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Counter-Terrorism in Somalia: Losing Hearts and Minds?
Counter-Terrorism in Somalia: Losing Hearts and Minds?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Somalia: Averting a Descent into Political Violence
Somalia: Averting a Descent into Political Violence
Report 95 / Africa

Counter-Terrorism in Somalia: Losing Hearts and Minds?

Nearly four years after 9/11, hardly a day passes without the “war on terrorism” making headlines, with Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia and now London holding centre stage. But away from the spotlight, a quiet, dirty conflict is being waged in Somalia.

Executive Summary

Nearly four years after 9/11, hardly a day passes without the "war on terrorism" making headlines, with Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia and now London holding centre stage. But away from the spotlight, a quiet, dirty conflict is being waged in Somalia: in the rubble-strewn streets of the ruined capital of this state without a government, Mogadishu, al-Qaeda operatives, jihadi extremists, Ethiopian security services and Western-backed counter-terrorism networks are engaged in a shadowy and complex contest waged by intimidation, abduction and assassination. The U.S. has had some success but now risks evoking a backlash. Ultimately a successful counter-terrorism strategy requires more attention to helping Somalia with the twin tasks of reconciliation and state building.

During the 1990s, jihadism in Somalia was synonymous with al-Itihaad al-Islaami, a band of Wahhabi militants determined to establish an Islamic emirate in the country. Al-Qaeda also developed a toehold, contributing to attacks on U.S. and UN peacekeepers in the early part of the decade and using the country as a transit zone for terrorism in neighbouring Kenya; some leading members of al-Qaeda's East African network continue to hide in Somalia.

Since 2003, Somalia has witnessed the rise of a new, ruthless, independent jihadi network with links to al-Qaeda. Based in lawless Mogadishu and led by a young militia leader trained in Afghanistan, the group announced its existence by murdering four foreign aid workers in the relatively secure territory of Somaliland between October 2003 and April 2004. Western governments, led by the U.S., responded to the threat of terrorism in and from Somalia by building up Somali counter-terrorist networks headed by faction leaders and former military or police officers, and by cooperating with the security services in Somaliland and neighbouring Puntland. The strategy has netted at least one key al-Qaeda figure, and as many as a dozen members of the new jihadi group are either dead or behind bars.

Despite these successes, counter-terrorism efforts are producing growing unease within the broader public. Few Somalis believe there are terrorists in their country, and many regard the American-led war on terrorism as an assault on Islam. Unidentified surveillance flights, the abduction of innocent people for weeks at a time on suspicion of terrorist links, and cooperation with unpopular faction leaders all add to public cynicism and resentment. Without public support, even the most sophisticated counter-terrorism effort is doomed to failure.

Militants have responded by assassinating at least a dozen Somalis working for Mogadishu's Western-backed counter-terrorism networks. Meanwhile, an Ethiopian intelligence network hunts Islamist militants and insurgents among Somalia's small, fearful community of Oromo migrants and refugees.

Since the formation of the new Transitional Federal Government (TFG) for Somalia, in October 2004, the dirty war between terrorists and counter-terrorist operatives in Mogadishu appears to have entered a new and more vicious stage that threatens to push the country further towards jihadism and extremist violence unless its root causes are properly addressed. Urban terrorism has claimed the lives of a female BBC producer, two young Somali footballers and a Somali woman working for an international NGO. Eager to earn the support of Western governments as an ally in the war on terrorism, the TFG leadership has attributed the attacks to Islamist extremists but some of the evidence appears to implicate supporters of the interim president instead.

The threat of jihadi terrorism in and from Somalia is real. But attempts by the new Somali leadership and its regional allies to exploit this threat for short-term political gain risk plunging the country into even greater crisis. Several key leaders in the deeply divided transitional government are notorious for smearing adversaries and critics with allegations of terrorist linkages -- conduct that threatens to deepen the schisms within the government. More alarmingly, the faction of the TFG aligned with the interim president has tried to use the threat of terrorism to justify deployment of a regional intervention force to Somalia -- a widely unpopular and deeply divisive proposition that would not only irrevocably split the government and trigger renewed conflict, but would also dramatically strengthen the jihadis.

Ultimately, the threat of jihadi terrorism from Somalia can only be addressed through the restoration of stable, legitimate and functional government. Dealing with that threat requires Somalia's friends to do more to assist in bringing Somali society together again and rebuilding the state. But such assistance must be carefully planned and finely calibrated in order to ensure that it does not empower one faction of the TFG at the expense of another or otherwise destabilise a fragile peace process.

