as part of the "war on terror."

What is the extent of the U.S. ties to the warlords of the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism?

U.S. policymakers have not provided any information about their relationship with the aligned group of warlords, but the Washington Post reports that U.S. officials have anonymously confirmed contact with the alliance. Some Somalis say the group’s "counter-terrorism" name is just a gimmick to attract U.S. support. As Ted Dagne, an Africa analyst for the Congressional Research Service, explains, "The fact that these guys came up with that alliance name five years after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and considering their past and current brutal acts against their own people should tell you something."

The amount of U.S. support for the warlords, if any, is small. There are no U.S. troops in Somalia, and an arms embargo forbids providing weapons. Experts say the United States is likely communicating with the warlords and possibly providing them with some money. Even this level of involvement has caused some discontent within the TFIs. As Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi told the Washington Post, "We would prefer that the U.S. work with the transitional government and not with criminals."

Why is Somalia an attractive location for terrorists?

Members of several terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, have sought refuge in Somalia in recent years. The lack of a functioning central government means Somalia’s borders can be crossed without visas and once inside the country, there’s no real law enforcement to speak of. Just a boat ride away from Yemen via well-traveled fishing and trade routes, Somalia has long served as a passageway from Africa to the Middle East.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) reports that despite repeated efforts, militant Islam has failed to take root in Somalia’s seemingly "fertile ground." Nevertheless, Somalia is home to groups who are willing to offer protection and support to terrorists transiting through the country.

What terrorist groups are operating in Somalia?

An ICG report (PDF) identifies two active terrorist groups in Somalia. One is an al-Qaeda cell believed to be responsible for the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya, and later for the simultaneous bombing of a Mombasa resort hotel and failed missile attack on an Israeli passenger jet in 2002. Despite the high profile of this cell’s attacks, the ICG estimates the number of ranking al-Qaeda operatives in Somalia is less than half a dozen. The second terrorist group, composed largely of local jihadis, emerged in 2003 and has since carried out a number of massacres and assassinations, including the murder of an Italian nun. Led by Aden Hashi Ayro, who trained in Afghanistan, the group operates in decentralized units and has no clear ideological agenda. Some members of this new group, including Aryo, are former members of the now-defunct al-Itihaad al-Islaami, a Somali terrorist group from the 1990s whose militia once had more than 1,000 members, but was destroyed by Ethiopia after attacks on Ethiopian territory.

While terrorists have certainly taken advantage of Somalia’s instability, experts say the country is of particular concern not as much for the terrorist haven it is today, but for the haven it has the potential to be. As yet, Dagne says, "There is no evidence that I know of linking Somali ’Islamist’ groups to any international terrorist act, although Somalia may have been used as a transit for some terrorist individuals or a temporary resting place, as is the case more so for Kenya."

What is the United States doing to prevent terrorists from operating in Somalia?

Beyond the support the United States may or may not be giving the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, there are some 1,000 U.S. troops stationed in nearby Djibouti as part of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. This task force is charged with advancing the long-term stability of the region—building schools, hospitals, and wells—and preventing the spread of terrorism. Djibouti is home to France’s largest military base, and French forces are also involved in development and counterterrorism operations.

Experts agree the most effective counterterrorism strategy for Somalia is one that seeks to establish a stable government, as well as an environment in which civil society organizations and moderate Muslim organizations can flourish.

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