HOME About Blog Contact Hotel Links Donations Registration
NEWS & COMMENTARY 2008 SPEAKERS 2007 2006 2005

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Terror's Playground


More than a decade after U.S. troops pulled out, Somalia has fallen to Islamic fundamentalists. Here's why it could become the world's next nightmare

On a dusty side street in Somalia's former capital, there's little that distinguishes Mohammed's stall from the others. A grenade rests against a box of ammunition next to a row of AK-47s, and still more rifles hang from nails beneath a patch of tin roofing. His booth occupies prime real estate in the center of Mogadishu's Bakaraaha Arms Market, and he obsessively polishes his guns with an oil-stained rag in a battle against sand and grit. But few passersby show interest. Once one of the most bustling, bristling arms bazaars in the world, the Mogadishu weapons market is weathering a down cycle, with business a mere fraction of what it was in the days when warlords settled internecine grudges in the city's streets. Mohammed's average daily sales have dropped from 15 AKs to just three--and prices have fallen by almost half, to $300. "The only good job was selling guns," says Mohammed, 24. "Now I don't know what I'll do."

In most strife-torn parts of the world, a bear market for weapons would be cause for relief. But tranquillity rarely lasts long in Somalia. Since the overthrow of dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991, the country has been a byword for dysfunction, less a nation-state than a destitute, unremittingly violent land ruled by the barrel of a gun. Last June the warlords' grip on power was finally broken by a dedicated confederacy of fundamentalist Muslim militias that fought their way into the former capital and sent the warlords fleeing.

Since then, the Muslim militias, which call themselves the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), have consolidated their claim to Mogadishu and expanded their control to include most of Somalia, particularly the fertile lands and strategic ports in the country's south. Meanwhile, the U.N.-backed transitional government is unraveling. Confined to the squalid town of Baidoa near the Ethiopian border, the government is dependent on foreign money and security and crippled by internal dissent and mass resignations.

The fear is that Somalia, a country with nearly 9 million Muslims and one that the U.S. has long suspected is a haven for al-Qaeda, may fall further into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists sympathetic to terrorist organizations. A report by the U.N.-chartered watchdog group on Somalia, which was submitted to the U.N Security Council last week, says the ICU has developed extensive ties with groups and states steeped in terrorism.

The report states that the ICU sent "approximately a 720-person-strong military force to Lebanon to fight alongside Hizballah against the Israeli military" during this summer's monthlong war. In exchange, Hizballah's leadership "has made arrangements" for governments like Iran's and Syria's to contribute arms and supplies to the ICU. And senior leaders within the ICU, including co-leader Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, allegedly have direct ties to al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, a radical group suspected of links to al-Qaeda.

Leaders of the ICU deny such allegations, but it's telling that they don't seem particularly bothered by them. "We believe the war against terrorism is a war against Islam," says the hard-line ICU national security chairman, Sheik Yusuf Indahaadde. "Those who are making trouble are not based here." Then, in English, the sheik adds forcefully, "Bush is the mother and father of terrorism."

And yet, in spite of the Islamists' disreputable allies, many Somalis cannot remember a time when they felt safer. For Americans, the single, searing image of Somalia was formed in October 1993, after two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters--part of a U.S. mission to provide humanitarian relief and restore order--were felled by militias loyal to warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid. Eighteen U.S. special forces were killed, and the world community's involvement in Somalia effectively ended. What followed was a decade and a half of intermittent war that reduced Mogadishu to rubble. Along the "green line," the architectural gem of the former Italian colony that bore the brunt of the warlords' reign, the once proud edifice of the National Bank is obliterated, and only a stone shard remains of the cathedral's twin bell towers.

But over the past few months, there have been glimpses of progress. In the clearings between bullet-pocked buildings and along the city's broad, leafy avenues, children play soccer and a decade's worth of trash is slowly being hauled away. Extortionate militia checkpoints and roving bands of technicals--pickups mounted with heavy artillery and carrying armed thugs--have been replaced by disciplined Islamic troops. The city's ports have reopened, buses travel the roads by day, and Somali families stroll the sidewalks by night. Barring the notable exceptions of a Swedish journalist and an Italian nun who were recently murdered, there's no denying Mogadishu's new semblance of order. "This is an area of the world that we would obviously like to see stable, and [the Islamists] are doing that to some extent," says a Western diplomat. "So if what you see is what you get, then maybe it isn't the worst thing in the world."

The Islamists who control the city occupy a whitewashed compound in Mogadishu. They are eager to present their domination as a fait accompli. "We are ready to be a nation," says Foreign Minister Ibrahim Hassan Addou. "We want Somalia to be peaceful, and we want to establish good relations with the rest of the world." With both hands, he beckons toward the open window in his office. "Feel free to look around," he says. "You can go where you want to go and see what you want to see."

Well, not quite. The Islamists have instituted Taliban-style rules banning drinking, cinemas, dancing and women swimming, as well as curbing the press. Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the ICU's co-leader, insists these restraints are the product of spontaneous acts of piety by the public. "We don't have any rules issuing from the Islamic Courts to stop any of this," he insists. "The people are doing this by themselves without intervention by us." That seems open to dispute. Just last week, after protests erupted over the shortage of khat, the seemingly ubiquitous narcotic chewed in Somalia, the Islamists ordered a ban on the drug. It's unlikely to go over well. "It's good to stop hashish and harder things," says a man at a khat stall in Mogadishu, "but cigarettes and beer? There will be a day when people say, Wait, they have gone too far. I am sure of it."

