Is Somalia the new Afghanistan?
The wartorn nation is acting as a dangerous new magnet for terror
Jon Swain and Michael Gillard
The Sunday Times, 9 August 2009
Loading ammunition into the magazine of his AK-47 assault rifle, the young suicide bomber looked straight into the camera. “Jihad is real,” he said. “There’s no way you can understand the sweetness of jihad until you come to jihad.”
His accomplice joined in, his face hidden by a scarf. “How dare you sit at home and look on the TV and see Muslims getting killed ... Those who are in Europe and America, get out of those countries,” he ordered.
Moments later a column of black smoke appeared as a battered Toyota truck exploded.
The slick video showing the last moments of a suicide bomber, entitled “Message to those who stay behind”, is part of the latest recruitment propaganda to emerge on English-language websites directed at young wannabe jihadis.
Its origins were not, however, in Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan, the usual bases of jihadi recruiters, but Somalia, the war-torn east African state.
The site has been traced to Al-Shabaab, a radicalised Islamist militia group led by Somalis trained in Afghanistan and aligned with Al-Qaeda. The group is fighting against Somalia’s fragile transitional government, which is backed by the West and the United Nations.
It is seeking to impose sharia (Islamic law) in Somalia with brutal tactics including public beheadings. Amnesty International has condemned it for cruel punishments including sentencing robbers, without trial, to have their right hand and left foot cut off.
What concerns western security officials is that the movement has built an international recruiting network in Somali expatriate communities in the West. It has arranged for impressionable young Somali men to go to a country they scarcely know, to fight for its cause.
Now there are signs that these fighters are returning to their home countries to spread terror there.
Last week, Australian security forces announced they had uncovered an alleged plot by immigrants, including three Somalis with Australian citizenship, to carry out a suicide attack with automatic weapons on a Sydney army base.
“The men’s intention was to actually go into the army barracks and kill as many soldiers as they could before they themselves were killed,” said Tony Negus, acting chief commissioner of Australia’s federal police force.
In America, a counterterrorism investigation is continuing after more than 20 young Americans of Somali origin left their homes in Minneapolis and went to fight with Al-Shabaab.
A first wave left in 2007 and a second in 2008 but their disappearance came to light only after news reached Minneapolis that one of them, Shirwa Ahmed, blew himself up in an attack in Somalia last October that killed as many as 30 people.
Others have been arrested and charged on their return to the United States.
Last month Lord Malloch-Brown, then the minister for Africa, said Somalia posed a greater threat than Afghanistan to Britain. Its ungoverned space is being compared to Afghanistan under the Taliban when Osama Bin Laden used the lawless areas on the Pakistan border to plan attacks on western targets.
Experts fear that as Al-Qaeda has come under more pressure in the border region from western forces it will turn increasingly to Somalia as an attractive haven where it can set up terrorist training camps for worldwide jihadists. Echoing this appeal, Bin Laden has urged Muslims to send money or go to fight in Somalia.
So is Somalia now rivalling Afghanistan as a crucible for terror?
FOR 18 years since the fall of the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, Somalia has been a country without an effective central government. Today it is the world’s pre-eminent failed state in a perpetual fog of civil war. A tenth of its population has been killed. A million have fled abroad.
The Al-Shabaab movement — meaning “the youth” in Arabic — was formed as the youth and military wing of a group of sharia courts that controlled much of southern and central Somalia in 2006.
America saw the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) as an Al-Qaeda proxy and encouraged neighbouring Ethiopia to invade and drive them out. Al-Shabaab melted away but did not disappear and since the Ethiopians withdrew at the beginning of this year its military strength has revived.
It refused to engage in a peace process that brought more moderate elements of the ICU into the government. Through force of arms and brutal tactics, Al-Shabaab now controls much of southern Somalia and several districts of Mogadishu.
Last week Hillary Clinton, the American secretary of state, visited Nairobi with the threat of the spread of international terrorism from sub-Saharan Africa uppermost in her mind. She placed a wreath at Memorial Park, which commemorates one of Al-Qaeda’s deadliest pre-9/11 strikes against America, the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 220 people.
She also met Somalia’s beleaguered interim president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, and pledged more US military aid for his government’s battle against Al-Shabaab.
Such diplomacy did little to allay the fears of counterterrorism officials in the West about Somali-spawned terrorism. In Britain, until recently, the intelligence services regarded the 200,000-strong Somali community as “the dog that never barked”, according to Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence.
Neumann said an intelligence official used the expression to convey the surprise and concern with which MI5 now regard efforts to radicalise Somali youths living here.
