By Matt Bryden
After more than a decade of political disengagement from Somalia, the United States has plunged back in with an approach that threatens to produce precisely the scenario it seeks to avoid: a militant Islamist movement that serves as a magnet for foreign jihadists and provides a platform for terrorist groups. The most enduring outcome of Washington’s new Somalia policy is likely to be blowback: the United States and its regional allies will be managing the consequences of this error for years to come.
Since 9/11, the United States has approached Somalia through the narrow lens of counter- terrorism. American humanitarian contributions to this war-torn country have ranked far below those of other donors, and political engagement has been virtually non-existent. During the peace process that led to the formation of the current Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Washington ponied up just $250,000 out of the total bill of more than $10 million, drawing sneers from other Western donors. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence agencies channelled cash to Mogadishu faction leaders to hunt members of al-Qaeda and their local partners. The result was a series of battles in early 2006 that led to the collapse of the American-backed “Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter Terrorism” in Somalia and the dramatic rise of the Council of Somali Islamic Courts (CSIC).
On December 6, 2006, the United Nations Security Council – under considerable U.S. pressure – adopted Resolution 1725, which authorises the deployment of an African peace support operation to Somalia. The mission, to be named IGASOM, is intended to strengthen the faltering TFG, curb the expansion of the CSIC, and monitor implementation of security protocols agreed to between the two sides. Although the draft resolution put forward by the United States was significantly improved by British and French amendments, it is still far from certain that it will achieve any of its objectives.
There is no question that the dramatic rise of the Somalia’s Islamic Courts poses a potential security threat to the region and requires a robust international response. Since taking power in Mogadishu in June this year, the Courts have asserted irredentist claims to the Somali-inhabited territories of neighbouring countries, while hosting and supporting Ethiopian rebel groups. Militants in the CSIC ranks, known as the Hisb’ul Shabaab (Party of Youth) allegedly shelter a small number of foreign terrorists including members of al-Qaeda’s East Africa wing. Assassins, linked to the Shabaab, are responsible for the murders of pro-Western Somalis, including a prominent peace activist, foreign journalists, and aid workers. In the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, which seeks recognition as an independent state, militants, now linked to the CSIC, shot dead four foreign aid workers and conspired to disrupt the territory’s electoral process by bombing polling stations and killing international observers.
The Courts are an unwieldy coalition of political and religious interests in which jihadist militants constitute a minority – albeit a disproportionately influential one. Currently their primary constituency is based on clan rather than ideology: the Hawiye community of southern Somalia. Many Hawiye felt disenfranchised by the formation of the TFG and threatened by its president, former warlord Abdillahi Yusuf, a member of the Darod community. Even within the Hawiye, support for the Courts is unevenly distributed: many resent the perceived dominance of the movement by the Habar Gidir Ayr sub-clan. But whatever their political attitudes vis-à-vis the CSIC, most ordinary Hawiye are grateful for the peace, security and social services that the Courts have restored after years of anarchy.
The shrillest voices in the CSIC leadership may be the militants, but many mainstream Court leaders are religious traditionalists, schooled in the generally moderate tenets of Somali Islamic tradition. Although they support an explicitly Islamic form of government, informed by Shari’a law, they are chiefly concerned with the challenges of day-to-day governance and reconstruction, and are ill-at-ease with the stridency of the radicals in their midst.
Frictions have begun to emerge between CSIC pragmatists and jihadist ideologues over a range of issues, from dialogue with the TFG to status of women and the banning of qaad. The pressures of reconciliation and governance are slowly but surely nudging the Courts toward more coherent, measured policy positions. In early December, following talks in Djibouti with the Secretariat of the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a 7-nation regional grouping, CSIC leaders committed themselves officially – for the first time – to respect the territorial integrity of Somalia’s neighbors. They also promised to deny sanctuary to insurgent groups and said they condemned all acts of terrorism. Whether or not the Courts are genuinely committed to these pledges, they represent a step forward because the Courts can now be held accountable for them.
The passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1725 threatens to reverse these tentative steps towards moderation and again tip the balance of power within the Courts in favor of the militants. The resolution states that the Council endorses an IGAD proposal that troops from countries neighboring Somalia not participate in IGASOM, but even so, the force will be regarded in Somalia as a Trojan horse for Ethiopian interests.
