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
Mogadishu’s Mr. Mayor

One of the most notorious of Somalia’s warlords is Mohamad Dheere, who, until earlier this fall, was the Mayor of Mogadishu. With a head of thick, well-oiled curls and a doublewide girth, he rarely left the seaside rubble of the whitewashed colonial city, the territory where the transitional federal government holds onto its last scrap of power. Since 1991, more than a dozen attempts at building a government have failed. The current regime, supported by Ethiopia, also looks to be near collapse, due to internal rivalries. President Abdullahi Yusuf, the former president of Somalia’s semi-autonomous region of Puntland, currently heads the transitional government. Dheere, the warlord, is one of his allies, a dubious distinction which earned him the title of Mayor—and Governor—of Mogadishu until this fall, when he was deposed due to infighting. His militia still terrorizes Mogadishu’s dwindling number of inhabitants. 

When I met Dheere last spring, the Somali shilling was falling so fast, thanks to counterfeiting scheme run by businessmen and politicians, that shopkeepers no longer accepted the bills.  As insurgent attacks shut down the city and hundreds of thousands of its residents fled their homes for squalid camps, Dheere showed me a wooden map hanging on the wall of his air-conditioned office. As Mayor, his first two priorities were “security and taxes.” Security meant his private militia of red-eyed boys who robbed people at checkpoints. Taxes meant that he was actually about to start making the few people left in Mogadishu (those too old or poor to flee from town) pay for the right to live in a war zone.

That afternoon, Dheere took me along to his city council meeting.  At a large private home called Richmond Residence—after its owner, who lived in Virginia, men drank peach soda and chewed qat—the leafy narcotic banned by the Islamists. A leopard pelt hung on the wall behind Dheere’s head. He laid out his tax plan: everyone had to pay.

“But my area is too small to collect tax. We don’t even have a market,” one local official protested.

“No place is too small to pay tax!” the Mayor shouted. The room rang with gravelly laughter, the mood enhanced by the small pleasure of qat.

Dheere defends his policies in the name of battling al Qaeda.  “Since the collapse of the government in 1991, these groups have gotten strong,” he warned. His staunchest enemy was Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, whom the Mayor accused of destroying the country.

Dheere was a member of a group of Somali warlords, the Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, which was backed by the CIA in return for their help in capturing and killing suspected terrorists.  “The Americans approached us,” Mayor Dheere explained. “They had their own intelligence about the number of international terrorist suspects using Somalia as a safe haven.”

U.S. agents would fly into a private airport that belonged to a warlord named Mohamad Qanyare, who outlined the system to me. (He prefers to be called, he told me, “a very, very, very successful businessman.”) The warlords and American agents met repeatedly at his compound, which Qanyare kept heavily guarded. He claimed that he even safeguarded the Americans’ food to make sure they weren’t poisoned.  The intelligence agents brought with them suitcases of U.S. dollars to pay the warlords and their militias—reportedly about $100,000 a month.

According to Dheere and Qanyare, the Americans (and the Israelis following the 2002 Mombasa attack) gave the warlords a list of people to kill, capture, or kidnap and then fly them in secret from Qanyare’s private airport to places unknown. The Somalis involved claimed they turned over about 20 people in this manner. The most comprehensive list of reported extraordinary renditions to date, published by Peter Bergen in Mother Jones in March of this year, reports that three terrorist suspects have been rendered from Somalia. (A CIA spokesperson, Marie Harf, declined to comment.)

Dheere is especially proud of the capture of Suleiman Abdalla Salim Hemed, aka Issa Tanzania, a 20-something Yemeni linked to the 2002 Mombasa attack. Dheere claims that he captured Hemed in Somalia in 2002. He was then reportedly flown to Afghanistan and is one of an estimated twenty-odd foreigners being held out of sight and incommunicado at Bagram Airbase outside of Kabul. “Bagram is the new Guantanamo,” Tina M. Foster, a U.S. attorney for detainees held there said. According to Foster, Hemed claims that he was tortured in U.S. custody.

When the warlords and Islamists began to fight in 2006, the Islamist militias quickly proved stronger and more organized than the rag-tag warlord militias. The Somali people threw their support behind the Islamists less because they were devoted to Islam than because they hated the warlords. As quickly as the public outcry arose, the warlords’ American intelligence colleagues vanished, and with them, the suitcases of U.S. cash.

