Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

How to tell the story of the strike against Al-Shabab in Somalia?

Aden Hashi Ayro, one of the leaders of the al-Shabab insurgency in Somalia, was killed last night in a US airstrike. Seems like a) a good time for a review of the third front in the perpetual “war on terror” and b) a discussion of just who’s in al Qaeda and who’s not.

I’ve written at length about the situation in Somalia over the past couple of years. For a quick intro to the situation, you might try “Somalia: Possibly More Complex than Nigeria”. If you’ve got lots of time to kill, you could follow some of my other posts on the topic:

December 7, 2006 – UN Peacekeepers in Somalia – Is that a good thing?
December 21, 2006 – Ken Menkhaus’s insights on Somalia
December 28, 2006 – Ethiopian Army Seizes Mogadishu
December 29, 2006 – Ethiopian Liberators greeted with cheer and flowers
January 4, 2007 - A historic opportunity for what?
January 11, 2007 - A quagmire no one wants to be stuck in
June 22, 2007 – An update on the “third front”
November 19, 2007 – The possible resumption of the world’s stupidest war
December 14, 2007 – Somalia spirals out of control. Or it’s completely peaceful. Depends on who you ask.
February 18, 2008 – Steve Bloomfield breaks new ground in Somalia reporting

Or you could accept this incomplete, biased and massively oversimplified summary:

Somalia has been without a central government since 1991 – it’s been run by somewhat functional governments in northern provinces Somaliland and Puntland, and by competing groups of warlords in the south. There have been thirteen unsuccesful attempts to create national unity governments for Somalia, all of which have failed. Attempt #14 – the Transitional Federal Government – has support of the UN, the US and has been able to occupy southern Somalia with the backing of the Ethiopian army. The TFG, backed by the Ethiopian Army, supported by US military assistance, chased out the Union of Islamic Courts, a group of warlords who managed to bring some semblance of stability to Mogadishu and its environs by introducing a form of sharia law.

Ethiopia got involved because it sees a strong Islamist Somalia as a threat – specifically, it is fighting a civil conflict in its eastern Ogaden region, which shares a border with Somalia and which some Somalis see as a part of Greater Somalia. Eritrea may have gotten involved on the side of the UIC, as a way of opposing their enemy Ethiopia… with whom they are threatening to resume fighting the world’s stupidest war. The US got involved because it feared that a UIC-controlled Mogadishu would become a haven for Al-Qaeda. Got all that?

Ethiopia invaded in late 2006, with intelligence, training and logistical support from the US, rapidly routed UIC, which dispersed, a common tactic in guerilla warfare. Since then, it’s become increasingly clear that Ethiopia is trapped in its own “Vietnam”, an unwinnable guerilla war that’s sapping its strength. The US has bombed Somali targets several times with limited success. The AU is on the ground as a peacekeeping force, but only 1600 of a promised 8,000 troops have shown up. Meanwhile, violence is increasing and spreading north into previously stable Puntland.

And, in the meantime, there’s a refugee crisis in Somalia that’s at least as serious as the situation in Darfurat least 1.5 million Somalis are believed to have fled their homes to avoid violence between the FTG/Ethiopian forces and militias like al-Shabab. Public spaces, like markets, have become extremely dangerous for citizens, as Ethiopian forces have shown willingness to shell public spaces to target militants.

So, who was Ayro, who are these al-Shabab guys, and will this latest development make things better or worse?

After the Union of Islamic Courts was ousted from Mogadishu, the alliance that had helped stabilize the city broke up into at least three forces. My friend Abduhrahman Warsame, a Somali who works in Qatar, offers this analysis:

It’s becoming clearer that Islamic Courts were only an umbrella for diverse groups each with a different agenda. One of those groups was the clan militias, led by a warlord nicknamed “Indha Adde”, who held the biggest force within the Islamic Courts, they were used to defeat the warlords allied with the US. Another group was the Islamic Courts militia, mostly militias of the powerful businessmen in Mogadishu. Then there’s the hardcore Al-Qaeda-type group, mostly Somalis who fought overseas alongside the Taliban and elsewhere, and unlike the other groups their aim was to capture the whole of Somalia. However, the leadership of the Islamic Courts were more realistic, and that’s what kept this group in-check.

One of the “hardcore” militias Abdurahman refers to is Al-Shabab, and Ayro, who analysts believe trained in Afghanistan, was one of the leaders of the militia. There’s no doubt that Ayro was an extremely bad guy, and that techniques he and followers use are similar to techniques being used in Afghanistan and Iraq. But does it make sense to identify him as the head of al-Qaeda in Somalia?

I’m guessing this question is being asked in newsrooms around the world today. The New York Times ran a story initially titled “Qaeda Agent in Somalia Killed in U.S. Attack”. It’s now titled “Key Militant in Somalia Killed in U.S. Attack“. (At present, the link above leads to a story with the first headline in the title bar and the second headline on the webpage.) The BBC story mentions al-Qaeda, but only in references to US military assertions about the target: “The US says al-Shabab is part of the al-Qaeda network, although correspondents say it is impossible to accurately establish those links. Al-Shabab leaders say it is a purely Somali movement and they deny any involvement with al-Qaeda.”