The Islamists' takeover is a parable of the unintended consequences of the U.S.'s war on terrorism. After Sept. 11, the U.S. intelligence community, acting on concerns that Somalia's lawlessness could be exploited by al-Qaeda, initiated the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism, a covert program that funneled aid to warlords in return for their assistance in capturing suspected terrorists. One of those warlords approached by U.S. operatives was Osman Hassan Ali Atto. Once a top financier of warlord Aidid--Atto was captured just a week before the downing of the Black Hawks in 1993--he is the last independent warlord in Mogadishu, a testament to his ability to play both sides of the net. Blunt-spoken and avuncular, Atto disparaged the U.S. cash-for-warlords program. "It was a waste of money," he says at his junkyard in Mogadishu, where the rusting hulks of dozers and pavers are still scarred by flak from U.S. missiles some 15 years ago. "I always told them that America's interests [should be] a government that is put in place without the pressure of money. They had their own ambitions to capture certain individuals. But I told them to f___ off. We are not for sale."

But other warlords were. Payments totaling several hundred thousand dollars were funneled to various militia groups, according to U.N. sources. The program was an open secret in Somalia and among the African diplomatic corps, but its only success was to bolster support for the Islamic Courts among a population weary of anarchy and opposed to foreign meddling. "It was a spectacular disaster," says John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group. "Not only were the militia leaders routed, but the U.S. and CIA support for these militias led to strengthened support for the Islamic Courts."

Poorly trained and addled by khat, Mogadishu's bands of thugs were no match for the highly regimented and dedicated Islamic soldiers. After just three months, the warlords were decisively routed this summer. "The warlords, they did not know how to fight," an ICU militia trainer says during a tour of his training camp just outside Mogadishu. "They had the guns and the money and the khat, but they did not have the heart. For many months we have not been paid to fight, whether in money or in khat. We fight with our hearts."

Those aren't their only weapons. The U.N. watchdog report circulated to the Security Council last week says Syria has equipped and trained the ICU military. On July 27, the report says, "200 fighters from the ICU were transported by aircraft to Syria to undergo military training in guerrilla warfare." The report also says a Syrian plane delivered a "large quantity" of arms, including surface-to-air missiles, to the ICU in early September. On at least two occasions, Iran supplied the ICU with arms, including a shipment on July 25 of 1,000 machine guns and grenade launchers, an unknown quantity of mines and ammunition, and 45 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.

In mid-August, a large dhow originating in Iran and carrying arms, medical supplies and food arrived at a Mogadishu seaport. Included in the shipment were 80 man-portable surface-to-air missiles and launchers. The U.N. also charges that "at the time of writing of this report, there were two Iranians in Dhusa Mareb engaged on matters linked to the exploration of uranium in exchange for arms to the ICU." In separate letters written to the U.N., Syria and Iran denied having any involvement.

Foreign diplomats warn that the arms buildup may be a prelude to a wider war. Despite being sidelined by the Islamists, the transitional government still enjoys the full-throated backing of the international community and is being armed to the teeth by neighboring Ethiopia--a necessary violation of the country's arms embargo if the transitional government is to survive, but hardly endearing to most Somalis, for whom Ethiopia is a blood enemy. Meanwhile, Ethiopia's main rival in the region, Eritrea, has funneled arms and forces to the ICU. Peace talks between the Islamists and the transitional government have largely collapsed, and skirmishes are increasing.

The African Union plans to deploy some 7,000 African peacekeepers to keep the two sides at bay. But the Islamists have made clear they will consider this an act of war. "If they come, we will view them as invading troops," said Ahmed. "And we are ready to defend ourselves because we are not ready to be colonized again by any sort of troops in the world." Without those peacekeepers, however, the two sides seem destined to clash. A face-off would surely drag Ethiopia and Eritrea into a proxy--if not outright--war. The Islamists' stated aim to unite all of Somalia is believed to include the secular breakaway territories of Puntland and Somaliland, as well as portions of Kenya and Ethiopia. Once fighting has begun, there's little to prevent Somalia from becoming a conflict that could engulf the Horn of Africa, cause horrific loss of life and create the continent's next major humanitarian crisis.

With those storm clouds gathering, the Islamists in Mogadishu are intent on solidifying their hold on power, dispensing their harsh brand of justice and leaving no doubt about who's in control. A reminder of that came on a clear blue morning in mid-October, when thousands of Somalis gathered at the parade ground of the old police barracks on the city's battered coast. Guards led a tall, undernourished man, condemned to death for killing another man, to a clearing in the center. After a reading from the Koran, the man conducted his ablutions, said a prayer and was led to a post facing eight soldiers in balaclavas and armed with AKs. His hands and feet were tied and his eyes blindfolded. With the bright blue sea behind him and puffy white clouds above, and to the jubilant shouts of Allahu akbar (God is great) from the crowd, the man's head and stomach were ripped by bullets.

Web IntelligenceSummit.org
Webmasters: Intelligence, Homeland Security & Counter-Terrorism WebRing
Copyright © IHEC 2008. All rights reserved.       E-mail info@IntelligenceSummit.org