Somalia is heading towards its third decade of statelessness with no clear resolution to the country’s political impasse in sight. While external perceptions reflect the periodic episodes of violent conflict, the country has not been static. Over time, the anarchy that followed the collapse of the Barre state has evolved into a kind of balkanised stalemate.
The Transitional Federal Government occupies a small corner of Mogadishu. Islamist insurgents occupy most of the south. A traditionalist religious movement, As Sunnah Al Jamaah, holds sway in the central region. To the north, the semi-autonomous Puntland government and unrecognised Republic of Somaliland are experiencing internal issues of their own. Pirates based along the nation’s long coastline continue to prey on international shipping.
Curiously, after years of strife, voices associated with the African Union Mission to Somalia (Amisom) peacekeeping mission have issued the oxymoronic claim the situation is about to degenerate. Two weeks ago, The EastAfrican ran the incendiary headline, “Al Qaeda-trained Somali militia waiting to explode” on its front-page. The accompanying story quoted deputy African Union Somalia representative Wafula Wamunyinyi as claiming regional states “are waiting for Al Shabaab attacks before they take the situation seriously.”
Factually speaking, this statement is misleading and potentially as dangerous as the possible threat from the “super terrorist group.” Kenya and Tanzania have experienced Al Qaeda-sponsored terrorist attacks, and frontline states have adopted measures in response to the Islamist presence in Somalia, including the Ethiopian invasion of 2006 that scattered the Islamic Courts Union.
The current situation is a direct outcome of the occupation following the Ethiopia’s Western-backed gambit. So what is going on inside Somalia and is to be done? Insofar as the recruitment and training of international jihadis is cited as the source of the coming “explosion,” let us address the latter concern first.
The tactics of rebels and insurgents termed terrorism in the contemporary milieu fall into three main categories. The first is attacks on symbolic targets, like the Nairobi and Dar US embassy bombings and 9/11, which are designed to demonstrate the enemy state’s vulnerability and deal a psychological blow to society. These deliver a publicity windfall for the “cause,” but quickly become counterproductive and a liability — as the Mogadishu medical school bombing illustrates.
The second is system disruption — attacks on energy grids, transport and communication networks, and sabotaging the provision of services. Variations on these tactics in this region include the killing of technical personnel running government irrigation schemes in Darfur, and the assassination of journalists in Somalia.
The third category subsumes actions designed to undermine a government’s legitimacy by demonstrating its inability to provide security for the general population. Provoking military retaliation that generates collateral damage is a critical component of a larger strategy based on securing a civilian base to operate from.
Understanding this strategy and tactics of the opposition makes the “what can be done” question easier to answer. The key variable is the civilian factor — both inside Somalia and across its borders. Policing and security is only one part of an effective counterinsurgency policy, while military solutions are a non-starter.
A paucity of important data and reliable intelligence makes the first question — “What is going on inside Somalia?” — considerably more difficult to assess. But enough is known to construct a wire model of the state of Somalia’s black box.
Al Shabaab and Hizb ul Islam have demonstrated they are a military and ideological force. Having said that, they are hardly a monolithic movement. The litmus test for such entities is their ability to make the transition from insurgency to an institution of governance and service provider. The pan-clan Islamist movement may be more coherent than the balkanised warlord order it displaced, but their interpretation of the Sharia deems them even less benign.
This brings us to the issue of the TFG and Amisom. Both are an extension of regional states and the international community’s concern for Somalia’s disorderly internal order and the real-world ramifications of the situation in southern Somalia and the Benadir. The capacity of the TFG-Amisom condominium to transform itself into a force capable of restoring order across a significant portion of Somalia is, at this juncture, no better than that of the Islamists.
This deficiency, and the scent of donor funds in the international pipeline arguably explain why Amisom resorted to playing the Al Qaeda card.
Al Shabaab has used its militant image and aggressive threats to punch above its weight. Islamist infiltrators, as their garrulous spokesman Ali Mohammed Rageh once crowed, could probably bring one of Nairobi’s glass sheathed towers crashing down. Not a good idea — especially considering Kenya’s role as destination for legitimate and illicit Somali capital.
It is also instructive to recall that a year before the CIA-sponsored “anti-terrorist” warlord coalition challenged the Islamic Courts Union, Aden Hashi Ayro’s Al Shabaab consisted of some 45 warriors. The Ethiopian intervention changed that. So the real question is: What can make things change again?
Communities in the Somali diaspora and individuals linked to international networks are obviously a significant part of the equation. In the meantime, back at the ranch, the backlash catalysed by the Danish-Somali’s suicide bombing indicates foreign jihadis are a sword that can cut both ways. Citizens of the Mog fed up with Al Shabaab’s antics are burning their black flags.
There are other interesting developments. Down south, the Islamists who had sworn to eradicate the piracy scourge have joined up with the pirates’ southern branch. There’s more: 13 pirate syndicates have gone public, becoming shareholding companies. The town of Barawa, pillaged and raped by Mohammed Farah Aideed’s Somali National Movement in 1991, is now the wedding capital of the Benadir, and according to a recent visitor’s account, an outpost of Blackberries, Porsches, and Bling.
This desperately poor but dynamic country appears to be in a state of flux again. Anticipating what 2010 will bring is not so much about worrying what may happen outside the box as connecting it to the larger grid of dots.