Hope for Somalia Insha’allah

Whenever Americans recall Somalia, whether considering lofty foreign policy aims or simply reflecting upon the chance encounter with the name, our minds inevitably snap back to October 3, 1993 and the tragedy that was the Battle of Mogadishu. This is a memory of eighteen U.S. soldiers lying senselessly dead and desecrated, one even decapitated, in the streets of a hostile city. Given the striking clarity with which Black Hawk Down has memorialized the chaos and the horror of this battle, it is no surprise that the trauma remains fresh in our collective consciousness. At the time, the shock of this loss and the seemingly intractable and inhuman belligerence and disorder of the nation compelled the U.S. and all other foreign forces to withdraw. Somalia did not fit with the spirit of the times, the notions of how intervention and aid was to be conducted. After 1993, Somalia dropped off the map of U.S. foreign policy, relegated to a distasteful and repressed memory, and no one has been able to make a great case for a return. HAUNTING MEMORIES OF A DEVIL’S DANCE Over the past seventeen years, we have only heard of Somalia intermittently, and usually only when a new gust of violence cuts a swath of death across a new section of the nation. Our dimmed moral radar pings for a moment and we release a secondhand story. But we only report insomuch as to bare vague witness to a cautionary tale of state failure and to lament the flogging of the corpse of a nation that, we believe, cannot be resurrected. Somalia, many argue, cannot be helped, at least not easily enough to merit the effort, and perhaps it does not want to be helped.

Illustration by Constance Castillo

This latter pessimistic argument holds sway with a number of prominent policy generators, among them the Brookings Institute, which argued as late as February of this year that Somalia would have to be reconstructed completely to attain order as “no single faction has a monopoly on violence [and …] the various factions have no interest in a well organized sovereign state.” As the argument runs, force in Somalia operates along clan lines, regionalized by warlords, who have found that they can generate massive amounts of cash and power by extorting a small population under fear of punishment from within and invasion from without. The fracture also makes it easier for individual agents to sign contracts to sell out their nation, enabling the dumping of foreign waste, overfishing in Somali waters, environmentally damaging charcoal burning, and a host of other profitable, rapacious practices.

But this gloomy belief that no force seeks the unity and peace we dream of is blatantly false. Doors to peace have been opening and closing for years. But recognition of these opportunities has been hampered, as was so artfully articulated by J. Peter Pham, Director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, by “wholesale ignorance … both with respect to Somali culture and history and Somali political developments over the last two decades.” Parsing the history of the past twenty years, though, and pulling out the few lines of consistency from the tangle, we find a host of forgotten or overlooked actors. And in these actors, one begins to suspect, may be a hope for peace in Somalia.

A HOPELESS HISTORY? In 1991, the centralized and militaristic regime of Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre (r. 1969-1991) finally collapsed. To mark 1991 as a massive shift in Somalia’s character, though, would be false. Although Barre did manage for many years to impose his erratic will through great fear, abuse and the typical Cold War proxy state aid, his iron control had been slipping throughout the 1980s as he faced increasing pressure from impromptu mobs turned militias swarming in from abused clans and ideologies, including Islamic movements—all of which provides a brief prelude to the heterogeneous power struggle that would ensue. By 1991, Barre, alone in Mogadishu, fell from power at the hands of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, and an attempt was made to find a more nationally suitable leader for the government in the form of Ali Mahdi Muhammad, a businessman and member of the prominent Hawiye clan of Mogadishu. But when Aidid continued to confront Ali Mahdi in bitter, yet petty and limited warfare, the world was forced to recognize that Somalia’s government had, without the bleak fanfare usually accorded to such events, keeled over and died. An era of fractured warlord rule and civil war ensued.

Illustration by Constance Castillo

Brief attempts were made fourteen times (or at least fourteen times recognized by the U.S. State Department) by a series of European, American and African co-operations to encourage the recreation of a national, united Somali government. They were made all the more pressing by the attempted (some would say de facto complete) secession by the relatively stable northern province of Somaliland and the self-decreed autonomy of the province of Puntland. Finally, in November 2004, a fifteenth conference created the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which was granted recognition by the United Nations and the African Union and all but officially declared legitimate by the United States as the legitimate government of Somalia.

