World Defense Review


Published 27 Mar 08

J. Peter Pham

Strategic Interests

by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist

Somalia beyond the Terrorist Designation

Last week, the Federal Register, the official journal of record for the acts of the United States government, carried notice that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in consultation with Attorney-General Michael B. Mukasey and Secretary of the Treasury Henry M. "Hank" Paulson, had formally designated al-Shabaab ("the youth"), the one-time military wing of the Islamic Courts Union which controlled much of Somalia for six months before being driven out by an Ethiopian intervention force in December 2006 and which has since spearheaded a brutal insurgency, "a Foreign Terrorist Organization under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (as amended) and as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under Section 1(b) of Executive Order 13224 (as amended)."

The legal consequences of the designations include a ban against providing material support or other assistance to the organization by individuals and groups within the United States as well as by U.S. persons. Politically, according to a media note published by the State Department's spokesman, "designations play a critical role in our fight against terrorism and are an effective means of curtailing support for terrorist activities and pressuring groups to renounce terrorism."

The note also explained that "al-Shabaab is a violent and brutal extremist group with a number of individuals affiliated with al-Qaeda," including many of its senior leaders who are "believed to have trained and fought with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan." Accompanying the press release, the State Department made available a pamphlet containing photographs of and brief notes on nine prominent leaders of al-Qaeda in East Africa and al-Shabaab. The figures singled out by the State Department are familiar to readers of this column as their names have appeared here repeatedly over the past two years, including as recently as three weeks ago when I summarized:

The "high value terrorists" currently thought to be operating in Somali territory include Hassan Dahir 'Aweys, former shura council head for the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) who was pm the original list of 189 terrorist individuals and organizations specially designated by the U.S. government under Executive Order 13224 in the wake of 9/11; his kinsman, Adan Hashi 'Ayro, the al-Qaeda-trained militant who originally led al-Shabaab ("the Youth"), an extremist group within the ICU that is now spearheading the insurgency; Fazul Abdullah Muhammad, a long-time member of al-Qaeda in East Africa who figures on the FBI's "Most Wanted Terrorists" list with a $5 million bounty on his head for his role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya; Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Kenyan al-Qaeda operative wanted for his involvement in the embassy attacks as well as the 2002 suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, that killed fifteen people and a simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner; Hassan Abdullah Hersi al-Turki, a veteran of the ICU's pan-Somali precursor group, al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, as well as the ICU council who is reputed to head al-Qaeda's East Africa cell; Mukhtar Robow, a.k.a., Abu Mansur, the former deputy defense minister of the ICU who fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan; Issa Osman Issa, another al-Qaeda member wanted for his role in the East Africa embassy bombings; Ahmad Abdi Godane, an al-Shabaab leader trained by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan wanted for his role in the murders of Western aid workers in the Republic of Somaliland; and Ibrahim Haji Jama, a.k.a. "al-Afghani," another al-Shabaab leader who trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and is a veteran of terrorist campaigns there as well as in Kashmir and in Somaliland.

The State Department enumerated a number of reasons for the designation of al-Shabaab at this time:

Al-Shabaab has used intimidation and violence to undermine the Somali government and threatened civil society activists working to bring about peace through political dialogue and reconciliation. The group scattered leaflets on the streets of Mogadishu warning participants in last year's reconciliation conference that they intended to bomb the conference venue. Al-Shabaab promised to shoot anyone planning to attend the conference and to blow up delegates' cars and hotels. Although al-Shabaab did not carry out these particular threats, the group has claimed responsibility for shooting Deputy District Administrators, as well as several bombings and shootings in Mogadishu targeting Ethiopian troops and Somali government officials. Al-Shabaab's leader, Adan Hashi 'Ayro, has ordered his fighters to attack African Union (AU) troops based in Mogadishu. 'Ayro has also called for foreign fighters to join al-Shabaab in their fight in Somalia.

Consequently, the State Department spokesman concluded, "Given the threat that al-Shabaab poses, the designation will raise awareness of al-Shabaab's activities and help undercut the group's ability to threaten targets in and destabilize the Horn of Africa region." Achieving this goal, however, will require much more than a mere legal designation that was quickly mocked by the intended targets. Mukhtar Robow, for example, told South Africa's Naspers newspapers that "We are happy that the U.S. put us on the list of terrorists, a name given to pure Muslims, who are strong and clear in their religious position, by the West…We would have been happy to be the first but now we are unhappy that we are the last."

To prove that they were not deterred by the American designation, just two days after the announcement, insurgents linked to al-Shabaab overran two bases near Mogadishu's storied Bakara market belonging to the internationally-recognized, but otherwise utterly ineffective "Transitional Federal Government" (TFG) of Somalia. To the cheers of hundreds of sympathizers who poured into the street, the militants forced government soldiers to retreat, abandoning several armored vehicles in the process.

