The Other Failed Invasion
The Other Failed Invasion
by Eliza Griswold
Post date: 08.01.07
Take off your veil!" the Somali soldier shouted at the woman in the mostly empty street. Steadying his assault rifle with his right hand, he ripped away the woman's black niqab with his left. "Why are you coming so close to us? You have explosives?" He leveled the muzzle of his gun against the bridge of her nose. Her mouth, suddenly embarrassed and exposed, broke into a jester's forced grin.
Photo Courtesy Clockwise from top: Shabelle Media, Nasser Nuri, Reuters TV, Reuters/Newscom; Photo illustration by Anastasia Vasilakis"I just want a juice," she pleaded. Except for a handful of armed soldiers, the only other person on the deserted street was a man selling mango juice from behind a table. (A few weeks earlier, the stall he had operated for 14 years had been blown up.) The woman held up her empty palms and backed away. The soldiers let her be and hustled back to their waiting Jeep.
We were in Tawfiq, the most contested neighborhood of Mogadishu, where soldiers of the current Somali government are busy trying to root out militia members of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which ruled Mogadishu for six months last year and managed to bring relative peace for the first time in 16 years. It was overthrown late last year by a force sent by neighboring Ethiopia with America's tacit blessing. Now the UIC's military wing, the shebab ("youth"), has retreated into a maze of shallow bunkers and sandy berms in the Tawfiq neighborhood from which the Islamist group drew most of its local support. A sign on a daub wall nearby advertised the (now closed) new falluja café--named after the Iraqi city razed by the Americans in late 2004 where the insurgency continues to simmer.
The government soldiers' overreaction to the woman buying juice is at least somewhat understandable. The first real suicide bomber in Somalia's history blew himself up last September, in a failed attempt to assassinate President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, whom many Somalis see as a puppet of Ethiopia and, by proxy, the United States. Since then, suicide bombers have detonated every few months.
During its brief tenure, the UIC had defeated Mogadishu's U.S.-backed warlords and quelled the clan divisions that riddle Somali life. It also set up sharia courts to administer justice and instill order in the name of Islam. To some degree, it worked. Somalis backed the UIC less for religious reasons than because, for the first time in almost two decades, Mogadishu wasn't a free-fire zone.
But the UIC had a much darker side: The shebab dug up and tossed out the bones of more than 700 dead Italians from an "infidel" cemetery and forced men to shave their heads as punishment for un-Islamic hairdos. They banned watching the World Cup and chewing the popular leafy stimulant qat. The head of the UIC's shura council, Sheik Hassan Aweys, was the military leader of Al Itti- had Al Islami, which launched several attacks against Ethiopia in the 1990s and had links to Al Qaeda. Also, in the second half of 2006, hundreds of foreign fighters reportedly arrived in Somalia to fight alongside the shebab. The UIC harbored several members of Al Qaeda, including Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the elusive mastermind reportedly behind the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in neighboring Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 225 people.
And so, last Christmas Eve, the Christian-led government of Ethiopia invaded and--supported, later, by U.S. air strikes--successfully dislodged the Islamist UIC, largely because it believed (correctly) that rebels backed by its enemy, Eritrea, were using Somalia as a staging area for attacks. The result is an occupation by Ethiopian soldiers that fuels the local insurgency, threatens to destabilize the Horn of Africa, and offers Al Qaeda an additional talking point in its campaign to persuade Muslims that the West has declared war upon them. Many of the region's Muslims saw the Ethiopian invasion as a Christmas present from Ethiopia's leaders to America's. "When the Americans started backing the Ethiopians around Christmas," one woman who supported the courts said, "we started calling the Ethiopians kafir, or infidels."
"The occupation in Somalia is having roughly the same effect as in parts of Iraq," John Prendergast, an analyst at the International Crisis Group and founder of the enough Project, says. "We know by now that the one thing that unifies Somalis and brings them into the streets for guerrilla-style operations is occupation." In other words, Somalia is shaping up to be a third blundered front, after Afghanistan and Iraq, in the war on terrorism.
As in Iraq, the overthrow of the UIC government has left widespread chaos in its wake. In the streets of Mogadishu, grazing cows and children sniffing glue compete to eat from piles of garbage. Qat is back too: Few dare to travel after 3 p.m., the hour at which government soldiers begin to chew. While qat is ostensibly a stimulant, the glassy, pink eyes of soldiers in the late afternoon, and their indifference to pulling the triggers of their automatic weapons, make it seem a soporific.
