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Somalia’s Mystery Terrorists

By Matthew Yglesias on December 26, 2006 at 10:04 am

"Somalia’s Mystery Terrorists"

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The second half of today’s WaPo coverage of the Somalia-Ethiopia war does a good job of calling into question the premises of US policy in the Horn of Africa. We note that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia “along with the United States, has accused the [Islamic Courts] movement of harboring terrorists” but this is “an allegation it has denied.” Neither Ethiopia nor the United States is prepared to provide names of any terrorists who are being harbored. Meanwhile, “Opposition groups inside Ethiopia say that Meles, an increasingly authoritarian leader, has shrewdly played up the terrorism charges to win U.S. support.” We’re going along with this because “based in part on intelligence out of Ethiopia, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi E. Frazer has asserted that the Islamic movement is now under the control of an al-Qaeda cell, a claim that regional analysts believe is exaggerated.”

Emphasis added. In other words, we’re backing Ethiopia’s war against Somalia because intelligence provided by the Ethiopian government suggests we should back Ethiopia. But what else would the intelligence say? The US government’s conflict with the Islamic Courts began because “the United States financed warlords in Somalia who described themselves as an ‘anti-terrorism coalition’ but who mostly terrorized local Somalis, who came to despise them.” This “anti-terrorism coalition” was nothing other than the exact same warlords who ruined the country in the 1990s renaming themselves for the post-9/11 era.

I’d really like to see the DC-based media get on top of these questions. Can someone ask Tony Snow or George W. Bush or Condoleezza Rice or Steven Hadley to name the terrorists the Islamic Courts are harboring? To explain what we’ve tried to do to secure their custody short of backing a full-scale Ethiopian invasion of Somalia?

UPDATE: Okay. Below the fold you’ll find the State Department’s counterterrorism country report on Somalia. I think you’ll find the lack of menace here striking:

Somalia’s lack of a functioning central government, protracted state of violent instability, long unguarded coastline, porous borders, and proximity to the Arabian Peninsula made it a potential location for international terrorists seeking a transit or launching point to conduct operations elsewhere.

Regional efforts to bring about national reconciliation and establish peace and stability in Somalia are ongoing. Although the ability of Somali local and regional authorities to carry out counterterrorism activities is constrained, some have taken limited actions in this direction.

While numerous Islamist groups engaged in a broad range of activities operate inside Somalia, few of these organizations have any known links to terrorist activities. Movements such as Harakat al-Islah (al-Islah), Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa (ASWJ), and Majma Ulimadda Islaamka ee Soomaaliya (Majma’) sought power by political rather than violent means and pursued political action via missionary or charity work. Missionary Islamists, such as followers of the Tablighi sect and the “New Salafis” generally renounce explicit political activism. Other Islamist organizations became providers of basic health, education, and commercial services, and were perceived by some as pursuing a strategy to take political power.

In the 1990s, members of the Somalia-based al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI) periodically committed terrorist acts, primarily in Ethiopia. AIAI rose to prominence following the collapse of Somalia’s central government in 1991, with the goal of creating a pan-Somali Islamic state in the Horn of Africa. In recent years the existence of a coherent entity operating as AIAI has become difficult to prove. At most, AIAI was highly factionalized and diffuse, and its membership difficult to define. Some elements associated with the former AIAI are sympathetic to al-Qaida and maintained ties with it, and may continue to pose a threat to U.S. and Western interests in the region.

Other shadowy groups that have appeared in Somalia are suspected of having committed terrorist acts against Western interests in the region, or considered capable of doing so. Very little is known about movements such as al-Takfir wal-Hijra (al-Takfir), but the extremist ideology and violent character of takfiri groups elsewhere suggest that the movement merits close monitoring.

So to be clear, unless I’m reading this wrong the number of individuals who’ve organized, planned, or committed terrorist attacks against the United States of America now being sheltered in Somalia is . . . zero.

There are Somali groups who’ve carried out attacks against Ethiopia. And (emphasis added) “some elements associated with the former AIAI are sympathetic to al-Qaida and maintained ties with it, and may continue to pose a threat to U.S. and Western interests in the region.”

Now ask yourself how many Somali Islamists are going to sympathize with al-Qaeda once US-backed Ethiopian forces have shattered the closest thing to an effective government that country has had since 1991.

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