More than a year ago, even as the Ethiopian offensive against the ICU forces was still underway, I warned in this column space: "Unless the al-Qaeda-linked ICU leadership is utterly and unambiguously defeated—or, in all frankness, better yet, eliminated—they could turn the region between Kismaayo and the Kenyan border, into a terrorist hub that exports the conflict from Somali territory across the subregion. It is certainly conceivable that, having been beaten in conventional fighting but not quite destroyed, the Islamists and their foreign supporters could adopt the same non-conventional tactics that foreign jihadis and Sunni Arab insurgents have used to great effect in Iraq." All of this has, unfortunately, come to pass, including the establishment of a terrorist training base near the Kenya-Somalia border by al-Turki which has attracted the high-value terrorists who were the target of a U.S. Navy strike at the beginning of the month (see W. Thomas Smith Jr.'s report on the incident for Human Events). Dealing with this threat will require a comprehensive strategy, the elements of which will include:

  • Cutting al-Shabaab's foreign sources of assistance. While there is evidence—including some originally published in this column nearly two years ago—that the Somali Islamists have received some support from U.S.-based sources, most of the material assistance they receive comes from Islamists in either the East African subregion or the Middle East. More concerted efforts must be made to cut off the militants' access to these channels. However, like terrorist groups everywhere, al-Shabaab also needs at the very least the tacit support of a territorial state in order to carry out its logistical operation. As reported here last year, both United Nations and U.S. officials confirmed that Eritrea has played a key role in delivering "an unknown quantity of surface-to-air missiles, suicide belts, explosives with timers and detonators, and other armaments to the Islamists and other insurgents" in Mogadishu. Furthermore, as I likewise chronicled, Eritrea also plays host the anti-TFG political coalition, the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (originally the Alliance for the Liberation of Somalia), which is directly linked with some components of al-Shabaab. Hence, it would not be surprising if the designation of al-Shabaab as a terrorist organization is eventually followed by the designation of one of its principal enablers as a state sponsor of terrorism.

  • Addressing the question of political inclusiveness. While all al-Shabaab militants are Islamists, it does not follow that all Islamists are members of al-Shabaab. However, as I have reported previously, the TFG has not only proven itself utterly unwilling to reach out to moderate Islamists like the exiled Ibrahim Hassan Adow, onetime foreign secretary of the ICU, but also even to enter into constructive dialogue with non-Islamist members of rival clans, including the Hawiye, who predominate in Mogadishu. Irrespective of whether TFG "president" Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, a Majeerteen subclansman of the Darod clan from northeastern Puntland, likes these groups or not, they represent considerable constituencies which need to be brought into the search for a political solution. A forceful signal needs to be sent to the TFG that it is entirely dispensable: if it cannot manage a process which gives the international community the modicum of stability it requires out of southern Somalia, there is no reason to maintain the expensive political life support for this fourteenth attempt at a Somali government since 1991, an entity so risible that the fact that it actually does precious little governing of any kind did not prevent TFG "prime minister" Nur Hassan Hussein from appointing last November a cabinet of 31 "ministers," 31 "deputy ministers," and 11 "state ministers" to engage in the farce.

  • Deploying in an interim security force. Despite a formal African Union commitment to and UN Security Council authorization for the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), so far only about 1,600 Ugandan soldiers who deployed more than a year ago and roughly 400 Burundians who joined them earlier this year have arrived. Unfortunately, this paltry force renders impossible any drawing down by the Ethiopians whose very presence in Mogadishu remains a sore point with many Somalis, despite the service the neighboring state's timely intervention did everyone by ousting the ICU,. Although I noted over a year ago that "even if U.S. and European envoys manage to cajole [African] countries into contributing the rest of the 8,000 peacekeepers to take the place of the withdrawing Ethiopian intervention force, it is beyond delusional to think that such a modest contingent of Africans can succeed where the infinitely more robust UNITAF and UNOSOM II forces, with their 37,000 and 28,000 personnel respectively, failed barely a decade ago," with respect to their "nation-building" ambitions, the full deployment of AMISOM would at least help ensure the flow of humanitarian aid to the estimated 2 million Somalis—roughly one-third of the population—that require assistance due to the cumulative effects of conflict, drought, and displacement. Unfortunately, the spectacle of the assault on the Bakara market last week while a delegation of Nigerian military officers was visiting probably did little to persuade Africa's giant—or anyone else for that matter—to step up to the plate. (In this context, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's report to the Security Council last week outlining four scenarios under which a UN military force of up to 27,000, complemented by 1,500 police, would be sent to Somalia is, at best, a rhetorical exercise.)

  • Recognizing the reality of the situation. As I have repeatedly argued, given that the international community is both unlikely to use force to impose order on Somalia and unwilling to support extensive nation-building efforts, its primary strategic objective must therefore be to prevent terrorist groups like al-Shabaab from spreading their extremist ideology throughout a geopolitically sensitive theatre. This will require, among other things, the U.S. and its counterterrorism allies dealing with effective subregional authorities who would be part of a "coalition of the willing" in such an effort, including the stable northern Republic of Somaliland, a road map for engagement with which I presented last month.

In short, while the terrorism designation is a significant step, if it is to have any real effect, it must be followed up with a comprehensive program of resolute and sustained political, diplomatic, and security action aimed at quarantining and, eventually, eliminating the threat posed by al-Shabaab and other sources of instability that have found in the ungoverned space of the former Somali state a congenial operational environment.

J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.

Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).

In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.

© 2008 J. Peter Pham

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