The War on Terror's Newest Front

One year after backing an invasion of Somalia, the United States has cultivated a formidable enemy.

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 4:00 AM EST

Her face placid under a black headscarf, Kadro Mohamed sits on the floor of her new home: a tiny shack constructed of sticks and shredded bags. She cradles a restless baby, while her other seven children huddle nearby. Several weeks earlier, her husband was killed when their home in Mogadishu was destroyed by a random mortar, fired during a battle between the Ethiopian troops that occupy Somalia and the rebels who are trying to drive them out.

Mohamed considers herself lucky to have survived the shelling and to have endured the three-week trek across the southern Somali desert to this refugee camp in Kenya. Traveling by foot and donkey cart under a blistering sun, she and her children went days without food after being robbed by militiamen. Alone, under a thorn tree, she delivered her niece's baby. And now, safely across the Kenyan border, she says, "At least we know we won't die."

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Violence and famine have plagued Somalia ever since its last dictator was toppled 16 years ago. But even within that context, 2007 will go down as the country's most tumultuous year, and the United Nations considers this crisis to be Africa's worst. The current downward spiral began in December 2006, when Ethiopian troops, backed by U.S. intelligence and air and naval support, overthrew Somalia's Islamic Courts Union, a conservative Muslim regime that had ruled for just six months.

The resulting turbulence has not only compromised the safety of locals like Mohamed, but also threatened to undermine America's efforts to fight terrorism. As in Iraq, the war here has outraged legions of Muslims, causing many to side with Al Qaeda against the United States and its allies. Somalia may barely register with the American media, but the bloodshed is a major story on Al Jazeera. Across the Middle East, Somalia is viewed as another hostile front in Bush's war against Islam, says Colin Thomas-Jensen of the Washington-based Enough Project. "In the minds of Muslims, this is the third time the U.S. has supported the toppling of an Islamic government with no political plan for the aftermath, leaving behind chaos."

When the Islamic Courts took power in June 2006, they were excoriated internationally as the Taliban of Africa. They also chafed many Somalis (the vast majority of whom are moderate Sunni Muslims) by imposing conservative social edicts. The regime banned music and movies, and publicly flogged and stabbed to death accused criminals. Yet the populace seemed willing to endure repression if it meant an end to anarchy. In fact, the Courts earned widespread support for securing peace—accomplished, in part, by deploying militias to act as an ad hoc police force. Business flourished, and for the first time in years Mogadishu residents could visit the capital's scenic coast without fear of being kidnapped.

Immediately, the Bush administration began building a case against the Courts, accusing them of sheltering three senior Al Qaeda terrorists implicated in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in east Africa. The State Department went so far as to charge that the Courts were controlled by Al Qaeda, an assertion widely regarded as an exaggeration. While several Courts leaders had links to the terrorist group, the regime was a homegrown movement, heavily influenced by secular forces as well. (This overstatement, intended to bolster support for military intervention, is one of many factors that make Somalia seem like a rerun of the Iraq war.)

U.S. views on the Courts were influenced by Ethiopia's prime minister Meles Zenawi, a brutal dictator who is a staunch ally in the War on Terror and also a major recipient of U.S. humanitarian and military aid. Meles had his own reasons for toppling the Mogadishu regime: He accused the Courts of aiding separatists in the Ogaden desert, a vast, ethnically Somali region that lies within Ethiopia's borders. The two countries fought a war over the Ogaden in the late 1970s. These days, the region is the scene of brutal internal warfare, and may soon be familiar in the way of Darfur.

Ethiopia objected also when the Courts took power, and moved troops across the border to the provincial city of Baidoa with the goal of protecting remnants of the Transitional Federal Government, the regime the Courts had replaced. By late 2006, the Ethiopians were launching forays ever farther into Somali territory. On December 26, the Islamists lodged a defense. It took less than a week for Meles' battle-hardened army to crush them. The speed of the victory inspired a "mission accomplished" moment, when officials chided critics who had predicted disaster. "There are many reasons to be hopeful," said Jendayi Frazer, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs and the invasion's main U.S. supporter. Ethiopia declared that its troops would withdraw within weeks.

Nearly a year later, the troops are still there, fighting a bloody insurgency. After the Ethiopian triumph, there was no viable plan for securing the country, and no exit strategy. The international community had promised 8,000 peacekeepers, but mobilized only 1,600. Meanwhile, aid for reconstruction has been paltry. To foster reconciliation with the Courts' supporters, the U.S. had counted on President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, an aging warlord who has nominally ruled Somalia since 2004 under a United Nations mandate. Widely regarded as a puppet of Ethiopia, he was so loathed that he didn't dare visit his own capital until it was seized.

The United States supported the Somalia intervention ostensibly to disrupt Al Qaeda and other terrorist operations, but the move has had the opposite effect. Soon after the invasion, Pakistan-based Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called for Muslims to oust the Christian Ethiopian occupiers. By last March his plea was being answered with vigor. Suicide bombers—previously a rarity in Somalia—attacked with massive car bombs. Improvised explosive devices were deployed against peacekeepers. And insurgents launched mortars at Ethiopian strongholds.

