Since the 1990s, no government has been able to control the whole of Somalia’s territory. Lurid news reports about piracy and terrorism obscure the fact that big powers like the US have repeatedly intervened in the country’s affairs and worsened its condition.
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Western media coverage has often presented Somalia as the classic example of a failed state. For the past three decades, no government has been able to control its national territory.
But news reports about terrorism and piracy have obscured the fact that Somalia is very much a part of the world system. From the Cold War to the “war on terror,” outside intervention by the world’s most powerful states has played a major role in worsening the Somali crisis.
Elizabeth Schmidt is a professor emeritus of history at Loyola University Maryland. Her most recent book is Foreign Intervention in Africa After the Cold War. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.
DANIEL FINN: How did the postcolonial Somali state emerge after the period of British and Italian rule, and what were the main legacies of colonial domination for Somalia?
ELIZABETH SCHMIDT: When Somalia got its independence in 1960, it was a very strained union of the British and Italian colonies in northern and southern Somalia. The colonial boundaries were retained after independence, which resulted in millions of ethnic Somalis being located in neighboring countries, notably Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti. As a result, ethnic Somalis waged campaigns against neighboring countries trying to bring their so-called lost populations into the independent state of Somalia. It created a lot of conflict.
The colonial boundaries were retained after independence, which resulted in millions of ethnic Somalis being located in neighboring countries.
DANIEL FINN: What were the main ethnic and clan identities that could be found in Somalia at the time of independence?
ELIZABETH SCHMID: Within Somalia, most of the people were considered to be ethnic Somalis, who share a language, a culture, and a religion. You had one main ethnic group that was fairly homogenous, yet there were divisions among clans. There were different clans in the Italian and the British colonies, but also within each of those former colonies. Again, this resulted in a lot of conflict. There were also ethnic minorities, and they were heavily discriminated against in Somalia.
DANIEL FINN: How did Siad Barre come to power at the end of the 1960s, and what were the main policies that his government set about enacting?
ELIZABETH SCHMIDT: Mohamed Siad Barre was a general in the Somali Army, and he overthrew the previous government. Somalia’s second president was assassinated and then there was a military coup in 1969. Siad Barre announced right away that Somalia would pursue a Soviet-style scientific-socialist agenda, which began with a massive public works program.
Somalia did make significant strides in development, especially in the rural areas. There were mass literacy campaigns. Primary education was extended and became more widely available. Public health was a big achievement in the rural areas — just the basics, but still more than they had before — and economic development. These policies were considered quite progressive by leftists, while the United States worried about Somalia’s burgeoning relationship with the Soviet Union.
DANIEL FINN: What was the impact of the revolution in neighboring Ethiopia during the 1970s on Somalia’s foreign policy and its relationship with the USSR?
ELIZABETH SCHMIDT: The Ethiopian revolution that took place in 1974 overthrew what was essentially a feudal society. The military regime which took power in Ethiopia did not immediately declare itself to be Marxist, but it eventually embraced that label.
The United States was extremely concerned about what was happening in Ethiopia — even more concerned than it was about Somalia — so it suspended its economic aid. Ethiopia had been a close US ally under its feudal leader Haile Selassie. The Soviet Union then became the main source of Ethiopia’s military and economic assistance.
"The United States was extremely concerned about what was happening in Ethiopia — even more concerned than it was about Somalia."
Meanwhile, Somalia’s relationship with the Eastern Bloc began to fray. The United States came in, hoping to use Somalia as a bulwark against the even more radical, Marxist Ethiopian government. The Soviet Union tried to have it both ways, being involved with Somalia and with Ethiopia at the same time.
But Somalia invaded Ethiopia in 1977, trying to capture the territories of the Ogaden that contained a lot of ethnic Somalis. Of course, that infuriated the Soviet Union, which had wanted to create a sort of union of socialist states in the Horn of Africa, bringing Somalia and Ethiopia together. If it had to pick between them, however, it was going to pick Ethiopia.
Somalia was widely seen as the aggressor nation. When the African colonies gained their independence, they agreed to minimize conflict by accepting the colonial boundaries, however irrational they might be. Somalia was violating this principle of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the forerunner of today’s African Union. Moscow abandoned its alliance with Somalia and gave its full support to Ethiopia.
