Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

‘Western Powers and Somalis Will Not Accept a Taliban-style Regime’

Posted in African Politics, Global Africa, Somalia by ruben eberlein on June 29, 2009

Interview with Paula Roque, Horn of Africa Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS, Pretoria), about the current situation in southern Somalia and Mogadishu. She comments on the motivations of young people to join al-Shabaab, the international approach to Somalia and the presence of international Jihadists in the country.

The militant Islamist groups in Somalia, al-Shabaab and Hisbul Islam, are currently on a heavy offensive in Mogadishu. Do you expect the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) to hold its already precarious position for much longer?

somaliapic1When the offensive began, on the 7th of May, there was initially the thought that the TFG wouldn’t be able to sustain this major attack by al-Shabaab and factions of Hisbul Islam. As of now, however, the government did not fall. With its own forces, the help of loyal militias and the AU mission Amisom it sustained the offensive. But the military dynamics on the ground in the meantime changed again. Since the 20th of June – when the parliament issued a request for an immediate intervention of neighbouring countries in Somalia and President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed declared a state of emergency – it is becoming obvious that the government and Amison are struggling to avoid the capital falling to the radical Islamist insurgency.

Declaring a state of emergency in a country at conflict and war since almost 20 years and inviting foreign troops sound like desperate cries for attention to the international community.

Yes, this is indeed a despaired call for help, and it shows how fragile position of the government is. The former leader of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and current President Sheikh Sharif fought against the Ethiopian presence in the country until the Djibouti peace agreement of June 2008. An important part of the Djibouti agreement called for the immediate withdrawal of the Ethiopian army which intervened in Somalia late 2006 to topple the ICU regime. So, this call for intervention is an exposure of the fragility of the situation and the impossibility of the government to sustain itself.

What was the catalyst for this appeal?

After the high-profile political assassinations of very influential members of parliament, the Mogadishu chief of police and the security minister in course of the last weeks, the TFG was exposed to be of even greater weakness. The panic infused within the government, however, occured already before the security minister was murdered. We hear that when the TFG forces tried to take over a particular district of Mogadishu, the force with which they came face to face with was completely unexpected. We don’t know the exact composition of this insurgent force, but it certainly comprised al-Shabaab forces and foreign fighters, battle-hardened international Jihadists. This force constituted a great danger to the military structure of the government to sustain any sort of offensive.

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A multi-faceted force of global Jihadists

prop up the ranks of al-Shabaab.

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How many foreign fighters are thought to be active in the Somalia insurgency?

The numbers are contradictory, most reports guess that they are between 300 and 1000. We know that there are several Pakistanis and Afghans present. There are allegedly also Kenyan commanders from the East African sleeper cell linked to al-Qaeda, there are also US citizens and Europeans. So, this is quite a multi-faceted force of global Jihadists who are coming in to prop up the ranks of al-Shabaab.

Which approach can the TFG take vis-à-vis an enemy who is not at all interested in negotiations and agreements?

There is an inconsistency of alliances in Somalia. These alliances are very fluid and allow groups to shift their allegiance, either on a clan basis or motivated by other interests. Al-Shabaab has militarily the upper hand to a certain extent although Mogadishu still hasn’t fallen and we don’t know if it will fall at all. There are elements within al-Shabaab which still can be approached. It is important to stress that there will be no military solution, there has to be a political negotiation resulting from a weakening of al-Shabaab’s structures. There are some elements within the group that do not want to be perceived simply as terrorists. They want to be perceived as legitimate political actors who have a legitimate cause. In fact, a lot of political bargaining with some of their commanders is going on at the moment behind the scenes.

Can you give an example, please?

When Sheikh Aweys came in to capture the leadership of one of the factions of Hisbul Islam on 26th May 2009, he stopped being a potential ally and a partner in the peace process. He became a spoiler of negotiations. Then, after the offensive reached a military stalemate several weeks into June 2009, Sheikh Aweys was all of a sudden prepared to accept the mediation of traditional Somali elders and to talk with Sheikh Sharif. This shows that there is still a possibility for negotiations.

What approach is necessary to deal with the international Jihadists present in the country?

They are participating exclusively for ideological reasons. For them, it is about fighting the infidels, it is about purifying the Somali society according to their Salafist-Wahhabist ideology, and that includes a purification from more moderate versions of Islam. So in that sense, it is difficult to approach them. And after all – they are not Somalis and have no legitimacy to be negotiated with.

So how to deal with them?

The ones who should be approached are those who facilitate their entry and are harbouring them. And these are members of al-Shabaab. The foreign fighters are in the country because either al-Shabaab has requested or has allowed them to pursue their activities. It will only be through al-Shabaab and through certain counter-terrorist strategies that these foreign fighters can be tackled. Right now, I think any dialogue has to occur with several factions of Somali society.

somaliapic2What effect had the Western-backed intervention of Ethiopia in late 2006 on militant Islamist groups in Somalia?

Ethiopia does hold a responsibility for the radicalisation of militant Islamism in the country, I think. Not necessarily because of the intervention as such, because the intervention was requested by the then President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed. However, the way the war was conducted, the behaviour of the TFG’s and Ethiopia’s troops and the war crimes and the atrocities that were committed by them established the precondition for radical Islamism in Somalia. The intervention and the war that followed did allow al-Shabaab to gain its rallying points and to build its support base. It did that by integrating nationalism with Islam.

