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Somali Instability Still Poses Threat Even After Successful Strike On Nabhan
Peter Pham, Ph.D.
The United States struck an important blow against Islamist terrorism in the Horn of Africa earlier this week when, in the middle of the day on Monday, Special Operations Forces swooped down on a vehicle bearing militants on a dirt road near the town of Baraawe, south of Mogadishu about halfway to Kismayo, and, opening fire, killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the ringleader of the cell of al-Qaeda in East Africa responsible for the 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, and the simultaneous attempt to down an Israeli commercial airliner. The target was also implicated in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. Most recently, Nabhan, a Kenyan national of Yemeni origin, was running terrorist training camps and bringing in foreign trainers and fighters to support al-Shabaab ("the youth"), an al-Qaeda-linked group that was formally designated a "foreign terrorist organization" by the U.S. Department of State last year, and the Hisbul Islam ("Islamic party") group of Sheikh Hassan Dahir 'Aweys, a figure who appears personally on both United States and United Nations antiterrorism sanctions lists, in their insurgency against the weak "Transitional Federal Government" (TFG) of Somalia. In short, he was a bona fide "high value target" (HVT) in the fight against Islamist terrorism (as an added bonus, it appears that Sheikh Hussein Ali Fidow, a senior al-Shabaab commander who is often described as the head of the group's political affairs, was traveling in the same vehicle with Nabhan and joined the latter in his dramatic departure from this world). While Nabhan's demise, if confirmed by testing on the bodies reportedly removed from the scene by the commandos, certainly represents a significant success, the situation across the territory of the onetime Somali Democratic Republic remains precarious, continuing to pose a threat not only to Somalis and their neighbors, but to international security as a whole.
The TFG. Somalia's internationally-recognized, but otherwise utterly ineffective transitional authority remains, as I told a Congressional hearing in June, "not a government by any common-sense definition of the term: it is entirely dependent on foreign troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to protect its small enclave within Mogadishu, but otherwise administers no territory; even within this restricted zone, it has shown no functional capacity to govern, much less provide even minimal services to the citizens." Neither the Obama administration's obtaining of a waiver from a longstanding United Nations arms embargo on Somalia to ship weapons to the beleaguered remnant around Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed nor the TFG head's photo op in Nairobi with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last month can alter the fact that the regime is so lacking in popular legitimacy that it requires the presence of no fewer that 4,300 Ugandan and Burundian troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) just to be able to camp out in a few square blocks of its putative capital.
And if any further proof is needed of the failure of the policy of simply shipping weapons to the TFG is a mistake of startling proportions—at best, as I pointed out in this column two months ago, a "poorly thought-out gesture may have handed the Islamist extremists both the weapons and the nationalist (and anti-American) card to use in their fight against the TFG"—there is the data on the arms and ammunition sales in the bazaars of Mogadishu. Since the new shipments started arriving, prices have collapsed. For about $95, one can purchase an M16 on the streets less than a mile from Villa Somalia, where the TFG holds court (when its members are in the country at all—Sheikh Sharif just returned from a trip that took him to Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Djibouti, only to prepare to leave again for the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week, followed by a tour of Somali communities in America); another $100 will buy the more favored AK-47. Heckler & Koch G3 rifles are even cheaper, going for as little as $60 a piece. Ammunition is not only more plentiful, but cheaper, in Mogadishu than at licensed gun dealers in America: 60 cents will get a M16 round, while AK-47 and G3 rounds only cost half as much. In short, the TFG is both so corrupt and so lacking in capacity that sending it materiel has only made it more convenient for the insurgents fighting it—who are well-financed thanks to their foreign donors, both state and non-state—to simply replenish their arsenals on the open market.
As for the TFG itself, although his cabinet was reshuffled yet again at the end of August, Sheikh Sharif has yet to achieve any breakthroughs of inclusivity that he promised at the time of his installation by a handpicked assembly meeting in January at the swank Djibouti Palace Kempinski Hotel in the statelet on the Red Sea. And while the embattled AMISOM troops have done a yeoman's work in just protecting the embattled regime, they are far too few to even think of actually imposing its writ anywhere (as if foreigners can hope to impose a settlement on a proud people like the Somali). Nor would that authority be welcomed given the arbitrary way that the TFG forces have used what little power they currently have. To cite just one example, last month the man who is supposed to lead the Ministry of Justice, Sheikh Abdirahman Janakow, was forced to admit to journalists that "loyal troops" had set up a checkpoint between Mogadishu and the agricultural center of Afgoye to extort money from civilian and commercial traffic. The situation was so bad that truckers staged a strike to protest, depriving a population already facing massive food insecurity from fresh deliveries for three days.
While it may not do for the international community to simply abandon the TFG to its fate, neither is it realistic to expect that merely throwing more resources at it will be enough to keep it from meeting a fate any different from that of the fourteen other abortive attempts by outsiders, both well-intentioned and less so, to establish a national government from the top down.