DANIEL FINN: How did the United States deal with the regime of Siad Barre at the time of the Ogaden war and afterward?
ELIZABETH SCHMIDT: The United States hoped to use Somalia to thwart Soviet encroachment in the Horn. But it didn’t want to be open about its support for Somalia, since most African countries considered Somalia to be the aggressor state that was violating OAU principles. The CIA hired an arms dealer that supplied US-made weapons, and other agencies coordinated the flow of weapons through third-party states. It wasn’t until after the Ogaden conflict was settled in 1978 that the United States began openly supporting Somalia, which it now did with a vengeance.
DANIEL FINN: What were the main internal challenges to Siad Barre’s rule during the 1980s?
ELIZABETH SCHMIDT: By the mid-1980s, Somalia was in dire straits. The cost of the Ethiopian war, combined with corruption and mismanagement, had run the economy into the ground. It was in a downward spiral, and this had clearly dissipated the development achievements of the previous decade. Combined with very onerous taxes, that stimulated unrest in the rural areas.
"Siad Barre imprisoned his critics, or killed them, or drafted them into the Somali army, and then collectively punished their clan members."
This is where Siad Barre’s general tactics came in when he was in crisis. He brutally repressed the protests, generating real hatred for his regime. He imprisoned his critics, or killed them, or drafted them into the Somali army, and then collectively punished their clan members. He encouraged clan rivalry — divide and rule — and his own clan increasingly dominated the regime.
In 1989, the clans that had suffered from harassment or discrimination united in their opposition to Siad Barre’s rule. There was also another force fighting against the Barre regime, the Islamists, who had been brutally repressed. These two groups — the clans that had suffered discrimination and the Islamists — united against the dictatorship.
DANIEL FINN: When the central government in Mogadishu collapsed at the beginning of the 1990s, what forms of authority took its place, and how did the people of Somalia experience that period?
ELIZABETH SCHMIDT: The central government collapsed at the beginning of the 1990s, which was also the end of the Cold War, and that wasn’t a coincidence. With Moscow weakening politically and economically, the United States didn’t feel like it needed Somalia any more as a regional policeman in the Horn. It expressed a newfound concern about Siad Barre’s human rights abuses.
Obviously, the United States had been well aware of what Siad Barre was doing beforehand, but they chose to turn a blind eye to it because they wanted to use him as a counterweight to the Soviet Union. Now that the Soviet Union was no longer there, the United States began decrying human rights abuses and suspended economic and military aid
Without the massive US support that he had been getting since the late 1970s, Siad Barre was an easy target. In January 1991, the warlords and their clan-based militias overthrew the regime and Somalia essentially collapsed into chaos. Southern Somalia fractured into fiefdoms ruled by rival warlords who clashed with the resurgent Islamist movement. State institutions disintegrated and nongovernmental actors had to provide services, to the extent that services were provided at all.
Without the massive US support that he had been getting since the late 1970s, Siad Barre was an easy target.
It was the Islamist organizations in particular that played a critical role in this regard. They restored law and order to the war zones. They reestablished basic social services like health care and education. That was very much welcomed by the Somali population.
DANIEL FINN¥: What impact did the US-led military intervention in that period have on Somalia?
ELIZABETH SCHMIDT: In 1992, the United States launched a multinational military intervention, backed by the UN. When I say “multinational,” I mean that it was dominated by the United States, with a sprinkling of troops from other countries to allow it to claim the “multinational” label. We’ve seen this pattern repeated in US policy elsewhere.
The mission of the 1992 endeavor was to ensure the delivery of humanitarian relief to the Somali people. The idea was that the disaster in Somalia was going to create instability in the Horn, and that wouldn’t be good for anybody. In 1993, another UN mission permitted US-led forces to disarm and arrest Somali warlords and militia members.
Many civilians were killed in US airstrikes, including clan leaders, religious leaders, intellectuals, and businessmen who were meeting to discuss a UN peace proposal.
This was quite different from just having armed troops line the road from the airport to allow the relief supplies to get in. But there wasn’t a lot of publicity about the change, so many people assumed that it was the same humanitarian mission as it had been the previous year. The United States and the UN favored one warlord over another, while the one they really opposed was a man by the name of Mohamed Farrah Aidid. It became their goal to arrest him, disarm him, or kill him.