At the end of last week, it was reported that the US is sending weapons to the TFG. Do you think that is an appropriate initiative?

The former engagement of the US in Somalia under President Bush, because it was looking at the country through the prism of the ‘War on Terror’, did in fact escalate the conflicts in Somalia. It seems prudent that US involvement at the current stage is about providing support and not about any other sort of intervention. The weapons shipment, however, is in contravention to the UN arms embargo which bans any delivery of arms to any actor in Somalia. The AU has requested that the UN arms embargo be lifted so that logistical support, arms shipments etc. can be sent to the government of Somalia. This has not occured as of now. Consequently, this is a violation of the arms embargo.

Why is it attractive for young people in Somalia to join groups like al-Shabaab or Hisbul Islam?

The motivations for people to join al-Shabaab differ. Some do it for certain levels of economic empowerment. It is a way of life. We see this with other militias and other movements, and we talk about a country that is facing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. So, joining al-Shabaab gives you an economic and social security that many people need. Moreover, some do believe in the ideology of al-Shabaab, but may not follow it strictly. It is also about clan allegiances and about providing a structure and some sort of command.

Given the absence of the state in the last 20 years, it is a very much needed substitute for any sort of functioning society. In 2006, the Islamic Courts did provide an unprecedented level of governance, public order and security which has not been seen since 1991. Al-Shabaab is also providing that kind of governance in the territories that fall under its rule. Thus, there are many features that make joining al-Shabaab attractive.

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Conflict has been the norm

for most of the under 35 years old.

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We talk about a generation that has never experienced a functioning state. Conflict has been the norm for most of the under 35 years old. With the escalation and the different dimension that the conflict has taken, we see a breakdown of social structures and declining respect for clan elders. Whatever strategy might be taken in response to the insurgency – how to rehabilitate these youths in a post-conflict structure will be central to any successful and lasting mitigation of conflict in Somalia.

Do you think that Somalia is currently getting the appropriate attention by the Western powers and the UN?

At the moment, the international community is thinking about what will be the best way of intervention in Somalia. This is, I think, a good process and it shows that lessons have been learned from previous ways of intervening in Somalia which only escalated the conflict. The piracy issue highlighted the fact that when the international community does want to act, it has the possiblity to deploy within weeks fleets of warships to be sent to the Gulf of Aden. The Somalis know this. Piracy does touch the economic interests of the international community. I think it must be stressed that the international community is not looking away. Western powers were creating opportunities with the Djibouti peace process and by backing the AU’s commitment to solve the Somali crisis. They are in fact engaging. But there are still many things that need to be done. It is important that this will be a coordinated and effective response.

Some observers do not appreciate the support of the West for a transitional government that abuses human rights and enjoys very little legitimacy.

In order to mediate and reach peace agreements, you have sometimes to engage with armed groups. Those who are in fact criminals have to be brought into the process of negotiating a power-sharing agreement, a ceasefire and a peace settlement. So, those who are spoilers also have to be brought in. The current unity government, however, does enjoy legitimacy in Somalia and provided the best hope so far for any real possibility for peace and stability. Nevertheless, the culture of impunity that is widespread in Somalia is unacceptable. There have been several calls for commissions of inquiry into the activities and war crimes of several forces, including the Ethiopian army, the TFG forces which include the armed forces and the police, but also several other militias.

The problem in Somalia is that too much intervention or too little intervention is a measure that is very hard to determine. Too much intervention would be rejected by the Somalis themselves. In this light, the call for foreign intervention by President Sheikh Sharif does show the extent of panic on the side of the TFG. In Somalia, I believe, you can only achieve something through a Somali solution, and we have seen this in Somaliland. It has to be a solution that has legitimacy and credibility on the ground. It has to occure in structures that are accepted and mandated by the Somalis and that have the complete support of the society, both in the diaspora and of the people living within the country.

Do you think that the West and African neighbours will accept a Taliban-style government in Somalia assumed that the religious extremists take over?

No. This was not accepted in Afghanistan either, even if the military attack occured several years after the Taliban had taken over. Somalia lies in a very strategic area of Africa and in a very strategic position to the Middle East. Since 9/11, every haven for potential terrorists is immediately reacted to. And Somalia is in fact becoming such a haven. There are reports emerging that al-Qaida is setting up a cell and that training camps are already emerging all over the territories controlled by al-Shabaab. I think that the West will not accept this to occur, and neither will the neighbours of Somalia. Kenya has faced terrorist bombings in 1998 as has Tanzania. Kenya has been receiving threats of imminent terrorist attacks for a long time. Ethiopia also will invoke its national security concerns as will other countries.

Would such a regime be accepted by the Somalis?

Most of the Somalis have a moderate nature. I do not think that they have a disposition for the kind of radical Islam that al-Shabaab propagates. If it indeed takes over Mogadishu and the TFG falls, one of the possibilities is to allow al-Shabaab to rule the way it wants to rule, and this rule will reach an expiry date because of lack of legitimacy and support at the grassroot level. And that development would certainly occur.

A shorter version of this interview appeared in the German daily Neues Deutschland on 1 July 2009. Photos: (1) A displaced family in Mogadishu, Irinnews – Hassan Mahamud Ahmed. (2) African Union Amisom troops in Mogadishu, Irinnews – TS.

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