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Somalia: Countering Terrorism in a Failed State
Somalia: Countering Terrorism in a Failed State
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Somalia: Averting a Descent into Political Violence
Somalia: Averting a Descent into Political Violence
Report 45 / Africa

Somalia: Countering Terrorism in a Failed State

For the first time since the last UN mission left the country in 1995, there is considerable international interest in Somalia, centred on the possibility that the country may become part of the global war against terrorism.

Executive Summary

For the first time since the last UN mission left the country in 1995, there is considerable international interest in Somalia, centred on the possibility that the country may become part of the global war against terrorism.  The U.S. government suspects that al-Qaeda may have used Somalia as a staging area or safe haven in the past and remains concerned – though less than in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks – that it could do so again because of the country's highly fragmented internal security situation. 

The U.S. and its allies have already taken some steps to counter the possible use of Somalia by international terrorists, including increased surveillance, the closing down of terrorist-connected financial institutions and the threat of military action.  Having high-ranking U.S. officials warn about the threat and possible military response has helped deter the use by fleeing al-Qaeda members of Somali territory as a temporary safe haven.  However, while these measures may have kept terrorists from operating out of Somalia in the short-term, it is the instability and power vacuum emerging from the collapse of the Somali state that poses the greatest danger both to the outside world and to Somalis. Strong international engagement to bring peace internally and to reconstruct the failed state is required now if longer-term counter-terrorism objectives are to be achieved.

Left essentially to its own devices over the past seven years, Somalia has seen destructive civil war and lawless banditry give way to more localised, unpredictable conflicts between smaller clan-based factions and warlord militia groups. Limited local attempts at economic recovery and restoration of the rule of law have been put at risk by the recent escalation between opposing factions backed by regional benefactors. There are great local disparities. The self-declared and unrecognised Republic of Somaliland provides significant governance and security in the Northwest, though its stability is fragile and threatened by recent political developments, including the death in May 2002 of its President, Mohamed Ibrahim Egal. Parts of southern Somalia and the Northeast, including the autonomous region of Puntland, remain embroiled in destabilising armed conflict.

The so-called Transitional National Government, formed in 1999 at the Arta conference in Djibouti sponsored by the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), is unrepresentative notn widely  sufficiently representative and controls little more than part of the capital, Mogadishu. Supported by a loose coalition of Arab and African countries, including Egypt, Libya, Djibouti, Eritrea and a number of Gulf states, and in alliance with militia groups, it is engaged in a tense and occasionally violent stand-off with an opposition coalition, the Ethiopia-backed Somalia Reconciliation and Restoration Council.  The polarisation between these two sets of loose alliances is increasing, and a more direct showdown is highly likely in the absence of any serious regional or international effort at conflict prevention.

Islamist organisations have become more prominent in the past decade. The most important, the indigenous al-Itihaad al-Islami, aims to establish an Islamic state in Somalia and in the Somali-inhabited region of eastern Ethiopia (the Ogaden). In the early to mid 1990s, it organised militias in attempts to gain control of several key Somali towns. It committed several acts of terrorism against Ethiopian government targets in 1995. While its goals have focused relatively narrowly on Somalia and Ethiopia, it has had links with international Islamist terrorists in the past, including al-Qaeda. The possibility of continued or renewed ties should be closely monitored.

Despite repeated calamities, there is strong Somali interest in finding a way to stable governance. Virtually all political and civil society leaders interviewed by ICG expressed a firm desire for the international community, particularly the U.S., to reengage to promote reconciliation and reconstruction of the state.       

If the international community is to do this, its perspective should be wider than terrorism. Countering that phenomenon is critical, but Somalia is not Afghanistan. Local administrative structures are already in place in many areas of the country. The most worrisome political movement, al-Itihaad, does not control local populations or territory and is not structurally integrated with al-Qaeda as was the Taliban. Indeed, the reason that Somalia appears to be a magnet for some terrorists derives from characteristics as a failed state that make it attractive for hard-to-trace financial transactions and transhipment of goods and personnel. Given its civil conflicts and deep political divisions, no Western military operation – in and of itself – could make Somalia “safe from terrorism”. Larger military strikes, which were seriously considered in the few months after 11 September but are not likely at this point, could prove counter-productive by alienating many Somalis and bolstering support for radical Islamist groups. 

While continuing to implement discrete measures that target the lifeblood of terrorist operations – such as monitoring remittance companies and assisting in establishment of accountable financial institutions – the international community needs to begin the larger and more difficult process of addressing Somalia’s chronic state failure. To achieve both short- and long-term counter-terrorism objectives, it is necessary for key states outside the region to re-engage politically.  Efforts by the regional organisation IGAD to hold a peace conference for all Somali stakeholders risk collapse,  with regional divisions and an uncertain agenda leaving even a conference  date for its convening uncertain.

Diplomatic efforts should have two objectives: first, to defuse the immediate tensions (both inside Somalia and among competing regional states) that threaten to draw sections of the country into wider armed conflict; and secondly, to create the broader support structures and favourable conditions for IGAD to help lead a wider reconciliation and reconstruction process.

Subsequent ICG reporting will address in greater detail in more detail both the process and the substance of advancing that terms how political reconciliation and reconstruction. can be advanced.

Nairobi/Brussels, 23 May 2002

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.