Tragedy, farce, disaster—it’s difficult to assess the consequences of over a decade of U.S. intervention in Somalia. The CIA spent millions of dollars funding brutal warlords that tore up the social fabric of the country. As a direct result, a toxic chain reaction would later install al-Shabab as a legitimate outlet for the grief and hostility welling up inside thousands of Somalis. The story of Somalia is the most sobering and urgent of Scahill’s book—and one of the most obviously unjust (and mind-boggling) phases in America’s dirty wars. So often cast as an international pariah, the “failed state” par exemplar, Somalia’s fate was inexorably tied to the actions of the U.S.
So why Somalia? Was this country really an “existential threat” to the U.S.? Certainly, Washington D.C. certainly worried that Somalia would become a safehaven for fleeing al-Qaeda fighters in the war on terror. What began as a small-scale surveillance operation would soon balloon to a full-scale dirty war, “reminiscent of the US support for the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s (p. 121). Signed on September 23, 2001, Executive Order 13224 designated more than 25 groups and individuals as terrorists that could be targeted in the GWOT. This included a Somali group, Al Itihaad al Islamiya (AIAI), a group that had largely disbanded prior to 9/11 (although often used as a generic umbrella for Islamist militants in Somalia by Washington). It was an early indication that the Bush administration was seeking to strike Somalia. Although not a priority, Camp Lemonnier would watch over Somalia along with Yemen. The Combined Joint Task Force for the Horn of Africa would “watch and wait”. Many of its commandos would be redirected to Iraq. JSOC would simply protect CIA assets in the country—as Iraq was sucking all its resources. And so the US approach to Somalia consisted for a covert CIA proxy war: and the man of choice was Mohamed Qanyare in Mogadishu.
Mohamed Afrah Qanyare was one of the most powerful warlords in Mogadishu, running his own fiefdom, and overseeing an airport that brought in drug money. He was first approached by the CIA in a hotel room in Nairobi in 2002, and at the start of the next year, the CIA hired him (and other warlords) to track down a small group of al-Qaeda operatives that were on the CIA and JSOC radar. This included Fazul Abdullah Mohamed, responsible for the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (1998), and later attacks in Kenya (2002), as well as Tariq Abdullah and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. And so was born a US-funded coalition of warlords. Inside the intelligence community it was known as Operation Black Hawk. In addition to working with warlords, the CIA and the Activity would sometimes act unilaterally and “prepare the battlefield” with surveillance assets. “It was the beginning of a multiyear relationship among a network of murderous warlords and the CIA that would set Somalia on a course toward even further chaos and bloodshed. It would also result in the very Islamist militant forces Washington wanted to crushed emerging more powerful than they had ever been before” (p.124).
By now death squads supported by the CIA were roaming the streets of Mogadishu. Qanyare’s men were often indiscriminate with their capture and killing, spawning a small industry in abductions. Blowback was fermenting in Somalia: a coalition of former warlords and religious movements would challenge U.S. proxies in the countries. The warlord program, together with a perceived global war against Muslims, would spur a major uprising in Somalia.
As Somalia disintegrated, small, regional Islamic courts began rising up, creating local justice systems based on Sharia law. In 2004, the twelve courts united to become the Courts, with Sheikh Sharif elected, and Indha Adde made defense minister. This was an indigenous response to the lawlessness and brutality of the warlords. It was this bloody vacuum that gave birth to the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which would rise up against the U.S. proxies. The ICU was a heterogonous group of people, most with no connection to al-Qaeda. Somalia did have some Taliban-style elements, but it also had a strong secular tradition, with a nationalistic agenda. The courts’ promise of order and security appealed to Somalis across the religious and political spectrum. Indeed, most Sharia courts are themselves heterogeneous, united by diverse interests.
In 2005, the ICU started receiving shipments of weapons from Eritrea. The same year, Ethiopia joined with the U.S. and supported the CIA’s warlords with finances, weapons, and ammunition. By supporting the warlords, the CIA indirectly supported the growth of the ICU, while Somalia’s government was completely sidelined. In 2006, as the ICU grew in strength, Qanyare and the CIA’s warlord network went public, officially announcing the “Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism”. After the warlords declared war against the Courts, Somalia suffered the worst fighting in decades.