A successful counter-terrorism campaign requires more engagement with the broader public, including civil society organisations and more moderate Islamist groups. Somalis must be persuaded not only that some individuals guilty of terrorism are indeed in their country but also that the counter-terrorism agenda does not involve subjugation by factional or foreign interests. At the same time, Somalia's partners must become involved with the peace process, helping to overcome the TFG schisms and to forge a genuine government of national unity. If they fail to do so, jihadis will gradually find growing purchase among Somalia's despairing and disaffected citizenry, and it will only be a matter of time before another group of militants succeeds in mounting a spectacular terrorist attack against foreign interests in Somalia or against one of its neighbours.

Nairobi/Brussels, 11 July 2005

Women take part in a demonstration against the Somali President Mohamed Abdulahi Farmajo in Mogadishu on December 15, 2020 accused of interferences in the electoral process. STRINGER / AFP
Statement / Africa

Somalia: Averting a Descent into Political Violence

Tensions are running high following the Somali parliament’s decision to extend the incumbent president’s mandate by two years. External partners should urgently convene – and mediate – talks among the country’s bitterly divided elites, to prevent its worst political crisis in years from escalating.

Somalia’s long-running political crisis has entered a new, dangerous phase. In a hastily convened session on 12 April, members of parliament overwhelmingly endorsed a bill that would delay elections by two years, in effect extending the term in office of President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo”. The move is an alarming escalation of a dispute that could well spiral into widespread violence unless Somalia’s political elites return to the negotiating table. The opposition is said to be considering forming a parallel government; cracks have deepened in a security apparatus long divided along clan lines; and the president’s opponents have vowed to resist extension of his rule. But even though the hour is late, it is not too late for the parties to reverse course. Somalia’s external partners, led by the African Union (AU) and backed by the U.S., the UN Security Council and the European Union, should step in to organise – and lead – fresh talks among all stakeholders to craft a roadmap to timely elections. All external actors should unambiguously signal readiness to impose sanctions on parties who obstruct a new initiative to find a consensual path forward.

The distrust that has prevented Somalia’s politicians from preparing elections has been on full display over the last few months. President Farmajo and leaders of Somalia’s subnational units, known as federal member states, agreed on a framework for indirect elections on 17 September 2020. But despite several rounds of subsequent talks, they have repeatedly failed to work out the voting system. Following the expiry of Farmajo’s four-year term on 8 February, the opposition demanded that he hand power to an interim government headed by the prime minister. An attempt by Farmajo’s rivals to hold demonstrations to press home this point was met with lethal force, with clashes between police and demonstrators leaving at least eight people dead. Somalia’s external partners then urged talks to resolve the deadlock. But the parties argued bitterly over the venue, the agenda and the security arrangements. When they finally convened on 3 April at Mogadishu’s international airport, which is guarded by AU troops, negotiations collapsed after four days.

In response, Farmajo and his supporters decided to raise the stakes by summoning parliament to initiate the term extension his opponents had consistently accused him of planning. During a special session convened by lower house Speaker Mohamed Abdirahman Mursal, MPs argued that the failure to reach a compromise made the 17 September agreement impossible to fulfil. They subsequently mandated the National Independent Electoral Commission to hold elections by universal suffrage in two years. The president signed the bill into law two days later.

The parliamentary decision has sent political tensions soaring to levels not seen in Somalia for years – and which could snowball into violence due to two key factors. First, the de facto term extension has shattered already low levels of trust among Somalia’s rival political actors. Farmajo’s opponents have rallied under the banner of the Council of Presidential Candidates, an alliance that includes two former presidents and a former prime minister. They represent important clan constituencies, including in Mogadishu, and have vehemently denounced the extension of Farmajo’s mandate, pledging unspecified action. These opposition candidates are allied with the presidents of the Puntland and Jubaland federal member states. Farmajo, for his part, enjoys the support of leaders from the federal regions of Galmudug, Hirshabelle and South West. With lines of communication cut between duelling parties and with the opposition said to be considering formation of a parallel government, the risk is high that parties will use force to secure political concessions. 

The crisis has sorely tested the cohesion of Somalia’s fragile army and police.

