Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Bombing Shows That Africa Has Always Been Part of The War On Terrorism

Posted in Somalia, The Conflicts of Africa by Dan on July 13, 2010

The World Cup is supposed to be a fun and exciting event; an event where thousands of people from hundreds of nations can sit together in the same place and enjoy a competitive game full of drama, heartbreak, victory, and defeat.  So when 74 people were killed in Uganda at a restaurant and a sports club by a suicide-bomber, it was understandable that the game so many people love quickly turned into a distant afterthought.

You may not have heard, but two large bombs exploded within an hour’s time in Kampala- the capital of Uganda- killing dozens of spectators who gathered to watch the final World Cup match between Spain and the Netherlands.  Needless to say, most of those spectators were unable to finish watching the game that day, instead preoccupied with escaping death- or in the case of some, stepping over dead bodies and loose limbs in order to escape death.

Violence in Africa is anything but surprising.  Half of the world’s failed or failing states are located within the confines of Africa, and most of the world’s most disturbing conflicts- hunger, genocide, ethnic conflict, and drought- are located right in the heart of the continent.  But suicide terrorism is a particularly rare tactic used by African militant groups, and from the evidence that is being gathered at the scene, suicide bombers were in fact responsible for the incident.

But there’s more to this investigation than meets the eye.  In fact, not only have investigators discovered the cause of death in yesterday’s strike, but police are also quite confidant as to who the perpetrators are.  And Al’Shabab, the Islamic militant insurgency based in Somalia (who has ties to Al’Qaeda), are deemed the prime suspects.

You don’t have to look too far to find a direct connection between the Uganda attack and Al’Shabab’s organization.  The group has made it clear that it despises international troops on Somali soil, partly because those troops are used to build up its main adversary (the Somali Transitional Government) and partly because Al’Shabab views any foreign presence as an interference in Somali affairs.  The groups’ spokesman, Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage, made this abundantly clear through a statement he issued yesterday, which claimed credit for the operation and promised more if countries like Uganda, Burundi, and Ethiopia don’t withdraw from Somali territory.

Yet perhaps what’s more frightening than the attack itself is Al’Shabab’s willingness to export violence to other African nations.  This was the first time the radical Islamist organization executed a terrorist attack outside of Somalia’s borders, demonstrating both its strength and its intent.  More importantly, the massacre in Uganda may elevate the Somalia file in the U.S. Government, which hasn’t been much of a priority in the past.

How Washington will respond is anyone’s guess.  The CIA may be authorized to increase its drone program over Somalia in the hopes of destroying Al’Shabab infrastructure and killing top terrorist leaders, similar to what the agency is doing in Pakistan’s tribal areas.  Or, the White House could funnel more money into the Somali Transitional Authority and reiterate its strong support for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Somalia.  And of course, covert operations with regional allies- like Ethiopia and Kenya- are always a possibility.

But whatever option or combination of options the U.S. chooses, Al’Shabab has shown the world that it’s only getting stronger.  With a less than weak Somali Government in place, and with the humanitarian situation inside Somalia getting worse by the day, more and more residents may be forced to join the insurgency out of fear and desperation.  The U.S. and its African allies should take warning.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Michael Wilkerson and Elizabeth Dickinson at FP.com**


A Light at the End of the Tunnel, Somalia Edition

Posted in Somalia by Dan on December 19, 2009

Over the last couple of decades, Somalia has frequently been categorized as the most fragmented, decentralized, and chaotic state the world has to offer.  With three out of eight million Somalis needing emergency aid, and with 1.5 million Somalis displaced by clan, tribal and religious infighting, it is quite difficult to refute this claim.  Add a pathetic excuse for a national government to the mix and Somalia certainly seems like a country that is beyond help.

Heck, even if the international community were willing to help, there is absolutely no guarantee that the assistance would reach the people who need it the most.  Coupled with warlords to the north and Islamic insurgents to the south (Al’Shabab) and the prospects for improvement are slim…if not nonexistent.

But despite all of the violence and governmental ineptitude that has pervaded Somali culture since the early 1990’s, there is a silver-lining that could gradually lift the country out of the abyss.  Coincidentally, this silver-lining could stem from a terrorist blast at a graduation ceremony that killed 22 people.

