Peacekeeping in an Age of Jihadism: Lessons of Somalia
September 18, 2007
On August 20, 2007, the United Nations Security Council voted to continue the African Union peacekeeping operation in Somalia (AMISOM) and urged member states to provide financial resources as well as personnel and equipment for AMISOM’s full deployment. At the same time, the Council authorized continued planning for the possible deployment of a UN force to the war-torn country.
UN planners must be approaching their task with considerable trepidation. AMISOM currently consists of just 1,500 Ugandan troops, and other African countries seem highly reluctant – understandably so – to put their troops at risk in a highly unstable situation. Meanwhile, as it carries the planning process forward, the United Nations will necessarily be forced to confront the ghosts of its 1991-1995 interventions in Somalia known as UNOSOM I and II. With strong backing from U.S. troops, which launched the intervention as the George H. W. Bush Administration was leaving office, UNOSOM succeeded as a humanitarian operation that saved the lives of millions of Somalis at risk of starvation. However, due to the determined resistance of some of Somalia’s armed factions, UNOSOM failed to secure peace in Somalia or achieve national reconciliation so as to create a democratic state in a country without a central authority. Dozens of peacekeepers, most notably American and Pakistanis, were killed.
This time around, a UN mission in Somalia will likely be no cakewalk either. U.S. troops are not likely to be available for the mission in view of heavy U.S. commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor would an American presence on the ground be advisable in view of sensitivities in the Islamic world that are now at an extremely high level. The dangers for potential peacekeepers from other countries are already well evident in Mogadishu, which for more than six months has been the scene of urban warfare reminiscent of contemporary Baghdad. In Mogadishu, remnants of Islamist forces that had been soundly defeated on open ground in late December 2006 and early 2007 by combined Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and Ethiopian government forces, are waging an urban insurgency. Their aims are to undermine efforts by the UN-recognized TFG to establish its authority and to drive Ethiopian forces from the country. The most extremist element of the defeated Islamist movement, the Shabbab (Youth) is suspected of being the mainstay of the insurgency. The exact nature of the links between Shabbab and the international Al Qaeda movement are murky, but Shabbab has acted as host to international jihadists in the past. The international community must contend with the possibility that the mobile and seasoned international jihadist movement may reinforce Somali extremists in opposing UN efforts to create a stable environment benefiting the TFG. Around the world, this movement has shown itself capable of great destructiveness with little or no regard for civilian casualties and international opinion.
In my recently published book, The African Jihad: Bin Laden’s Quest for the Horn of Africa, I have tried to show how international jihadists including Al Qaeda and regional actors such as Sudan and Iran, collaborated with Somali factions to undermine the earlier UNOSOM I and II interventions. This conclusion is based on numerous sources including but not limited to published Al Qaeda documents and statements by former Al Qaeda operatives. For its part, Al Qaeda, which was already opposed to the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, a result of the First Gulf War deployment, was determined to drive the U.S. military from Somalia out of fear of U.S. dominance of the region. From his base in Sudan, Osama Bin Laden spent considerable currency and deployed significant personnel and materiel to this strategic end. My research leads me to the conclusion that his operatives played a role of some sort in the famous October 1993 Black Hawk Down incident, which resulted in the death of 18 American soldiers and hundreds of Somalis, and which triggered U.S. disengagement from Somalia.
In terms of the tactics of urban insurgency, Mogadishu of the 1990s may have served as an inspiration to international jihadists as they planned their response to the 2003 U.S. intervention in Iraq. Al Qaeda evidently believed that in Somalia it had achieved its goal of, in the words of Bin Laden, “cutting off the head of the snake (the United States)” in alliance with Somali militias. The Somali jihadist organization that acted as host to Al Qaeda and other jihadist groupings in the 1990s was Al Itihaad Al Islamiya (Islamic Union), and while it was a diverse movement, the extremist Shabbab movement is its direct descendant.
