When a Maclean’s reporter reached Somali journalist Abdi Ahmed Abdul on his cellphone as he walked back to his home through the streets of Mogadishu, he quickly ended the call, apologizing later that evening by explaining that it would not be safe for him to be heard speaking English by members of al-Shabab—the Islamist militia that controls much of the country and whose leadership has been linked to al-Qaeda. “I am scared,” Abdul said. “If they see me talking to somebody in English, I’d be in danger. If anybody is speaking in English, they think he is a spy. It means I am passing information to foreigners, what they call Christians or infidels, people they don’t like.”
Abdul lives near one of the main markets in Mogadishu, a place he calls a “stronghold of the Shabab.” He asked that his real name not be printed. “If they read this, they will come and look for me and blow my brain up.” His family has fled twice to other parts of the country. He’s considered leaving himself, but is now afraid to try.
Abdul’s description of Somalia under al-Shabab is similar to that of Afghanistan during the Taliban’s rule. Al-Shabab’s rule is guided by a medieval and repressive interpretation of Islam, and it has attracted foreign jihadists—who may have international ambitions—to Somalia.
This spring, Abdul says, two teenage boys and a teenage girl were sentenced to be lashed 100 times for having premarital sex. The sentence has not yet been carried out, but in June, four men accused of stealing cellphones all had a hand or foot hacked off with machetes after they were convicted by an al-Shabab Islamic court. And in October, a 13-year-old rape victim was stoned to death in front of some 1,000 spectators. “It happens—the amputations, the stoning to death, the whippings, forbidding music,” he says. “They tell women to wear the hijab. They banned films. They even control the memory cards of mobile phones to check if there are pornographic films or films that are anti-Islamic. No cinemas. No music. They even force people to pray.”
Al-Shabab, meaning “the Youth” in Arabic, grew out of the Islamic Courts Union, which briefly controlled Somalia in 2006. Ethiopian troops and covert American Special Forces toppled the Islamic Courts Union in 2006 and 2007, and a “transitional” government was installed in its place. The most radical elements from the ICU then formed new Islamist groups, such as al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam, meaning “Party of Islam,” to oppose the government, which since January has been led by Sheik Sharif Ahmed. Ahmed was previously leader of the Islamic Courts Union but is a moderate Islamist compared to those in al-Shabab.
Al-Shabab receives money and arms from Somalis in the diaspora, from wealthy Arabs in the Gulf, and from Eritrea. Along with its allies, it controls all but a few pockets of Somalia outside the de facto autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland—the latter of which has become famous of late as an epicentre for piracy. The Transitional Federal Government has not been toppled because of the protection of some 4,000 African Union soldiers. Its writ barely extends over a few square blocks of Mogadishu. In recent weeks, Somalia’s security minister, Omar Hashi Aden, was killed in an al-Shabab suicide car bomb attack, and scores of parliamentarians have left the country. Barely half remain. “Even an AK-47 bullet fired by the opposition groups can hit the presidential palace,” says Abdul.
Abdul says most Somalis don’t support the Shabab, but are “ruled by fear.” Some still fight against it. When militants desecrated graves and mosques sacred to followers of the spiritual Sufi branch of Islam, normally peaceful Sufis took up arms on the side of the government against al-Shabab, defeating them in several battles in central Somalia.
In a country that has not had a functioning government for almost 20 years, and where much of the population is malnourished, the fighting has made an already devastating humanitarian situation even worse. Tens of thousands have fled Mogadishu in recent months, and already there are some 250,000 Somali refugees in Kenya. Daniela Kroslak, deputy director of the Africa Program at the International Crisis Groups, describes their conditions as “dire in all aspects.” And, she told Maclean’s, “The Somalia situation is one of the worst, if not the worst, situation on the continent.”
What most worries the United States and other Western governments, however, is not the humanitarian crisis, but the possibility that Somalia may become a base for international terrorism.
Many of the ingredients are there already. Al-Shabab has sheltered several Islamist terror suspects with links to al-Qaeda, including Aden Hashi Ayro, who was trained by al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and conducted numerous attacks against foreigners in Somalia before he was killed in a U.S. air strike last year, and Fazul Abdullah Mohammad, who is wanted by the United States for his alleged involvement in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
Al-Shabab has also opened its camps to international jihadists. The suicide bomber who killed four South Korean tourists in Yemen in March was trained in Somalia, according to Yemeni security, and might have been the attacker who blew himself up in an attempt to murder the South Korean ambassador and investigators a few days later.
Even the insurgency inside Somalia has taken on international dimensions. Osama bin Laden, in a March audiotape address, described the conflict as “a war between Islam and the international crusade.” Al-Shabab echoes this. “They don’t recognize borders,” says Abdul. “They say this world is for Muslims, and there is no difference between an Afghan and a Somali. They do not use the word ‘foreigner’ to describe a non-Somali fighting alongside them.”
These foreign fighters in the ranks of al-Shabab are another worry. Abdul says al-Shabab no longer tries to hide their presence. They come from all over the world and number at least 1,000, according to J. Peter Pham, an Africa security specialist at James Madison University with contacts in Somalia and elsewhere in East Africa.
“The danger is not only that these fighters operate there,” Pham says. “But also there are ethnic Somalis from the diaspora who are taking excursions to fight in Somalia, including young men from the United States and western Europe. The real danger is that while there, they link up with other non-Somali extremists who may have an agenda that directly attacks or at least targets the United States and its allies.” We have already seen what might have been a precursor to such attacks. In October 2008, a series of suicide bombings in Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa, killed at least 20 people. One of the bombers was an American of Somali origin.
