March 14, 2007 | World Defense Review

Smoldering in Somalia

More than three months after the United Nations Security Council first authorized an international contingent to go into the territory of the onetime Somali Democratic Republic to keep a nonexistent peace and nearly two months after the armed forces of neighboring Ethiopia drove off the Islamist forces of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which had seized control of large parts of the country, the first elements of the African Union (AU) peacekeepers began arriving in the war-ravaged land this past week.

And the start of this latest AU endeavor could hardly have been less inauspicious.

Despite having had weeks to mull over the matter – and intense lobbying by various Western nations, including the United States, whose diplomatic efforts have been by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazier – the Africans could only come up with pledges for just over half of the projected 8,000-strong force to be dubbed the “African Union Mission to Somalia” (AMISOM). Uganda and Burundi have each promised 1,700 troops, while Nigeria eventually settled for offering 850. Ghana and Malawi have also voiced support, but their commitment has remained vague. Of the three concrete offers of assistance on the table, only the Ugandans have delivered thus far; the Nigerians promise to beginning sending their units in three phases in April (coincidentally when they will be in the middle of their own pivotal elections), while the Burundians have yet to announce a timetable for deployment.

The first AMISOM contingent, a group of Ugandans, arrived in the former Somali capital of Mogadishu last Wednesday and was promptly greeted by mortar fire at the airport; at least nine civilians were killed by stray rounds. A second unit coming in shortly thereafter and likewise made up of Ugandans was ambushed with rocket-propelled grenades as it passed through the main junction leading into the city; at least ten civilians were lost their lives in either the initial blast or the subsequent gun battle.

If other African countries begin to lose their nerve in the face of these attacks, the whole mission could well unravel even before it gets underway – which might be the objective of the ICU as evidenced by a recent call, broadcast on a one radio station, from the al-Qaeda-linked ICU military commander Adan Hashi 'Ayro who declared: “It is time for the Somali youth to fight the occupation by Ethiopia and others. Muslims should not surrender to unbelievers.” Subsequently, in a 30-minute audio recording which have circulated widely in cassette form across Somalia, 'Ayro called upon Somalis to rise up against “colonizers and their puppets”:

Thanks to Almighty God who endowed with us the religion of Islam. We are urging all Somalis, old and young, including women, to take up arms to fight against the invaders … the struggle must begin from the birth of Somali Youth League [al-Shabaab, the ICU splinter group formed by 'Ayro last year] who fought for the independence of the country … If we do not choose jihad today we will be in a worse situation tomorrow. We will never consent to the presence of the Ethiopians nor Americans, nor anything the infidels want. We will die saying there is no God but Allah.

The attacks – coupled with the verification that 'Ayro, who led the most radical armed group within the Islamist movement (see my column last year on this terrorist), is not only still alive, but continuing to organize likeminded extremists – point to a new phase in the conflict.

As I warned in a column published while the Ethiopian offensive was still underway, “while the Islamists have apparently abandoned concentrations in urban centers, they are not yet eliminated as a force” since “it is certainly conceivable that, having been beaten in conventional fighting but not quite destroyed, the Islamists and their foreign supporters could adopt the same non-conventional tactics that foreign jihadis and Sunni Arab insurgents have used to great effect in Iraq.”

In effect, this is precisely what Somali Islamists have done, repeating almost step-by-step the tactical and strategic evolution of the Iraqi insurgency.

In early January when they were confronted with an impending attack by the conventional forces of Ethiopia, including tanks and other armored units, the ICU forces fled the southern port of Kismaayo.

In their flight, the militant Islamists abandoned over one hundred “technicals,” the armor-plated pick-up trucks with an anti-aircraft gun (used as a field piece) mounted on them that are ubiquitous on Somali battlefields since they were introduced against the UN-authorized international interventions of the 1990s. Those technicals which were not left behind or returned to the clan leaders who had donated them in the first place were soon bogged down in the muddy terrain of recently flooded Shabelle valley, where several of them – suspected of carry high-value targets, including possibly the three al-Qaeda leaders responsible for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2002 attacks on Israeli targets in Kenya, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Saleh Ali Salih Nabhan, and Abu Taha al-Sudani – made inviting targets for air strikes from U.S. AC-130 gunships, as I reported in one op-ed for National Review Online. (Incidentally, on his recent taped message, al-Shabaab leader 'Ayro specifically boasts about surviving one of the U.S. attacks.)

Instead of the easy-to-spot technicals, the militants – who have regrouped under the banner of the “Popular Resistance Movement in the Land of the Two Migrations” (PRM) according to a late January announcement posted on a pro-ICU website – have resorted to hit-and-run attacks using easily concealable mortars or rockets, whose blasts rock Mogadishu almost daily. PRM shells have repeatedly rained down upon the former presidential residence of Villa Somalia, although the head of the internationally-recognized, but ineffectual “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) of Somalia, “President” Abdullahi Yusuf is rarely around. Other popular targets include the hotels frequented by TFG, Ethiopian, or AU officials and their hangers-on, the principal Ethiopian base in Mogadishu at Difger Hospital, Ethiopian barracks at the seaport, and now the airport used by AMISOM. A variant on the shelling may have been introduced this past weekend when a bomb, planted near a closed pasta factory in northern Mogadishu, exploded, killing one person and gravely wounding another.

