Somalia: Countering Terrorism in a Failed State
Somalia: Countering Terrorism in a Failed State
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Somalia, Somaliland and the Explosive Port Deal
Somalia, Somaliland and the Explosive Port Deal
Report 45 / Africa 4 minutes

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

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.