The perilous chaos of forgotten Somalia
The perilous chaos of forgotten Somalia
Somalia: Making the Most of the EU-Somalia Joint Roadmap
Somalia: Making the Most of the EU-Somalia Joint Roadmap
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

The perilous chaos of forgotten Somalia

Driving across Mogadishu in a battle wagon full of machine-gun-toting, khat-chewing militiamen, crossing an area of inter-clan fighting involving mortar attacks in densely populated urban areas, we felt we were in a time warp. This could easily have been a decade ago, when 30,000 U.S. soldiers were deployed in Somalia, a country then and still without a permanent national government.

But things have indeed changed, and the way they have changed matters to U.S. national security. During the last decade, international Islamist groups, including Al-Qaeda, have invested with Somali partners, building a commercial empire in the country that rivals that of any other faction and which is increasingly asserting itself as a political and military force.

It is crucial not to paint every Islamist group as an inherent threat to Western interests or values. Islamic organizations of various stripes have been at the forefront of restoring education and health care, Sharia (Islamic law) courts have provided security in some areas, and sheikhs are prominent in reconciliation. But a small network of Islamist extremists in Somalia has helped facilitate the activities of Al-Qaeda in terrorist attacks over the years, namely against the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the attack on a tourist hotel on the Kenyan coast, a failed attempt to shoot down an Israeli charter flight near Mombasa, and an unrealized plot to crash an airplane into the new U.S. embassy in Nairobi last year. The same extremists are preparing to unleash attacks on Somalia's new government, as well as African Union peacekeeping forces, when they eventually return to Mogadishu.

For a decade and a half, the collapsed state in Somalia has permitted the growth of opportunities for terrorists to be harbored, recruited and trained. Porous borders, dozens of unmonitored airstrips and one of the longest coastlines in Africa create exploitable intelligence black holes and permit the illicit movement of personnel and weapons. The continuation of clan, economic and factional conflict throughout the country has led to an erosion of the health and nutritional status of the most vulnerable elements of the Somali population, destruction of most viable infrastructure, and the collapse of the educational system, facilitating the spread of extremist ideologies.

To combat these insidious trends, Somalia needs a functioning government. Recently, a peace process run by neighboring African governments has produced a new administration on paper, but it has remained in Kenya while it negotiates its arrival in Mogadishu, a prospect complicated by persistent factional rivalries and Mafia-style business interests. If it doesn't get a minimally functioning state today, Somalia will end up tomorrow as a patchwork of mini-states, some of which increasingly resemble areas of Taleban-controlled Afghanistan or insurgent-patrolled Iraq. We see evidence of that on the ground already here in Mogadishu, where Islamist business associations offer capital selectively to those who subscribe to their ideology, where Sharia courts declare New Year's Eve celebrations to be an offense punishable by death, and where masked assassins execute those considered to be Western collaborators.

As in so many other places, U.S. policy places short-term counter-terrorism objectives ahead of long-term strategic interests. Somali Islamist leaders told us that they wanted to talk with the Americans, but their eagerness has not been reciprocated. Somali citizens tell us that U.S. policy is targeting not terrorists, but rather Islam itself.

This is Somalia's moment of opportunity to dramatically change its trajectory. A government that ensures security is a win-win proposition for both Westerners and Somalis. A functioning police, army and intelligence state apparatus will over time be able to address the criminality and militia conflict that undermine Somali development. This will provide a real partner for the global war on terror in a place where the capacity to launch further attacks has been left largely unchecked.

To achieve this, Somalia needs serious engagement by and focused support from the U.S. and Europe. Unfortunately, the country is getting neither. The U.S. walked away a decade ago, shortly after the Black Hawks went down. Apart from financial assistance, the Europeans, too, remain largely disengaged. Yet U.S. and European support should include constructive involvement in the diplomacy necessary to build a representative Somali administration, and the support necessary to make it transparent and functional.

If Somalia is left to fester, Islamist insurgents and terrorist groups will threaten not only the new government, but Western and neighboring African interests as well. What is the cost of a few senior diplomats and some institution-building resources when stacked against another catastrophic attack on an embassy, hotel or airplane?


Former Project Director, Horn of Africa
Former Program Co-Director, Africa

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