Somalia Briefing: Jihadi Groups and their Links to Al-Qaeda
Matt Bryden, Horn of Africa Project Director, International Crisis Group
Moderators: Howard Wolpe, Director, Africa Program and the Program on Leadership and Building State Capacity and Jennifer Cooke, Deputy Director, Africa Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies
"Somalia is not a hotbed of terrorism," and with smart policy moves from the international donor community, it is not likely to become one, remarked Matt Bryden, Horn of Africa Director of the International Crisis Group. His Wilson Center and Center for Strategic and International Studies-sponsored briefing focused on current state of militant Islam in Somalia, and its ties to Al Qaeda. Despite its increasing visibility, and Western concerns due to its Al Qaeda links, the jihadi movement in Somalia remains very marginalized and enjoys little popular support. Smart policy decisions by the international community can deny violent Islam a role in future Somali politics. However, bad policy decisions could have unintended effect of generating widespread and virulent jihadism in the region.
Sunni Islam is deeply woven into Somali culture, but the country has had comparatively little experience with religious militancy. However, during the successive crises in the 1980's, foreign-influenced Islamist groups became active in Somalia, though they had little popular support. The best-known of these, Al-Ittihad Al-Islamiya, was supported by Islamic charities in the Gulf States, and had a military wing that largely consisted of Somalis returning from Afghanistan. While it was politically rebuffed by prominent Somali leaders and militarily defeated by various militias, it nonetheless claimed responsibility for several high profile terror attacks in Eastern Africa. A string of assassinations in Ethiopia in 1995 and 1996 eventually prompted Ethiopia's military to intervene, destroying the movement's last strongholds and scattering its leaders.
It was not until 2003 that a new jihadi movement emerged in Mogadishu, also under the name of Al-Ittihad Al-Islamiya. The new Al-Ittihad, led by a young militiaman from the previous movement, has been blamed for the killings of four foreign aid workers and at least a dozen Somalis cooperating with anti-terror forces. Unlike the first generation of jihadis who hoped to establish a Somali Caliphate, the present organization seems to have no particular ideology apart from a general Islamist and anti-Western orientation.
Whereas there are few direct links between the first generation of Al-Ittihad and Al Qaeda – during this period Al Qaeda was one of several groups conducting training to support those opposed to the U.S. and U.N. intervention – the present incarnation of Al-Ittihad appears to have much closer ties. Its leader is reputed to have fought alongside the Taliban until 2003, it has no visible means of financial support, and it appears to be sheltering one or more of the principle suspects in Al Qaeda's 2002 attacks on Israeli targets in and around Mombasa, Kenya.
The counter-terror response to this situation has been mixed. There have been some successes: Western intelligence services have established a good set of Somali partners and informers, have arrested of several key figures involved in terrorist activities, and a number of attacks appear to have been prevented. However, at the same time, counter-terror forces are losing the battle for Somali hearts and minds. Many civilians do not recognize the presence of Al Qaeda forces in the country and thus feel unfairly targeted by the West. In addition, there have been many cases of overzealous militia leaders arresting individuals on trumped-up or unsubstantial evidence in the hope of being rewarded by counter-terror groups. Most significantly, civic leaders have come to resent counter-terror measures that rely heavily on armed faction leaders, pointing out that these strategies empower the same former warlords who plunged the country into chaos in the first place.
Counter-terror measures are useful, Bryden argued, but they must be process-driven and combined with strategies to strengthen civil society, social services and the transitional government. Bryden urged that no foreign military presence be introduced in Somalia until there is a broad supportive consensus from the Somali parliament and population. Opposing a plan proposed by the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), he argued that intervening now would risk invigorating both the old and new jihadi movements by giving them a common and unpopular enemy.
This last point generated some debate by members of the audience who questioned whether it was contradictory to support transitional government but to oppose sending in peacekeeping troops. Bryden responded that the transitional government is divided over the suitability of a peacekeeping mission, and that until the parliament can take a unified position, foreign peacekeepers will only deepen the cleavages, and risk destroying the embryonic transitional institutions.
The other major topic of discussion was the access points through which international community could act in Somalia. Bryden explained that on security issues, there were a number of different known anti-terror networks, including faction leaders, local governments and former security officials, all of whom have come under pressure from Al-Ittihad, and that there were likely some clandestine networks. With regard to humanitarian intermediaries, he observed that USAID, working with the American relief agency CARE had trained a number of Somali NGOs and suggested that aid could be funneled through these, as well as through Islamic charities that are already in place.
Michael Jobbins, Africa Program Associate, ext. 4156
Howard Wolpe, Director