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

Everything is not all right
Also see:

Slideshow: "Nowhere Else to Go"

In 2006, Ethiopian forces, with tacit U.S. backing, overthrew Somalia's Islamic government. Today, in the worst violence since Black Hawk Down, three quarters of the 1.2 million people who lived in Mogadishu have fled. Many of those left behind are taking refuge in the city's mental hospitals. A photo tour narrated by Eliza Griswold

Timeline: Somalia, 1991-2008
From troubled to dire.

Elsewhere on the Web:

War Crimes and the Devastation of Somalia
A 104-page report released by Human Rights Watch on December 8, 2008.

Slideshow: So Much to Fear
Accounts from Somali refugees in Kenya. Produced by Human Rights Watch.

When the mortars began to explode overhead, the mental patients scattered like crows. On this brilliant afternoon last April, they’d been lining up in the courtyard of Mogadishu’s only functioning mental hospital, waiting for their anti-psychotics. “Doctor” Habeb—a man with six weeks of volunteer training—reached into a wooden trunk and handed out blister packs and syringes marked Phenobarbital, Risperidone, Chlorpromazine. But by the thud in their guts, the patients could tell how close the shells were falling; the mortars’ high whine and crackle made the drugs suddenly seem secondary. “Everything will be alright!” they shouted to each other as they ran for a concrete overhang.

As the explosions drew nearer, the patients moaned and cowered in the compound’s corners. Dr. Habeb shouted their names over the din. (His real name is Abdu Rahman Ali Awaale, but he talks so much that everyone calls him Habeb, which means “hoarse.”) With his orange-hennaed goatee and manic gesticulations, he could easily be mistaken for one of his charges. The hospital’s 150 beds were full and the bald courtyard overflowed with people: the shell-shocked, former insurgents, failed suicides. Habeb’s was really a warehouse for suffering people. One of them was Nima Mohammad Hasan, 35, who pulled back a thin cloth covering her chest to reveal exposed bone. She’d tipped over a lantern to set herself on fire, burning third degree holes into her sternum. Until a few years ago, suicide in Somalia was taboo; now it is fairly common. A sign on the wall read Chain free. Four months earlier, the World Health Organization had given Dr. Habeb $8,000 and convinced him to unlock his patients’ leg irons. Before that, they had been chained to their beds.

That afternoon a few miles away, a young man dressed in fatigues had rammed his maroon Toyota pick-up truck laden with explosives into a base that housed African peacekeepers recently arrived from Burundi. In addition to killing several soldiers, this attack took the lives of two local women, and blew the leg off a third, Murto Abdi, a mother of four; the women had been collecting free water at the base. Later, under the green canvas tent of a field hospital, Abdi’s sister, Fahmo Mohamad, waited nervously for her to wake up. Of course it was risky for Abdi to go to the base to fetch water, Mohamad explained uncomfortably. They knew the peacekeepers might be targeted, but the drought had begun, and the family couldn’t survive without water. Water’s price—like everything else—was skyrocketing, thanks to warlords and profiteers.  “It’s like it was during the warlords, but at that time we knew who was killing us. It was Clan A or Clan B. Now we don’t know.” She kept her eyes on the stretcher. When her wounded sister awoke, Mohamad would explain as gently as possible that the leg was gone.

That afternoon’s apocalypse was another day in the world’s longest-running failed state. Although Somalia has had no functioning government for almost twenty years, the chaos unfolding right now is worse than it has been since the militia loyal to a fedora-wearing warlord, Mohamad Farah Aideed, shot down two Black Hawk helicopters and killed 18 U.S. soldiers in 1993. Two years ago this month, in December 2006, neighboring Ethiopia invaded Somalia, with the tacit backing of the U.S. Their aim was to overthrow a nascent Islamist government, which managed to bring peace to much of Somalia for a six-month stint in 2006. The Islamists also threatened Ethiopia’s Christian-led minority government, and, according to the U.S., was providing safe haven for at least three suspected members of al Qaeda. In the nearly two years since, at least 6,500 Somalis have died and 1,000,000 more have lost their homes in fighting that continues. Right now, three and a half million people—almost half of the population of south-central Somalia—is facing potential famine.