Civilians were caught in the crossfire, and many were killed in US airstrikes. This included clan leaders, religious leaders, intellectuals, and businessmen who were meeting to discuss a UN peace proposal. These were clearly people who were considering joining forces with the UN, but an airstrike ended up killing them.
These massacres of Somali leaders and civilians caused a tremendous backlash in the Somali population. They began to direct their retaliatory attacks, not only against the US and UN troops, but against any foreigner. Journalists and relief workers were targeted, and many withdrew from Somalia. US troops in turn started to consider most Somali civilians to be a possible threat and treated them accordingly. The relationship between the US troops and Somali civilians was increasingly poor.
The climax of these developments came in early October 1993, when US Army Rangers and Delta Force troops, hoping to capture or kill Aidid and his top lieutenants, raided some of the known Aidid compounds in Mogadishu. Aidid’s forces shot down two Black Hawk helicopters, which crashed into children in the crowd below. As a result, angry crowds attacked the soldiers who had come to rescue the survivors. Eighteen US soldiers and hundreds of Somali men, women, and children were killed in the violence that followed.
DANIEL FINN: Following the US withdrawal from Somalia in the 1990s, there was a renewed interest in what was happening in the country after the 9/11 attacks, as the United States launched its so-called war on terror. How did the new development of US policy affect conditions in Somalia, and what factors lay behind the growth of the group Al-Shabaab?
ELIZABETH SCHMIDT: In 1994, having stirred up a hornets’ nest, the United States hastily withdrew its troops from Somalia. As we have seen elsewhere in the world, the United States expects to be able to engage with opponents in various conflicts, but it doesn’t think that Americans should pay the price with their lives. If too many Americans are dying, then the United States withdraws and thinks about other ways of accomplishing its goals.
However, Al-Qaeda began to emerge elsewhere in East Africa, and this gave rise to new concerns. The bomb attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 were a case in point. This was followed by the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001. This resulted in the United States increasing its collaboration with Ethiopia, Somalia’s long-term nemesis, which did not bode well for US relations with Somalia.
The United States viewed all conservative Muslims as terrorists and jihadists, which was an erroneous assumption. Very few Islamists supported violent extremism.
Meanwhile, Somali Islamist groups had gained significant popular support by providing essential social services, including schools, medical care, and courts that brought some law and order to the war zone. The United States ignored the reasons for the appeal of Islamism in Somalia.
Certainly, some of it was religious: most Somalis were Muslims, although their brand of Islam was less conservative than that of the Islamists, who believed that religion should govern all aspects of life. Somalis have historically followed a more open and tolerant brand of Islam. But the Islamists were the ones providing badly needed services, so people turned to them.
The United States viewed all conservative Muslims as terrorists and jihadists, which was an erroneous assumption. Very few Islamists supported violent extremism. Because of this mistaken perception, the United States decided to collaborate with Ethiopia and set out on a violent campaign to stamp out Islamism in Somalia. It also banded together with Somali warlords and imposed a new government on Somalia in 2004.
This corrupt regime was dominated by the clan of one warlord, and it marginalized the rival clans, including the ones that controlled Mogadishu. It purged the parliament of opposition members. This new government, which had been imposed by outsiders, only survived with the protection of Ethiopian troops. It wasn’t even able to enter Mogadishu, the capital city, and had to establish an alternative capital in the much smaller city of Baidoa.
Two years later, in 2006, the United States backed another warlord coalition to counter Islamist power. It also supported an Ethiopian invasion and an occupation that lasted until 2009. The intervention by Ethiopia precipitated a domestic insurgency. Just as we saw in Iraq, a foreign invasion stoked up an insurgency where none had existed before.
In the case of Somalia, the domestic insurgency was led by Al-Shabaab, which means “The Youth.” It originated as a youth militia that was organized to protect the Islamic courts. These were the courts that had brought law and order to the war zone: yes, they were sharia courts, but no, their practices did not include cutting off hands, which is what many in the West associate with sharia law.
They were courts based on religious principles, and Al-Shabaab had been organized to support them, but it wasn’t violent at that point. It was the foreign invasion and occupation that turned them into a militia that was organized to expel the foreign occupiers.
