Global anxiety over Somalia has been high forever, but Alex Court writes that it’s tough to see how U.S. troops taking pot shots at rebel leaders is going to result in regional stability
For 18 of the past 21 years, Somalia has been without a stable, functioning government. Since Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991, the resultant power struggle has resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians. The most recent violence illustrates how little peace has been achieved since.
On Monday 14th September, US helicopters attacked vehicles in the southern town of Barawe, an area controlled by hardline Islamist al-Shabaab rebels. The attack killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Kenyan al-Qaeda suspect, wanted by US and Kenyan authorities for attacks carried out in his homeland in 2002. The helicopters took the bodies with them, but didn’t prevent rising anger from rebels who’d had a revered leader stolen from them.
Backlash was inevitable, but nobody foresaw the shattering suicide bomb attack carried out three days later. Two vehicles, loaded with explosives and a UN insignia, were detonated in a peacekeeping base near the airport. Seventeen African Union peacekeepers died, including the deputy commander of the peacekeeping mission. Several Somali civilians being treated at a hospital within the compound were also killed.
Rebel spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage told Reuters his comrades “had got our revenge for our brother Nabhan… praise Allah… We knew the infidel government and AU troops planned to attack us after the holy month [Ramadan]. This is a message to them.”
Such an attack is typical al-Shabaab communication. In June, four young men were told they shouldn’t steal, as each had an arm and a leg amputated in front of 300 citizens. To explain that being a spy is abandoning Islam, they beheaded seven people in July. That same month, two ‘unwelcome’ French security advisors were abducted from the Sahafi Hotel; one of these men is still missing. Al-Shabaab’s uncompromising interpretation of the Qur’an is well known, and it is near impossible to consider their contribution to peace talks.
When co-operation was last properly attempted in mid-2008, the Somali Government signed a ceasefire with the opposition Alliance for Re-Liberation of Somalia. The arrangement was intended to allow foreign troops leave Somalia within four months, but was rejected, with Islamist Somali leader Hassan Dahir Aweys insisting his soldiers wouldn’t stop fighting until all foreign troops had left Somalia. This demand left foreign forces stranded in a country where they were constantly under fire, stuck in a situation where compromise needed to come from the Islamists.
Al-Shabaab’s hatred of international ‘meddlers’ extends to fellow Somalis who co-operate with the West. Journalists and aid workers are murdered by militants, while the national government, perceived by extremists as being under the thumb of Washington, is constantly attacked. Consequently, government rule is only effective in parts of Mogadishu, and protecting the cabinet is often impossible. Somalia’s security minister was murdered in a suicide bomb attack on a hotel in June.
Are any notions of Government-Shabaab reconciliation on the table? Hopes were raised in April as Somalia’s parliament voted unanimously to formally introduce Islamic ‘Sharia’ law. This, initially, met a key Shabaab demand, and seemed to distance the UN-backed government from the US, pleasing militant Islamists.
It soon became clear, however, that this attempt at peace was not enough for the extremists. The Prime Minister, and his African Union backing, refrained from embarking on a programme of severing hands, stoning rape victims or beheading spies – the only version of Sharia Law, it seems, al-Shabaab will accept.
What, then, do assassinations carried out by American servicemen add to all this? The international community is worried that Somalia may become a global hotspot for Islamic terrorists – a genuine concern, as it is already apparent that foreign fighters, a large proportion of which are thought to hail from Pakistan, are fighting with al-Shabaab.
On the one hand, America et al cannot ignore the mindless violence still taking place, and wait idly by while Somalia’s problem becomes East Africa’s problem, which then becomes Africa’s problem, which then becomes everyone’s problem. On the other hand, assassinations like that of Nabhan will undoubtedly cause backlashes on the scale of the attack that killed seventeen well-intentioned African Union peacekeepers. Al-Shabaab will not listen to American violence, and America probably won’t listen to criticism from Kenya’s foreign minister that “lone ranger behaviour” will not aid the goal of regional stability.
Additionally, the United Nations cannot fold to the demands of extremists. Foreign troops can never be mandated to tolerate an insane interpretation of the Qur’an so as to justify the degrading, inhumane punishment supported by al-Shabaab.
If one thing can be said of Somalia for definite, it is that the problems it faces will not disappear quickly. The overwhelming international effort must focus on supplying food and medical aid to the starving, dispossessed and uneducated masses who are powerless to help themselves, and not on trying to put out the insurgent fire with incendiary tactics.