Casualties from the occupation and insurgency fill the 60 beds of a local hospital. When I visited, I met Abdi Ghani Mohammed Ali, a 30-year-old English teacher who clutched the drainage tube protruding from his abdomen. Out of work since war shut his school some months ago, Abdi sold mobile phones to Ethiopian soldiers to support his family. One day, he told me, the Ethiopians shot him, stole $1,000, and left him in the street to die. An 18-year-old boy had been admitted to the hospital several days earlier bleeding from his rectum. He had been gang-raped by government soldiers who belonged to one of Somalia's rival clans. ("It's not sexual; it's about power," an onlooker said.) A woman in intensive care was waiting for her sister, shot during a carjacking, to wake from a coma. "Under the Islamic courts," she said, "it wasn't possible for anyone to do this." Meanwhile, in the crowded room next door, a woman named Rogia poked at the cast on her right knee, where she had been shot by an Ethiopian sniper. "The Ethiopians hate our religion," she said. The hospital's one doctor was slightly embarrassed but translated for her nonetheless: "Muslims wouldn't do anything like this."
This is certainly how Al Qaeda would like the world's 1.3 billion Muslims to view what's happening in Somalia. In early 2007, Ayman Al Zawahiri called for attacks against the occupying Ethiopian soldiers using "ambushes, mines, raids, and martyrdom-seeking campaigns to devour them as the lions devour their prey." But his message wasn't meant merely for Somali ears; it was also intended to inflame Muslims worldwide by suggesting, once again, that the Christian West is at war with Islam.
Al Qaeda's interest in Somalia dates back to the early '90s, when, according to a recent report by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, an "Africa Corps" made up of a dozen or so Al Qaeda members set out for Mogadishu from nearby Sudan. "Al Qaeda saw Somalia as being really crucial long before the U.S. did," explains Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower. "They look at the Horn of Africa as the gateway to the Red Sea: Egypt and Saudi Arabia are their main prizes." But, like the American peacekeepers sent by President Clinton in the early '90s, Al Qaeda's Africa Corps members found the failed state too problematic to build the infrastructure they needed. Their jihad ideology, moreover, was a tough sell among the Sufi-influenced Somalis, and it was hard to tear militants away from their clan loyalties and salaries. The Africa Corps letters make fascinating reading, tracing the evolution of Al Qaeda's mission from combating Somali communism to confronting "crusaders."
Al Qaeda has claimed some public relations victories in Somalia, notably Osama bin Laden's boast that his foot soldiers helped to bring down a Black Hawk helicopter and kill 18 American Rangers in Mogadishu in October 1993. That attack, he bragged later, set the "paper tiger" of the United States alight. And, as terrorism expert (and tnr contributor) Peter Bergen notes, Al Qaeda's first act of terrorism, the 1992 bombing of a hotel in Aden, Yemen, targeted American soldiers staying there--soldiers on their way to Somalia. "Al Qaeda saw Somalia as part of the American grab for Muslim lands that began in Saudi Arabia," Bergen says. "When you talk about cutting off the head of the snake,' where do you begin? Somalia."
In the end, though, resentment toward the U.S.-backed occupation may prove to be a greater destabilizing force for the entire region than Al Qaeda ever was, especially in Kenya, where the war on terrorism is directly linked to the rise of radical Islamic identity. In the name of chasing a few bad men, the Christmas invasion played into millennia of distrust between predominantly Christian Ethiopia (4050 percent of the population is Muslim) and Somalia, which is almost 100 percent Muslim. "The popular perception is that Christian soldiers are occupying a Muslim land," says Roland Marchal, a senior research fellow at Sciences-Po in Paris.
Ethiopians see Somalia as a haven for Islamic militants and insurgents backed by Eritrea, which would like to overthrow the repressive Ethiopian regime. But they also play up this analysis to encourage U.S. backing for their efforts to destroy the rebels. In 2002, during a visit by Senator Arlen Specter, Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi called the U.S. war on terrorism "something of a godsend." As Ethiopian Envoy to Somalia Fesaha Shawal recently explained, "Ethiopia and America have a common strategy, a common thinking, and a common enemy."
It's a point on which both sides concur. Ahmed Mohammed Hashim, an emaciated 25-year-old shebab foot soldier, told me, "Ethiopia is our first enemy. Right now, they go into our mosques with their shoes on; they shit and pee there." Second is the Ethiopia-backed interim government, "because it is illegitimate." And third: "America. America is the father of our enemy. America is using the Ethiopians to take over our country, and we're against them."
When I visited one head of the interim government, Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi, at his home, he argued that the de facto alliance between Ethiopia and the United States would eventually work to everyone's benefit. Surrounded by armed, glowering teenagers belonging to his clan in the heavily fortified Mogadishu neighborhood that one Somali journalist called the Lime Zone (to Baghdad's Green), Gedi told me: "The United States government is very cooperative. ...Somalia is a very important country from a geopolitical point of view in the war on terror."
A few hours later, a suicide truck bomber crashed through the gate of his compound, killing six people and injuring ten more. The prime minister was rushed to an undisclosed location. It was at least the third attempt on his life, and a great opportunity for spin. Soon after, my phone rang. It was the prime minister calling me directly--apart from the photographer Seamus Murphy, I was evidently the only Western journalist in Mogadishu. "This bombing will make the international community pay attention," he told me. "It is the mark of Al Qaeda."
Eliza Griswold is currently a Nieman Fellow in journalism at Harvard University. Her first book of poems, Wideawake Field, has just been published.