My starting point is that Somalia today is not what it was in the 1960s. I am not referring to the obvious fact that Somalia became a failed state in 1991. I am referring to subtle and not so subtle changes in the nature of society itself. While clans remain important and, in some circumstances, are still the single most important feature of society, the role of Islam has changed dramatically. This has been accelerated by the breakdown of traditional society following years of civil war, broken families, failure of governmental institutions and the movement of large numbers of Somalis from rural areas to Mogadishu, other cities in Somalia and the overseas diaspora.
Political Islam, admittedly a term that holds different meaning for different people, has been present in Somalia for decades. It was a minor factor in the early years after Somali independence and harshly repressed during the Siad Barre regime. Even following the overthrow of Said Barre in 1991 and the breakdown of government, warlords initially filled the void before political Islam could assert itself.
By 2006, with the rise of the Islamic Courts, it was clear that political Islam had become a major factor in Somali society. In recent decades, more and more Somalis received training in Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi system and several other conservative Gulf States and they had increasing contact with Salafi groups in Egypt. Some of these foreign organizations established Islamic “charities” and educational organizations in Somalia. Although the Ethiopian invasion at the end of 2006 forced the Islamic Courts out of Mogadishu, this led to an increase in political Islam, including a faction that became more radical. Al-Shabaab eventually grew out of this upheaval and Somalis today are living with the consequences. I doubt that Somalia will return to the kind of society that existed in the 1960s.
Traditional Sufi values have been weakened in much of the country. I am not suggesting that al-Shabaab will prevail. I don’t believe it will; it has engaged in too many tactics such as forced recruitment and suicide bombings that have alienated most Somalis. On the other hand, I suspect that a political group organized around a more moderate form of political Islam would probably win a free and fair election in Somalia today hands down.
Somalia is not Egypt or Tunisia, but developments in both of those countries should serve as wakeup calls. One of the biggest mistakes Western policies could make in Somalia is to assume that it is possible for the country to return to the society that existed in the 1960s, 1970s or even 1980s. Those days are gone. Political Islam is here to stay unless at some point it totally discredits itself by trying to implement an extreme program, for example the one being urged by al-Shabaab and its foreign supporters.
In a recent analysis of the “Arab Spring,” Professor John M. Owen IV at the University of Virginia concluded that “Islamism is winning out because it is the deepest and widest channel into which today’s Arab discontent can flow.” Somalis are not Arabs, but the same dynamic seems to be underway in Somalia. If you agree with this conclusion, it argues for the necessity of giving prominence to highly respected Somali religious leaders and scholars in any future effort to end the conflict in Somalia. The Islamic Courts, although they probably tried to implement too much change too quickly and a few of their edicts were too extreme, developed a reputation for maintaining stability, fighting corruption and getting things done. Somali Islamic scholars can also have considerable influence on reconciliation efforts in the context of this new social and political dynamic.
Somalis Must Drive the Reconciliation Process
There have been countless efforts, both formal and informal since 1991 to reach a political solution to the Somali crisis. Contrary to popular belief, most of the past efforts have been largely Somali driven although they have all occurred outside Somalia. This left open the possibility for excessive foreign influence and the ability of Somali factions to seek support from one or more interested foreign party. I participated in the failed effort to reconcile Somali warlords that took place in Addis Ababa late in 1993 in the aftermath of the U.S. decision to pull its forces out of Somalia.
I also observed from Addis Ababa the lengthy Somali conference hosted by Ethiopia at Sodere in 1996-1997. It too failed. Any future reconciliation effort must be entirely Somali driven with no foreign participation and should take place inside Somalia. Ideally, even the cost should be covered by Somalis as foreign funders will always want to influence the process.
Somalis obviously have a much better understanding of the situation in their country than do non-Somalis. I have yet to meet a non-Somali who speaks the language fluently and, in my view, fully understands all the nuances of Somali society that would permit him or her to advise Somalis on a political solution. I don’t even come close to meeting that definition.
There is another problem when foreigners get involved. Somalis are often blinded by their family ties, clan ties and self-interest. During negotiations in which foreigners play a role, Somalis have developed to a level I have encountered nowhere else in Africa the ability to tell foreigners, with a completely straight face, what they want them to hear or what they think they should hear. I can probably count on one hand the number of foreigners who even appreciate the magnitude of this challenge. This situation severely circumscribes any role for non-Somalis in trying to reach a political solution that is acceptable to most Somalis. So far, Somalis have not reached the point where they can meet as described above in an effort to resolve their differences. But I doubt it will be possible to end the conflict in Somalia until this happens.