Secondly, the crisis has sorely tested the cohesion of Somalia’s fragile army and police. Hours before parliament convened to vote on the term extension, Mogadishu police chief Sadiq “John” Omar condemned what he described as a power grab and ordered his men to block the entrance to the building, arguing that parliament’s term had expired. Police Commissioner General Hassan Hijar Abdi immediately dismissed Omar and sent forces to secure the venue. Well-placed security sources told Crisis Group that a number of soldiers from Somalia’s elite Turkish-trained Gorgor army units have since abandoned base and retreated to their clan strongholds. Elders from these clans also told Crisis Group that any attempt by authorities to disarm their troops will trigger full-scale fighting. The longer the crisis lasts, the greater the danger that these rifts will grow, raising the spectre of a return to civil war.

Resolving the crisis will not be easy. Farmajo has dug in, warning outside actors to stay out of Somalia’s internal affairs. The timing of the parliamentary decision – two days before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began – was likely designed to limit the opposition’s capacity to hold demonstrations at a time when most Somalis are observing the fast. Publicly, the opposition has reacted with restraint. Privately, however, it is working to ensure that Farmajo does not get his way. If opposition politicians go ahead to form a parallel government, they will add fuel to the fire and send tensions soaring higher.

As Crisis Group has consistently advocated, there is no alternative to concerted third-party mediation to break the electoral impasse, given the distrust among Somalia’s actors. In the past, the reluctance of external partners to engage directly was understandable, not least due to Mogadishu’s insistence that it could broker a compromise through Somali-led talks. That claim no longer holds. Instead, the spiralling crisis threatens to undo all the progress made in establishing a degree of political stability in Somalia over the last two decades. Moreover, the political stalemate and the wrangling among security forces have offered an opening to Al-Shabaab militants. Emboldened by the partial withdrawals of Ethiopian and U.S. troops at the end of 2020, militants have already stepped up attacks and resumed the large-scale assaults on Somali and foreign military targets that outside forces had prevented them from staging for several years. The crisis has also offered a propaganda coup for the militants, who have boasted that it vindicates their depiction of elites as power-obsessed incompetents.

Somalia’s key external partners need to do more. They have shown admirable unity in rejecting the term extension, with the U.S., UN, AU, EU, UK and regional bloc IGAD all issuing strong statements to express opposition. Now they should urge all Somali actors to resume talks. Ideally the AU, through the office of Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security Bankole Adeoye, who has already shown interest in resolving the standoff, would mobilise external partners to step up their diplomacy. First, the AU, with the backing of key external partners, should appoint an envoy who, working in concert with the UN envoy, should meet the main parties separately and urge a return to talks. In particular, these emissaries should emphasise to Farmajo that he will need to accept external mediation, given that the opposition will not agree to talks under his supervision. To improve the chances of Farmajo shifting his position, the U.S. could engage directly with his key backers in Qatar and Turkey and urge them to prevail on the president to show greater flexibility, given the risk the crisis poses to Somalia’s stability.

External actors should make clear that they are prepared to impose targeted sanctions.

Next, external actors will need to coordinate with Somalia’s political elite in calling for an inclusive summit to discuss a pathway to elections. Convened by the AU, with the U.S., EU and UN acting as guarantors, such a meeting should focus on delivering a timeframe for elections within weeks, rather than months. Talks could build on the 17 September agreement, but would not necessarily be bound by it, as only a narrow section of the political elite – Farmajo and the presidents of federal member states – crafted the document. Realistically, however, any election would need to broadly follow the contours of the 17 September agreement, given that an indirect election is the only feasible way to hold a vote in today’s security environment, in which Al-Shabaab controls swathes of territory in the south-central Somali countryside. Ideally, new talks would involve more participants, particularly representatives of the Council of Presidential Candidates and civil society.

To ensure that parties stick to their commitments, external actors should make clear that they are prepared to impose targeted sanctions. The U.S. has signalled a willingness to take action and urged key actors to change course in response to the latest developments. The EU has also promised to take “concrete measures” if authorities do not reverse the term extension. These are positive early steps. Somalia’s elites crave the legitimacy that comes with international recognition. Many use foreign passports to travel, hold assets outside Somalia, and keep their families in the U.S. or EU countries. Credible threats to impose visa bans and asset freezes might well concentrate minds.

Despite its many domestic challenges, Somalia has managed to establish a degree of political stability in the past decade and a half. Most strikingly, political elites have fashioned consensus on election management in past electoral cycles and found a way to both hold regular votes and oversee peaceful transitions of power. The current impasse – which could easily tip into major violence – threatens to unravel those gains. Somalia’s elites must return to dialogue.