Sound strange?  It shouldn’t, given the indiscriminate and gruesome nature of the attack.  The incident has resulted in such rage from the population that ordinary Somali citizens have protested with unified demonstrations on the streets of Mogadishu.  This is not exactly the type of response the terrorists were hoping for.

While this latest atrocity was certainly a blow to Somalia’s Transitional Authority- a government already weak and ineffectual compared to Al’Shabab- this bombing could have the effect of rallying segments of the population against Somali jihadists. I understand that this article is quite skeptical of this prediction, but it should at least be considered…and possibly exploited. After all, three years ago, many in the United States would have laughed at the proposition of Sunni tribes turning against Al’Qaeda in Anbar Province; a geopolitical move that quickly spread across the country. Cultural differences aside, how is Somalia any different?

Like Iraq, Somalia is a society that is heavily decentralized according to tribal and clan affiliations. Similar to the Iraqi Government only three years ago, Somalia’s TFA is unable to cement firm control over the capital city. Perhaps the biggest parallel between Iraq and Somalia is historical experience; the citizens of both countries have been forced to deal with extensive political violence for decades. With all of these similarities, a Somali-version of the Awakening Movement may not be that far off. Sure, the situation is depressing now- it has been for the past two decades- but bombings like these tend to create fissures between the mass of moderate Muslims and the most extreme fringe of Islam.

Cross your fingers.

-Daniel R. DePetris

American Jihadists and American Suicide-Bombers

Posted in Somalia by Dan on December 4, 2009

Nowadays, clear answers to difficult questions are hard to come by.  When the questions invariably involve American citizens strapping their chests with explosives half-way around the world, the answers become even more complicated.  Unfortunately, the agency that is responsible for keeping tabs on this sort of activity- the Justice Department- seems as lost as the ordinary American.

A month ago, national authorities confirmed that an American participated in a suicide bombing last year that killed 22 people in Somalia.  Strapped with explosives, a man by the name of Shirwa Ahmed drove his truck into a checkpoint as part of an insurgent operation against Ethiopian soldiers in Somalia; the first known terrorist incident conducted by a U.S. citizen overseas.

While shocking, this has not been the last.  A number of Somali-American men over the past year have flown to the Horn of Africa in the hopes of successfully completing this same exact task.  Most have joined Al’Shabab- an Islamic insurgent group with an Al’Qaeda mindset- while others have provided the Islamic insurgency with material support.

Meanwhile, the best explanation the Justice Department can come up with is childlike at best.  Convinced of a more disciplined and exciting life- one that involves the exhilarating act of shooting a gun (no I am not kidding!  This was actually part of the Justice Department’s memorandum on the case) – approximately twenty Somali-Americans decided to commit their lives to the cause of violent Islamic resistance.

Based on the billions of dollars the Justice Department gets on an annual basis, one would think that the leadership of America’s most powerful law enforcement agency could come up with a more reasonable clarification.

Can we be anymore specific as to why Somali-Americans are joining the jihad in and around Mogadishu?  Recruiters enticing Americans solely on the basis of guns is pretty far-fetched to me.  Are we to honestly believe that 20 Somali-Americans from Minneapolis decided to travel thousands upon thousands of miles to THE most dangerous and anarchic society in the world, just to play with a few guns?  Either the Justice Department has no idea what the motives are, or they are deliberately keeping information from the public.

Let’s look at the basics of Somali culture.  First and foremost, there is a large Somali community within the United States as a whole, and most of these men and women take pride in being part of a distinct Somali culture.  Secondly, Ethiopia- a country that is historically hostile to Somalia in general- launched a brutal and humiliating two-year invasion of the country in order to topple an Islamic Courts Union within Mogadishu; the same union that gave Somalia a relative degree of stability for the first time since 1991.  Finally, the Somali population was heavily victimized by the Ethiopian occupation.  A number of NGO’s familiar with the conflict reported that Ethiopian soldiers committed war crimes against innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

To make matters worse, the United States was rather quick to publicly back the occupation with logistical support.  Not surprisingly, this cooperation largely resulted from Washington’s premature assessment of the Islamic Courts Union as a potentially dangerous regime that would sponsor terrorism and harbor Al’Qaeda.  A remarkable part of the whole story is that Washington blessed the Ethiopian mission despite the fact that much of the ICU was composed of moderates and clansmen who possessed no interest in jihad.

