Somalia Could Become Springboard for ''Jihad''
Posted on Wednesday, October 13
Topic: World News

On a recent drive in downtown Mogadishu with ten heavily armed bodyguards, I passed the site of the old US embassy, and observed a melancholy scene that Britain and the USA might ponder if they decide to bale out of Iraq early. The embassy has been totally demolished, either out of hatred or because Mogadishu’s benighted inhabitants need bricks with which to build their hovels.

The site is now a forest of thorns browsed by camels. Washington has long regarded Somalia as nothing but a nasty backwater populated by ungrateful Africans, but the continuing violence there — much of it directed by Islamic extremists — suggests that the country may become the springboard for an Africa-wide Islamic jihad.

When the Somali government fell in 1991 and civil war broke out, US navy helicopters were diverted from the Gulf to pull out the American diplomats. One Somali who witnessed the evacuation was a friend of mine, Abdulkadir Yahya, who worked at the embassy. As gunmen scaled the walls, Yahya gathered his wife and children to wait to be rescued with the foreigners. Just as the helicopters were about to lift off, the Americans told Yahya that he and his family would have to stay behind. One tossed him the keys to the ambassador’s office and yelled, ‘Here, what’s left of the money and food is all yours!’
I met Yahya a few days after he had been left behind by his American employers and he managed to laugh about it. He was kind, clever and, like many Somalis, he had a stoical sense of humour. Ignored by the world, Somalis were committing what Yahya drily called ‘geno-suicide’. Once, over a plate of lobster in the ruins of the Lido Beach Club — which still served lunch despite the lack of a roof and mortar-bomb holes in the wall — Yahya told me, ‘In Somalia, if you have nothing you starve. If you have something you are attacked. Either way, you get killed.’

In December 1992 George Bush Snr sent troops to Mogadishu. I watched the Marines reoccupy the embassy and hoist Old Glory. A colonel told me it was the very same flag that had been removed from the embassy in Beirut after the 1982 suicide bombing that killed 241 Marines. ‘It feels good to see a flag going up rather than down,’ he said.

Bush’s objective was to end a famine that had killed 300,000. When Clinton took office four months later the troops were still there. He placed them under the command of the United Nations, which promised to rebuild Somalia and hold democratic elections within 18 months. A vast UN base sprouted around the embassy with thousands of troops.

Within months US-led forces were battling warlord Mohamed Farah Aydiid’s militias and, in October 1993, 18 American servicemen — and 1,000 Somalis, most of them civilians — were killed in a firefight in Mogadishu. Hollywood fictionalised what occurred in Black Hawk Down. A computer video game was later released. On the streets of Mogadishu today the hulks of UN armoured vehicles destroyed in that battle still lie rusting. The Somalia mission collapsed two years later and the Stars and Stripes were lowered yet again.

The US-led United Nations intervention in Somalia was disastrously executed. It could have succeeded, though, if the peace-keeping forces had not cut and run. There is a lesson here for the coalition in Iraq. A precipitate departure would make failure certain because Iraq’s government would collapse, the civil war would get worse and Iraq would become a failed state.

Somalia has now been in a state of chaos for 14 years, the longest period any state even in Africa has lacked government since the scramble by the colonial powers in the 19th century. What drives the chaos are virulent clan rivalries fuelled by piles of guns left over from the Cold War. Unlike Iraq, Somalia has no oil. In geopolitical terms, its strategic value is that it sits at the mouth of the Red Sea and is a bridge between Arabia and Africa. Today, however, Mogadishu resembles a scene from The Day of the Triffids, with citizens surviving among overgrown ruins. Perhaps 500,000 Somalis have been wiped out, though nobody can even estimate the population as the last census was conducted 30 years ago.

In Mogadishu a few weeks ago I met real slaves. They are ethnic Bantus, some of them descendants of soldiers from British regiments who were allowed to settle here in colonial times. Lighter-skinned nomadic clans have prevailed in the civil war and pressed groups like the Bantu into forced labour.

The UN had hoped that polio was nearly eradicated worldwide, until an epidemic originated in Mogadishu last month. Rinderpest, which wiped out livestock across Africa in the 1880s, is doing well there. Some years ago I visited a colony of lepers in southern Somalia. Their supply of medicine has since been terminated.

In August the International Maritime Bureau reported that Somalia was second only to Iraq in acts of piracy, recording 21 serious attacks on shipping since March. Not to be outdone by the Iraqis, Somalis hijacked three Taiwanese fishing trawlers poaching in territorial waters. They threatened to behead one hostage per day among the crews unless their ransom demands were met. Pirates who in July hijacked a UN ship bringing relief to local victims of the tsunami finally released the crew this week but tried to steal the cargo intended for starving children.