But no one elected the TFG, and a brief examination of the organization reveals that it is just another band of greedy warlords, only with offices and U.S. backing. Yet, they have actually been less successful than their fellow petty despots.

To call this a warlord front is hardly hyperbole. The first president of the TFG, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, came to the position directly from his throne as strong-armed ruler of Puntland and took with him much of the blunt force and muscle he had used to rule. For most of its existence, the TFG has controlled little more than the south-central inland city of Baidoa, and at times parts of Mogadishu, and has squandered the hundreds of millions of dollars granted to it by the outside world. Despite years of siege, they fund only a tiny militia. Instead, they use the cash for nepotism and self-adulation, keeping on full salary a Minister of Higher Education, Minister of Education, Minister of Sports, and Minister of Tourism, despite the absence of the administration’s possession of any of these entities.

Graft seems to be the best allegation one can file against the TFG—at its worst, it has been alleged by Pham and others that small arms provided to the government by the U.S. were simply sold on the black market, possibly to competitor warlords. Similarly, in 2007, Human Rights Watch revealed that the TFG was culpable for the needless deaths of hundreds of civilians that year with little to no purpose or gain to show for the practice. Yet the Bush administration and its allies saw fit to continue to fund what The Economist has referred to as “some of Mogadishu’s worst warlords,” including the TFG, always insisting that the government just needed a little more support. And to an extent that attitude continues to prevail, as seen in a recent conclusion by Hady Amr and Areel Noor of the Brookings Institute: “Is the TFG the best potential route to stability in Somalia? For now, no other option is on the table.” Beyond the walls of Baidoa, no one offered anything other than regionalism, clanism and violence, or at least that was our limited view.

STRANGE WORLDS BEYOND BAIDOA Beyond and behind the warlords and the TFG, though, there existed a series of local Islamic courts, springing up almost simultaneously in the early 1990s to restore order in areas men with guns merely patrolled and pilfered. One only finds slight glimpses of their activities in the background of reports from that time, but according to Eben Kaplan of the Council on Foreign Relations, they grew silently and “became increasingly popular because they demonstrated their ability to provide some semblance of order.” As time passed by, these individual courts, mainly drawn up along the clan territorial divisions that had traditionally separated communities, gained broad support from local leaders. But forced to contend with warring factions for order, they developed Islamic militias. These courts and their militias coalesced into what become the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a force led politically by Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, who espoused a somewhat conservative shariah law for the nation, and spiritually by Hassan Dahir Aweys, a grizzled veteran with ties to Al-Qaeda and radical Islam.

The courts pushed up from their bases towards Mogadishu through the early 2000s, eventually taking the city and solidifying its control of the south by 2006. After the initial capture of the city, reports came in of the imposition of the veil, behandings, and other such unsavory practices, and the U.S. took the message—radical Muslims with guns and vague, possible ties to Al-Qaeda were taking over an unstable region. However, as was noted by The Economist, our original fears were overwrought and mainly motivated by slanted information provided by the Ethiopian government, a nation with old territorial rivalries with Somalia. In fear, the U.S. gave the green light for an Ethiopian invasion (as was readily recognized in American news sources as early as January, 2007), welcomed by the TFG, but not the Somali people, who, according to a panel of thirteen Somali intellectuals gathered at the onset of the invasion, were “very fearful of the agendas of Ethiopia and other foreign powers.” Subsequently, one of Africa’s largest and most modern armies surged over a series of ill-trained, tiny, and predominantly disarmed militias and handily torched them to the ground. Meanwhile the TFG sat in their palaces, not taking the initiative to move into opened spaces and allowing chaos and anarchy to descend into the vacuum. Yet this raises the question, if the UIC defeated, via violent jihad, the warlords we could not, why was it so easy to defeat them and why were they so few and so poorly armed?

