[dehai-news] Theatlantic.com: Somalia Revisited

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From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Tue Dec 23 2008 - 08:10:42 EST

Somalia Revisited

Dispatch December 22, 2008

As Somalia continues to devolve into chaos, it has become a breeding ground
for terrorists and a human-rights nightmare. Journalist Eliza Griswold
visited the country and spoke with Somali leaders and ordinary Somalis
alike, seeking insight into the nation's problems and a possible way forward

by <http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/by/eliza_griswold> Eliza Griswold

Also see:


Slideshow: "Nowhere Else to Go"

In 2006, Ethiopian forces, with tacit U.S. backing, overthrew Somalia's
Islamic government. Today, in the worst violence since Black Hawk Down,
three quarters of the 1.2 million people who lived in Mogadishu have fled.
Many of those left behind are taking refuge in the city's mental hospitals.
A photo tour narrated by Eliza Griswold

 <http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200812u/somalia-timeline> Timeline:
Somalia, 1991-2008

>From troubled to dire.

Elsewhere on the Web:

 <http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2008/12/08/so-much-fear-0> War Crimes and
the Devastation of Somalia

A 104-page report released by Human Rights Watch on December 8, 2008.

Slideshow: So Much to Fear

Accounts from Somali refugees in Kenya. Produced by Human Rights Watch.

When the mortars began to explode overhead, the mental patients scattered
like crows. On this brilliant afternoon last April, they’d been lining up in
the courtyard of Mogadishu’s only functioning mental hospital, waiting for
their anti-psychotics. “Doctor” Habeb—a man with six weeks of volunteer
training—reached into a wooden trunk and handed out blister packs and
syringes marked Phenobarbital, Risperidone, Chlorpromazine. But by the thud
in their guts, the patients could tell how close the shells were falling;
the mortars’ high whine and crackle made the drugs suddenly seem secondary.
“Everything will be alright!” they shouted to each other as they ran for a
concrete overhang.

As the explosions drew nearer, the patients moaned and cowered in the
compound’s corners. Dr. Habeb shouted their names over the din. (His real
name is Abdu Rahman Ali Awaale, but he talks so much that everyone calls him
Habeb, which means “hoarse.”) With his orange-hennaed goatee and manic
gesticulations, he could easily be mistaken for one of his charges. The
hospital’s 150 beds were full and the bald courtyard overflowed with people:
the shell-shocked, former insurgents, failed suicides. Habeb’s was really a
warehouse for suffering people. One of them was Nima Mohammad Hasan, 35, who
pulled back a thin cloth covering her chest to reveal exposed bone. She’d
tipped over a lantern to set herself on fire, burning third degree holes
into her sternum. Until a few years ago, suicide in Somalia was taboo; now
it is fairly common. A sign on the wall read Chain free. Four months
earlier, the World Health Organization had given Dr. Habeb $8,000 and
convinced him to unlock his patients’ leg irons. Before that, they had been
chained to their beds.

That afternoon a few miles away, a young man dressed in fatigues had rammed
his maroon Toyota pick-up truck laden with explosives into a base that
housed African peacekeepers recently arrived from Burundi. In addition to
killing several soldiers, this attack took the lives of two local women, and
blew the leg off a third, Murto Abdi, a mother of four; the women had been
collecting free water at the base. Later, under the green canvas tent of a
field hospital, Abdi’s sister, Fahmo Mohamad, waited nervously for her to
wake up. Of course it was risky for Abdi to go to the base to fetch water,
Mohamad explained uncomfortably. They knew the peacekeepers might be
targeted, but the drought had begun, and the family couldn’t survive without
water. Water’s price—like everything else—was skyrocketing, thanks to
warlords and profiteers. “It’s like it was during the warlords, but at that
time we knew who was killing us. It was Clan A or Clan B. Now we don’t
know.” She kept her eyes on the stretcher. When her wounded sister awoke,
Mohamad would explain as gently as possible that the leg was gone.