A flotilla of Western warships and aircraft is policing Somalia’s waters, aiming to disrupt the smuggling of arms and militants between the Middle East and Africa. I joined the Lafayette, a French navy stealth frigate, 60 miles out in the Gulf of Aden. We swooped over shipping in a Panther chopper and boarded and searched an Arab dhow. ‘I have no doubt we are on the frontline in the war on terror,’ the Lafayette’s captain, François Pasi, told me. This appeared to make members of the crew very happy indeed. I asked two of them if the war on terror had given them all a sense of purpose for the first time since the end of the Cold War. ‘Absolutely,’ they said. ‘Until 9/11 we didn’t know why we were in the navy any more.’

But the Western blockade of Africa’s Horn is so engrossed with the war on terror that it totally overlooks piracy, and even the smuggling of Somalis to the Gulf countries, where they hope to get menial jobs as cleaners or, better still, find a way of getting to Europe. The traffickers, fearing capture by Arab coastguards, force many refugees off the boats before they even come in sight of the coast. Sharks or the ocean swallow up most of these unfortunates, but since August alone at least 150 refugee bodies have been found.

The Somalis who do reach the Gulf countries, of course, are loathed and mistreated: legend has it that the founding father of a Somali clan had to flee Mecca after he stole the Prophet’s slippers from outside the mosque. No wonder Somalis want to get to Europe. Several hundred thousand have succeeded. They are the third largest group of asylum-seekers in Britain and the applications of very few Somalis compared with those of other nationalities are refused. Somali friends in London have also told me that it costs £5,000 to smuggle a man into Britain. The East African suspects in the attempted London bombings of 21 July — Somali-born Yassin Hassan Omar, Hamdi Isaac of Ethiopia and Muktar Said Ibrahim — learned their militancy in British mosques, not in the Horn of Africa. But in order to create an alienated band of young men there had to be a reservoir of refugees from Africa’s failed states. Recent surveys claim that of the Somalis in Britain only 12 per cent have jobs. It seems mad that Britain and the US have spent billions on giving asylum to refugees from war, pestilence and famine in Somalia rather than spending the same amount of money or less on bringing about peace in Africa’s Horn. But this is what has happened.

Now the West can prepare for many more refugees, as fresh conflict looms between Somalia’s rival armies.

On one side is the faction led by Abdullahi Yusuf, whom I first met in 1991 following the battle for Addis Ababa. A former Somali army commander, Yusuf had sought the aid of Mengistu Haile Mariam, Ethiopia’s Marxist despot, to fight a war in his own country — and ended up in an Ethiopian prison for six years. When Addis Ababa’s current leader, Meles Zenawi, released him he walked straight to the Hilton bar, where he bumped into me and I bought him a drink. The drink has been on my conscience ever since, because later Yusuf had a liver transplant in a London hospital.

Last year the West supported Yusuf’s appointment as president of a transitional government, but since then has given him almost no help. This has forced him once more to seek the support of Ethiopia, Somalia’s old Christian adversary — something that will intensify and regionalise the conflict. When I met him in August in Jowhar, a dusty village where Yusuf is camped north of the capital, the president told me, ‘There are no Ethiopians in Somalia.’ His ministers then proceeded to display recruits of the new government army being trained by dozens of Ethiopian military instructors with bullets and guns being supplied by Addis Ababa, Yemen and Libya.

Building up to attack Yusuf’s forces is an array of scary men in Mogadishu. In the lawless city I found that Islamic jihadis of al-Ittihad al-Islamiya (AIAI) have recently gained a significant foothold. Backed by rich businessmen, they have established a network of Islamic courts with up to 3,000 recruits.

AIAI’s leader, Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys, has declared jihad against ‘the devil’ Yusuf. Aweys occupies a compound next to the colonial-era Italian cemetery, where his militias dug up the bones, tossed them into the street and then constructed a mosque over the site.

In a bizarre twist the jihadis have now formed a loose alliance with warlord gangs whom the CIA has bankrolled to capture Islamic extremists. These are the thugs that American troops once battled to overthrow, who are making far too much money from the war on terror to want an end to anarchy.

Last month in Somaliland — the relatively stable breakaway region that covers the part of Somalia formerly ruled by Britain — the authorities fought a long gun battle with militants they claim are al-Qa’eda operatives. Eight were arrested and the house they occupied was found to contain explosives and heavy weapons. It appears that their objective was to disrupt the region’s elections and kill poll observers and international aid workers.