The answer is that foreign observers made one of the most presumptive and patronizing mistakes possible—we considered Islam as a monolithic entity and made the supposition that a grassroots group that had triumphed where we had not necessarily meant that the bulk of the populous was aligned behind a fiercely hostile form of Islam. We assumed that much of the population had been radicalized and that we had a Taliban part deux in the making and were determined to nip it in the bud.


In truth, the character of Islam in Somalia had always been, and was at that point, extremely personal and moderate. Actually, it was often noted up until the UIC came to power (but most heavily in late 2001, in response to some Western Islamophobia of understandable origins) that the traditional social code of Somalia was actually much harsher than their relaxed and popular brand of Sufi mysticism. Indeed, the limited depictions available of the early courts show instances of liberal scriptural interpretations, based on the Shafi’i school of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), so prominent in Somalia, and their practice of ijma (roughly translated as consensus). This doctrine, based in hadith, argues from the mouth of Muhammad that the community of Islam shall never agree upon an error, and, though intended to require consensus by every Muslim in the world (some argue), it has translated down to the practice of making rulings based on local community consensus as almost equally important to those based on the Qur’an and hadith. This is of great importance given how vague some passages of scripture can be (or can be made by figurative language, the doctrine of abrogation, and any number of other intensely murky debates on deciphering the Qur’an). For instance, ijma has been used to argue successfully against behandings for theft, rather noting that it is equally likely that the language of scripture means merely to leave a mark on the hand to identify a potential shoplifter, but not to sever the limb.

Illustration by Constance Castillo

Although ijma could be used to justify more disturbing or restrictive practices, “historically,” Kaplan claims, “Somalis have been resistant to more extreme forms of Islam.” Most of the existing courts at the time of Ethiopian invasion were actually working against involuntary veiling, allowed the drinking of alcohol, and sponsored city works like hospitals and some of the nation’s only schools, which were welcoming to boys and girls alike in the same classroom. Businessmen supported these courts for the stability they created and also because their relatively liberal slant allowed money to flow freely (other schools of fiqh can leave much less room for free action, and perhaps only Hanafi provides a more liberal view). Even in Mogadishu, where the greatest austerity took hold under the conservative leadership, the rule of the clerics is remembered as a golden age—one report by The Economist published on October 12, 2006, recalls the era: “The port and airport have reopened. Prices in markets have dropped. The streets are being cleaned. Divided neighborhoods are being knitted back together. There has even been an attempt to limit the environmentally devastating charcoal trade … Kidnappings and murder have declined.” And even the austerity was fading by the time the city was overtaken—Somalis began to reject harsh punishments and to look to the rulings of alternative courts, exercising their rights under the decentralized system of Islamic justice that can, if given space and freedom, pop up in populated areas to find alternative rulings to overturn the crazier sentences. Even the majority of the leadership was coming to accept this popular sentiment and reject extreme hardline sentences.


That the people should choose conservative leaders, then, seems strange, but the explanation is rather simple. Awyes, a spiritual leader, but also a national hero of sorts, was a practical focal point for the UIC, but had ties to militant and restrictive brands of Islam, like Saudi Wahhabi. The Saudis, argues Robert Rotberg of Harvard’s Program on International Conflict and Conflict Resolution, caught onto this fact and donated the money that “was one of the driving forces that led to the formation of the UIC.” Similar allegations have been leveled that other radical Arab Islamists funneled money to select, minority clerics, giving them the power and authority to unite all of the nation’s courts around them. But, as was reported in The Economist, the essential mistake of these hardliners was to insist on confrontation even after the South was taken, rather than, as the majority wished, negotiate peace—in the words of The Economist’s correspondent, “many moderates thus refused to fight,” explaining the weakness and disorganization of the Islamic militants and the massive resent of the population, aimed against the Ethiopians and the TFG, at their removal.