After the rout of the Islamist forces in Somalia this past December and January, the publisher of The African Jihad agreed to postpone its publication to allow me to update the story of jihadism in the Horn of Africa with these historic events. Information readily available in the international media after the TFG-Ethiopian victory over the Union of Islamic Courts and allied forces indicates that foreign jihadists had converged in significant numbers on Mogadishu and other parts of southern Somalia during the six-month rule of the Union of Islamic Courts. The internationalist trainers and fighters arrived to wage jihad against Somali “apostates,” Ethiopia, and the United States; and some of them reportedly expressed their wider dream of turning neighboring Ethiopia and Egypt into Islamist states. It is also an open secret that Al Qaeda has desired a foothold in the Horn of Africa from which to launch operation against Yemen as part of a strategy to take its ultimate prize, Saudi Arabia.
The Al Qaeda-allied faction within the Islamic Courts that was led by Sheikh Hasan Dahir Aweys had become militarily ascendant within the Islamist movement. Under the leadership of Sheikh Aweys’s Al Qaeda-trained protégé, Hasan Adan ‘Ayro, at least six camps were set up in and around Mogadishu to train what my research suggests may have been thousands of boys and young men as Shabbab mujahidin; similar mujahidin camps were set up in other parts of Somalia where Al Qaeda veterans were among those training youths from Somalia and the Somali Diaspora. Training reportedly included martyrdom indoctrination, and Somalia began to witness suicide bombings for the first time. I have been told that standout mujahidin recruits were airlifted to Eritrea for advanced training in making improvised explosive devices, car bombs, and suicide bomb vests, although the extent of this effort and the numbers involved are not known.
Eritrea has been a major player in supporting Somali jihadists. Its support for Somalia’s jihadists and Ethiopia’s armed opposition based in Somalia began at least as early as 1999, while Ethiopia and Eritrea were embroiled in a bloody border war. Eritrea backing for groups in Somalia appears to have been renewed in the context of Ethiopia’s non-acceptance of the findings of the international commission set up to resolve the border dispute between the two countries. In its determination to wage a proxy war against Ethiopia from Somalia, Eritrea provided training and arms to the faction led by Sheikh Aweys, who said on Mogadishu radio that he would leave no stone unturned in creating a Greater Somalia that would include Somali-inhabited regions of Ethiopia. Eritrea also provided training, materiel, and advisory support to two Ethiopian insurgencies, the Oromo Liberation Front and the Ogaden National Liberation Movement whose fighters reportedly on occasion fought alongside the Islamist forces.
Despite the perils that an Islamist urban insurgency may pose to a UN peacekeeping force, there are compelling reasons for the international community’s involvement in Somalia. Not the least of these is the urgent need for relief for the Somali civilian population in the form of peace, stability, and humanitarian assistance. Somalis have suffered greatly since the defeat of the Islamist forces and the rise of the insurgency. The intervention of a UN-sponsored force, more robust than the current African Union one, may also set the stage for the withdrawal from Somalia of the Ethiopian military which has remained in Somalia to protect the fledgling TFG. Addis has repeatedly expressed its desire to withdraw its forces from Somalia, and Ethiopian withdrawal is a sine qua non for an enduring peace in Somalia. Moderate leaders from within the Somali Islamist movement who are living in exile in Eritrea have made it clear that they will not participate in the TFG-sponsored reconciliation process as long as Ethiopian troops remain on Somali soil. The participation of the Islamist moderates in a government of national unity would greatly enhance the chances of further marginalizing the extremist elements and undercutting their appeal. Additionally, in this age of international jihadism, the international community has little responsible alternative but to initiate a sustained engagement in Somalia to deprive terrorist elements of a safe haven. UN engagement in Somalia will also deprive Eritrea of territory from which to wage a senselessly destructive proxy war against Ethiopia with multiple benefits for Ethiopia and the greater Horn of Africa region.