Al Shabab, “the youth”, joined the ICU during the clash against the warlords. Formed in 2003, its first leaders, Aden Hashi Farah Ayro, and Ahmed Abdi Godane, began training a cadre of young Somalis for holy war. It won the ally of Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former Somali army colonel turned military commander of AIAI. Al-Qaeda saw opportunity in al-Shabab. The Islamists had long struggled in Somalia’s complicated tribal and political landscape. Among al-Shabab’s closest allies in the early days was Indha Adde, a key member of Aweys’ faction of the ICU. Backed by al-Qaeda, the youth started assassinating key figures associated with the CIA’s warlord alliance throughout 2005.
Backed by overwhelming public support, it took the courts just four months to drive out the CIA’s warlords. On June 5, 2006, the ICU’s forces took control of Mogadishu. The U.S., despite pleads from the ICU that it was not connected to terrorist elements, was not impressed. The U.S. military (JSOC in particular) and the CIA saw the ICU takeover as a crisis. But to the average Somali the ICU was a force for good: they removed the roadblocks that separated one warlord kingdom from another; they reopened the port and airport, facilitating a dramatic increase in humanitarian aid; robbery and crime dropped substantially; and residents told journalists they feel safer than they had at any point in sixteen years. Even piracy was down.
With Black Hawk Down still fresh in Washington’s memory, the U.S. began considering supporting Ethiopia as a proxy force that could provide cover for U.S. hit teams from JSOC. In early 2007, JSOC had constructed a “lily pad” at the discreet US base in Manda Bay, Kenya. US policy in Somalia was kinetic: find, fix, finish. U.S. Special Ops had long been in Ethiopia, training notorious Agazi commando units. Almost from the instance ICU took power, Ethiopia was keen to intervene (the two countries had fought a nasty war in the 1970s). Ethiopian troops regularly still crossed the border still, angering many locals.
Ultimately the ICU lasted just 6 months. By late 2006, Ethiopian troops were massing at the border, and by December the US had a plan to partner with Ethiopia and drive the Courts from Mogadishu. On December 24, 2006 Ethiopian warplanes began bombing sorties, with tanks crossing into Somalia. “It was a classic proxy war run by Washington and staffed by 40,000-50,000 troops from Somalia’s widely despised neighbor” (p. 208). By New Year’s Day, exiled Prime Minister Gedi was re-installed. “The events of 2007 would send Somalia on a trajectory toward more horror and chaos, leading to a stunning rise in strength and size of the very forces Washington sought to combat” (p. 208).
Aden Hashi Farah Ayro was al-Shabab’s military commander. A U.S. joint drone-AC-130 strike took place on January 7 2007, aimed at Ayro. But it missed its target. It was the start of a concentrated aerial campaign against terrorist targets. But blowback was already bubbling beneath the surface: the AC-130s were knocking out scores of civilians. In one attack, according to Oxfam, 70 innocent Somali herders were killed. U.S. strikes focused on the areas around the Kenya-Somalia border, the stronghold of Ahmed Madobe and his Ras Kamboni militia. But how could Ethiopia possibly stabilize Somalia? Every step the U.S. took—backing warlords, Ethiopia, and airstrikes—was benefiting al Shabab. Newly aggrandized, al Shabab took over the fighting, even executing members of the ICU. “With the Somali ICU leaders on the run, al Qaeda saw Somalia as an ideal front line for jihad and began increasing its support for al Shabab” (p. 223).
The Ethiopian occupation was horrific. “Both Somali Transitional Government forces, led by exiles and backed by the United States, and Ethiopian forces were accused of horrific sexual violence” (p. 224). Some 6,000 civilians were reportedly killed in 2007, and more than 600,000 were internally displaced from and around Mogadishu, and 335,000 fled Somalia altogether in 2007. “The stability of the Islamic Courts had been replaced by the return of roadblocks, warlordism and, worse, troops from Somalia’s archenemy, Ethiopia, patrolling the streets and regularly killing Somalis” (p.224). By April 2007, a full-blown insurgency had risen against the Ethiopian occupation. On February 26, 2008, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice designated al-Shabab as a terrorist entity, and JSOC intensified its hunt (Ayro was killed by a volley of Tomahawk missiles on May 1st). By August 2008, after an agreement signed in August 2008 between Sheik Sharif and officials from the TFG, the Ethiopian occupation began to wind down and allowed exiled Sheikh Sharif to assume the Presidency in Mogadishu. The irony here is unmistakable: the U.S. overthrow Sharif’s government, only to later come back and install him as the country’s president.