Perhaps this small group of Somali-Americans felt as if their culture was being sabotaged by a foreign neighbor, thereby prompting them to resist the Ethiopian occupation for the sake of their homeland’s survival and dignity.  Perhaps the 20 men from the Minneapolis area felt so strongly about Somalia’s domestic situation that they wanted to help in any way they could…even if this meant dying on the front-lines through suicide bombings and lone shootings.  Or perhaps these men were interested in Al’Shabab’s political ideology, an Al’Qaeda proxy-group that attempts to establish an Islamic state in the Horn of Africa.  If the latter is indeed the case, it would prove that radical elements of the Muslim world are currently residing inside U.S. borders.

Regardless of the true reason, it would appear that all of the aforementioned scenarios are more plausible than what the Justice Department is telling us.  People do not join terrorist camps to simply get the experience.  They join the ranks of fundamentalist networks to feed their belief in a cause they label as both crucial and worthwhile.

-Daniel R. DePetris

The State-Defense Department Spat

Posted in Somalia by Dan on September 15, 2009
Disagreeemnts over Somalia pin the State Department and the Pentagon in opposite corners

Disagreements over Somalia pin the State Department and the Pentagon in opposite corners

To anyone who is remotely interested in African politics, particularly in that violent-prone and contentious nation-state called Somalia, this may be of interest to the casual observer; the U.S. State Department has donated several million dollars to President Ahmad’s Transitional Federal Government.  Of course, the headline by itself is not very interesting…Washington has been known to support its fair share of pro-western coalitions (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Ethiopia and Columbia to name only a few).  What makes this story jump out is the internal lobbying that has apparently divided the State and Defense Department over this policy.

As might be expected, any policy that deals with an extensive issue in foreign-affairs will produce debate and concern.  Post-Saddam Hussein Iraq is perhaps the most noteworthy, where officials from the State Department have complained of too few resources, funds, and manpower from the national government to perform the reconstruction mission adequately.  At least before Secretary Robert Gates took over the reigns at the Pentagon, defeating Iraq’s Islamic insurgency through military means was viewed as the main priority…a far cry from the “hearts and minds” strategy that U.S. soldiers have now advocated for the past two years.  Therefore, divisions within the U.S. Government are not particularly worrisome.  However, the Somali example is a distinct case-study; one that is slowly destroying any prospect for a unified and comprehensive African policy.

Reports, analysts, and editors of ForeignPolicy.com have been claiming that both the State Department and the Pentagon are up in arms about what should be done about Somalia’s ongoing trouble.  Obviously, the main concern for diplomats is the rebuilding of the Somali Transitional Authority; a loosely-held coalition composed of a number of factions, clans, and ideological dispositions.  In fact, the only possible way that President Ahmad could form a workable government was by including a number of different elements in the coalition; including Somali warlords, western sympathizers and members of Salafi Islam.  The mainstream perception among State officials is that only a strong central authority will be able to tame the country’s ongoing insurgency to the south; a policy option that many hawks label as unnecessary and nearly impossible to implement.

In contrast to the arduous task of nation building that the State Department traditionally focuses upon, Defense officials tend to look at Somalia through a narrow-lens; using every tool at its disposal to ensure that Somali violence does not threaten or endanger U.S. interests in the wider region.

Of course, the issue of terrorism is one of those main concerns.  With the southern portion of Somalia quickly becoming one of the world’s foremost breeding grounds for Al’Qaeda proxies, the president has not hesitated to aggressively pursue America’s asymmetrical adversaries in all ways, shapes, and forms; either through covert action or tactical air strikes (take yesterday’s reported killing of Saleh Ali Nabhan, top Al’Qaeda leader in Somalia, as an example).  With help from Ethiopian intelligence, the United States has actually been relatively successful at keeping a closed lid on Al’Qaeda activity…making sure that a devastating spill-over effect does not occur in Sub-Sahara Africa.

