From 1996 until the middle of 2006, an anarchic equilibrium had sometimes provided safe haven to terrorists operating in East Africa. But in June 2006, an Islamic fundamentalist movement known as the Islamic Courts Union seized control of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, despite an unsuccessful U.S. attempt to strengthen a coalition
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What is at stake in Somalia for the United States and its regional allies, Kenya, Djibouti, and Ethiopia? How likely is Somalia to become a staging ground for global terrorist operations? Is the Somali Islamist movement the manifestation of parochial, clan-based politics, or is it linked to al Qaeda? Can U.S. policy for the region be refocused?
Please join AEI for a conference to discuss these and other questions. Speakers will include Eunice Reddick, director of East African Affairs, U.S. Department of State; Gérard Prunier, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) researcher and former director of the French Center of Ethiopian Studies; David H. Shinn, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, and former director of East African affairs and former coordinator for Somalia policy at the U.S. Department of State; and Ken Menkhaus, former senior advisor to the United Nations Operation in Somalia. AEI’s Mauro De Lorenzo will moderate.
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Eunice Reddick, U.S. Department of State
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Ken Menkhaus, Davidson College
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Gérard Prunier, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris
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David H. Shinn, George Washington University
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Mauro De Lorenzo, AEI
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From 1996 until the middle of 2006, an anarchic equilibrium had sometimes provided safe haven to terrorists operating in East Africa. But in June 2006, an Islamic fundamentalist movement known as the Islamic Courts Union seized control of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, despite an unsuccessful U.S. attempt to strengthen a coalition of warlords against the emerging Islamist threat.
What is at stake in Somalia for the United States and its regional allies, Kenya, Djibouti, and Ethiopia? How likely is Somalia to become a staging ground for global terrorist operations? Is the Somali Islamist movement the manifestation of parochial, clan-based politics, or is it linked to al Qaeda? Can U.S. policy for the region be refocused? These and other questions were considered at an October 4 AEI conference
Since seizing control of Mogadishu in June of 2006, the Supreme Islamic Courts Council (previously known as the Islamic Courts Union, or ICU) has emerged as the dominant political force in Somalia, wresting power from a United States-backed coalition of warlords in the capital, and displacing the East Africa-backed Transitional Federal Government. The emergence of Islamist factions in the Horn of Africa may be cause for concern; however, recent developments must be evaluated both in terms of their repercussions for local and regional stability, as well as their implications for American strategic interests in the area.
The United States faces several challenges in assessing the threat posed by the growing Somali Islamist movement. American attention has traditionally focused on Somalia only during periods of crisis and intervention. Without a diplomatic presence in the country, analysts and policymakers are forced to rely on local and somewhat dubious sources in an effort to appraise the ICU’s significance and intentions. On the one hand, such sources point to certain benefits under Islamist authority: public order and the rule of law have been restored in the expanding areas under ICU control, offshore piracy is down, and the number of weapons on the streets of Mogadishu is in dramatic decline. Conversely, there is growing concern surrounding reports of desert training camps for jihadist militants, the imposition of a strict interpretation of sharia law, and the degradation of women’s rights. Finally, the implications of the Islamist emergence in Somalia cannot be viewed apart from the effects of such a movement on regional stability. Most notably, a destabilized Somalia could upset its already combustible relations with surrounding U.S. allies Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti.
U.S. Department of State
U.S. policy toward Somalia reflects American objectives in the region. Facing the growing Somali Islamist movement, American grand strategy remains focused on four key goals: bolstering counterterrorism efforts in North and East Africa, increasing humanitarian aid, ensuring regional security and stability, and enhancing the pivotal institutions of democratic governance and civil society. The complexities and fluid dynamics of Somalia’s political conditions require constant review and reorientation of U.S. policy; engagement must continuously adapt to changing elements on the ground.
There have been a number of positive signs coming from the region: parliamentary elections held in Somaliland in September of 2005, the adoption by Somalia of a transitional federal charter, and a partial resolution of factional disputes in January of this year. The United States has accorded over $90 million to the Somali government, in support of peace building measures and civil society enhancement. Moreover, the United States has developed strong relationships with the region’s multilateral institutions, such as the African Union, European Union, and the Arab League, in an effort to form an international Somalia contact group. These parties have worked to support holding elections for a transitional government--one which is accountable to all elements of Somali society--by 2010.
U.S. efforts in the War on Terror continue to guide the nation’s policy toward Somalia. The Horn of Arica has been a transit point, providing safe harbor for those who have perpetrated attacks against U.S. interests in the area. America recognizes that a destabilized Somalia presents a risk to regional stability, and the United States has developed a regional strategic initiative in conjunction with East African states in an effort to take a broad approach to stability and security concerns.