Once the U.S. decamped, Dheere made his money elsewhere. His greatest source of revenue was the main checkpoint about eight miles out of Mogadishu, where he has stationed his militia. Every afternoon, these stoned, sometime-soldiers rob passersby or take random potshots at vehicles with their AK-47s. At the checkpoint, trucks line up for weeks because they can’t pay whatever “tax” the militia demands. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled along this road, and everyone passing through pays, including relief workers carrying supplies.

Last October, workers were distributing U.N. food supplies at a refugee camp along this road to thousands of recent arrivals when Dheere’s militia attacked. In an effort to steal the food, they fired anti-aircraft guns into the crowd, according to eyewitnesses. They’d even brought empty trucks to cart it way. But the inhabitants fought back and, somewhat miraculously, forced the militia to retreat.

“I’m ready to kick the militia’s asses,” Dekko Mohamad, a Somali-American doctor working at the camp told me on my trip last spring. We shared a 7-Up during a rare break between patients.  She’d traveled from Atlanta, Georgia, to help run the camp’s hospital for women. As we talked, her mother, Dr. Hawa Abdi, whom I’d met the previous year, came to sit with us. She peeled back her headscarf to reveal a scar across her skull. Since I’d last seen her, Dr. Abdi had survived a bout with brain cancer.

During the famine of the early 1990s, Dr. Abdi had buried more than 10,000 bodies on this land, which used to be her family farm. When the first President Bush visited Mogadishu, she shook his hand. For a moment, her humanitarian work made her a national hero.  Now, as a result of the latest war, 20,000 people have come to live with her. More arrive daily, but this time there’s no one to see it, or to help out.

Her daughter, Dekko, desperately wanted to go back to Georgia but her mother needed her too badly. “I’m stuck,” she said, blinking hard behind her red Prada eyeglasses. The Somalia she’d left as a child and the one to which she returned last spring were very different. “Mogadishu is way more religious.” She saw this especially among the NGOs, where most doctors wouldn’t even tell their patients that they had HIV, she said. After her training in the Soviet Union and the United States, this shocked her, and she told the doctors so. “Don’t use your western mentality here,” they responded, “they’ll kill you.” Dekko was not the only aid worker to come under threat. The militants deliberately target aid workers and members of civil society in order to gut any opposition. They do so, of course, in the name of religion.

Partly as a result of rapes by militias, but also due to a new religious conservatism, women couldn’t move as freely as in the past. They had trouble seeking medical care and Dekko was seeing an unusual number of miscarriages. This new step backwards for women scared her. Over the past decade, as the UN and other aid agencies moved to Nairobi and the conflict dropped out of the spotlight, Somalis were left largely to fend for themselves. Religious NGOs formed the main humanitarian presence and their aid dollars were used to spread a more conservative Islam. Some Saudi NGOs, for example, paid women $50 to wear Islamic clothes. This wasn’t the Islam she knew. “The prophet’s wives were educated,” she said. To her, this retreat by Somalia’s legendarily powerful women felt false and misguided.

All of these social problems stemmed from the lack of a real state, her mother added. “This government has no power,” she said. “It wasn’t chosen by society, but by the international community.” A country that functions in absentia doesn’t function at all. She tied her scarf back over her scar and got ready to go back to the operating room. “How many millions are being wasted on Somalia in other countries?” she asked. “Aid is a business.”   

The next afternoon, on our way to the airport, we came across the aftermath of a food riot. A crowd had thrown stones at a man driving a sugar truck, striking him in the head and causing him to crash. With cups and sacs and buckets, the looters took what they could before police showed up. Then the police held the people away from the sacs by brandishing guns.  Most people were no longer eating every day, but the Mayor continued with his plan to beautify the shattered city. He didn’t begin with schools, or feeding centers, or hospitals, but with the Central Bank, which he painted robin’s egg blue. As people began to starve, he was already depositing their “taxes” in his new, blue bank.

After the Hand-wringing

Without question, Somalia is worse off than it has been in a decade. Frustrated by the lack of support from the international community, Ethiopia has recently announced that it will pull its troops out of Somalia by the end of the year. If and when Ethiopia leaves, the weak transitional government it has supported is sure to collapse, and rival militias are likely to take to the streets of Mogadishu and wage all-out war. Ethiopia wants international peacekeeping soldiers to step in and take over the burden. “There are peacekeepers in so many countries—including Africa—but no one is paying attention to Somalia,” said Ethiopian spokesperson Wondimu Asamnew. This move’s potential impact on the U.S. is a humanitarian, security and political nightmare.

