Dispatch December 2008

Somalia Revisited

As Somalia continues to devolve into chaos, it has become a breeding ground for terrorists and a human-rights nightmare. Journalist Eliza Griswold visited the country and spoke with Somali leaders and ordinary Somalis alike, seeking insight into the nation's problems and a possible way forward
Our Man in Asmara

On a chilly afternoon last spring, Hussein Farah Aideed lumbered down the stairs of the Great Mosque in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. Mussolini had the mosque built in the 1930s, hoping to win Muslim approval for his African empire, and its fluted minaret and Romanesque arches give it an incongruous Italianate air. At 42, Hussein Farah Aideed, sports his own incongruities. Dressed in a long white robe and a blue blazer, he looked like a kinder, fleshier version of his notorious father, Mohamad Farah Aideed, the Somali warlord of Black Hawk Down infamy, who died in 1996. A U.S. citizen who first came to America as a political refugee when he was 16, Hussein is waging his own proxy war of sorts with the United States: he’s a member of the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia, a coalition of ousted Islamist and secular groups with the common goal of kicking U.S. ally Ethiopia out of their country. He and the opposition leaders live in Eritrea on the Eritrean government’s dime. Separated by ethnic and religious divisions and bitter history, Eritrea and neighboring Ethiopia are the Hatfields and McCoys of East Africa, and Eritrea will do anything to undermine its enemy’s occupation of Somalia.

During the late 1980s, as his father was scheming to topple Somali dictator Siad Barre and seize power, Hussein was working as a civil engineer at City Hall in West Covina, California, where he had attended West Covina High School and Citrus College in Glendora, learned to dance the cha-cha, and to practice martial arts. During high school, he had joined the Marine reserves, and on weekends, he hosted barbeques for his fellow Marines.

In 1990, Aideed was called up to serve in Operation Desert Storm. He spent 257 days in the Gulf, of which he’s still very proud: “We did a lot of good work there,” he told me when we met. After America’s victory in Kuwait, Aideed went back to his desk job at West Covina’s City Hall. In August 1992, he was tapped to return to Mogadishu with the Marines to serve as an interpreter. The once-picturesque tourist town with glittering piazzas and al fresco bars lay in ruins as a result of the civil war his father was then fighting against his arch-rival, Ali Mahdi.  “It was like Apocalypse Now,” Aideed said.

Three months later—by December—relations between the United States and Mohamad Farah Aideed, who was blocking aid deliveries, had soured. The Marines sent Hussein back to West Covina. He returned to his engineering job at City Hall while his father battled America in Mogadishu’s streets. It wasn’t so easy to have the last name Aideed, and Hussein was torn between his father and his adoptive country. “It was difficult for me because I knew both sides,” he said. Of course he loved and respected his dad, but he also loved the United States, “the country I loved that taught me and gave me everything I knew.”

Aideed only returned to Somalia in 1995 to marry his second wife. “I came back just to say hello and get a blessing from my father,” he said.  Seven months later, however, his father was assassinated and Hussein became a de facto clan leader, proceeding to denounce America when it was convenient and maneuvering to retain his position in Somalia’s shifting political landscape. To many Somalis, he represents both the enduring power of warlord politics and their recurringly destructive effects.

Indeed, the continuing role of men like Aideed is one reason that Somalis are turning to Islam to remake their state. Like most Somalis, Aideed is a committed Sufi who prays five times a day. But for him, religion is personal, not political. Aideed doesn’t think that his country should be in the control of those who want an Islamic government, whom he calls Wahhabis, and did not respect Sufi practices. “These Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia say you Muslims are not Muslims,” Aideed explained. This is a very old battle—a Cold War of sorts—within Islam over who’s a legitimate believer and who isn’t.

As we walked toward Asmara’s abandoned communist parade grounds, Aideed said that here in the Horn of Africa, all three faiths that sprang from Abraham—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—had lived peaceably since they’d arrived. We passed a Jewish temple, stars of David inlaid in its white-tiled façade. The padlocked gates were painted UN blue.

He told me this story. In 615 A.D., as Mohamad’s teachings began to catch on in his hometown of Mecca, the Arabs who lived there—the Qureysh—attacked the Prophet and his first followers. Under siege, the early Muslims escaped. (This is the first hijra, or flight.) To save his family, Mohamad sent them to a Christian kingdom in the Horn of Africa, whose king protected them. That’s how much the two faiths trusted each other, Aideed explained. It’s also an explanation of why Christianity, Islam, and even Judaism, have had few problems in the Horn—the bonds are deep. The only two times throughout history that Somalia has fought in the name of religion—in the ninth and 16th centuries—were against foreign Christian invaders. Aideed pointed out the dark brick Catholic cathedral—another gift of Mussolini’s. The bells ringing from its square tower marked a time that no longer existed.