Some two dozen UK Somalis are believed to have gone to train and fight abroad and the police and intelligence services fear some of them will return battle-hardened and turn their attention to UK targets.
In October 2007, a 21-year-old Somali from Ealing, west London, blew himself up at a checkpoint in the southern Somali town of Baidoa after crossing into Somalia by foot from Kenya. Two of the four men convicted of the failed bombing of the London Underground on July 21, 2005, were Somali asylum seekers. “The $1m question is what made the dog bark now,” Neumann said.
Andy Hayman, the Metropolitan police’s former counterterrorism chief, said that in Britain some of the Somali community had slowly become more detached from mainstream life, preferring to be more inward-looking and self-protecting.
“This may be because the majority feel the inference that Somalis are engaged in international terrorism is making them less trusting of the authorities, or that terrorist activities by some causes them to close ranks to hide illegal activities,” he said. “Whatever the reason, the authorities are describing them to be a ‘hard-to-reach’ group where once they were accessible.”
Some experts believe that US foreign policy contributed to the radicalisation process among the Somali diaspora when Washington backed Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006. For many Somalis, at home and overseas, Al-Shabaab was a legitimate liberation movement against the harsh Ethiopian occupation and not a terrorist group.
Mark Bradbury, an influential analyst on Somalia with Conciliation Resources, said this western support of Ethiopia’s intervention was the “real tipping point”. “That really escalated the situation,” he said. “Al-Qaeda, which had been relatively quiet there, started to speak up and there has been some clever work by them propagating their narrative and winning people over to their side.”
Those who have been radicalised can be difficult to detect. One of the men arrested in Australia was Saney Edow Aweys, a 27-year-old father of four who had escaped from the brutal civil war in Somalia and resettled in Australia to find a safe environment for his children.
To friends and neighbours he was just another smiling and happy “Aussie boy” enjoying Australia’s easy-going western lifestyle. “He used to hang out with the boys, play soccer, go to the clubs,” a friend in Melbourne said.
Now that he is held as a terror suspect a different picture of Aweys has begun to emerge. About 18 months ago the boilerman had changed his habits. He took religious instruction at a Melbourne mosque, let his beard grow and wore traditional Islamic clothes.
Then, more recently, he switched back to the fun-loving man he had been before. He shaved off his beard, adopted western dress again, and was seen enjoying himself in Melbourne’s cafes. Police believe this may have been to divert attention as he had been radicalised and was planning to visit Somalia after going on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.
As in Australia, Al-Shabab’s recruits in America were seemingly westernised young men with the usual interests in girls, sports and entertainment. Abdifatah Yusuf Isse, a Seattle man indicted last month on terrorism charges, had been an engineering student and was “one of the good kids”, his cousin said. “He never smoked. He never did anything.”
What was particularly worrying about the alleged Australian plot, according to Neumann, was that the men had been radicalised about the Somali situation — in which Canberra has no involvement — but had apparently decided to attack an Australian base because of its forces’ presence in Afghanistan.
THE question, then, is: what can be done about the emerging threat?
An invasion of Somalia by western forces is improbable. Notwithstanding events in Iraq and Afghanistan, America is still smarting from the disastrous battle of Mogadishu in 1993, whose events were turned into the Hollywood film Black Hawk Down.
In an attempt to capture a Somali warlord, 18 American servicemen were killed and 80 injured in an 18-hour street battle. The bodies of two of the dead were dragged through the streets by jubilant locals.
To avoid any repeat of such scenes, western governments are relying on their support of the transitional government being a success. There is, however, little sign that it will be. Al-Shabaab forces have steadily increased their control of the country.
On the domestic front in Britain, the Home Office has funded a strategy to disrupt radicalisers, strengthen institutions and support vulnerable individuals. Officials said their work was not about stigmatising young Somalis as future terrorists when the vast majority rejected violent extremism.
Somali community leaders in London where 70,000 live, 10,000 in Tower Hamlets alone, also said the threat of radicalisation was exaggerated.
“We have not heard of any renewed focus by the intelligence services on our community and are concerned about any general blanket monitoring,” they said. “We don’t believe within the Somali community there is any sort of radicalism and are not aware of Al-Shabaab operating here.”
Hayman disagreed. “Radicalisation occurs in much the same way as other extremist wings of the Muslim community,” he said. “Young men do not overnight become terrorists. They need indoctrination, training and capability. All we are seeing is a new community being the target.”
The video posted online showed that they have the motivation and the ability to attack. Their targets were chillingly clear. “I’m telling you, the kuffar, the English people, the Americans,” said the suicide bomber. “We’re coming for them.”