That afternoon’s apocalypse was another day in the world’s longest-running
failed state. Although Somalia has had no functioning government for almost
twenty years, the chaos unfolding right now is worse than it has been since
the militia loyal to a fedora-wearing warlord, Mohamad Farah Aideed, shot
down two Black Hawk helicopters and killed 18 U.S. soldiers in 1993. Two
years ago this month, in December 2006, neighboring Ethiopia invaded
Somalia, with the tacit backing of the U.S. Their aim was to overthrow a
nascent Islamist government, which managed to bring peace to much of Somalia
for a six-month stint in 2006. The Islamists also threatened Ethiopia’s
Christian-led minority government, and, according to the U.S., was providing
safe haven for at least three suspected members of al Qaeda. In the nearly
two years since, at least 6,500 Somalis have died and 1,000,000 more have
lost their homes in fighting that continues. Right now, three and a half
million people—almost half of the population of south-central Somalia—is
facing potential famine.

The militant fighters known as al-Shabaab, or “the youth,” are gaining
ground. In their increasingly lethal attacks, there is evidence to suggest
more powerful terrorist ties. In October, a series of coordinated suicide
attacks exploded in the peaceful semi-autonomous north. In November,
al-Shabaab stoned a 13-year-old girl to death in a sports stadium for the
crime of being raped. In December, al-Shabaab beheaded six local aid workers
whose organizations had contracts with the UN. The militants have moved
within miles of Mogadishu. Recently, in unusually candid remarks, Michael
Hayden, the head of the CIA, declared Somalia one of the world’s most
fertile, and frightening, breeding grounds for terrorists. As a U.S.
counterterrorism official explained, “It’s clear that al-Shabaab has become
a growing concern.”

Since the Black Hawk debacle, U.S. policymakers have generally seen this
sliver of sand along the extreme eastern edge of Africa, with its nine
million inhabitants, less as a country than as a case study in anarchy and
another failed front in the war on terror. “U.S. policy since the early
nineties has been complete and total neglect,” U.S. Undersecretary for
African Affairs, Jendayi Frazier said last week in the dwindling days of the
Bush administration. But engagement has not worked either. Over the past two
years, in the name of its ongoing war against al Qaeda, the United States
has launched missile and gunship attacks that have killed civilians,
“rendered” terrorist suspects from Somalia to Afghanistan, and supported
Ethiopia’s brutal occupation. These tactics have succeeded mostly in giving
Somalia’s hard-line Islamists greater credibility and fueled rabid
anti-Americanism, since the U.S. is seen as intimately tied to the

In fact, Washington’s “whack-a-mole” strategy, which aims at “plinking bad
guys when they pop up,” is fueling the growing insurgency by enraging
Somalis, according to Ken Menkhaus, a professor of political science at
Davidson College. Somalis have no problem doing the math: for the one
high-profile al Qaeda target that the U.S. claims to have killed or
captured, more than 6,000 Somalis have been killed, and roughly 900,000 have
been forced to flee the capital of Mogadishu: roughly three quarters of the

“We’ve helped create a self-fulfilling prophecy – now there is a new,
home-grown terrorist threat in the form of the shabaab, that has the
potential to become more dangerous to Somalis, the region, and the U.S. than
the small number of East African Al Qaeda operatives ever were,” Menkhaus
added. This policy, and its aftermath, has left the incoming Obama
administration ill-prepared to engage on a nexus of questions with
repercussions far beyond Somalia’s deadly coast: How do we handle a handful
of terrorists hiding inside a famine? Do we need to mobilize behind an
international peacekeeping force? Should we try to engage in a failed state
politically, or should we walk away?

“Frankly, my greatest fear is that we are going to neglect Somalia,”
Secretary Frazier said. This, she added, would not be the first time that
the United States looked away from an internal political problem, only to
regret that blindness later. Frazier said, “The United States turned its
eyes away from Rwanda at a critical time.”