The PRM has also taken to assassinating TFG-aligned officials, including most recently, the district commissioner of Yaqshiid in the northern part of Mogadishu and the deputy district commissioner of Wadajir in the southern part of the city. In lieu of killing high-level officials who have more-or-less gone to ground, the tactic seems to be to eliminate the lower-level functionaries who nonetheless are responsible for the day-to-day administration of basic services, such as they are.

It should be noted that, having had to be rescued from near-certain elimination, the TFG has yet to move to garner any legitimacy or expand its representative base. Quite the opposite, despite the entreaties of African officials and other members of the international community to begin broad dialogue, the TFG “president” and his entourage have gone out of their way not only to antagonize traditional authorities in Mogadishu as well as to make bellicose noises in the direction of the Republic of Somaliland and other territories they insist on claiming despite having little capacity to do anything for other than stir up tensions. So, not surprisingly, the TFG's clumsy maneuvers have driven potential constituents into the arms of the insurgents: just last Friday, a meeting in Mogadishu of elders of the city's dominant Hawiye clan resulted in a declaration by the leaders that the TFG was unacceptable as framework for rebuilding the state.

Even more worryingly, another posting on a website frequented by Somalis, this time in late February, pledged to add another tactic to the dissidents' fight, the suicide bomb: “We promise we shall welcome [the AMISOM troops] with bullets from heavy guns, exploding cars and young men eager to carry out martyrdom operations against these colonial forces.” While some have been quick to point out that suicide attacks have at most only one precedent in Somali history, a much-disputed car bomb attack on the TFG in Baidoa last November, one should recall that the tactic was likewise unknown in Iraq until the August 7, 2003, attack on the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, four months after the collapse of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship.

In still another similarity with Iraq, before the final collapse of the ICU rule in Mogadishu, the Islamists' security chief, Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad (a.k.a. Indohaade), held a press conference at which he broadcast a call for foreign jihadis to come to and avail themselves of the fight in Somalia: “The country is open to all Muslim jihadis worldwide. We call them to come to Somalia and continue their holy war in Somalia. We welcome any one, who can remove the Ethiopian enemy, to enter our country.” And, in addition to the non-Somali bodies, dead and alive, encountered by advancing Ethiopian forces, there continue to be credible reports of foreign radicals making their way to the Horn of Africa. Just last Thursday, Kenyan officials picked up a U.S. national of Somali origins on the road between Nairobi and the border with Somalia.

Finally, Somalia is quickly becoming a proxy conflict in which its neighbors attempt to settle their own differences. In an interview with the BBC last Friday, Ali Abdu, minister of information of Eritrea, railed against the AMISOM peacekeepers and warned of an expanded conflict. He subsequently amplified his comments to declare: “We believe that the government of Uganda must rectify its error and pull out of Somalia, otherwise the situation will become increasingly dangerous. It will not only worsen but will become a war between the Somali people and external forces. That will have dire consequences for the whole region.” Of course, Minister Abdu's own government is itself an interfering “external force” – one accused by a UN commission report I highlighted in a column last fall of itself supporting the Somali Islamists to make trouble for Ethiopia.

Aside from ensuring that, as a bare minimum, those parts of the former Somali Democratic Republic that have managed to carve out a stable existence – the Republic of Somaliland is the example par excellence of post-unitary Somalia success while the semi-autonomous Puntland region, which last week signed a agricultural trade deal with Djibouti, has made not insignificant progress – from sliding into the cauldron of radicalism and violence through sheer neglect, there are no simple fixes to the chaotic situation in Somalia. (And I would include the blind support that U.S. and other international diplomacy has accorded the TFG, which neither enjoys much popular legitimacy nor evinces any effectiveness, among the illusory “simple fixes.”)

However, as I also warned in this column space two months ago, “even if U.S. and European envoys manage to cajole other countries into contributing the rest of the 8,000 peacekeepers to take the place of the withdrawing Ethiopian intervention force, it is beyond delusional to think that such a modest contingent of Africans can succeed where the infinitely more robust UNITAF and UNOSOM II forces, with their 37,000 and 28,000 personnel respectively, failed barely a decade ago.”

Thus what might be needed is indeed a miracle, for unless the TFG reverses itself and acts quickly to shore up its legitimacy while AMISOM moves aggressively to root out the nascent Islamist insurgency, the now-smoldering embers of the extremist threat may yet blaze anew into a conflagration that sweeps across the Horn.

– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.