The U.S. has supported the idea of an international peacekeeping force since 2007, and although such a force may be an option, there are pros and cons to the idea. First, the 2,000-odd African Union troops already in Somalia are targeted daily by insurgents, who see the UN as just as much their infidel enemy as the U.S., or Ethiopia. One potential solution would be to send international troops first to regions where they are likely to be welcomed, like the semi-autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland, and leave for last Mogadishu and the coastal towns the insurgents currently hold.

Among many Somalis, U.S. policy toward their country has been largely discredited. In a larger sense, Somalia cuts to the core of one of our biggest problems in the war on terror: proportionality. As Menkhaus puts it, “In order to pursue a handful of people, we’ve laid waste to an entire country. In my 25 years of experience working in the country, I’ve never seen anything like this level of fierce anti-Americanism. Rightly or wrongly, the Somalis hold the U.S. responsible for the occupation: a sub-contracting out of the War on Terror.”  Somalis are waiting to see if a new U.S. administration will take a new—more even-handed—approach.

“The key is to get a functioning government,” says U.S. Undersecretary for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer. “One could chase terrorists all day long.” Clearly, Somalia has been one of the most maddening and dismal of pages in the Bush Administration’s Africa file. Now, with the wisdom of hindsight, Frazer is raising a warning about abandoning Somalia politically. One option for the incoming Obama administration would be to appoint a super-envoy, or czar, for the Horn of Africa. Frazer has her eye on the United Nations Ambassador-designate Susan E. Rice, who had extensive experience in Africa during the Clinton Administration and was in office when al Qaeda launched its 1998 attack against the U.S. embassies in both Kenya and Tanzania. “Susan Rice is going to be critical on Somalia,” she said. “No single country wants to handle this.” The incoming administration has already signaled that the U.S. will hold to a higher standard. "President-elect Obama has spoken repeatedly about the importance of preventing failed states as they are incubators for extremism and terror,” Brooke Anderson, policy adviser and chief national security spokesperson for the Obama administration told me. “Clearly the situation in Somalia is dire— the world has a stake in restoring order as it affects security for all nations."

There is a danger in Somalia, and in Africa in general, for the new administration if it returns to “Clinton and Bush-era policies,” argues Chris Albin-Lackey, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. Spread thin elsewhere, the administration might choose to ignore the host of complicated actors in Somalia, and turn instead to the devils we know—leaders like Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi. But Somalia faces a massive crisis of governance, which is more than two decades old and now pulls in warlords, businessmen, and moderate Islamists, all of whom must be part of a solution.

Moreover, the era of Africa’s big-man politics is over. Nothing makes this clearer than the life and times of Hussein Aideed, who despite his pedigree, holds little sway with Somalis.  “I was never with them. That’s the problem. I was in California. This was a big shock,” he said, referring to his father’s assassination and his own elevation as president. “All my credit cards, my bank, my cars everything—I didn’t go back. So I’ve been stuck from then ‘til now.”  This brings us, inevitably, to the other American, Professor Ibrahim Addou, and the role of moderate Islamists in rebuilding a new Somalia—a role the United States will have to get behind for two reasons. First because the vast majority of Somalis now want some form of democracy and Islamic government. Second, because in Somalia at least, it’s how we can defeat al Qaeda’s war of words: by proving to Somalis—who are extremely pragmatic—that we aren’t out to destroy their religion.

Whatever political shape Somalia takes, it’s clear that current U.S. policy, with its ever-ready Predator drones buzzing overhead, is polarizing the population in a way that even bin Laden’s Africa Corps couldn’t a decade ago. This past summer, an American Tomahawk missile struck the compound of Aden Hashi Ayro, Sheikh Aweys’ militant protégé. The missile killed ten people, including Ayro. Word on the Mogadishu Street was that the Tomahawk cost about $600,000 U.S. dollars. Three and a half million people were starving and America spent so much money on just one man, many Somalis joked darkly. How lucky Ayro was: all those American dollars aimed right for his head.

Presented by

Eliza Griswold, a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of Wideawake Field (2007), is working on a book about Christianity and Islam, The Tenth Parallel.

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