While there is reason to believe that U.S.-led air-attacks have accomplished their objectives thus far, this policy is yet another demonstration of inter-agency disagreement.  The Pentagon is continuing to concentrate on the short-term, while the State Department is working extensively for long-term development.

(Unfortunately, all of the hooting and hollering in the world has thus far failed to reach the ears of President Obama.  Mr. Obama’s obsession with Afghanistan may be part of the problem.  The African Bureau’s inexperience is certainly another)

Is a stable Mogadishu even possible based on the country’s fragile circumstances?  Would security in the capital eventually pave the way for a resurgent Somali state; a miracle that Somalis of all religions and ethnicities have been hoping for since the early 1990’s?  Or is Somalia simply a lost cause, a state where violence and mismanagement will further inflame the passions of the Islamic insurgency?  All of these questions need to be asked if the United States is genuinely interested in establishing peace in one of the world’s most dangerous areas.

While all of these queries have yet to be answered, we are fortunate enough that the State and Defense Departments are attempting to solve them in their own distinct ways.  Lobbying the White House is certainly an arduous task, and it appears that President Obama is finally experiencing the frustrations (and benefits) associated with inter-departmental rivalry.

In my own view, there is no magic formula for Somalia’s political landscape.  As I have said in previous blogs, Mogadishu tends to operate under the banner of ethnic competition than a unified sense of Somali nationalism.  Clans and sub-clans hold grudges for power and privilege; using historical animosities and a generalized sense of fear to safeguard their prospects for the future.  Al’Qaeda, a minor force only a decade ago, is now firmly entrenched in the Somali-way of life…bolstering their ranks through the exploitation of war-weary men, women, and yes…children.  With everything going wrong, tactical air-strikes on ‘targets of opportunity’ will not markedly alter the situation towards America’s advantage.  Nor will a reliance on President Ahmad’s coalition, due to its structural instability and its inability to expand order through Somalia’s major metropolitan centers.  The only thing that could possibly improve the Horn of Africa is by formulating a detailed plan; something that the U.S. Government has neglected to do over the past two decades.

Giving money to the TFA is fine, but when the amount is both insufficient and irresponsibly spent, its effects are virtually meaningless.  Bombing Al’Qaeda targets is fine too, but when the missiles kill civilians, it further inflames the local population and risks pushing them on the road towards violence.  Both approaches have their faults, but unfortunately, this is what the State and Defense Departments have continued to do.  In both realistic and moral terms, we cannot expect Somalis to unify if we cannot unify ourselves.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Elizabeth Dickinson of ForeignPolicy.com contributed to this blog.  Her full article can be accessed at: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/09/10/arming_somalia

Stop Bashing the Somalis

Posted in Somalia by Dan on September 9, 2009
Mainstream Pessimism only hurts Somalia's chances for a hopeful future

Mainstream Pessimism only hurts Somalia's chances for a hopeful future

As I was doing my usual channel-surfing on the internet, killing some time by staring at the clock and reading today’s news, I ran across a thoughtful (yet analytical) piece by Purdue University professor Michael Weinstein about the ongoing political stalemate in Somalia.  Mr. Weinstein starts his article in the same manner as every African analyst seems to do nowadays; going through the laundry list of violence occurring between Somalia’s Transitional Federal Authority and the Islamic opposition.

He claims that Somalia’s situation is too “complex, convoluted and fragmented” to draw accurate conclusions regarding the status of the country’s insurgency.  Fair enough…I agree somewhat.  The pictures and reports of civilians feeling Somalia in order to escape the barbarism of their homeland is only proof of this well-recognized fact.

Next, the political science professor goes on a full-fledged rampage, defaming the United States and the United Nation’s as weak and passive actors towards the conflict in Somalia; reinforced only through their ignorance of Somali politics and society.  So he concludes, one of the main reasons why the TFA is unable to resist Islamic factions in Mogadishu is because its main donors- the United States and Western Europe- do not understand the nature of Somali infighting.  Washington has formulated and expanded its Horn of Africa strategy on the assumption that the TFA is battling a large and united Islamic insurgency; when the fact is that many clans, sub-clans, terrorists, militias, and Sunni radicals are involved.

