Reuters reports that the UN Security Council is considering sanctions against the Horn of Africa nation, Eritrea, for its financial, arms and logistic support of the Al Qaeda-allied Al Shabab movement in Somalia. Our guest columnist, Dr. Gregory Alonso Pirio, explains how the “international community” is mounting a major initiative to curb piracy and terrorism in Somalia. Dr. Pirio is author of the African Jihad: Bin Laden’s Quest for the Horn of Africa (Red Sea Press, 2007).
Stopping Piracy and Terrorism:
The International Community Mounts Initiative to Tame Stateless Somalia
Regional powers and the broader international community are orchestrating a far-reaching effort to give Somalia’s fledging Transitional Federal Government (TFG) the muscle it needs to contain the country’s notorious pirates and international jihadists operating from Somali territory. While the Somali pirates have grabbed headlines, the international community is increasingly focused on land where the Al Qaeda-allied Harakat Al-Shabab Mujahideen (Al-Shabab) has come to dominate a large swath of southern Somalia. Supported by a large contingent of foreign jihadist fighters, Al Shabab has assumed an increasingly international dimension, as it has been linked to foiled terrorist plots in Australia, Kenya and South Africa and in recent weeks has threatened to conduct further terrorist operations in Kenya, Uganda and Burundi.
For the moment, the international community is putting its money on TFG President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, an ideologically moderate Islamist, to become the lynchpin figure in a reconstructed Somalia that has been without a central government since 1991. A Sharia scholar and spiritual leader of the Idriseeyah sect of Sufi Islam in Somalia, Ahmed was elected president by a transitional parliament in January 2009. Soon thereafter, President Ahmed’s invitations to end the civil war in southern Somalia through peace negotiations were rebuffed by the twin radical Islamist insurgencies — Hizbul Islam and Al-Shabab.
The strength of Ahmed’s government lies in the fact that it represents a broad coalition of Islamist and secular Somali political and clan leaders; a lack of political consensus between these Islamists and secularists has been one factor bedeviling several past government building efforts; and the government’s adoption of Sharia as the country’s legal framework was an important concession to the country’s Islamists. But this gesture seems to have done little to persuade the radical armed factions, Hizbul Islam and Al Shabab, to come to the negotiating table. The weakness of the TFG, on the other hand, lies in its lack of functioning institutions and having the security capacity needed to protect the population from violence and defeat the insurgencies or at least weaken them to the point that they have to come to the negotiating table.
With no peace settlement in sight, the UN-sanctioned African Union (AU) peacekeeping force stationed in Mogadishu, consisting of around 5,000 Ugandan and Burundian troops, is key to the TFG’s survival. AMISON, as the force is known, has been under attack from the insurgencies, and in response, the AU has given AMISON the mandate to engage in preemptive action against hostile forces. Out of fear of seeing their troops caught up in a seemingly hopeless and bloody civil war, other African countries, such as Nigeria, have failed to provide additional troops that would bring AMISON forces to the 20,000 level sought by the AU. For its part, the UN Security Council has made it clear that it will not be sending Blue Helmets into Somalia until a negotiated settlement is reached; the UN has learned a powerful lesson from its failed Somali intervention in the early 1990s. (See my Peacekeeping in an Age of Jihadism: Lessons of Somalia)
In the absence of a more robust AU force, the “international community” is busy building up TFG’s land and naval forces and supplying them with the arms that President Ahmed will need to take on the insurgents and pirates on land and on sea. At a donors’ conference in Brussels in April, the European Union and the US pledged to back the country’s emerging security structures. The US government has admitted to supplying the TFG with 40 tons of light arms and ammunitions. The UN Development Programme had already trained and financed 2,750 police officers. France recently finished training 500 TFG troops in Djibouti. The Kenyan government offered to train 6,000 to 10,000 soldiers and is currently training at least 1,500 young Somali men, some of whom have been recruited from refugee camps inside Kenya. EU troops will soon be training around 2,000 troops in Uganda. Ethiopia is training on its soil an undisclosed number of TFG forces, and Ethiopia is alos supporting a pro-government“Sufi” militia, Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a that is opposed to the “Salafist” Hizbul Islam and Al Shabab militias.
The TFG has also recruited and trained 500 young men to be the nucleus of a new Somali Navy/Coast Guard, and the UN International Maritime Organization intends to train a Somali Coast Guard at a Training Center in Djibouti; U.S. instructors have already trained in Djibouti naval officers from Djibouti, Yemen and the Seychelles in anti-piracy tactics. International piracy, however, is not the only seagoing concern; the international counterterrorism effort wants to stop smugglers associated with the pirates from ferrying foreign jihadist fighters from the Arabian Peninsula to Somali shores where they are swelling Al Shabab’s ranks.
Until a land-based solution can be found to end the piracy, an international naval flotilla is curbing piracy in the Indian Ocean and the strategic Gulf of Aden, which is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes through which 20 per cent of global trade passes. Off the coast of Somalia, 27 ships from 16 different nations conducting counter-piracy operations are on watch. They are part of European Union NAVFOR, NATO, the U. S. Navy’s anti-piracy Combined Task Force 151, and other nationally deployed ships from Japan, China, India and Saudi Arabia. A Pan Arab Task Force is in the making with Saudi Arabia the first to command it.
Somali and Foreign Jihadists Set Off Alarm Bells
Al Shabab is a nightmare come true for counterterrorism strategists. For years, they warned that Somalia, a Muslim country with a collapsed state, had the potential of becoming something akin to pre-9-11 Taliban-ruled Afghanistan that played host to Al Qaeda.