The African Union Force
Created in 2007, there are now about 10,000 troops as part of the African Union force (AMISOM) in Mogadishu. Uganda provided the largest contingent, followed by about an equal number from Burundi. Troops from Djibouti recently joined AMISOM. Although AMISOM has not yet reached its authorized strength of 12,000, it has requested the UN Security Council to increase the level to almost 18,000. Until last year, AMISOM controlled less than half of Mogadishu.
As its numbers and effectiveness increased and al-Shabaab weakened, AMISOM was able to expel al-Shabaab from Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab, which argued it was a tactical retreat, remains active outside Mogadishu and periodically conducts suicide bombings and attacks inside the capital. AMISOM has probably done everything that could reasonably be expected of it, especially the creation of conditions that allowed most of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) to operate from Mogadishu. With additional troops, AMISOM might even be able to extend marginally its authority beyond the city limits of Mogadishu. It is inconceivable, however, that AMISOM will be in a position to remove al-Shabaab from the rest of the territory that it controls in south and central Somalia.
While AMISOM has performed a useful role and kept al-Shabaab from controlling Mogadishu, it is essential to be realistic about its ability to remove al-Shabaab from the rest of the country.
Early in 2012, the defense ministers of Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Burundi, Somalia and Uganda met under the auspices of the African Union to propose a new military strategy for confronting al-Shabaab. According to press reports, the strategy includes the increase in the size of AMISOM and collaborating closely with Kenyan forces in southern Somalia and Ethiopian troops and TFG militia that recently captured Beledweyne. Kenya formally asked to make its troops part of AMISOM. The plan also calls for a naval front along Somalia’s coastline, especially outside Kismayu, to prevent al-Shabaab from moving goods in and out of the port. The goal is to obtain funding for the strategy from the United Nations and donor countries.
This strategy strikes me as wildly optimistic if the goal is to remove al-Shabaab from Somalia. It has taken AMISOM five years to reach troop strength of 10,000. To its credit, it now controls Mogadishu but nothing else. It is not clear who will provide the additional troops or when they will arrive. In any event, 18,000 are far too few to take and HOLD all the other territory now controlled by al-Shabaab. There is no indication which countries will provide the naval force. Of the six countries that developed the new strategy, only Kenya has a navy and it is probably too small to patrol effectively the port of Kismayu not to mention the Somali coast. Nor is it clear that funding is available for this expanded AMISOM effort even for a short period of time and a long conflict is a more realistic scenario.
The Ethiopian Role
Ethiopia’s forces entered Somalia at the end of 2006 and quickly marched to Mogadishu. Their extended stay in Somalia contributed significantly to the rise of al-Shabaab. Ethiopian forces left Somalia in January 2009. Although Ethiopian troops are the most tested and effective ones in the region, there is historical enmity between Ethiopians and Somalis.
In order not to exacerbate the situation in Somalia, the Ethiopians need to be unusually careful to avoid actions in Somalia that worsen the situation and reinvigorate al-Shabaab. At the end of 2011, Ethiopian forces together with TFG militia entered Somalia and quickly overwhelmed the al-Shabaab-held town of Beledweyne, a regional trading center in central Somalia that is only about twenty-five miles from the Ethiopian border. Perhaps drawing on its experience in Somalia from 2006 to 2009, Ethiopia has said that its forces will remain only briefly in the Beledweyne area, return to Ethiopia and not become part of the AMISOM force. If this is Ethiopia’s policy, it is a wise one. It remains to be seen, however, if TFG forces can hold Beledweyne without external military support.
The Kenyan Role
Kenyan troops entered southern Somalia in October 2011 following a series of kidnappings inside Kenya by persons who took them to al-Shabaab-held territory in Somalia. While it is not known with certainty which group or groups carried out these attacks, the assumption is that either al-Shabaab or groups affiliated with al-Shabaab are responsible.
Kenya had under consideration for at least two years a plan for military intervention across the border. These incidents apparently pushed Kenya to intervene. By most accounts, there was little consultation by Kenya with anyone on the decision to move into Somalia. The United States said categorically that it was not informed. The reports from the TFG were conflicting, some saying there had been consultation and others denying any consultation. From the beginning, the stated goal of the Kenyan intervention has been confusing.
Early in the campaign, it was to seize the port of Kismayu and presumably create a buffer zone inside Somalia along the Kenya-Somalia border. As the military effort became bogged down, partly due to the onset of the rainy season, the Kenyan government said little about its military progress or goals. Early in 2012, its stated objective became more expansive. In addition to requesting that its forces become part of the AMISOM operation, Kenya says it wants to complete the job of smashing the al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda networks in Somalia. The Kenya Defense Forces spokesperson added that Kenya will only get out of Somalia after it regains the status of a normal nation.