Last spring, I traveled to Somalia, Eritrea, and Kenya. Since my last visit
to Mogadishu in June 2007, much had changed—and not for the better. Many of
the people I’d met a year earlier and had hoped to see again were either
gone or dead. Yet, as usual, most of the key players survived. In Mogadishu,
Asmara, and Nairobi, I spent time with four of them: Hussein Farah Aideed,
the U.S.-citizen son of arch-warlord Mohamad Farah Aideed; Sheik Hassan
Dahir Aweys, spiritual leader of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and proud
holder of a spot on the U.S. Terrorist List; Ibrahim Addou, the foreign
minister of the ICU; and Mohammad Dheere, then mayor of Mogadishu. From my
conversations with them, and with dozens of other Somalis I met, I hoped to
understand Somalia’s seemingly ceaseless cycle of violence, to see why the
old order repeatedly collapses and what a political solution might look
like. And I wanted, of course, to hear from Somalis about what they hoped
the United States would do, both to repair their country’s shattered
fortunes and to recalibrate the war on terror so that it didn’t look like it
was targeting all nine million of them.

Our Man in Asmara

On a chilly afternoon last spring, Hussein Farah Aideed lumbered down the
stairs of the Great Mosque in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. Mussolini had
the mosque built in the 1930s, hoping to win Muslim approval for his African
empire, and its fluted minaret and Romanesque arches give it an incongruous
Italianate air. At 42, Hussein Farah Aideed, sports his own incongruities.
Dressed in a long white robe and a blue blazer, he looked like a kinder,
fleshier version of his notorious father, Mohamad Farah Aideed, the Somali
warlord of Black Hawk Down infamy, who died in 1996. A U.S. citizen who
first came to America as a political refugee when he was 16, Hussein is
waging his own proxy war of sorts with the United States: he’s a member of
the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia, a coalition of ousted
Islamist and secular groups with the common goal of kicking U.S. ally
Ethiopia out of their country. He and the opposition leaders live in Eritrea
on the Eritrean government’s dime. Separated by ethnic and religious
divisions and bitter history, Eritrea and neighboring Ethiopia are the
Hatfields and McCoys of East Africa, and Eritrea will do anything to
undermine its enemy’s occupation of Somalia.

During the late 1980s, as his father was scheming to topple Somali dictator
Siad Barre and seize power, Hussein was working as a civil engineer at City
Hall in West Covina, California, where he had attended West Covina High
School and Citrus College in Glendora, learned to dance the cha-cha, and to
practice martial arts. During high school, he had joined the Marine
reserves, and on weekends, he hosted barbeques for his fellow Marines.

In 1990, Aideed was called up to serve in Operation Desert Storm. He spent
257 days in the Gulf, of which he’s still very proud: “We did a lot of good
work there,” he told me when we met. After America’s victory in Kuwait,
Aideed went back to his desk job at West Covina’s City Hall. In August 1992,
he was tapped to return to Mogadishu with the Marines to serve as an
interpreter. The once-picturesque tourist town with glittering piazzas and
al fresco bars lay in ruins as a result of the civil war his father was then
fighting against his arch-rival, Ali Mahdi. “It was like Apocalypse Now,”
Aideed said.

Three months later—by December—relations between the United States and
Mohamad Farah Aideed, who was blocking aid deliveries, had soured. The
Marines sent Hussein back to West Covina. He returned to his engineering job
at City Hall while his father battled America in Mogadishu’s streets. It
wasn’t so easy to have the last name Aideed, and Hussein was torn between
his father and his adoptive country. “It was difficult for me because I knew
both sides,” he said. Of course he loved and respected his dad, but he also
loved the United States, “the country I loved that taught me and gave me
everything I knew.”

Aideed only returned to Somalia in 1995 to marry his second wife. “I came
back just to say hello and get a blessing from my father,” he said. Seven
months later, however, his father was assassinated and Hussein became a de
facto clan leader, proceeding to denounce America when it was convenient and
maneuvering to retain his position in Somalia’s shifting political
landscape. To many Somalis, he represents both the enduring power of warlord
politics and their recurringly destructive effects.

