Regular readers of this column know that I have long warned of the against giving Africa the short shift in the war on terrorism, pointing to the militant Islamism's rise in Sub-Saharan poorly-governed countries and singling out the case of the former Somalia. It gives me little comfort to be vindicated by events. On June 5, amid heavy fighting, a well-armed Islamist group calling itself the "Union of Islamic Courts" defeated an ad hoc coalition of "warlords" purportedly financed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency and belatedly cobbled together as the "Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism," seizing control of Mogadishu, the former Somalia's largest city and sometime capital.
Taking a page from the playbook of a group eerily similar to them, the Taliban of Afghanistan, the Somali Islamists tried to put a moderate face forward in the person of their spokesman, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad, a former high school geography teacher. And, again like the Taliban, they found willing apologists in media and academia, who were quick to reassure such Western audiences as follow events in such faraway places that the Somali Islamists were really an indigenous law-and-order group and enjoyed widespread popularity because they emerged to provide governance and social services in the absence of any functioning state institutions in the territory of the former Somali Democratic Republic – the area of the Republic of Somaliland which, dissolving its union with the former Somalia, reclaimed its separate sovereign independence, being an exception – since the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship more than a decade and a half ago.
Alas, as I noted in my testimony last week to a joint hearing of the Subcommittees on Africa, Global Human Rights, and International Operations and International Terrorism and Nonproliferation of the U.S. House of Representatives, the facts tend to get in the way of this benign interpretation.
The forces of the Somali Islamists, like those of the Taliban before them, were reinforced by foreign jihadis, including Arabs, Afghans, Pakistanis, Kashmiris, Palestinians, and Syrians. Of course, we have long known that foreign terrorists have found refuge in Somalia. For example, three foreign al-Qaeda leaders indicted for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and who are believed to also be involved the 2002 suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, that killed fifteen people and a simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner – Fazul Abdullah Mohammed of Comorros, who figures on the FBI's "Most Wanted Terrorists" list with a $5 million bounty on his head; Saleh Ali Salih Nabhan of Kenya; and Abu Taha al-Sudani of Sudan – are being sheltered in Mogadishu by Somali Islamists.
The longstanding links between the Somali Islamists and al-Qaeda were verified by no less a figure than Osama bin Laden himself who, in an audiotape released on a jihadi website on June 30, acknowledged – pace the apologists for the Islamic Courts – that the Somali Islamists are seeking the establishment of a Taliban-like state where terrorists might find haven. The importance of that bin Laden attaches to developments in Mogadishu is attested by the threat which he made that if the U.S. and its allies deployed against the Somali Islamists, they would face attacks in their own homelands at a time and place of al-Qaeda's choosing.
Then there is the "inconvenient truth" of the arms being stockpiled by the Somali Islamists. According to the Monitoring Group set up under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1407 embargoing arm shipments to the former Somalia, on March 5 of this year, the Islamists were shipped, via Eritrea, 200 boxes of Zu-23 anti-aircraft ammunition, 200 boxes of B-10 anti-tank ammunition, 200 boxes of DShK anti-aircraft ammunition, 200 boxes of Browning M2 50-caliber heavy machine gun ammunition, ammunition for the ZP-39 anti-aircraft gun, 50 rocket propelled grenade launchers, 50 light anti-armor weapons, 50 M-79 grenade launchers, and communications equipments to be mounted on "technicals." This was followed two days later by a consignment of 1,000 short-version AK-47 automatic rifles, 1,000 pairs of binoculars, 1,000 remote-control bombs, 1,000 anti-personnel mines, and ammunition for 120mm mortars. To put this arsenal into context – and appreciate its offensive nature – none of the potential foes faced by the Islamists within Somalia use military aircraft or tanks.
Finally there is the literal skeleton that the Islamists (and their apologists) just could not keep in the closet for long, Sheikh Hassan Dahir ‘Aweys, who emerged as the chairman of the Islamists' decision-making council, the majlis al-shura. ‘Aweys was a colonel in the corrections service of Siad Barre – that is to say, he was probably a professional torturer given what Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other human rights organizations have documented about the prisons of the regime he served. Later he became vice-chairman and military commander of al-Itihaad al-Islamiyya ("Islamic Union"), an outfit that regularly appeared on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations until it inexplicably was dropped last year (maybe someone at Foggy Bottom bought at face value the group's self-proclaimed dissolution).
While his name may not resonate with many Americans, ‘Aweys was a big enough fish to make the cut onto the list of 189 terrorist individuals and organizations specially published by the U.S. government after 9/11 – as well he should have. Among the pearls of wisdom this "spiritual leader" has dispensed since then, the following are some choice morsels:
"We must be wary of actions of non-believers who want us to follow their leadership."
"The Western world should respect our own ideas in choosing the way we want to govern our country, the way we want to go about our own business. That is our right…can influence all of my people with the faith and our religion. The existing government is not an Islamic one and we will be having our own Islamic faith and we will be very strong in influencing our people."
"I'm telling that if IGAD or the UN were impulsive to send troops to Somalia, there would be bloodshed and a new destruction."
"We will fight fiercely to the death any intervention force that arrives in Somalia."
"Democracy is contrary to Islamic teachings…Democracy originated in Greece and it allows the public to control the government…It is anti-Islam."
"We must follow the rule of law laid down by Allah. I do not think Somalis will oppose the adoption of the rule of Allah…America is not our God and they are not our leaders. We feel much more superior than America. We are people who believe in Allah; let them do whatever they want."
The last quotation was from ‘Aweys's "inaugural address" on June 27 after he was installed as head of the majlis al-shura, the Islamists' governing assembly, in Mogadishu. And lest someone think this is just empty rhetoric, ‘Aweys has the men around him to try to implement his grandiose plans. His close relative and military commander is one Adan Hashi ‘Ayro, who trained in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda before returning to his country after 9/11. ‘Ayro is a cold-blooded killer with a number of terrorist hits to his "credit," including four foreign aid workers in Somaliland, ten former Somali military officers, and most spectacularly, Abdul Qadir Yahya Ali, the internationally-respected founder of the non-governmental Center for Research and Dialogue in Mogadishu, who was killed in front of his family last year. Another close collaborator of ‘Aweys is Hassan Turki, who was responsible for subversive activities in eastern Ethiopia and who is closely linked with al-Takfir wal-Hijra ("Excommunication and Exodus"), a group so extreme that it considered Osama bin Laden too moderate and tried to kill the al-Qaeda leader in 1996 when he was living in Sudan.
In the more than a decade since the withdrawal of American and other international forces from Mogadishu, U.S. policy – if there is something coherent enough to be called that – with respect to what was once the Somali state has been one of neglect, coupled perhaps with the wish that the troubles and troublemakers would somehow go away. Well, that hasn't happened and now we have ‘Aweys and Company to confront in the geostrategically sensitive Horn of Africa.
It is now time for a fresh approach. First, the U.S. needs to reinforce its force capacity in the region and give the respective combatant commanders (Somalia is in Central Command's theatre, the nearest component of which being the Djibouti-based Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa) the authority necessary to deal with the situation even as other options are pursued. Second, America must enhance and strengthen cooperation with legitimate, democratic, and secular forces in the region who are willing and able to stand up against the common enemy, including both governments on the frontlines of the Somali Islamist threat like that of the Republic of Somaliland as well as civil society actors within Somalia itself. Simply put, ‘Aweys and the threat he represents are not going away – at least not without a firm push.
Strategic Interests, by J. Peter Pham,
Ph.D.World Defense Review columnist