In Somalia, as elsewhere around the globe, an Islamic awakening began during the 1960s. Somalia forged links to the Arab world through oil money and ideology—what Alex De Waal, author of Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa, calls “riyalpolitik.” During the Cold War, Siad Barre, the Soviet-backed military dictator during the Cold War, found these new connections especially threatening. He banned many books and all foreign media—anything that could endanger his power. In 1975, when a group of influential sheikhs opposed Barre’s Family Law as “un-Islamic” because it gave equal rights to women, Barre executed them for being “religiously backward.” This act reverberated throughout the Muslim world—even now, decades later, Osama bin Laden still mentions this as the moment Somalia incurred God’s wrath. Faced with stiffening repression, young Somalis traveled to Cairo, Karachi and Saudi Arabia on secret Islamic scholarships. Others traveled to Afghanistan to fight in the anti-Soviet Jihad. Returning home to Somalia in the eighties, they joined a budding homegrown militant movement. 

One of the militant leaders who sprang from this opposition is Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys. Since November 7, 2001, he’s been on the U.S. Terrorist list for his links to al Qaeda. This relationship began when a dozen or so of bin Laden’s operatives, called the “Africa Corps,” arrived in Somalia in late January 1993.Soon after, al Qaeda agreed to fund Aweys’ now-defunct organization al Ittihad al Islami (AIAI), which wanted to teach Somalis how to live according to sharia. In return, Aweys’ group helped Africa Corps start joint training camps in Southern Somalia. When the ICU took over Somalia in 2006, Aweys headed its hard-line shura council and maintained control over its core of fighters, al-Shabaab, and especially his protégé, a very dangerous young man named Aden Hashi Ayro, who was subsequently blamed for killing a nun and a BBC journalist, among others.  When the Ethiopians invaded, Aweys fled with other fighters to the Somali coast, where he successfully dodged American air strikes and then disappeared.

I went with Hussein Aideed in a small yellow taxi to meet Sheikh Aweys in the once-swank diplomatic section of Asmara called Tripolo. After months on the lam, he’s now the guest of the Eritrean government—much to America’s dismay. Aideed and I were early. From behind the gate came a boy’s voice and the sound of small feet slapping against stone. Then a man in wire-rimmed glasses and a blue tracksuit came to the door, grinning that same eerie leer that stares out from his WANTED picture on the U.S. terrorist list.

He welcomed us inside his spacious rent-free government villa, and then disappeared to change his clothes. I heard some women’s voices and wandered down the hall. Behind a half-opened door, four women were sitting on their beds minding small children. The youngest was one of the sheikh’s wives. She hated Asmara and missed Mogadishu, she explained as she rocked a newborn baby and scolded a boy of four or five, who was chasing a smaller girl around the room. “Halas, Osama,” she said. Osama, enough!

Aweys appeared at the bedroom door—he had changed from the blue tracksuit into a white robe—and led me back to the parlor, where he served popcorn and tea. The talk turned inevitably to his connection to al Qaeda. “Let’s assume I met with al Qaeda. Is there a sin in it?” he asked. “Al Qaeda was a small baby. My commitment was much bigger,” he said. In 1986, Siad Barre sentenced Aweys to death by firing squad, but thanks to intervention from other leaders in the Muslim world, he survived. “While we were already having a system, a history and a profile, Al Qaeda came.”

Although Osama bin Laden might have wanted a base in Somalia, Somalia didn’t want bin Laden. Al Qaeda struggled there right from the start. In letters seized by U.S. intelligence and analyzed by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Africa Corps’ disgruntled operatives complained about cheap and lazy Somalis. The salaries that al Qaeda could offer were meager compared with what Somalis earned as freelance gunmen working for warlords. And the “spiritual benefits package”—the millennial brand of faith that guaranteed heaven—meant nothing to Somalis who didn’t buy into the violent ideology. In Aweys and other leaders, al Qaeda was particularly disappointed. Writing in the early nineties, one operative called him a “coward” unwilling to wage violent jihad against the West. Even Saddam Hussein and Mohamad Farah Aideed, the operative grumbled, “have more manhood” than Aweys does.

Despite their frustrations with the Somalis, the arrival of the United States in the country provided al Qaeda with a huge opportunity. As the “southern flank” of Dar-ul-Islam, the home of Islam, Somalia represented the strategic doorway to the Arabian Peninsula—a doorway that Osama bin Laden and his followers wanted to protect. As they read history, the Crusaders had defeated Islam by attacking the margins. Al Qaeda’s first attempt to attack America took place in Yemen early in 1993. Bin Laden blew up a hotel where U.S. soldiers billeted on the way to Somalia, but they’d left the day before.  Here was a new fight to wage: “When you entered Somalia, the Somali arena was barren and futile,” one senior operative named Abu Waleed wrote in the nineties to his field agents. “The situation changed however, after the intervention of America and the Knights of the Cross [the United Nations].” “Fire at the bald eagle. Kill the Knights of the Cross. God is with you. After faith, God’s greatest blessing is the brain. Use it wisely; do not fight like a rhinoceros.”