The militant fighters known as al-Shabaab, or “the youth,” are gaining ground. In their increasingly lethal attacks, there is evidence to suggest more powerful terrorist ties.  In October, a series of coordinated suicide attacks exploded in the peaceful semi-autonomous north. In November, al-Shabaab stoned a 13-year-old girl to death in a sports stadium for the crime of being raped. In December, al-Shabaab beheaded six local aid workers whose organizations had contracts with the UN. The militants have moved within miles of Mogadishu. Recently, in unusually candid remarks, Michael Hayden, the head of the CIA, declared Somalia one of the world’s most fertile, and frightening, breeding grounds for terrorists. As a U.S. counterterrorism official explained, “It’s clear that al-Shabaab has become a growing concern.”

Since the Black Hawk debacle, U.S. policymakers have generally seen this sliver of sand along the extreme eastern edge of Africa, with its nine million inhabitants, less as a country than as a case study in anarchy and another failed front in the war on terror. “U.S. policy since the early nineties has been complete and total neglect,” U.S. Undersecretary for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazier said last week in the dwindling days of the Bush administration. But engagement has not worked either. Over the past two years, in the name of its ongoing war against al Qaeda, the United States has launched missile and gunship attacks that have killed civilians, “rendered” terrorist suspects from Somalia to Afghanistan, and supported Ethiopia’s brutal occupation. These tactics have succeeded mostly in giving Somalia’s hard-line Islamists greater credibility and fueled rabid anti-Americanism, since the U.S. is seen as intimately tied to the Ethiopians.

In fact, Washington’s “whack-a-mole” strategy, which aims at “plinking bad guys when they pop up,” is fueling the growing insurgency by enraging Somalis, according to Ken Menkhaus, a professor of political science at Davidson College. Somalis have no problem doing the math: for the one high-profile al Qaeda target that the U.S. claims to have killed or captured, more than 6,000 Somalis have been killed, and roughly 900,000 have been forced to flee the capital of Mogadishu: roughly three quarters of the city.

“We’ve helped create a self-fulfilling prophecy – now there is a new, home-grown terrorist threat in the form of the shabaab, that has the potential to become more dangerous to Somalis, the region, and the U.S. than the small number of East African Al Qaeda operatives ever were,” Menkhaus added. This policy, and its aftermath, has left the incoming Obama administration ill-prepared to engage on a nexus of questions with repercussions far beyond Somalia’s deadly coast: How do we handle a handful of terrorists hiding inside a famine? Do we need to mobilize behind an international peacekeeping force? Should we try to engage in a failed state politically, or should we walk away?

“Frankly, my greatest fear is that we are going to neglect Somalia,” Secretary Frazier said. This, she added, would not be the first time that the United States looked away from an internal political problem, only to regret that blindness later. Frazier said, “The United States turned its eyes away from Rwanda at a critical time.”

Last spring, I traveled to Somalia, Eritrea, and Kenya. Since my last visit to Mogadishu in June 2007, much had changed—and not for the better. Many of the people I’d met a year earlier and had hoped to see again were either gone or dead. Yet, as usual, most of the key players survived. In Mogadishu, Asmara, and Nairobi, I spent time with four of them: Hussein Farah Aideed, the U.S.-citizen son of arch-warlord Mohamad Farah Aideed; Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, spiritual leader of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and proud holder of a spot on the U.S. Terrorist List; Ibrahim Addou, the foreign minister of the ICU; and Mohammad Dheere, then mayor of Mogadishu. From my conversations with them, and with dozens of other Somalis I met, I hoped to understand Somalia’s seemingly ceaseless cycle of violence, to see why the old order repeatedly collapses and what a political solution might look like. And I wanted, of course, to hear from Somalis about what they hoped the United States would do, both to repair their country’s shattered fortunes and to recalibrate the war on terror so that it didn’t look like it was targeting all nine million of them.

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.

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.