Somalia, again

Share via

We can’t say we weren’t warned: In an annual assessment of major national security threats presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, military intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples revealed that Al Qaeda is strengthening its foothold in East Africa. Specifically, an Islamic terrorist group in Somalia, Al Shabab, has been releasing propaganda pointing out its shared ideology with Al Qaeda, suggesting, Maples said, that “a formal merger announcement is forthcoming.”

This is worrisome not only because Somalia is a failed state overrun by armed militants that makes Afghanistan under the Taliban look like the garden spot of South Asia, but because Al Shabab is actively recruiting American citizens. Young men of Somali descent have been vanishing from Minnesota and other Midwestern states and heading for Somalian terrorist training camps run by Al Shabab, which means “the Youth” in Arabic. One of them has already carried out a suicide bombing in Africa, and others are believed to be forming terrorist cells to hit targets in Europe and the United States. A union with Al Qaeda makes that scenario even likelier.

And that’s not the worst part. Al Shabab probably would not exist were it not for the disastrous failure of U.S. policies in Somalia. In other words, we are the authors of our own undoing.


Somalia is where well-meaning U.S. foreign policy measures go to die. Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush both failed dismally in their efforts to stabilize the anarchic country, which hasn’t had a functioning government since 1991. In their experiences, and in the years that followed, we’ve seen clearly what doesn’t work.

At the top of the list: military force, whether by U.S. troops or proxy armies. Clinton learned this in 1993 when he sent U.S. Army Rangers to hunt for the country’s leading warlord at the time, Mohammed Farah Aidid. They encountered unanticipated resistance from armed groups in the capital city of Mogadishu and discovered a truism of Somali culture: A society that seems hopelessly splintered by clan identities and loyalties to opposing warlords becomes highly unified when confronted by outsiders. Clinton’s operation, chronicled in the film “Black Hawk Down,” was a humiliating defeat that resulted in the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers and ended U.S. efforts to rid Somalia of its warlords.

After that, the United States was mostly content to leave Somalia’s crumbling affairs to the United Nations. The U.N.-backed regime that followed was a bad joke, struggling to control the immediate vicinity of its enclave in Baidoa while leaving the rest of the country to fend for itself. But a glimmer of hope appeared in the early years of this decade when Muslim groups began banding together in a network called the Islamic Courts Union. It imposed a particularly repressive brand of Sharia law on the territories it oversaw, but also brought something the country hadn’t seen for more than a decade: order.

The Islamic Courts Union disarmed the populace, tamed the warlords and stamped out piracy on the country’s coast. But its version of Islamic nationalism was deeply troubling to the Bush administration, whose intelligence services reported that it contained radical anti-American elements. Fearing a repeat of the Taliban experience in Afghanistan, the administration first armed warlords who pledged to fight the Islamists, then encouraged the government of next-door Ethiopia, a strong U.S. ally, to invade in 2006. Ethiopian troops encountered little resistance and quickly took over. But the Ethiopians found themselves confronting a grinding insurgency akin to that in Iraq, and a refugee crisis as people fled the increasingly dangerous streets of Mogadishu. Ethiopian troops pulled out in January, leaving a power vacuum behind.

Into that vacuum stepped Al Shabab. With most of the moderate elements of the Islamic Courts Union having left the country or been driven underground during the Ethiopian occupation, it was the radical young members of Al Shabab who were left to fight the insurgency, and who have emerged as probably the most powerful military force in Somalia. It is a measure of how badly things have deteriorated since the Ethiopian invasion that the West is looking to Somalia’s latest president, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, as the best hope to bring stability to the country, despite the fact that he is nearly powerless and that he had previously been a leading figure with the hated Islamic Courts Union.

In 2006, this page advised the international community to work with moderate Islamists and encourage them to form a stable government that, if it wouldn’t rule over a bastion of democracy or human rights, would at least create a functioning state where the rule of law held sway, rather than a hotbed of terrorism and piracy. We’re hoping the Obama administration learns from past mistakes and takes our years-old advice. That doesn’t mean giving guns and money to warlords, but shoring up religious leaders such as Sheik Ahmed and identifying others who are worthy of support. Theocracy is nobody’s idea of good government, but as we’ve learned the hard way in Somalia, it’s better than anarchy.