Somalia is dangerous, as it has been for some time. The country served as a transit site for money, men, and materials that aided terrorist activity throughout the 1990s. Though multiple transitional governments were attempted, none have been nationally unified and instead consisted of weak and ineffective factional coalitions. The popularization of sharia law grew, in part, as a response to the country’s pervasive lawlessness. The ICU provided order where the Transitional Federal Government and United States-backed warlords and militias could not.
The threat posed by the Islamists’ rapid rise to power should be evaluated in terms of the ICU’s rhetoric and actions. In its dealings with Somalia, the United States has continuously misread the country’s political and social landscape, overstating al Qaeda’s presence and influence and underestimating the spillover effect of local conflicts on regional stability. While both positive and negative signs can be pointed to in the ICU’s rhetoric, the true test of the Islamists’ intentions is their actions since taking power. First, the ICU has consistently provoked Ethiopian hostilities through militaristic rhetoric and the sponsorship of multiple cross-border insurgencies, bringing the two states closer and closer to major regional warfare. Second, the ICU’s use of force for territorial expansion poses a significant threat to all local and regional actors. While the ICU has acted to cut down on warlordism, small arms proliferation, and piracy, they have accumulated weapons at a rapid rate, including surface to air missiles. Finally, despite taking part in the Khartoum Process, the ICU has continuously acted to undermine Somalia’s transitional federal government and the elected parliament of Somaliland, through assassination attempts, suicide bombings, and the recent takeover of the port city of Kismaayo. The hard liners who are increasingly in control of the Islamist movement have shown themselves to be unwilling to compromise. They have continued to provoke Ethiopia to garner Somali nationalist support, and there appears to be a rise in jihadist activity surrounding the districts under Court control.
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris
Developments in Somalia are not as threatening as they may appear. The success of the ICU in Somalia is not a triumph for Islamism, as much as a sign of the failure of U.S.-led efforts in the state. Nineteen ninty-three’s Operation Restore Hope left a power vacuum in the country which has been slowly filled by the ISU. These Islamic institutions, based on Somali clan structure, formed and garnered support under the aegis of providing morality and order to an otherwise lawless region. Today, they only represent 5 to 6 percent of the state’s constituency, and this is likely the cause of their numerous provocations of Ethiopia. Militant rhetoric towards their neighbor must be viewed more as an effort to mobilize support and rally Somali nationalism, rather than as outright hostility. It is unlikely that the ICU will continue expansion into areas still held by the transitional government, and it would be a mistake--though not out of the question--for them to make a move to control either Somaliland or Puntland. The Ogaden region, with its natural gas reserves, may be in more danger of conquest.
There is room for optimism within the region. Although history has shown clan alignments to be difficult in Somalia, the ICU has seen some success at coalition building. The Islamists should call a national convention of their supporters in an effort to provide the basic building blocks for what could become a moderate Islamic republic. Nevertheless, there have already been fifteen attempts to form inclusive governments, all of which have failed, and it is highly unlikely that the Islamists have a greater chance of success.
David H. Shinn
George Washington University
The ICU’s rapid rise to power poses a significant threat to regional stability in the Horn and East Africa. Each of Somalia’s immediate neighbors--Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti--has large indigenous Somali populations. Since the 1960’s, Somalia has attempted to incorporate these native populations into the state. Ethiopia is the main flashpoint in this conflict. The country has a large indigenous Somali population in its shared border region with Somalia, who favor autonomy over Ethiopian rule. Ethiopia remains one of the chief supporters of the ousted transitional government of Somalia, and there have been disputed reports of Ethiopian troop movement across the Somali border. The mobilization of Ethiopia’s forces only garners support for the ICU, catalyzing Somali nationalism and resistance. The ICU will continue to exploit this combustible relationship in an effort to bolster their domestic support. Kenya, too, opposes the ICU. Originally the voice of mediation, the Kenyan government has shifted its support to back neighboring Ethiopia. This shift can, in part, be attributed to the sizeable indigenous Somali population living within Kenyan borders and to the fear that this group will align with a pan-Somali movement. Djibouti has sided with Eritrea and Sudan, calling for a continuation of the Khartoum Process. These talks are an effort to engage all sides of the conflict in Somalia through negotiation and dialogue.
Each of the North African and Persian Gulf states, Somalia’s less immediate neighbors, have distinct and disparate interests in the outcome of the ICU takeover: Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are all key trade partners and financial centers for the country’s businessmen. Egypt, whose lifeblood is the Nile River (which originates in Ethiopia), has traditionally supported Somalia in efforts to put pressure on its neighbor. Both Iran and Qatar have supported calls for continued dialogue, in lieu of African or United Nations peacekeeping forces.
Finally, the United States should respond with increased dialogue and development aid to the region. Efforts to improve Somali life are the greatest tool in America’s attempt to hold influence in the country. The United States needs to give greater support to the Khartoum Process, as the alternative peacekeeping force will be ineffective and pose a dangerous threat to regional stability.
AEI intern Benjamin Kramer prepared this summary.