This, too, is a statement worth considering.  Somalia has always been a divided and decentralized society; operating solely under the flags of clan-loyalties rather than the united banner of nationalism that so many other countries take for granted.  With this complicated history virtually dominating the behavior of Somalis since their independence from western colonialism, it would be natural for Mr. Weinstein to shed light on the various factions contributing to Somali instability.  Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmad, the president of Somalia’s governing authority, has been placed in a unique, although difficult, situation; forced to combat a number of small-scale insurgencies aimed at establishing an Islamic State.  Once again, Mr. Weinstein seems correct on this point.

It is his next argument- that the TFA is an inadequate government only exacerbating Somalia’s domestic problems- that I personally take issue with.  Unexpectedly, there is no denying President Ahmad’s reluctance in taking the fight to the enemy (or in this case, the enemies).  With the government-bankroll all but dried up, he simply lacks the money or resources necessary for an effective counterinsurgency and counterterrorism plan.  The strength of Islamic factions in the southern part of the country, both in numbers and in morale, is another factor that should be highlighted.  Government troops are underfunded and undermanned, lacking the same type of resolve that defines the character of the opposition.

In a similar vein, Ahmad is meshed into a loosely-held coalition, consisting of former Islamic fighters, pro-western sympathizers, and Somali nationalists.  From a purely political standpoint, Mr. Ahmad may not want to marginalize himself from a sizeable portion of the TFA by cracking down on Muslim populations.  Such an action would prove to be suicidal for his personal career and his ambitions for the future.   Finally, Ethiopian meddling within Somali society (even after Ethiopian troops withdrew from Somali soil in 2008), does not help the capabilities of the TFA either…there is a widely-held belief that Ethiopia is training warlords who have contrary interests to Ahmad’s transitional government.

I have no qualms about Weinstein’s timeline of events.  In fact, it would be extremely difficult for anyone to disprove many of his points.  Everyone recognizes that the TFA’s has its fair share of faults and weaknesses.  What I do find disturbing is his harsh rhetoric towards the governing authority in general, claiming that it is a “concocted…improbable hybrid that is engineered to fail.”

What Mr. Weinstein fails to consider is the alternative to this situation; a marginalized state ruled by hundreds upon hundreds of tyrannical warlords who wish to promote their own autocratic agenda.  Americans have already witnessed this unfortunate scenario, as was apparent in the botched 1993 military operation in Mogadishu that resulted in 18 American casualties.  From a personal perspective, it seems as if this academic wants Somalia to enter into a time-machine and recede back to the days when warlords used natural resources, food, and water as bargaining chips.  With violence spreading throughout the state, the last thing Somalia needs is another African atrocity, reinforced by millions of starving and malnourished people desperately clamoring for a faint-hope of life.  If Weinstein had his way, Somalia would become more of a government-less society than it already is, opening up a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalism.  In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, a third-front in the War on Terrorism would be created; stretching an already overburdened U.S. Military further.

There is no disputing the fact that the TFA has its problems.  Its presence in Somali political life has failed to lay the groundwork for an Al’Qaeda retreat, nor has its authority delivered much-needed services to Somali men, women, and children.  Yet, inadequacy in the present does not mean dissolution in the future.  The Transitional Governing Authority is a step in the right direction.  It attempts to foment peace by including Islamists in a power-sharing agreement, all the while pushing for the defeat of hard-line radicals to the south.  With more funding from western-donors, and with international peacekeepers on the ground, who knows how improved TFA capabilities will become?

In the world’s most dangerous state, the absence of a governing body would kill any chances for a genuine peace-deal and a more hopeful future.  While not perfect, President Ahmad’s coalition is at least working towards the other end of this spectrum.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-This blog was based on Michael Weinstein’s article, entitled No Simple Narrative in Somalia Drama.  His full article is published through the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think-tank.  A full version can be accessed at:  http://csis.org/story/no-simple-narrative-somalia-drama