Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Taliban, Somali-Style

Somali militia checkpoint in MogadishuMost Americans knew little about Somalia until the early 1990s. Our new-found familiarity with Horn of Africa was an indirect result of the end of the Soviet Union, and the removal of Soviet influence and funding from the region.

The fall of Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in early 1991 ushered in a reign of Hobbesian chaos in the country, which became yet another failed state. The results were predictable: violent warlords, starvation, mass suffering, abject destitution, and huge flows of refugees across the border into neighboring countries. The response of the Western media was equally predictable — “We (i.e. the United States) must do something.”

The results are well-known: the arrival of the U.S. military in Somalia, the debacle later chronicled in Black Hawk Down, the complete withdrawal of our troops, and the resumption of the reign of chaos. The UN took over, and Somalia went back to the way it had been before — a country-sized No Man’s Land.

We didn’t hear much more about it after that. Al Qaeda’s presence there — and the possibility that Osama bin Laden himself had been in Somalia — caused a small blip on our radar screen. The Somali pirates gained some headlines, but not for hijacking 25 UN relief vessels. That was simply business as usual. No, they had to go after an American cruise ship before they could draw significant attention from the Western media and the U.S. Navy.

The most recent news stories concerned Somalis in truck-driving schools in the Midwest, with speculation about the potential for Al Qaeda sleepers getting their HAZMAT licenses.

But for the last several months, without gaining widespread attention in the Western press, Somalia has entered a new phase in its civil war. In recent years, some of the warlords’ militias have been mutating into Islamist groups and creating Islamic courts to promote order within their enclaves, under the umbrella of the Shari’ah.

Last December the International Crisis Group issued a report:

…since the collapse of the government in 1991, a variety of Islamist reformist movements have sprung up inside the country – some inspired or sponsored by foreign interests. The vast majority are non-violent and opposed to ideological extremism. The largest groups, notably Jama’at al-Tabligh and the Salafiyya Jadiida, practise missionary activism aimed at steering lax Muslims back towards the true path of their faith. A much smaller proportion, including Harakaat al-Islah and Majma’ ’Ulimadda Islaamka ee Soomaaliya, are politically active but not extremist, struggling rather to influence the future of the Somali state and its political system. By far the smallest reformist groups are those composed of jihadis, such as the now-defunct al-Itihaad al-Islaami and the new, nameless one fronted by Aden Hashi ’Ayro.

Other, ostensibly Islamist entities have more complex origins and agendas. The Shari’a (Islamic law) courts that have sprung up across southern Somalia over the past decade began as essentially clan-based institutions intended to restore security and order in a stateless society. Attempts to unify and coordinate the court system, however, have been in large part politically motivated, and some courts have been hijacked by jihadi leaders. This kind of cooperation, combined with independent sources of funding, has allowed some courts to exercise greater independence from their clans, and since early 2005, the Shari’a court system in Mogadishu has been pursuing an aggressive political and social agenda.

Since the beginning of this year, the Islamist groups have been more aggressively successful in their struggle against their non-Islamist counterparts. Their major strategic objective is control of the road between Mogadishu and the country’s primary port, Elmaan.

Before the advent of the warlords, Mogadishu had its own port. However, it had to be closed in 1995, after the ongoing battle for control of its facilities had rendered it unusable.

Since then the control of the road leading to the port at Elmaan has been a major source of revenue for the warlords, whose militias set up checkpoints and exact tolls from all travelers.

When the Islamist leader Abukar Omar Adan attempted to seize control of the area, he did something that ten years and hundreds of millions of dollars in Western aid couldn’t do: he got the rival non-Islamist warlords to unite, in order to oppose him. In the last few weeks there has been a series of bloody battles going on between Adan and a new group called the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, with 52 people killed in clashes during the final week of March.

According to a recent story in the Independent Online,

The fighting was sparked by a row over land ownership in which one militia leader, Abukar Omar Adan, a staunch supporter of the Islamic courts, attempted to grab the piece of land attached to the Aisaley airport north of the capital and which is controlled by rival warlord Bashir Raghe Shirar.

The two men belong to the Warsangale sub-clan of Abgal within the larger Hawiye which is dominant in Mogadishu and its surroundings, but they have different political affiliations.

Adan is allied to the Islamic courts of Mogadishu, which control pockets of the lawless capital, while Shirar is a co-founder of the newly formed Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT) which is opposed to the growing influence of the Islamic courts.

A story in the Middle East Times reports rumors that ARPCT is being supported by the United States in order to counter increasing Al Qaeda involvement in the Islamic courts. Not a bad move — the idea of an African version of the Taliban gaining control of Somalia is not something one wants to contemplate.

According to a February analysis of Somalia, also in the Middle East Times:

The ongoing clan-based civil war there has also allowed arms smuggling and piracy to flourish. Ships carrying emergency UN food deliveries have been among the 25 vessels hijacked since last March.