Still, the members of the Africa Corps continued to find Somalia difficult territory, their rigid ideology never taking hold. Costs outweighed benefits; al Qaeda’s business model failed. A handful of operatives still used Somalia as a base—including the Comorian Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in neighboring Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 225 people, and the 2002 attack on the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa—but for the most part, al Qaeda decamped for neighboring Kenya, underlining the fact that weak states—not failed ones—suit terrorists best.

The Kenya Connection

Despite Kenya’s own simmering political problems, Nairobi’s wide, acacia-lined boulevards, smoothie stands and coffee shops are havens for most of the aid community assigned to Somalia. On a given day, the parking lot at Java House near the United Nations headquarters is crammed with shiny white SUVs paid for mostly with aid dollars earmarked for missions to Somalia. For the past 20 years, the perils of civil war have made it seemingly impossible for the aid community to function inside the country they’re supposed to be helping. To be fair, Mogadishu is far more dangerous than Baghdad is now for aid workers, journalists and other internationals. Still, over time, there has been a level of disengagement because Somalia is hard and so far way.  “Many of us enjoy life in Nairobi, the UN Special Representative to the Secretary General on Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah said. “These are the taboos we have to address. We are part of the problem.”

Not everyone agrees with this position. In fact, the UN’s political engagement has been part of the problem for humanitarian workers. In the last year, one out of three aid workers killed worldwide was killed in Somalia. In its report released recently, Human Rights Watch points out the link between the targeted attacks on humanitarian workers—including the assassination of the head of the UN Development Program—and United Nations funding for the training of Somali police. Since the UN pays the salaries for what amounts to a militia, its workers are considered fair game for militants. Despite ongoing frustrations, the UN Special Representative has managed to convene peace talks with the various factions, including the moderate Islamists. They have signed a provisional peace deal with the failing government, but what that means practically is anyone’s guess.

Last spring, Ould-Abdallah had invited the ousted Islamists to a luxury tourist hotel at the edge of the city. There, under a giant thatched hut in the lobby, I met with Professor Ibrahim Addou, the former Foreign Minister of the Islamic Courts Union now living in exile. Around us a busload of tourists snapping group photos around a life-sized stone elephant. Girls in spaghetti-strapped bathing suits drifted by. Addou, who lived in Georgetown for twenty-four years, (near Wisconsin and Calvert, next to the Soviet embassy) was unruffled.

Like Aideed, Addou is an American citizen. “I am a Somali and an American too,” he said. He’s also a moderate Islamist, and a member of the opposition fighting to wrest their country from Ethiopia’s grasp. They’ve known each other for 25 years. When Aideed first arrived in America, Addou picked him up at the airport. Addou was blacklisted for opposing the communist regime of Siad Barre, as well as his cousin, who was the ambassador. Now, Addou represents those who want to mix religion and democracy to form a new government in Somalia.

Until 2002, he was teaching history at American University in Washington, D.C. He returned home to Somalia to revamp the university system, but was then was appointed foreign minister. Within months of the Islamists’ rise to power, Professor Addou said, the courts disarmed most of Somalia. Militiamen for the warlords were suddenly accountable for decades of robbery and rape. Wives could take their deadbeat husbands to court for chewing the mild stimulant qat all day and not working. It was safe to walk at night in Mogadishu for the first time in 20 years.

There were also more ominous signs. The moderates like Addou couldn’t control the militants within the military wing.  Killers like Ayro assassinated whomever they chose. Other freelance hardliners banned watching the World Cup, short hair, and seized movies. “I can see we made certain mistakes,” he conceded. “We didn’t train people. They were volunteers. We weren’t paying them. We accept our mistakes, but our record speaks for itself.” 

When the Islamists were overthrown, Addou was tackling long-standing environmental problems Somalia has never had the chance to address, including deforestation, illegal commercial fishing off of Somalia’s coast, and the reported dumping of toxic waste by both Italian and Swiss companies—including discarded nuclear material.

Moderate leaders like Addou are looking for a way to engage with America. The first step, he argued, is talking with moderates like him about how to rebuild Somalia. They want U.S. recognition and support in building a coalition government. “This is a rare opportunity for the US—a unified opposition that isn’t against America but is willing to deal with America,” Addou said. He will do anything he can to open the door for the next administration. This is not just about Somalia. He thinks the country could be a poster child, of sorts, to help the U.S. to rebuild its relationship throughout the Muslim world.

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