The persistent speculation of the last month about whether Somalia will be the next battleground in the US’s “war on terrorism” is practically over. Senior US government officials assert that Washington is indeed interested in Somalia, and US special forces and diplomats have already arrived there. These Americans have signed cooperation agreements with local warlords and the country’s transitional government. The Somali government has set up an ‘anti-terrorist’ organisation, duly inspected by an American diplomat, and has arrested five “foreign terrorists” – four Iraqi Kurds and a Palestinian – apparently in an attempt to avert the US’s attack.
Washington’s interest in Somalia is based on the assumption that, as a ‘failed state’ without infrastructure, central government and national institutions, it is being used as a base by terrorist groups with ties to Usama bin Ladin’s al-Qaeda network, and by anti-US ‘Islamic fundamentalists’ who would be happy to give refuge to al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters fleeing Afghanistan and Pakistan. With its 2,000-mile coastline and links with Arab countries, Somalia is also said to be ideal territory for the movement of guns and money to these groups and others. Some have even speculated that Bin Ladin himself will head for Somalia or Yemen if he is not already there.
President George W. Bush said on December 11 that countries supporting or hosting terrorist groups would be devastated, giving the military campaign in Afghanistan as an example of the punishment awaiting them. Without naming states, he said that such countries would be regarded as hostile and could not escape the “patient justice” of the US. “They are being watched and will be held to account,” he said, adding that the war in Afghanistan had provided “the first glimpse” of the military devastation that the US will inflict on countries that fail to destroy “terrorist groups” within their borders. But although Bush did not mention Somalia by name, he has despatched US warships to patrol the Somali coast, and in October declared al-Ittihad al-Islami a terrorist group. In November he froze the assets of al-Barakat, Somalia’s largest commercial company, arguing that its operations had earned “millions of dollars for al-Qaeda murderers”.
Other senior American officials, however, have been more direct than Bush, referring to Somalia by name, although they seem reluctant to commit Washington to military intervention. Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, said that “Somalia was clearly a country along with six [or] eight others, that have been involved in terrorism over some period of time,” adding however that he had “nothing to announce with respect to Somalia”. The six countries to which he referred include Iraq, Malaysia, Sudan, Yemen and the Philippines. The Philippines’ government is fighting a Muslim insurgency in Mindanao: the reason for its inclusion in this list, although most of the country is non-Muslim.
The latest official to weigh in with a statement on the issue is secretary of state Colin Powell, who said on December 22 that Washington was taking a particular interest in Somalia because some of Bin Ladin’s followers were taking advantage of the absence of central government to hide there. “It [Somalia] makes itself ripe for misuse by those who would take that chaos and thrive on the chaos,” he said. “That is why we are really looking at Somalia, not to go after Somalia as a nation or a government, but to be specially sensitive to the fact that Somalia could be a place where people suddenly find haven.” General Richard Myers, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said the same day that there is “strong indication of some ties in Somalia to al-Qaeda.” But he refused to confirm whether it would be a target for strikes: “I’m not saying it is and I’m not saying it isn’t. We are doing the kind of planning required but I’m not going into that.”
The US and British governments have already secured the Kenyan government’s consent for their forces to use Kenya as a base for actions against Somalia. The Times (London) has reported that the deal was agreed between Geoff Hoon, the British defence secretary, and president Arap Moi of Kenya during recent talks in Nairobi. Hoon’s visit to Kenya came barely a week after a similar visit by Walter Kansteiner, the US assistant secretary for Africa. US forces are already patrolling the sky above and coast off Somalia, while allied warships in the Arabian Sea stop and search ships and boats bound for Somalia.
More menacingly, a group of military officers have visited Somalia for talks with warlords and clan-leaders to identify anti-US Islamic groups and terrorist targets. Five officers visited the town of Baidoa, 160 miles southwest of Mogadishu, for talks with leaders of the Rahanwein Resistance Army (RRA), a faction allied with Ethiopia against al-Ittihad al-Islami and the transitional government in Mogadishu. The move is menacing because the RRA is a tool in Ethiopia’s foreign policy strategy of keeping Somalia – with which it has an intractable border dispute – weak and divided. Moreover, relying on information supplied by warlords is dangerous; they are notorious for trying to incriminate other warlords opposed to them, especially in Somalia, where the population is divided along clan-lines. Ethiopia is also keen to fight Somali Islamic groups, not only for religious reasons but also because of their opposition to its longstanding occupation of Somali territories.
Keeping Somalia free from Islamic activism is linked to American foreign policy in the Horn of Africa as well as East Africa. In recent years Washington has organised Christian-dominated regimes in the region to side with Southern Christian warlords against the Sudanese government. The religious aspect of this policy has become more pronounced under Bush, who is close to US Church groups. But most American politicians appear to believe that the “war on terrorism” is really an anti-Islamic campaign, Republicans and Democrats alike. Susan E. Rice, US assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 1997 to 2001, seems to believe that there is a connection between Islam and the growth of “anti-US terrorism”.
Writing in the Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune, in an article entitled “Africa is breeding future Bin Ladens”, she argued: “America needs to change the conditions around the world that breed terrorism. Islam is a fast-growing religion in Africa. That in itself is not a concern; but the fact that some of Islam’s most radical and anti-American adherents are increasingly active from South Africa to Sudan, from Nigeria to Algeria, should be of great concern.” Ms Price did not explicitly call for military campaigns, but she did reveal a strong conviction that “radical Islam” is synonymous with “anti-Americanism”.
The more belligerent Bush administration will not be content with the economic and political methods Ms Price advocates. The help that Bush has promised the states fighting terrorism is the military and financial means to wage war, but not to develop societies. His planned intervention in Somalia is such that it can only lead to further civil strife and clan-polarisation, and to religious confrontation.
But this will not dissuade him if the intervention preserves the myth of a just war against global terrorism, and of Washington’s right to intervene where and whenever it pleases. Bush’s role in all this has already boosted American public support for him, and may secure his election for a second term.
Like other Americans, Bush may also be seeking to avenge the humiliation of US marines (serving as UN peacekeepers) in 1993 at the hands of General Aideed, the Somali warlord whom they went into Somalia to try to capture. Aideed not only escaped but 18 marines were killed and 75 were wounded. Dead American soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, a spectacle that was captured by television-cameras and shown in the US and elsewhere.
US and other Western troops serving with the UN were guilty of many human rights abuses, and became notorious for their racist, arrogant and overbearing behaviour. Over a thousand Somalis were killed by UN troops during the operation.
Then, Bill Clinton withdrew the entire American peacekeeping force, in what was seen as a major and humiliating climbdown by the US. Republican Bush might be tempted to try to show that he is made of sterner stuff.