Ethiopian forces responded by firing rockets at residential areas of Mogadishu, leveling entire neighborhoods, including the city's sprawling livestock market. They shelled a hospital and a mosque, and killed hundreds of civilians. In a gesture that outraged religious conservatives, troops patrolling the capital tore off women's veils to prevent insurgents from using them as disguises. Violence rages to this day. Between February and May of 2007, at least 365,000 people fled Mogadishu, preferring the specter of cholera, starvation, and desert banditry to the mayhem back home.

The situation is poised to get even worse. In the Ogaden, hopes that toppling the Courts would stifle separatism were dashed in April, when rebels killed 74 people at a Chinese oil field (established, the rebels contend, without the consent of locals) in the region. Further complicating matters, in recent months Ethiopia and Eritrea have been exchanging bellicose words that may presage another bout of bloodshed between the countries. Poverty-stricken Ethiopia can ill afford to sustain the Somali occupation while battling on these other fronts. If it pulls its troops from the country, an emboldened militant Islamic movement could fill the void, supported by Al Qaeda and local Islamists united by the quest to oust the infidels.

IF THIS HAPPENS, it won't be the first time the Bush administration has unwittingly bolstered the clique it regards as Al Qaeda. Somalia experts say the Islamic Courts rose to power in the first place in part due to a ham-handed U.S. policy under which warlords were hired to hunt terror suspects.

The Bush administration had reason to worry about terrorism in Somalia. Al Qaeda’s interest in the country dates back to Osama bin Laden’s opposition to the U.S.-led humanitarian relief effort there in the early 1990s. In addition to the three high-level Al Qaeda operatives alleged by the United States to have been sheltered by the Courts, experts surmise that a handful of deputies also have found refuge there. There also were several dozen homegrown extremists who have murdered foreign aid workers since 2003; a few of these trained with Al Qaeda, and are said to retain links to the group.

Yet despite this small population of dangerous individuals, the vast majority of Somalis have long been hostile to extremism, and many are even pro-United States. In fact, since 9/11, Somalia experts have advised U.S. officials that the best way to undermine the country's appeal as a safe haven for terrorists is to engage local leaders and help build lasting peace. Instead, in the 13 years between the infamous 1993 Black Hawk incident and the rise of the Islamic Courts, Washington largely disregarded the chronic violence in Somalia. (As a measure, during most of the Bush administration, there was only one U.S. political officer following Somalia at the embassy in Nairobi; currently there are about a half-dozen.)

That's not to say that the United States ignored the country. Since 2001, the CIA has treated it as a hunting ground for enemies. According to a March/April 2007 article in Foreign Affairs by John Prendergast and Thomas-Jensen, then analysts for the International Crisis Group, American agents delivered suitcases of cash to a handful of prominent warlords as payment for capturing alleged terrorists. One warlord was offered $4 million to nab senior Al Qaeda suspect Abu Talha al-Sudani. (In the ensuing raid, al-Sudani eluded capture, but local terror suspects and a bomb-making manual allegedly were seized). Other efforts netted an alleged Al Qaeda operative involved in the 2002 bombing of a hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, and about a dozen homegrown terrorists were either killed or incarcerated.

The dragnet also caught at least a dozen innocent civilians, some of whom reported spending weeks in hand- and leg-cuffs while being interrogated by American soldiers. By 2006, several warlords emboldened by CIA support (they'd formed the very American-sounding Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism) attempted to wrest control of Mogadishu. In the ensuing street battles, more than 350 civilians were killed and thousands were wounded.

"We warned that the Islamists were going to have a field day," said one prominent analyst, who insisted on anonymity. Mike Zorick, the U.S. embassy's point person on Somalia in 2006, also objected vociferously to the employ of warlords. He was rewarded with a transfer to Chad. It wasn't long before critics' direst predictions came to pass. Mogadishu's fractious elders and business leaders grew so fed up with the warlords' abuses that they forged their own alliance, throwing their weight behind the Islamic Courts. "So congratulations to the Bush administration for dismantling the Courts," the analyst said. "But you created them in the first place!"

The White House hasn't learned from its mistakes. In the current U.S.-supported government, run by President Yusuf Ahmed, some of these same warlords have been granted key posts. Abdi Hassan Awale was named national police chief. Another, Mohamed Dheere, became Mogadishu's mayor; the day after he took office, Dheere ordered police to sledgehammer the city's many makeshift street-side shops to lessen the likelihood of roadside bombings. The effect was to rob poor residents of their livelihoods.

Somalis struggle to understand why the United States prefers this chaos to Islamic-backed order, especially when ongoing violence so clearly runs counter to America's own interests. "We don't see this as a government," said a senior Somali journalist. "We see it as America's revenge for Black Hawk Down."

Research for this article was made possible by support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.