Amid the weak government structure and general disarray, al Shabab grew in strength, emerging in 2008 as a broad-based movement and significant social force, projecting “soft power” in the south, as well as Taliban-style censorship. Their popularity stemmed from the perception that they were patriots opposed to the Ethiopian-allied Transitional Federal Government. By 2009, al Shabab controlled most of Southern Somalia, controlling more territory than any other al-Qaeda-backed group in history. On September 14, 2009, JSOC struck Saleh Ali Nabhan and other al-Shabab fighters. This left Fazul as the most senior al-Qaeda figure operating in Somalia (he was killed on June 7, 2011 at a checkpoint). After this strike, then-CENTCOM commander Patreaus issued an update to the AQN-Execute Order giving the military and JSOC even more latitude to operate in Yemen Somalia, and elsewhere. By 2010, al-Qaeda’s foothold in Somalia was firm, and was delivered by Western intervention. Al Shabab was also shifting to an increasingly global attitude in its jihad.
In early 2011, al-Shabab was in control of a greater swath of Somalia than the Transitional Federal Government, and was far better organized. The U.S. response was, on the one hand, to once again to increase the local power of warlords while conducting drone strikes (without the prior knowledge of the Somali government). On the other hand, the U.S. also used AMISOM, who were often “indiscriminate” in their attacks. AMISOM and the Somali government turned to allies of former enemies to purchase strategic loyalty. Indha Adde, the former ICU defense minister, and erstwhile al-Shabab ally, was now in 2011 a high ranking officer in the Somali military. “While Washington went to great lengths to shield its support for Somali warlords and militias, it was a barely masked public secret in Mogadishu that its proxies from Ethiopia, Kenya and AMISOM were making deals with warlords similar to those brokered with the CIA’s Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism in the early 2000s” (p. 477).
One of the more powerful forces that emerged in Somalia’s anti-al-Shabab government-militia nexus was Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama (ASWJ), a Sufi Muslim paramilitary organization that viewed itself as a buffer against Wahabism. In 2008, al-Shabab began targeting ASWJ’s leaders and desecrating the tombs of its elders. Arms were then taken up against al-Shabab after some discussion in the community. Then, quietly, Ethiopia began arming, training and financing ASWJ. By 2010 it was seen as an Ethiopian, and therefore U.S. proxy. In March 2010 it signed a formal cooperation agreement with the Somali government. And by mid-2011 it was one of the most effective groups fighting al-Shabab outside of Mogadishu, winning back swathes territory. It also received support from Southern Ace, a private security firm. Blackwater and other military contracts would likewise be involved, often in attempts to police piracy off the semi-autonomous region of Puntland. Al-Shabab extorted pirates more than it coordinated with them, although there was no doubt piracy increased during the second half of 2010. In 2011, al-Shabab “delinked” with al-Qaeda, as and started funding itself through deals with clan leaders. The same year the group made a “tactical” retreat, and would adopt guerrilla tactics instead of than holding major swathes of territory. Drought was also killing hundreds of thousands.
Scahill is unequivocal. “Al Shabab’s meteoric rise in Somalia, and the legacy of terror it wrought, was a direct response to a decade of disastrous US policy, which had strengthened the very threat it was intended to crush” (p.494). Just like Afghanistan in the 1980s, a policy of funding warlords would create violent waves of blowback, creating epidemics of human misery. It didn’t have to be this way. The fate of Somalia could have been so different: radical Islam was new to the majority-Sufi country. The handful of radicals could have been contained by Somalia’s tribes, and the central aim should have been disarming and disempowering the warlords. “Instead, Washington directly supported an expansion of their power and, in the process, caused a radical backlash in Somalia, opening the doors wide for al Qaeda to step in” (p.121). We can therefore trace two successive periods of Washington blowback: funding the warlords in the early 2000s, and supporting the Ethiopian occupation between 2006-2009, often with aerial strikes. Both of these had the opposite effect. Meanwhile, as Mogadishu burned, the average Somali suffered, fled, or died.
A failed state, but not of its own making.