Policy makers would be well advised to seek ways to neutralize the jihadist threat to a UN peacekeeping operation in Somalia by seeking to cut off external support to groups like Shabbab that are capable of hosting foreign jihadist fighters. Without a local host organization, the international jihadists have limited reach into a given society. In addition, from my research into jihadism in the greater Horn of Africa, I have learned that jihadist groupings, like Shabbab, typically atrophy once external support for their operations is withdrawn; populations are generally unwilling to support those espousing destructive ideologies that are at odds with their more traditional Islamic beliefs and practices.
Counterterrorism cooperation in the wider Horn of Africa region and in the Middle East has yielded some successes in disrupting the flow of funds to jihadist terrorist operatives. UN reports of the serious multilateral violations of its weapons embargo on Somalia are alarming, however, and the security of UN peacekeepers and the success of an intervention require that the international community find ways to more effectively curb external military support for Somali factions, largely from regional and Middle Eastern countries and interests vying for influence in Somalia. It will be particularly important for Eritrea, which has supported Shabbab and armed Ethiopian insurgencies, to once again cooperate in the international counterterrorism effort, and the international community must find ways to convince Eritrea that it is in its interests to do so.
It may also be advisable to craft the composition of a UN force to help reduce the chances that foreign jihadist fighters will be attracted to Somalia to oppose a UN sponsored mission. During the earlier UNOSOM missions, Al Qaeda actively opposed the U.S. military presence, as noted above, and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Pakistani terrorist organization Jaish-e-Mohammed (Army of Mohammed) was among those providing recruits and financing to the Somali Al Itihaad Al Islamiya to use against Pakistani troops that were perceived to be working on behalf of U.S. interests. In general, the perception of a future UN force as neutral in terms of geo-political interests will lessen the likelihood of attracting aggression from foreign jihadists.
In this complex situation, with the stability of a wide part of Africa at stake, U.S. policymakers should consider the following measures:
The provision of generous but low-profile support (including funding and intelligence) to a future UN mission in Somalia;
A formal request to Eritrea to renew its cooperation in counterterrorism, including a cessation of support for jihadist groups and armed Ethiopian insurgencies and the handing over for trial of Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-allied operatives that may be found within Eritrean territory; if Eritrean cooperation is not forthcoming, the imposition of U.S. and international sanctions on Eritrea as appropriate;
Strong U.S. leadership in the enforcement of the UN arms embargo on Somalia to help protect peacekeepers;
A quiet diplomatic initiative in concert with the United Nations and the Arab League to reconcile the TFG and moderate Islamists to create the political conditions needed for a successful peacekeeping mission and the emergence of the TFG as a viable government of authentic national unity.
Last year, in a different forum I suggested the need for an international Marshall Plan for the Horn of Africa region. Such a Plan should be considered a key part of a counterterrorism strategy offering Somali factions and countries in the region with economic development incentives to leave the option of violence behind as well as a vision of the prosperity that may be achieved through regional economic integration. I am more convinced than ever that innovative thinking is required to end the cycle of violence in this region. In this regard, a vision of regional prosperity may act as both a counterweight to jihadist rhetoric that is seductive to young men trapped in seemingly hopeless situations and a substitute for the outdated ideologies of armed struggle that heighten political instability and create openings for international jihadists. U.S. policymakers should consider playing a leadership role in catalyzing such an initiative and mobilizing international contribution in support of it. It will certainly enhance the image of the United States as a peacemaker.
Dr. Gregory Alonso Pirio is president of Empowering Communications, a firm dedicated to promoting communications as a constructive force for positive social change. He is one of the principal promoters of NextAfrica, an all African news and information TV channel. Pirio is author of The African Jihad: Bin Laden’s Quest for the Horn of Africa (Red Sea Press, July 2007). The book is available on amazon.com and through the publisher’s web site.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions; accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in these publications should be understood to be solely those of the authors.