Al-Shabaab. If the TFG has failed to gain much traction in recent months, the Islamist insurgents fighting it have lost some momentum, in large part because, as I observed in this column four months ago, their radical ideology does not permit them to prudently adjust the speed with which they try to impose their alien ways on the Somali populace. While Shabaab fighters remain a force to be reckoned with and some parts of southern and central Somalia—including the port of Kismayo, the second-largest city in the country—have now been under the sway of the extremists for over a year and are likely to remain under their control for the foreseeable future, Somalis are increasingly weary both of the Islamists and the foreign jihadists who have rallied to their cause. Thus if al-Shabaab and its allies can be contained—and it is, admittedly, a major "if"—they run the risk of collapsing under the weight of their own internal contradictions and the burdens of governance.
As one would expect, al-Shabaab has responded to the taking down of Nabhan and the other extremists accompanying him with threats of retaliation. While the avowals are nothing new—the howls were even louder when Aden Hashi Farah 'Ayro, the Shabaab leader dispatched when a joint direct attack munition (JDAM) smashed into the house in Dhuusamareeb he was sleeping in on May 1, 2008—with the small, but steady, stream of young men from the Somali diaspora who move back and forth from their homes in the United States and other Western countries and the "jihad" in Somalia, it would be foolhardy to totally discount the possibility of some blowback, no matter how limited. Recall that it was less than one month ago that Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Attorney-General Robert McClelland announced the designation of al-Shabaab as a terrorist organization, prompted in part by the arrest of five men of Somali or Lebanese descent associated with the group who were plotting an attack on Holsworthy Barracks in western Sydney. The uncovering of the antipodal conspiracy came not even a month after a grand jury in Minneapolis indicted two men for supporting the terrorist group. The indictment came as a part of what even the New York Times called "the most significant domestic terrorism investigation since September 11."
Ahlu Sunna wal-Jama'a. The excesses of al-Shabaab have given rise to another movement, Ahlu Sunna wal-Jama'a (roughly, "[Followers of] the Traditions and Consensus [of the Prophet Muhammad]"), to oppose the decidedly alien Wahhābist ideology which Somalia's Islamist insurgents have appropriated from some of their foreign sponsors. Loosely organized into armed militias on a clan basis and having roots in the Sufi turuq ("brotherhoods") that have traditionally been highly influential among the Somali, Ahlu Sunna wal-Jama'a fighters have managed to stop in a number of places what, just a few months ago, seemed to be the relentless surge of al-Shabaab forces. Trained and assisted by the defense forces of neighboring Ethiopia, which have allowed some of the movement's units the use of its territory, Ahlu Sunna wal-Jama'a is emerging as a major player in southern and central Somalia. However, the group's opposition to al-Shabaab should not be confused for support of the TFG. In fact, while it has neither the international links nor global strategic vision of al-Shabaab, the group has an Islamist agenda of its own—recently, it conducted operations against those who it felt were not properly observing the fast of Ramadan—that may set it at odds with the more secular elements within both the TFG and Somali civil society once the common enemy is dealt with. At the very least, however, the ambitions of Ahlu Sunnah wal-Jama'a do not appear to pose any challenge to Somalia's neighbors.
Somaliland. Unfortunately, compounding these negative indicators, there have likewise been setbacks in the one region of the former Somalia which had hitherto shown the greatest promise, the Republic of Somaliland. In a column just two months ago, I wrote: "Somaliland shows what is possible when a 'bottom-up' or 'building-block' approach is allowed to take place instead of imposing the hitherto favored 'top-down' strategy for resolving conflicts, consolidating peace, and state-building within a political space. It also illustrates how a process that is viewed as legitimate and supported by the populace can also address the international community's interests about issues ranging from humanitarian concerns to maritime piracy to transnational terrorism."
While the constitutional democracy in Somaliland with the president and lower house of parliament directly elected by the people in what has, to date, been deemed to be free and fair polls is unique not just in the Somali lands, but throughout the subregion, that record has frayed in recent years. The current president, Dahir Riyale Kahin, as vice president succeeded to the position of his widely-venerated predecessor, Muhammad Haji Ibrahim Egal, when the latter died while undergoing surgery at a South African military hospital in 2002. The following year, Kahin was elected to a five-year term in his own right by a razor-thin margin of just 80 votes out of nearly half a million cast in a three-way race. To the admiration of many in Africa and beyond, the result was accepted and Somaliland continued on its peaceful way while the rest of the onetime Somali Democratic Republic degenerated into chaos and violence.