Deployment of a regional force has proven the most controversial issue in Somalia ever since it was first proposed by President Yusuf following his inauguration in October 2004. Yusuf’s original appeal for 20,000 foreign troops was widely perceived as an act of ventriloquism engineered from Addis Ababa and aimed at putting Ethiopian boots on the ground in Somalia. It has also been retroactively misconstrued by some as the product of U.S. arm twisting.
The subsequent reformulation of Yusuf’s appeal as a proposal for the creation of IGASOM, an IGAD peacekeeping force, has split the Transitional Federal Institutions (TFIs), polarised the Somali people, and divided IGAD into two camps. The Security Council’s decision in support of IGASOM will not only further entrench these differences, but also reinforce the impression that the TFG is a proxy for foreign interests, not a government of national unity. There is a genuine risk that deployment will further undermine the cohesion of the TFIs – especially the parliament – leaving them devoid of domestic legitimacy.
The notion that the deployment will curb the expansion of the Islamic Courts is largely incorrect. For the most part, the CSIC has expanded into the vacuum left by the TFG’s inability to govern, acquiring new territory through infiltration, co-optation, and alliance-building – not by military force alone. Many ordinary Somalis have simply welcomed the Courts’ ability to provide peace and security, irrespective of their Islamist orientation. Others see them as the only genuine nationalist force capable of resisting foreign – especially Ethiopian – incursions into Somalia. Court agents and sympathisers are active throughout Somalia, including the autonomous region of Puntland, the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, and the TFG’s own seat in Baidoa. IGASOM’s presence may deter the Courts from a full-scale attack on Baidoa itself, but can do little or nothing to prevent CSIC expansion to other areas or destabilisation of Baidoa from within.
Resolution 1725 also complicates the prospects for constructive dialogue between the TFG and the CSIC. The two sides have met twice for peace talks in Khartoum, where they agreed to recognise one other and committed themselves to further negotiations on the topics of power sharing and security (both sides have since violated these accords in various respects). No concrete progress is likely to be achieved until they agree to disengage their forces and establish a verification mission to monitor their ceasefire. The Courts had confirmed their intention to attend the third round of talks, scheduled for mid-December, just prior to Security Council’s decision. CSIC militants are now likely to argue that there is no point in resuming the dialogue. Likewise, the TFG hopes that IGASOM’s deployment will obviate the need for genuine negotiations on power sharing. Prime Minister Geedi has indicated that he holds out little hope for dialogue with the Courts.
Washington’s new Somalia policy is not just self-defeating: it is inflammatory. By aligning itself so publicly with the TFG and Addis Ababa, Washington appears to have designated the Courts as a strategic adversary, elevating Somalia from a simmering regional problem to global issue. The Courts are now likely to attract support from a far broader range of anti-American and anti-Western interests than they have so far, and the flow of foreign funds and fighters to the CSIC seems bound to increase dramatically.
The United States has failed to appreciate that the rise of the Islamic Courts is only a symptom of a more fundamental problem: the inadequacy of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government as either a platform for national reconciliation or an instrument of governance. Blind support for an unpopular and incompetent government is a sure recipe for failure. A stable political settlement requires not only that the Courts respond to regional peace and regional security concerns, but also that the TFG be reconstituted as a genuine government of national unity with capable leadership and a clear, coherent transitional program.
The apparent determination of the United States to approach Somalia as a new front in the Global War on Terror is well along the path to becoming a self-fulfilling policy. It may be too late to undo the damage caused by Resolution 1725, but there is still time for Washington to remove its ideological blinkers in dealing with Somalia and to adopt a more realistic, comprehensive, and nuanced approach. For a start, the United States and its international partners should focus on supporting genuine dialogue by using a broader range of threats and incentives. The TFG and CSIC must both be pressured, via their respective allies in Addis Ababa and the Arab world, to finalise a comprehensive security protocol at the next round of Khartoum talks, before proceeding to power sharing. Leaders who obstruct the process or violate the UN arms embargo – on either side – should be subjected to targeted sanctions, and their assets, or those of their business allies, frozen. Military deployment – whether in the form of IGASOM or of some more robust force – should be a weapon of last resort.
Matt Bryden is an independent regional analyst with over 16 years of experience in Somali affairs. He is former director of the International Crisis Group's Horn of Africa Project and still serves as a consultant with Crisis Group.