The Federal Republic of Somalia was ruled by the brutal dictator Siad Barre until 1991, when a coalition of warlords deposed him. Shortly thereafter the U.S. embassy in the capital Mogadishu was shuttered, leaving a diplomatic void for over twenty-two years. Warlords and their clans started fighting for control of the country. Opposition Islamist militias joined forces, forming the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The ICU gained control of the capital, but the bloodshed and instability continued. In 2006 the Transitional Federal Government, supported by neighboring Ethiopian troops, ousted the ICU from Mogadishu. Out of the ashes evolved the al-Shabaab (meaning “youth”) faction which grew rapidly, recruiting fighters as young as twelve years old–every day another child became a soldier.
Adan Abdi a school teacher in the southern town of Dhobley, which was controlled by al-Shabaab, said “he worries that the students in his class show too little interest in education, and are more interested in playing war.” UNICEF reported that “an entire generation of children has grown up knowing only conflict and fighting…and possibly thousands of children have been trained in combat.” Sikander Khan Somalia’s UNICEF representative noted, “There is an increased need to invest more in Somalia’s youth…in order to give long-term peace a chance to prevail.” Mr. Khan further noted, “We need to make sure that this generation receives quality basic education, access to social services and protection from violence and abuse. This will stop them being sucked into the continuing violence and they will then be able to make a positive and lasting contribution to the future of Somalia.”
Ms. Hodan Guled the founder of the nonprofit Somali and American Fund for Education (SAFE) said, “With basic reading skills a child has the opportunity to be lifted out of poverty.” In conjunction with SAFE our family foundation has built four classrooms in two villages near Hargeisa, the capital of the northern state of Somaliland. During a visit in March 2013 the principals noted, that 128 boys and 72 girls attended classes daily. We are planning on building more classrooms—but this is just a “drop in the bucket” of the need for education in Somalia.
I also visited the Abaarso School of Science and Technology in Hargeisa. Jonathan Starr an American founded this high school for academic achievers. Mr. Starr said he burned himself out running a hedge fund, and decided to liquidate it. In 2008 he took a trip to Somaliland, and returned the following year to build the high school. He compared his motivation with Peace Corps volunteers–a desire to help people improve their lives.
The teachers at the Abaarso School came from the U.S. and Canada. The curriculum’s focus was on math and science. There were 80 boys and 40 girls enrolled in the first four year program. Mubarik Mohamoud, a young man who grew up in a refugee camp recently received a full scholarship to Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Nimo Ahmed Ismail, a young girl who grew up in a nomadic village received a full scholarship to Oberlin College in Ohio. Mohamed Ali Warsame, a young man from an impoverished village received a full scholarship to Michigan State. Several other students from this graduating class also received scholarships to U.S. schools.
In meeting with Somaliland’s Education Minister Zamzam Abdi Aden, I was told that 44 percent of the children there receive a primary and secondary education, while fewer than 25 percent receive an education in other parts of Somalia. Somalia has a rich cultural history, but has been plagued with years of famine and strife. The Arab Spring in North Africa added to the destabilization of the Sahel region that stretches across Africa, and has become the epicenter for Islamist extremists–many coming from as far away as Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Al-Qaeda has had a presence in the Horn of Africa and East Africa since the early 1980’s, which has made this region one of the most dangerous places in the world. In 1998 terrorists bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In 2000 they attacked the USS Cole in Yemen. In 2002 they bombed the Israeli owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, and attempted a missile attack on an Israeli charter aircraft. All of these attacks were planned while Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda lieutenants were in Sudan, after leaving Afghanistan in 1991. Al-Shabaab has expanded its reach beyond Somalia, with a terrorist attack in Uganda, and the recent September 21 attack on a shopping mall in Kenya. Al-Shabaab is affiliated with the terrorist group Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Mali, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. In Libya they are affiliated with Ansar al-Sharia, which was involved in the U.S. consulate attack in Benghazi.
The Somali diaspora in the United States approaches 200,000, with Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota being home to the largest community. Since 2006 reportedly over twenty-five Somali-American youths have left the U.S. to join the al-Shabaab ranks to fight Somalia’s government and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops from Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi, and Kenya. At least three American youths have been killed in Somalia in bomb attacks. Shirwa Ahmed was the first suicide bomber to die in 2009. Omar Hammami (aka Abu Mansoor al-Amriki) from Alabama was recently killed in an internal power struggle. Ayman al-Zawahiri the leader of al-Qaeda has called upon Muslims to join the fight in Somalia, which has brought recruits from the Middle East, Europe and United States.
President Obama has stated that by killing Osama bin Laden “Al- Qaeda is on the path to defeat.” Susan Rice the National Security Advisor said, “[We] got bin Laden, and al-Qaeda’s been dismantled.” The Obama Administration is convinced that the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) is over, but recent jihadist attacks prove otherwise. The late Seif Ashmawi, publisher of an Egyptian-American newspaper, stated that radical imams were taking over the leadership of Islamic institutions in the U.S., which has affected the education of many young American Muslims. As long as radical imams preach hatred, young children will continue to be indoctrinated and recruited as jihadists.
Military action against the Islamists will not end terrorism. Many innocent lives will continue to be lost along the way. In Somalia the U.S. needs to invest in education, to diminish the influence of al-Shabaab on this generation of children, so they can find an economic path—a hope for the future.