Elections were supposed to have been held in August 2008, but tensions in the eastern Somaliland districts of Sanaag and Sool led the parliamentary upper house, the Guurti, made up of 82 traditional elders to extend the incumbent president's term and fix the poll for March 2009. Since the start of this year, however, a seemingly endless chain of disputes and missed deadlines lead to the vote being pushed off repeatedly (and Kahin's term being extended accordingly) until September 27. At the beginning of this month, after several weeks of crisis surrounding a hotly contested voter registration list, the election commission ruled that a poll could not take place in the current political environment. The assertion is true on the face of it, if the shameful fisticuffs—and, in the case of one lawmaker, waving a gun—in the House of Representatives are any indication. Since the announcement of the postponement of the election with no clear date rescheduled, there have been a number of large demonstrations throughout the as-yet-unrecognized country, several of which resulted in disorderly conduct. While there is enough blame to go all around—the incumbent administration for failing to organize a credible poll after more than six years in office and then being ham-fisted in its response to dissent (as a July report by Human Rights Watch succinctly made the case for the worst-case scenario, "The president may be intending to prolong his mandate without elections for as long as possible, and his administration risks doing lasting damage to Somaliland's emerging democratic system in the process"), the political opposition for exacerbating the situation with boycotts and other attempts to gridlock the process, the international community for failing to engage Somaliland and offering a path out of the limbo that the lack of diplomatic recognition consigns the country—it certainly does not help to have the image of what should be a model for the rest of Somalia so tarnished. It can only be hoped that the people of Somaliland, resilient as they always have been and hopefully with the extraordinary facility that they have repeatedly demonstrated of peacefully mediating their own disputes through traditional institutions still intact, will manage through dialogue to find a way through past the momentary contretemps.
Somali Piracy. Given this highly unstable situation across the Somali lands, is it any wonder that the chaos would spill over into the waters off Somalia in the form of the nowadays infamous pirates? As I told Congress earlier this year:
The marauders have hardly been cowed by the international naval presence involving warships from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, India, Japan, and several other countries which assembled early this year in an unprecedented effort to prevent a repeat of last year's wave of more than one hundred hijackings and other attacks on commercial vessels in the Gulf of Aden and other waters near the Horn of Africa. The pirates have simply shifted their operations to areas which they know are not being patrolled, with strikes increasing taking place on the high seas of the western Indian Ocean.
While attacks have been curtailed of late, as I pointed out last month in a commentary forForeignPolicy.com, that trend has less to do with the three dozen or so cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and other surface combat vessels which various countries have deployed to the region than with seasonal weather. Rather, as the Maritime Security Centre run by the European Union Naval Force for Somalia candidly concedes, mariners can expect "a continuing spreading and a rapid increase of piracy in the Indian Ocean directly after the monsoon" and "a moderate increase" in the Gulf of Aden once the rains and strong winds that have deterred the would-be pirates dissipate. Well, the monsoon season is ending just now and pirates are beginning to venture out again—witness the four pirates briefly detained and released (and one pirate shot dead) by the crew of the German frigate FGSBrandenburg last week. In fact, analysts are predicting an unprecedented wave of attacks on merchant shipping by armed Somalis seeking a share in the fortunes being paid in ransoms by maritime insurers (see my remarks on the topic earlier this year as well as my observations forForeignPolicy.com on the political economy of piracy)—as if the already complicated regional security picture needed another wrinkle.
Suffice to say that what is needed to deal with the challenge of piracy is less posturing and more pragmatic approaches which grapple with the economic, political, and security causes and effects of the expanding activities of Somalia's maritime raiders. Solutions need to be found whose costs can be contained within acceptable limits and whose long-term operability is sustainable by those with the greatest immediate stake in its success, regional and local actors as well as merchant vessels which must transit the increasingly dangerous waters off the Horn of Africa.
Undoubtedly, there are a number of hot spots not just in Africa, but around the globe, which cry out for attention. However, as the myriad threats which emanate from the ongoing instability in Somalia demonstrate, the international community as a whole and the United States in particular cannot afford to ignore the very real danger which lurks behind the lack of security and governance of even the most forlorn of places. While the military and intelligence communities deserve to be congratulated on the successful ferreting out and targeting of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan—the surgical precision of the strike, the apparent lack of civilian casualties, and the information that will be gleaned from the remains and any other articles which may have been removed from the scene by the Special Operations personnel are truly signal achievements—in the end he was only one man, albeit one whom al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab will not easily replace. Nonetheless there are others still out there, although one doubts that Nabhan's cohort, Fazul Abdullah Mohamed, the chief of al-Qaeda's operation in East Africa, and other HVTs in areas of Somalia controlled by al-Shabaab will be sleeping well for some time. Ultimately, however, as I proposed in this space two months ago and observations during my travels last month in the subregion confirm, a sober assessment of the realities on the ground in the Horn of Africa clearly points the way to what needs to be done to ensure security for Somalis, their neighbors, and the overall international order.
Contributing Editor J. Peter Pham is Senior Fellow and Director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also hold academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He currently serves as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA).
Dr. Pham has authored, edited, or translated over a dozen books and is the author of over three hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress on numerous occasions and conducted briefings or consulted for the U.S. and foreign governments as well as private firms. He has appeared in various media outlets, including CBS, PBS, CBC, SABC, VOA, CNN, the Fox News Channel, MSNBC, National Public Radio, the BBC, Radio France Internationale, the Associated Press, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, USA Today, National Journal, Newsweek, The Weekly Standard, New Statesman, and Maclean's, among others.
© 2009 J. Peter Pham