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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
Al-Shabaab's attacks in East Africa: a timeline
Al-Shabaab's attacks in East Africa: a timeline
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

Interactive / Africa

Al-Shabaab's attacks in East Africa: a timeline

Five years after an attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, Al-Shabaab appears committed to striking targets across East Africa. Security crackdowns have blunted its capacity to stage regular assaults, but complacency could roll back those gains, as could failure to engage with communities in which the group recruits.

Starting from Al-Qaeda's first major attack in East Africa, this timeline tracks Al-Shabaab's advances and setbacks in Somalia, as well its attacks in Uganda and Kenya.