"It was the foreign invasion backed by the United States that brought Al-Qaeda into Somalia."
We always hear about Al-Shabaab as being affiliated to Al-Qaeda. True enough, it is today, but it didn’t affiliate with Al-Qaeda until 2012, whereas the invasion had been launched in 2006. For six years, it was not affiliated with Al-Qaeda, although Al-Qaeda proclaimed its support for the insurgency. Again, it was the foreign invasion backed by the United States that brought Al-Qaeda into Somalia.
By 2007, Al-Shabaab had taken control of large parts of central and southern Somalia, and this prompted the UN, the African Union, and neighboring countries to intervene, so the foreign intervention was only getting stronger. The United States didn’t send its own troops, but it worked in the shadows, launching a campaign of low-intensity warfare against Al-Shabaab operatives, deploying private contractors — in other words, mercenaries — and special forces to train and accompany Somali and African Union troops in combat operations.
This so-called low-intensity warfare included US airstrikes and drone attacks, which targeted Al-Shabaab leaders. Those leaders were quickly replaced by others: the attacks would cut off the head of the hydra, but a new head would grow, so they did not take care of the problem. If anything, they kept up the flow of new leaders coming from the grassroots of Al-Shabaab. The group increasingly focused its attention on the West, targeting aid workers, journalists, and Somalis who worked with them.
In 2012, outside forces once again imposed a new political dispensation. Although it was mediated by the UN and backed by the international community, it was disavowed by large segments of Somali civil society, which had little input into the process. It was another case of outsiders trying to determine Somalia’s future, while not allowing Somalis to speak for themselves about what their grievances were and what kind of post-conflict society they wanted to see. None of the groups from civil society were involved in the negotiations, and none of their initiatives were taken seriously.
Al-Shabaab was driven from Mogadishu to areas further south, but as it left, it focused on new targets. Instead of targeting the outsiders in the capital, it began to target unprotected, so-called soft targets — government offices, schools, hotels, and restaurants. It launched attacks across the border into Kenya and other countries that had supplied troops to the African Union intervention forces. The conflict was expanding beyond Somalia rather than diminishing.
Today, as a result of foreign intervention, Al-Shabaab maintains its powerful foothold in Somalia in the absence of any functioning state apparatus. There was a new president elected in May 2022 after a protracted political crisis. The factors behind it were much like those behind the crises of other governments: favoritism, corruption, mismanagement. The previous president had refused to hold elections.
"The security forces, like the civilian administration, are riven by clan-based factions who fight each other rather than Al-Shabaab."
The central government is still not providing basic services. There is no coherent national army, and the security forces, like the civilian administration, are riven by clan-based factions who fight each other rather than Al-Shabaab. According to polls that have been carried out, few Somalis believe that the new government will behave any differently from the succession of governments that preceded it. They expect it to go on catering to corrupt elites rather than the majority of Somali citizens, and ignoring the grievances that ignited the insurgency.
Meanwhile, the United States is continuing to wage a shadow war. The nature of the war has changed. The number of boots on the ground has decreased. It was the Obama administration that escalated the use of drone strikes to kill Al-Shabaab targets, rather than using US special forces and military contractors. The engagement of the United States in Somalia has dropped from the consciousness of most US citizens because Americans aren’t dying. They didn’t really pay attention to what the Obama administration was doing, which was creating even more hostility toward the United States.
DANIEL FINN: As things stand today, how would you assess Somalia’s long-term political and developmental prospects?
ELIZABETH SCHMIDT: I would say the situation is pretty bleak. Most Somali civilians had no input into the peace initiatives brokered by outside actors. From agricultural cooperatives to women’s groups, youth groups, and trade unions, the grassroots peace-building efforts have been sidelined by more powerful forces, and the interests of foreign governments and Somali elites have once again prevailed over those of ordinary citizens.
Unfortunately, it appears that the administration of Joe Biden is going to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors Barack Obama and Donald Trump by defaulting to the failed military policy of endless war. Until that stops, Somali citizens will continue to suffer the consequences.
* Somalis watch US soldiers in their multipurpose vehicles in position at a Mogadishu airport, January, 1992. (Peter Turnley / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images)