Washington wanted to keep Somalia from turning into another Afghanistan. Now it's an African Iraq.
The jihadist leads a double life. By day he's a government functionary in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. Standing in the shade of a crumbling, Mussolini-era balcony, a phone headset clipped to his ear, he affects a casual, corporate air. But then he pulls his blue oxford shirt aside to reveal a fresh bullet scar. He spies on his co-workers, he admits, and feeds information about them to the Islamist rebels who are laying siege to Mogadishu. "God willing, we'll take over the country soon," he tells a NEWSWEEK reporter, one of the few Western journalists who have ventured into Somalia in months. The State Department recently added al-Shabaab (meaning "youth") to its list of terrorist organizations, making the group a target for attacks by U.S. forces operating in the Horn of Africa. The jihadist is unconcerned. "We're like a centipede," he says. "You cut off one of our legs, we just keep going."
Unfortunately, he's probably right. In late 2006 the United States backed Ethiopia's incursion into Somalia, designed to oust the Islamic Courts Union, the Islamist coalition that had taken over much of the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country. (Al-Shabaab was the Courts' military wing.) Washington accused the Islamists of harboring Qaeda operatives involved in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But the Courts had also brought more stability than Somalia had enjoyed in years. Somalis could walk the streets and do business again, and many welcomed the Islamists just as war-weary Afghans hailed the Taliban in the 1990s.
Now, by trying to prevent another terrorist haven like Afghanistan from developing, America may have helped create another Iraq, this one in the volatile Horn of Africa. "Every year this fighting continues, the situation worsens," says Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Abdul Salaam of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government. The Islamists' eviction in 2006 left a power vacuum that the U.N.-backed government still hasn't managed to fill. Ethiopian troops are loathed as occupiers and rarely leave their heavily fortified bases. And al-Shabaab has broken off from the Courts to wage a brutal and effective insurgency. The guerrillas have overrun at least eight Somali towns this year and control parts of the capital. Where once they brought order to Somalia, they now gleefully spread chaos.
Mogadishu looks like Baghdad during its darker days. Thousands of Ethiopian soldiers are hunkered down behind sandbags, concrete barriers and heavy artillery. Whenever they go out on patrol, their heavily armored convoys are blasted by roadside bombs, rockets and small arms fire. In recent weeks, al-Shabaab has stepped up a suicide-bombing campaign; an attack last week targeted a compound housing African Union peacekeepers, wounding nine and killing one. Leaflets warning of death to government collaborators likewise recall Iraq.
For ordinary Somalis, violence is ever-present and random. Mogadishu is cut up into fiefdoms more than neighborhoods, divided by checkpoints and patrolled by militias that claim varying degrees of loyalty to the government. Death can come from many quarters. Two weeks ago, when insurgents attacked the presidential palace with rockets, Ethiopian troops responded with a mortar volley into the crowded Bakara market. Seventeen people were killed and nearly 50 others were injured. Shrapnel struck shopkeeper Abdul Rashid, 25. "In your country, do you throw mortars at your own people?" he asked from his hospital bed, wincing from a clear plastic tube inserted into his ribcage. Some 600,000 have fled the country in the past year, and 750,000 are now trapped in squalid camps for the internally displaced.
Whereas in Baghdad the surge is beginning to have an effect, the violence in Somalia is increasingly random and getting worse. Noor Muktar, 35, was living in Mogadishu's sports stadium with other refugees when a fire fight broke out two months ago. She fled with her daughters—"I couldn't even get our bedding," she says—and now lives on the outskirts of town in a teetering shelter of twigs and plastic. Aid workers are being driven out of the country. Three staff members from Doctors Without Borders were killed earlier this year by a roadside bomb. As of last week two humanitarian contractors, a Brit and a Kenyan, remained hostage after being taken at gunpoint on April 1. Foreign U.N. officials are prohibited from overnighting in Mogadishu. Aid agencies stopped delivering bulk food shipments in many areas of the capital after a Somali government official told radio listeners to seize food from convoys by force. A recent U.N. report declared Somalia's humanitarian crisis the worst in Africa.