Despite taking a hands-off approach, fears of Islamist militants taking over the capital have moved the US and other governments to back Somali counter-terrorism networks made up of faction leaders and former police officers. This strategy is said to have led to the capture of one key Al Qaeda figure and the arrest of more than a dozen militants.

However, a recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank, said that although militant groups with ties to Al Qaeda continue to use Somalia as a base and transit point, there is little evidence that the public is behind them.

So, after fifteen years of non-stop chaos and bloodshed and economic destruction, the Somalis are still not ripe for Al Qaeda.

I wonder why that is? Could it be because the Somalis are black Africans, and not Arabs? A long history of cultural domination and enslavement at the hands of their Arab masters might have left Somalia ill-disposed to yield to further management by the princes of Arabia.

In any case, Somalia, like so many other places nowadays, is worth watching.

Hat tip: Democracy Frontline.


Adaneshju said...

A couple thoughts. The race situation in Africa is complicated.. There are many Egyptians/Yemenese/Saudis that would be called "black" in America, that absolutely don't identify as "black." Language plays a greater role. I've met people who look very sub-saharan African who speak Arabic and consider themselves Arabs.

Interestingly the name "Sudan" comes from the Arabic word for "blac" and Zanzibar is Persian meaning "the black coast." There has historically been a flow of slaves northward, and a flow of Islam southward (also don't forget Muslims don't enslave other Muslims..)

Now, having said that, two anecdotes from a visit to Egypt. Egypt, Turkey, elsewhere in the region--people are very curious, and love to practice their English (also no doubt like to befried Americans as Americans are generally the most liked tourists--we're the most generous with money).

In one instance I was speaking with someone random on the street--I believe he was a shoeshiner (I might add I was wearing tennis shoes at the time). He asked me where I was from. I said North Carolina. He didn't recognize the name, and asked me if it was near "Memphis Tennessee." I thought that was somewhat odd, but said yes, it was pretty close. He replied that that was great, and that his brother lived in Memphis. I asked how his brother like Tn. He replied that his brother didn't like it too much as there were too many blacks (and my jaw drops..). This again coming from a man who could easily be labelled black himself!

In another instance I was in a museum giftshop, and there was an African American family there (apparently there is a quite large tourist business for African Americans who go to Egypt/Sudan, ancient Nubia tourists, etc). After they bought some stuff and left, the giftshop manager flat out remarked that he didn't like american blacks, because they were too loud. (he particularly said american blacks).

I don't know if there's really a point to these anecdotes, but they've certaintly stuck with me.

I don't want to imply that all Middle Easterners are racist, though it might not be far off. A South Asian friend of mine (and a very devout Muslim [and no for the record, not a crazy!]) really wanted to study in Mecca for a semester during college. He had to study in Cairo instead because he was basically told that the Saudis hate South Asians, and he would have a hard time getting anywhere.

X said...

It seems to me that the only people really interested in there being a country called Somalia are certain transnational organisations. Every attempt to impose a government has come from the UN, usually using US troops, but I reckon that the country won't exist for much longer the way things are going. And this is a good thing. Perhaps the single biggest reason for all the problems in Africa is the artificial borders that were created by the break-up of the empires. These huge states have borders that slice up traditional tribal areas, often lumping two or three extended tribal groups in to a single country when they would prefer to be on their own. I can't speak for the other empires - my history on them is a little fuzzy to say the least - but while Britain's african holdings were under Britain's domain, any "borders" that existed were along tribal lines. It'll probably never happen now but, even just 30 years ago, if Africa had been allowed to form its own national boundaries instead of being forced to retain the post-imperial boundaries forced on it by the french, who wanted to maintain their territories, and the UN, things might have been different. There'd still be wars, but Africa would have been able to progress naturally, in the way that europe progressed.

can you imagine how things would have progressed if some ancient version of the UN had created the borders of europe followng the break-up of the roman empire, only to cut up the old duchies willy-nilly and enforce ruler-straight borders across the ardenne and the rhine valley? It would have made the aftermath of the Berlin wall seem like a side-show.

Scott said...

In light of adaneshju's comments I
recall that a large group of Somali
'refugees' were resettled by the US
government in Atlanta. By virtue of
their low income ( welfare) and the
fact that Atlanta is majority black
these Somalians found themselves in
close and unwelcome proximity to
the American version of blacks.

They didn't like it. They moved as
a mass to Maine. Another large
concentration of Somalians have
chosen Minnesota as their 'home'.

While it is flattering that Somalis
prefer to live amongst whites I do
not wish to live amongst Somalis.
However our government does not
allow us that option. They simply
import stone age people and dump
them in our communities.

I really find it an imposition that
we have to concern ourselves with
places like Somalia at all. We have
no trade, social or cultural ties
with such benighted places and if
they would simply leave us alone we
would be more than happy to do the

But these kind of places are like a
dead skunk in the road. The odor is
so bad somebody has to get rid of
the stench by removing the carcass.
That unpleasant task generally
falls on the United States as other
nations do not have the means to do