So what can the United States and its allies do to mitigate the danger coming from Somalia? It’s a vexing question, in part because all too often it’s near impossible to know just how serious a terrorist threat is until it’s too late. This is especially so in Somalia, where, according to a knowledgeable source, the CIA has only “an attempt” at a station. “Everyone knows who and where they are,” the source says.
“One of the problems that the United States faces is that there are a lot of poorly governed spaces around the world where al-Qaeda, or allies of al-Qaeda, or loose affiliates of al-Qaeda, could potentially set up shop,” says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defence policy at the Council on Foreign Relations who previously taught at the U.S. Army War College. “If every time one of them comes up on the radar screen we decide that it’s going to require a massive effort by the United States to respond, then we’ll bankrupt ourselves.”
The other dilemma is whether responding to the threat might not make it worse. Sending soldiers risks provoking resentment. Air strikes can eliminate wanted terrorists, but often at a heavy price. It took the U.S. several attempts to finally take out Aden Hashi Ayro last May. The failed assassination attempts killed civilians and almost certainly increased popular anger against the United States.
“It comes down to this question: can we intervene without doing harm?” says Brownwyn E. Bruton, an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “If you want to deal with it properly, you’re looking at an Iraq-style investment, where 20,000 peacekeepers isn’t going to do it—maybe 40,000, maybe 60,000. You’re talking about building a government and security forces from the ground up. It’s going to be a 10-year effort. And there’s going to be a lot of violence in the short term, as there was in Iraq.”
Ahmed Abdisalam Adan, a former resident of Ottawa and deputy prime minister of Somalia until Sheik Sharif Ahmed’s government was sworn in this year, hopes that the international community will shoulder this burden. In an interview with Maclean’s, he drew comparisons between Somalia and Afghanistan and argued that the international response should be similar. He wants the United Nations to send troops. While some Somalis would reject any international presence, Adan believes most would accept it as necessary. “Somalis are killing each other every day here on the streets, so why wouldn’t they accept anyone who is coming to save them?”
But any large-scale intervention in Somalia would require a massive American contribution. And with its hands full in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, it’s unlikely the United States would contemplate such an investment. This leaves less intrusive options.
Some analysts, such as Daniela Kroslak, believe al-Shabab and its allies need to be brought into the government. “We have to offer something to those people to share the cake,” she says. “There is no way around negotiating with the insurgency.” Adan, the former deputy prime minister, considers this view naive. “This is what we tried to do in 2008, when I was in government,” he says. “I was leading the government delegation in a peace process. We tried everything possible to include them in the process, and they didn’t want to be a part of it. So anyone who now says there needs to be a dialogue with them simply doesn’t understand the reality of the situation.”
It is difficult to imagine much room for common ground between al-Shabab and any Western-backed government. President Ahmed agreed to implement sharia, or Islamic law, but is nonetheless dismissed by al-Shabab as an infidel’s stooge. Bin Laden declared him to be an apostate.
But betting everything on a government that is unable even to control the capital is also risky. The problem with trying to create a strong central government is that it discounts the decentralized and tribal nature of Somali society. “We keep investing in illegitimate top-down approaches, and Somalia has traditionally never had anything but bottom-up movements,” says Pham. “It’s a society where power is traditionally diffuse.”
To the extent that it’s possible, the West should engage directly with the Somali people. They have traditionally followed a moderate version of Islam and are therefore not natural allies of al-Shabab. “The Somali people in that respect are our best asset,” says Bruton. “The Shabab are so foreign and so harsh and so un-Somali in their conduct, that they’re just never going to be able to make it work. And if you accept that, then the best thing you can do is just let them go on and shoot themselves in the foot. What you don’t want to do is galvanize the population into seeing the Shabab as a defence against outsiders, who they really don’t like either.”
Bruton suggests investing in humanitarian relief, economic support, and microcredit projects. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for more direct, forceful intervention. Pham says the arms and money pipeline from Eritrea needs to be shut down. And high-value terror suspects should be tracked and captured or killed. But these operations must be conducted with precision and care.
Finally, it might be time for the international community to become more engaged with Somalia’s breakaway regions of Somaliland and Puntland. Engagement with Puntland might have the collateral benefit of undercutting piracy in the region, while Somaliland has constructed a stable, comparatively democratic society but remains diplomatically isolated. Protecting and strengthening Somaliland would restrict al-Shabab’s potential to spread. It would also provide Somalis with a visible alternative to the radical and violent Islam of al-Shabab.
“Partly it’s a conceptual problem,” says Jamal Gabobe, a writer for the Somaliland Times who now lives in Washington. Al-Shabab and its allies have offered their answer to Somalia’s broken society. “If there is another model that is working, you can say, ‘You don’t need to go that way. You can have a peaceful consensus that is not opposed to Islam. It’s a moderate way to express your belief.’ ”
None of these strategies promises quick results. And meanwhile, Somalis are dying from starvation and war, or suffocating under al-Shabab’s interpretation of Islam. There is also the risk that al-Shabab’s camps are already home to those plotting attacks abroad. Should such threats materialize, any strategies proposing patience and restraint will appear recklessly foolish. Somalia is a problem with no easy solutions.