And there’s the question. If Al-Shabab is the local chapter of a global terrorist organization, attempting to train fighters to wage jihad against US interests around the world, it makes sense for the US military to target it. But if Al-Shabab is a violent, brutal, domestic terrorist organization aimed at ousting the TFG and Ethiopian soldiers from Somalia, what the heck is the US doing in the fight? Are we simply doing favors for Ethiopia, in exchange for continued military and diplomatic support? Or do we now have a policy of bombing terrorists anywhere we’ve got the possibility of doing so without the complaints of the local government? (Easy enough to do in Somalia, where the government has been installed by the Ethiopian military with US backup.)

I’ve asserted that the US strategy in Somalia represents a new form of military strategy – a proxy war, using our special forces and airpower, but the ground troops of another nation, designed to fly under the radar of media scrutiny. While this particular strike got a good deal of coverage, articles have largely picked up the “US got a bad guy” storyline and have had little speculation on the larger security and political situation.

Two stories written prior to the strike that killed Ayro might shed some light on the larger context, and might have useful predictions for the future. Abdulkadir Khalif, writing in Kenya Today, notes that UIC and Al-Shabab militias have been reclaiming territory that had been controlled by TGF forces. Other large swaths of territory appear uncontrolled either by TFG or by UIC-related forces. Khalif notes, “For many people, this has come as a surprise since few expected the Islamists to regroup and gain ground so fast. Their defeat by the TFG forces, with the help of Ethiopian troops, over a year ago seemed so decisive that no one expected the Islamists to recover in just about a year.” It will be worth seeing whether the strike killing Ayro will slow this process – if not, it’s a pretty good sign that Al-Shabab isn’t the only powerful milita fighting TFG, or that killing a single guerilla commander isn’t as relevant in winning a war many reports are making it out to be.

Nick Wadhams, writing in Time, has a stark analysis of the situation in Somalia. Though pubished before the strike on Ayro, his words may prove prescient:

The al-Shabab used to be the military wing of the Islamic Courts Union, the group of Islamic militias that had taken over towns across the country before being ousted by the Ethiopians. Now, however, they appear to be gaining power, raising fears that moderates among the Islamic groups are being sidelined. “What has been happening is the steady deterioration in the security situation and the inability of the TFG and the Ethiopian forces to contain the insurgency and impose some sort of stability,” Andebrhan Georgis, an adviser to the Africa Program at the International Crisis Group, told TIME. “I’m afraid what we’re seeing is increasing radicalization.”

That’s been a major embarrassment to Ethiopia and, by extension, the United States, which supported Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s decision to invade, on the premise that it would quell the deepening Islamic fundamentalism that seemed to be taking hold. So far, events in Somalia suggest that it has had the opposite effect, driving moderate factions of the Islamists out of the country and shifting power to the best-armed and most hardline among them.

Why pay attention to Somalia? Because this new strategy of proxy warfare may prove more dangerous, in the long run, than fighting directly. Because evidence is mounting that toppling governments is easier than building nations. Because we’re discovering that fighting guerilla armies is different from fighting standing armies. Because US actions in the world have relevance for US citizens whether they know it or not.

5 Responses to “How to tell the story of the strike against Al-Shabab in Somalia?”

  1. America is always fighting a proxy war somewhere, it is in the blood of the special forces and inteliigence services to do so. During the Cold War, America fought hundreds of proxy wars by arming militants and providing intelligence support, the largest was Afghanistan (arming what would later turn out to be islamic militants on a Jihad against the west, in defence of the American way of life, i.e. no communism), but many more were fought across Africa too.

    You are right in that the difference now is that America is not afriad to get involved in the fight itself with air power (something it would never have done in the past for fear of retaliation by the Russians), but it’s far too afraid to put boots on the ground.

  2. Rob Crilly says:

    Nice analysis. As a journalist I was deeply frustrated by the unthinking way much of the media used the US line that Ayro was al Qaeda’s leader in Somalia.

  3. Henok says:

    Ethan,
    you knowledge not only technology but also history etc. lucky known you. The Somalia situation need a solution before it turn worst than it is worst now–Ethiopia and Eritrea are looking a nice a soccer field in somalia to play a game. How long USA will support Ethiopia?

  4. Om says:

    Your analysis is on target and I’m sorry to say the free-thinking Western media has been hijacked by the U.S. gov’t and its allies since 9/11. Journalists are afraid to question the Administration’s talking points because most of the Western news organizations are afraid to lose their access to the Administration so they shy away from questioning what the Pentagon and State Department feeds them.

    Somalia is an excellent example of how the Bush Administration has manufactured and spread garbage connection between Al Qaeda and the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia. The Western media ate it like a cake and has never looked back. It’s interesting how the news media never wants to pull the curtain on the Administration’s ‘terror’ propaganda. If the media only did small homework, they would’ve realized Somalis have always been moderate when it came to religion – and the idea of Somali being a safe haven for Al Qaeda is nothing short of a joke. The UIC were popular not because for their religious adherence but for bringing peace and semblance of order to souther Somalia.

    It is a shame that the great President Bush felt poor suffering Somalis should not have a little peace brought by their fellow Somalis. So sad millions of poor Somalis have to be collateral damage for experimental and ruthless foreign policy that the Western media all but have cheered for. I hope your effort makes a difference.

  5. Ethan says:

    Thanks for weighing in, everyone. Rob, let me point people to your excellent work on Somalia and other African issues online – http://www.fromthefrontline.co.uk/blogs/index.php?blog=14

    Henok, my fear is that the US will keep supporting Ethiopia so long as people in the US know nothing about this situation, don’t pay attention to it and ignore it.

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