One small portion of the UIC escaped destruction, and it was unfortunately uncharacteristically radical—Harakat al-Shabaab Mujahideen, commonly known as al-Shabaab, the youth wing of the Islamist militia, which hid itself in the difficult terrain of the Kenyan border. Hatred of the Ethiopians, in conjunction with the corruption and ineptitude of the TFG, granted al-Shabaab the time to regroup. This disgruntled bunch of impressionable youths proved far too tempting for Al-Qaeda agents, who began training the group in Iraq-style insurgent tactics and bolstering their ranks with an unknown number of foreign radical fighters (somewhere between a few hundred or a couple thousand). Partially funded by Al-Qaeda and partially by Eritrea in an effort to hurt their Ethiopian rivals (regardless of the harm to Somalia), al-Shabaab has been able to pay a salary reported at between $100-150 monthly, complete with family protection, benefits, and burial cost. Al-Shabaab, then, is composed of a few hardliners and many, like unit leader Mukhtar Robow, who are poor, discontented, and confused, as revealed by the twisted wish of Robow on Eid al-Adha: “How sweet it would be at Eid, he told the gathering, if instead of slaughtering an animal in praise of Allah, they would slaughter an Ethiopian.” This force has taken back the bulk of the territory the Ethiopians wrested from the UIC, now that the Ethiopians are gone, leaving Somalia to face a force larger, more heavily armed, more radical and violent that that which it attempted to expel.

Unfortunately, Obama has responded to this recent development by simply supporting the TFG once more, although this time on the mistaken pretense of working with popular Islamic movements towards peace. The beleaguered TFG recognized recently that it could not fight the rising tide of Islam and so “elected” Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, former leader of the UIC, as their new president when he merged his “moderate” Islamist organization, the Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia, with the TFG to bolster support for the government among popular Islamic groups against al-Shabaab. But no matter how much the TFG attempts to appeal to Islamic sentiments, it has been too sullied by its connection with Ethiopia and other foreign powers. Forget that Ahmed’s shariah does not agree with that of the majority (among other distasteful elements, Pham notes, it would call for the execution of any converting away from Islam), but he is now by connection to the TFG viewed as a Western proxy. As an anonymous Somali NGO director noted earlier this year, the TFG has been so tainted that “Muhammad the prophet could be in change and the result would be the same.” And Ahmed has been notoriously uncooperative with U.S. actors since he took his seat on January 31, 2009. Yet still, as late as October 2009, chairman of the Africa Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Donald Payne urged Obama to “recognize the TFG and allow the opening of an official Somali Embassy in Washington.” In the words of Pham, “the muddled message seems to be ‘we will arm you in the hope that you make something of yourself because we don’t have any other ideas at the moment, but we won’t recognize you [fully] just in case you utterly embarrass us.’” But there is another option, both to eliminate al-Shabaab and to restore order in the nation without the TFG.


Amr and Noor mention that some time towards the end of 2009 or beginning of 2010, “a rivalry surfaced between Al Shabaab [sic] and Hizbul Islam,” a formally friendly Islamist party, with some claims that members of both organizations have broken off and joined the TFG. Amidst this fracturing of the most destabilizing and threatening groups, at the end of March al-Shabaab overstepped its grounds and pushed the bulk of Muslims in Somalia too far when they desecrated the graves of Sufi elders and mystics in pursuit of their hardliner aims. The result has been the formation of a Sufi militia, Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama, currently blocking the advance of al-Shabaab, denouncing their brand of Islam, and promoting traditional, liberal Sufi values. Unfortunately, unable to find the money to provide themselves with defense materials and organizational supplies, members of Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama have been forced to sign agreements with the TFG, sullying their name in the process, to get a chunk of international cash. But, as Pham notes, the distaste of working with the TFG has grown too strong and already they are distancing themselves—though how fatal this has been to the movement’s credibility remains to be seen.

But Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama still proved a few things: the truly moderate Islamic courts still exist, despite fears that al-Shabaab may have purged all clerics who were not hardliners, and they still command massive popular support, having organized on short notice the largest protests Somalia has seen in ages. The task, then, is to recognize that supporting such clerics, acknowledging that they are not radicals, but instead are popular, relatively liberal, and open to systems amenable to our American sensibilities of democracy and capitalism, is an option. The next task is to realize that giving money directly to these organizations would be dangerous, as there is no central organization among all of them so some might use an allotment peaceably, while others would use it to dominate the rest. And we have seen the damage our money and name can do to an organization’s legitimacy and popularity through our experiences with the TGF and other Somali parties. So, we must devise a means of supporting these positive clerics without directly giving them military or financial aid and without allowing them to be immediately crushed by their internationally funded opposition. It may seem like a hopeless task, but actually there is a way to go about it.


The financial aspect of the equation may be accomplished simply by restoring the means by which individuals in the U.S. can donate to such organizations. Perhaps twenty-five to forty percent of some local Somali economies at one point came from remittances granted by the relatively well-off Somali Diaspora community. But in November 2001, in fear of Americans funding (accidentally or intentionally) international terrorism, we forced a freeze on Al-Barakat, the money transfer company that handled most of the remittance transfers from the West into Somalia. Only recently was the Swedish branch restored, but the rest remain blacklisted with their assets frozen. Perhaps restoring these funds would quash some of the economic incentives for joining radical organizations. Also, granted that this money would go to individuals, more money in the hands of pious citizens could increase support for local, liberally-minded clerics. Likewise, after September 11, 2001, the Bush administration led investigations into, closures of, and continued wiretappings and abuses of the rights of Muslim charities, resulting in massive decreases in donations. These donations oversaw programs that could better insure humanitarian aid delivery, operating through local Muslim grounds, and increase dialogue between schools of fiqh, hopefully encouraging dissent against radicalism. But donations have never recovered their pre-2001 levels as, although invasive practices have abated, people still fear scrutiny. All this suggests that the U.S. must be prepared to engage with Islam to engage with Somalia, but must recognize that diplomacy with Islam cannot be treated as diplomacy with a monolithic entity, nor can it always be addressed in the same way as political diplomacy. Perhaps it is time that the U.S. consider training religion attachés in embassies, prepared to engage with local religious groups in their own language and on their own level, creating a more popular and acceptable dialogue with major local actors.

In the meanwhile, we will have to work on taking away the sources of power moving to bolster al-Shabaab and other destabilizing elements. This would entail confronting the Saudi Wahhabi movements, Eritrea, and others on their funding of extremists. Encouraging the deployment of non-aligned United Nations and African Union peacekeepers, assigned to communities and not acting like the palace guard of the TGF as currently they do, should help to maintain some order for moderate Islam to move within as al-Shabaab and company (hopefully) crumble. Such forces might also aid communities in weeding out Al-Qaeda cells. After all, UN and AU forces have generated general support save for their associations with the TFG.

The work would be absolutely thankless, tiring and long. And so it must be recognized that, currently, we are extremely unlikely to support it through a purely pragmatic view, not to mention the perpetual popular hang-ups about working with blatantly Islamic organizations. After all, many corporations actually benefit by plundering Somalia’s chaos—Brookings has implicated Italian, French, Spanish, Greek, Russian, British, Ukrainian, Japanese, South Korean, Taiwanese, Indian, Yemeni, and Egyptian fishing industries of illegally tapping Somalia’s fisheries. Additionally, the UN has explained the presence of large industrial waste piles in the nation by provocatively noting that it costs one-hundredth the price to dump in Somalia as in Europe or North America.

But remembering the brief days of cooled radicalism and restored order just before the Ethiopian invasion, recalling the chaos we encountered in 1993, and thinking of the potential for Somalia to become an Al-Qaeda hotspot, a source of African destabilization, and a large blight on the world’s collective consciousness—there is reason enough to act as quickly as possible. And even if we do not act, at the very least we have to admit to our guilty consciousnesses that we have lied to ourselves—there is a viable option for peace in Somalia, an option better than the warlords, the Ethiopians or the TFG. There is real hope for a stable, peaceful Somalia.