In the meantime, there have been a few al-Shabaab inspired terrorist attacks inside Kenya and there are indications that increasing elements of Kenya’s Muslim minority are being radicalized. A former leader of the Kenyan Muslim Youth Center now claims that it officially represents al-Shabaab in Kenya.
More than three months have passed since Kenyan forces entered Somalia. They have not taken Kismayu. The objectives of the intervention remain unclear, at least outside the inner circle of the Kenyan government. There are more questions than there are answers. What does Kenya expect to achieve? How long is it prepared to remain in Somalia? Who will pay for an extended presence in Somalia? If there are serious terrorist attacks inside Kenya, will most Kenyans continue to support operation Linda Nchi? If Kenyan forces can seize Kismayu, turn it over to moderate Somali forces that can hold it and then quickly get out of Somalia, it will have achieved a huge victory. But this seems to be a much taller order than was the case three months ago.
Al-Shabaab’s Recruitment of North Americans
Since 2006, more than forty Americans have travelled from the United States to Somalia to join al-Shabaab and at least fifteen of them have been killed. Most are Somali-Americans but a few had no previous connection to Somalia. Al-Shabaab has attracted others from different regions of the world, including about twenty from Canada. Their reasons for rejecting Western mainstream culture are numerous. In this connection, I recommend for your consideration a brief analysis published in 2011 by the Canadian Friends of Somalia titled Youth Radicalization: Somali Identity and Support for Al-Shabaab in the U.K., the U.S., and Canada. As disconcerting as this recruitment has been, it is important to keep in mind that forty plus individuals is a small number out of the tens of thousands of Somalis in the United States and not all of the recruits have been Somali-American in any event.
From a policy perspective, I want to focus on one issue facing the Somali diaspora in the United States—bank transfers to Somalia known as the hawala system. More than $100 million flows annually to Somalia from the United States through the hawala system. Excessive concern about these bank transfers to Somalia that results in the shutting down of the hawala system will not advance the cause of diminishing al-Shabaab’s recruitment success or its ability to obtain funding. While there have probably been cases where al-Shabaab has benefited from the transfer of funds through the hawala system, the overwhelming majority of these bank transfers from the United States to Somalia have enabled Somali relatives in the Horn of Africa with no connection to al-Shabaab to live a better life. This is not in al-Shabaab’s interest.
At the end of 2011, the Minnesota-based Sunrise Community Banks, the last banking group in the state to handle money wire transfers to Somalia, ended the business over concerns that it might run afoul of the anti-money laundering provisions of the Patriot Act. Minneapolis-St. Paul has the largest Somali-American population in the United States.
Other banks in Minnesota had already stopped dealing with the Somali American Money Services Association, a coalition of hawala owners. Columbus, Ohio, has the second largest Somali-American population and all the banks in Columbus have terminated their business with Somali hawalas. If any of this transferred money falls into the hands of al-Shabaab, the banks argued they could be held accountable and they were not prepared to take that chance.
Some of the banks claimed they were under pressure from the U.S. State Department and Treasury Department to end the transfer of funds to Somalia. Following strong protests from U.S. Somali communities, the TFG and several members of Congress, Sunrise Community Banks reportedly agreed in mid-January to continue to transfer sums up to $500 and larger amounts in the case of emergencies. Other reporting suggests Sunrise Community Banks has not yet found a solution to this problem. Whatever the case, very few American banks now handle money transfers to Somalia.
This situation underscores how good intentions by both the U.S. government and private banks can make a difficult situation worse. Somali-Americans may try to find a way around these legal money transfers, but that could open the door to far greater abuse than exists with the current system. This situation underscores the need to approach delicate security conundrums with a great deal of common sense and find a solution that does everything possible to keep funds out of the reach of al-Shabaab while permitting Somali-Americans to continue to transfer funds to Somalia.
I have tried to lay out a few policy-relevant issues that may help guide your discussions in the workshops today. I hope I have not covered too much of the same ground that speakers covered yesterday. I also hope there are a few new thoughts in my remarks and even some comments that will stir up debate and controversy. Successfully countering an organization like al-Shabaab is enormously complicated.
While al-Shabaab does not need to concern itself with operating under any kind of legal structure or commonly accepted human rights practices, the United States must do so. This is a short-term disadvantage for the United States but will contribute over the long-term to the failure of al-Shabaab and other organizations modeled along similar lines.