This is the latest vindication of Western fears that Mogadishu could grow as a base for Islamic extremists. Al-Qa’eda members used Somalia as a base when they were planning bomb attacks against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. The same happened when terrorists passed through Somalia on their way to bomb the Israeli Paradise Hotel in Mombasa in November 2002. The same day they also narrowly missed blowing up an Israeli charter flight out of the same city.

In 2003 British Airways suspended flights to Nairobi and Mombasa for six weeks. Reports emerged of a plot hatched by Somali-based al-Qa’eda terrorists to break through the fence of a Kenyan airport with an explosives-laden truck designed to detonate beneath a taxiing BA jumbo jet. Another alleged Somali plot was to fill a Cessna small aircraft with a bomb known as the ‘hippo’, which would be flown out of a Nairobi airport and piloted into the brand new US embassy rebuilt to fortress standards since the last one was demolished.

Now this year, Yusuf’s counter-terrorism chief told me, foreign terrorists were planning fresh attacks throughout eastern Africa. He said they felt so secure and protected in Mogadishu that they had even married local girls and were raising families. ‘They will kill anybody who disagrees with them.’ He pointed at me. ‘And they will kill any white people they find like you, too. They will know you have arrived as soon as you land at the airstrip.’

Many claim Ethiopian agents are responsible for some of the dozens of assassinations in Mogadishu. I asked Yusuf’s deputies about this and they laughed derisively. Later I met one of Yusuf’s Tigrayan military advisers for an afternoon of chewing qat, the vegetable amphetamine widely consumed here. We sat cross-legged on the floor opposite one another. When we were both quite stoned, I began quizzing him on ‘terrorism in Somalia’, but decided it might be best to shut up when I observed him take out a .45 pistol and slide it gently under his buttocks.

When my cameraman James and I flew into Mogadishu, I recalled what Yusuf’s counter-intelligence chief had said about militants checking on arrivals. As it was, the only spies at the dirt airstrip in the bush outside the city might have been the CIA. Somalis cheerfully told me they had landed that morning in a white Fokker, parked off to one side of the runway and opened their doors to welcome in a queue of Somali informers.

In Mogadishu prestige is conveyed not by the car you drive but by how much of a target for assassination you are — and therefore by how many weapons you carry in your entourage. Ahead of arrival I had told our fixer to arrange for three heavy machine-gunners and seven AK-47 riflemen. Through the smoked-glass windows of the 4x4 on the way into town, I observed how we were still not doing very well, as we regularly passed convoys of vehicles bristling with anti-aircraft guns or rocket launchers. These were not only warlords or Islamic court militias; they were also just rich people who can afford the hardware.

Despite the arms embargo enforced by Western warships, I was offered a selection of new weapons manufactured by the gunsmiths of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, together with a Somali passport for just $100.

Very few foreigners ever visit Mogadishu, apart from alleged terrorists and a few brave aid workers who probably now number fewer than 30 in the whole of the country. ‘We are not in the suicide business here,’ the UN human rights envoy told reporters last month when asked why he had not visited the capital. Now Somalis who work for international aid groups are also targets for assassination. On Monday night masked gunmen shot down a UN security officer in the southern port of Kismayo. James and I were the first journalists in the city since February, when the BBC television producer Kate Peyton was shot down in broad daylight. In our hotel I ensured that we retained a couple of dozen gunmen overnight. The next room down from mine was where Kate had stayed. Before I went to sleep I put a chair up against the door, feebly hoping it might somehow deter assassins who were operating for the Wahabis, the Ethiopians or the CIA-backed warlords.

I had looked forward to seeing my friend Yahya again in Mogadishu. He had refused to leave, and tried instead to help end his nation’s bloodletting through a group called the Centre for Research and Dialogue. Days before I arrived in Mogadishu, a gang of men stole into his compound in the dead of night. They cut through a razor-wire perimeter and came over the wall, caught his five armed guards napping, disarmed them and put them in gags and police handcuffs. If a Somali gunman wants to attack you, he will normally do so in broad daylight, angrily, face-to-face and at close quarters. These men were in masks, wearing gloves and dark clothes. They entered the house, where Yahya was asleep with his wife who was visiting from London. They pulled them out of bed and interrogated Yahya, going through his mobile phones and laptop. When they had finished, they put the phones and computer into a plastic bag to take away, and shot Yahya five times in the head and chest as his helpless wife stood by. Then they vanished.

Aidan Hartley, The Spectator