What distinguishes the recent coordinated car-bombings across northern Somalia from the steady stream of bad news to which we have become accustomed coming out of this part of the world? Is this any worse than the civil war, occupation, rendition, targeted assassinations, mass displacement, and epidemic of piracy that have occurred since the United States supported Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia in December 2006?
Unfortunately, it is. The location, targets, and tactics employed in yesterday’s tragedy suggest a dramatic turn for the worse in Somalia. Diplomats, humanitarians, and security professionals must urgently reexamine the policy missteps behind this crisis.
Some important details to consider:
Location – The attacks took place in Somaliland and Puntland, autonomous regions that have functioning civil administrations and have largely been spared from the worsening insecurity and violence in Mogadishu and south-central Somalia. The self-declared independent state of Somaliland had until now provided refuge both to refugees fleeing the effects of the insurgency in the south and international aid workers for whom the rest of the country had become too insecure. This expansion of the battlefield may rapidly destabilize the rest of the Horn of Africa.
Targets – The bombings targeted government officials, the Ethiopian mission in Hargeisa, and the headquarters of the United Nations Development Program in Somaliland. This effectively paints these diverse actors with one brush as elements of an occupation approved by the United States and implemented by Ethiopia. The attack on UNDP threatens to cut off international access to 3.5 million Somalis in need of humanitarian assistance. The targeting of aid workers, an alarming trend that has picked up alarming pace lately in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan, continues.
Tactics – The use of highly coordinated large scale suicide attacks against high profile international targets illustrates the spread of Al Qaeda inspired technology and tactics from Iraq and Afghanistan to east Africa. This follows the pattern set by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide attacks, all of which used to be quite rare in Somalia.
The blowback from the Bush Administration’s narrow fixation on certain counterterrorism priorities in Somalia continues. In March 2008 the United States designated the Somali Islamist militant group the Shabab as a terrorist organization, a designation that offered little advantage to U.S. goals in the region but did inflame anti-American views in Somalia. That designation, and the subsequent killing of a Shabab leader with a Tomahawk missile strike, precipitated the Shabab’s decision to widen its targets to include anyone associated with the West. Yesterday’s bombings demonstrate the consequences of this decision are actively worsening.
A wholesale reexamination of U.S. policy could change these dynamics, and create a fresh opportunity to align U.S. interests with those of the Somali people. Unfortunately, time is not on our side.