The government nominally in power, fractious to begin with, is more fragile than ever. More than 60 government employees have resigned in the past year after receiving death threats—many of them broadcast live on Mogadishu's privately owned Radio Simba. An estimated 40 senior officials and intellectuals have been assassinated by insurgents in the past year and a half. A group of Shabaab fighters recently called up Mogadishu Mayor Mohammed Deerhe on his cell phone and threatened to kill him, too. (They recorded the exchange: "I'm sure you're not a Muslim," the caller taunts the mayor. "You're just talking, it's not in your heart." Deerhe shouts back: "F––– your mother!")
With a budget of less than $10 million, the government is essentially bankrupt. Somali troops haven't been paid in eight months. One soldier in Mogadishu, a gaunt, khat-chewing sergeant wearing camouflage and a pair of ragged sandals, says government forces are near collapse. "The insurgents right now are very strong," he says. "If the Ethiopians were not here with us, the insurgents would destroy us quicker." The soldier, asking not to be named for fear of retribution, says he no longer receives a salary—only pocket money when a fight is brewing.
Like America since the invasion of Iraq, Ethiopia is rethinking the wisdom of its incursion. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi spoke to NEWSWEEK last week about the possibility of a unilateral pullout. "It's not an option we will take lightly," he said. "But it is an option." Critics ask whether Washington was too blinded by its hunt for terrorists to foresee the likely pitfalls in Somalia. U.S. intelligence agencies believe fewer than a dozen high-value Qaeda targets are holed up there, including Haroun Fazul, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan and Issa Osman Issa—the men accused of helping to carry out the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Since the invasion, at least one target, Abu Talha al-Sudani, has been killed in a missile strike. Others have been driven into hiding or out of the country, at least temporarily. But other strikes have misfired: on March 4, the United States targeted an Islamist militia leader named Hassan al-Turki. Six people were reported killed and 10 others injured, but the object of the attack was in another village near Kenya at the time. "In the short term [the strategy] may work for us," says Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College. "But in the long term it's sowing seeds of radicalism and anti-Americanism that we're going to deal with for generations to come."
Shabaab fighters say being targeted by America only helps their cause. "What we are sure about is that adding us to the [terrorist] list will bring many young people to us," the group's spokesman, Sheik Mukhtar Robow, said in a rare phone interview. "Al Qaeda became more powerful after it was added to the list. We hope that it will be the same with us." Robow claims that the guerrillas "had no official links with Al Qaeda before," but that now "we're looking to have an association with them."
That's probably just braggadocio. But there's no question that the insurgents are growing more radical. The Islamic Courts Union included several civilian leaders who might be described as moderates: the senior leadership, including a figure named Sheik Sharif, met with U.S. officials in Nairobi last week and disavowed any connection with al-Shabaab. They have advocated dialogue and emphasized that their fight is with the Ethiopian invading force, not all "infidels." Some of them are horrified by the tactics of their onetime allies in al-Shabaab. In towns that they've conquered the insurgents have opened the jails and killed local officials before melting away again. In Mogadishu, they've begun to target more moderate Islamic leaders. Sheik Mohammed Adham, a 48-year-old madrassa teacher, says the radicals assassinated one of his colleagues and closest friends last month. "These extremists, they're mad," he says, shaking. "I try to explain to the kids what good Islam is, but when they go home they hear someone has been killed, or shot, they see the bodies and they don't understand the value of life. I tell them good things and they go out and do bad things."
Abdul Rahim Ali Moudi, a spokesman for the civilian wing of the Courts, says Washington should have worked with their more moderate leaders earlier rather than tacitly greenlighting the Ethiopian invasion. "It would have been better if the Americans had listened to the Islamic Courts. But the problem is America hears only with one ear," he says. That may be starting to change. Somalia's current prime minister, Nur Hassan Hussein, has opened the door to talks with "any Somali," regardless of background. (He's also blasted his own security forces as "looters" preying upon the populace.) The United Nations has appointed a new, optimistic special representative for Somalia who is aggressively working to bring both sides to the same table. "We have to have a solution," says Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah. "I'm going to organize it in the next few weeks or days." Last week Ould-Abdallah met in Nairobi with representatives of the Courts' moderate wing.
The State Department is backing such efforts, and embassy officials in Nairobi met with Courts moderates last week. "We remain committed to resolving the ongoing political and humanitarian crises in Somalia," says Greg Garland, a State Department spokesman. There's one problem: the jihadists may have their own plans.