Militant Somali Islamist groups have since the early 1990s provided a safe haven for Al Qaeda and other jihadist operatives. One of the historic figures in providing safe haven and cooperation to Al Qaeda members and other international jihadists is the leader of Hizbul Islam, Sheikh Hasan Dahir Aweys, who is on the US State Department’s terror list.
Although Sheikh Aweys is primarily a Somali nationalist and has shown little interest in Al Qaeda’s globalist agenda, his past hosting of Al Qaeda in Somalia has had far reaching consequences. In 1993, Al Qaeda operatives trained Aweys’s militia to bring down a U.S. Army helicopter in Mogadishu in an operation now know as Black Hawk Down, which led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia and the eventual end of the UN humanitarian and state-building intervention. From Somalia, Al Qaeda organized both its 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi and its 2002 bombing of a Mombasa hotel frequented by Israeli tourists as well as a simultaneous failed missile attack on an Israeli civilian jetliner.
From a regional perspective, Aweys is seen as a potentially destabilizing figure, since he desires to bring all Somali-speaking peoples in the region into a single Caliphate, and this means wresting the Somali-speaking regions of Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya from those countries. In the 1990s, with Al Qaeda-support, Aweys’s forces launched an offensive against Ethiopia in a bid to gain control of the Somali-speaking region of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian military responded by invading Somalia and crushing Aweys’s militia. It was concern about the renewal of Aweys’s pan-Somali agenda, now financed by Ethiopia’s archenemy Eritrea, that largely led Ethiopia to dispatch its forces to Somalia in 2006 to protect the TFG and to once more rout Aweys’s and allied forces.
Al Shabab has taken Somali jihadism to another level. Many of its top leaders clearly have an internationalist ambitious much greater than that of Sheikh Aweys, even though Al Shabab (or , in English) started out as a youth league to Sheikh Aweys’s Islamic Court. Al Shabab has overtly allied with Al Qaeda, and Al Shabab recently put a video on the Internet showing its recruits taking an oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden. The hundreds of foreign jihadist fighters in its ranks (estimates ranging from 800 to 2,400) have served to encourage Al Shabab’s globalist rhetoric and actions.
Previously, Al Shabab was preoccupied largely by its struggle in Somalia, or directed its actions at Somali targets outside of Somalia such as the failed 2007 Al Shabab attempt to bomb TFG dignitaries at the VIP lounge at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya. (According to Kenyan intelligence sources, the bomb accidentally detonated outside a public bus when three of the bombers tried to board the bus en route to the airport. Other plotters were arrested when they tried to penetrate the security perimeter at the airport.)
In 2009, Al Shabab stepped up its internationalist goals and reach. In August 2009, several Somali Australians trained by Al Shabab were arrested for planning a suicide assault against an army base near Sydney. Also in August, Kenyan authorities reportedly broke up an Al-Shabab plot to set off three bombs in Nairobi during a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In September, South African intelligence intercepted telephone calls from Somalia that indicated that Al Qaeda including Somalis were plotting to launch attacks against US targets during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The telephonic interceptions reportedly led to the temporary closure of US diplomatic sites in South Africa. In addition, earlier in 2009, the Al Qaeda Yemeni suicide bomber, Abdel Rahman Mehdi al-Aajbari, who killed four South Korean tourists in Yemen had trained in Somalia.
Al Shabab’s recruitment of young men in the large Somali diaspora is of grave concern to Western law enforcement agencies. Young ethnic Somali men from the United States, Western Europe, Australia and other countries volunteered in 2007 to serve with Al Shabab in its insurgency against Ethiopian forces supporting the TFG. Many of these young Somalis were reportedly disaffected youth in their immigrant communities, and once in Somalia, away from the influence of their families, were particularly susceptible to Al Shabab-Al Qaeda indoctrination, including that of martyrdom. The first US citizen to be a suicide bomber was one of these youth; he blew himself up in northern Somalia in October 2008. The Somali Australians mentioned above are another instance, and one of the Al Shabab plotters arrested in Kenya in August carried a Danish passport. According to the FBI, Al Shabab has sent dozens of Somali Americans and Muslim American converts through training conducted by Al-Qaeda trainers.
Another concern is that Al Shabab will carry out attacks on the neighboring powers providing overt support to the TFG. In October 2009, Al Shabab threatened to launch attacks in Uganda and Burundi, and Ugandan authorities set out an alert to the public warning them that an Al Shabab team consisting of British nationals of Somali descent may have illegally entered the country. In response, Uganda launched an immediate registration of all Somali visitors and refugees within its borders.
Internationally, law enforcement agencies have demonstrated that they have put into place effective surveillance systems and, as indicated by the recent successes in breaking up Al Shabab plots, they are capable of thwarting its plots.
Though it controls key ports and apparently receives financial, materiel and logistic support from Eritrea and Al Qaeda, Al Shabab has to contend with numerous adversaries. The US military has launched several air attacks on Al Shabab targets, killing its top leader, Hasan Adan ‘Ayro in May 2008, and a top Al Qaeda operative, the Kenyan Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in September 2009. The rival radical Islamist militia, Hizbul Islam, has too been fighting Al Shabab for control of strategic resources such as the port of Kismayo; the more moderate Islamist militia, Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a, has repulsed Al Shabab from areas in central Somalia. Al Shabab also has to contend with increasingly aggressive AMISON forces as well as a potentially more powerful and enlarged TFG security force trained, armed and financed by regional and Western powers.
Although Al Shabab is clearly expanding its actions; its success both abroad and in Somalia is far from a foregone conclusion.
Gregory Alonso Pirio holds a Ph.D. in African History from UCLA and is a consultant.
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