Indeed, the continuing role of men like Aideed is one reason that Somalis
are turning to Islam to remake their state. Like most Somalis, Aideed is a
committed Sufi who prays five times a day. But for him, religion is
personal, not political. Aideed doesn’t think that his country should be in
the control of those who want an Islamic government, whom he calls Wahhabis,
and did not respect Sufi practices. “These Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia say
you Muslims are not Muslims,” Aideed explained. This is a very old battle—a
Cold War of sorts—within Islam over who’s a legitimate believer and who

As we walked toward Asmara’s abandoned communist parade grounds, Aideed said
that here in the Horn of Africa, all three faiths that sprang from
Abraham—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—had lived peaceably since they’d
arrived. We passed a Jewish temple, stars of David inlaid in its white-tiled
façade. The padlocked gates were painted UN blue.

He told me this story. In 615 A.D., as Mohamad’s teachings began to catch on
in his hometown of Mecca, the Arabs who lived there—the Qureysh—attacked the
Prophet and his first followers. Under siege, the early Muslims escaped.
(This is the first hijra, or flight.) To save his family, Mohamad sent them
to a Christian kingdom in the Horn of Africa, whose king protected them.
That’s how much the two faiths trusted each other, Aideed explained. It’s
also an explanation of why Christianity, Islam, and even Judaism, have had
few problems in the Horn—the bonds are deep. The only two times throughout
history that Somalia has fought in the name of religion—in the ninth and
16th centuries—were against foreign Christian invaders. Aideed pointed out
the dark brick Catholic cathedral—another gift of Mussolini’s. The bells
ringing from its square tower marked a time that no longer existed.

In Somalia, as elsewhere around the globe, an Islamic awakening began during
the 1960s. Somalia forged links to the Arab world through oil money and
ideology—what Alex De Waal, author of Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn
of Africa, calls “riyalpolitik.” During the Cold War, Siad Barre, the
Soviet-backed military dictator during the Cold War, found these new
connections especially threatening. He banned many books and all foreign
media—anything that could endanger his power. In 1975, when a group of
influential sheikhs opposed Barre’s Family Law as “un-Islamic” because it
gave equal rights to women, Barre executed them for being “religiously
backward.” This act reverberated throughout the Muslim world—even now,
decades later, Osama bin Laden still mentions this as the moment Somalia
incurred God’s wrath. Faced with stiffening repression, young Somalis
traveled to Cairo, Karachi and Saudi Arabia on secret Islamic scholarships.
Others traveled to Afghanistan to fight in the anti-Soviet Jihad. Returning
home to Somalia in the eighties, they joined a budding homegrown militant

One of the militant leaders who sprang from this opposition is Sheik Hassan
Dahir Aweys. Since November 7, 2001, he’s been on the U.S. Terrorist list
for his links to al Qaeda. This relationship began when a dozen or so of bin
Laden’s operatives, called the “Africa Corps,” arrived in Somalia in late
January 1993.Soon after, al Qaeda agreed to fund Aweys’ now-defunct
organization al Ittihad al Islami (AIAI), which wanted to teach Somalis how
to live according to sharia. In return, Aweys’ group helped Africa Corps
start joint training camps in Southern Somalia. When the ICU took over
Somalia in 2006, Aweys headed its hard-line shura council and maintained
control over its core of fighters, al-Shabaab, and especially his protégé, a
very dangerous young man named Aden Hashi Ayro, who was subsequently blamed
for killing a nun and a BBC journalist, among others. When the Ethiopians
invaded, Aweys fled with other fighters to the Somali coast, where he
successfully dodged American air strikes and then disappeared.

I went with Hussein Aideed in a small yellow taxi to meet Sheikh Aweys in
the once-swank diplomatic section of Asmara called Tripolo. After months on
the lam, he’s now the guest of the Eritrean government—much to America’s
dismay. Aideed and I were early. From behind the gate came a boy’s voice and
the sound of small feet slapping against stone. Then a man in wire-rimmed
glasses and a blue tracksuit came to the door, grinning that same eerie leer
that stares out from his WANTED picture on the U.S. terrorist list.

He welcomed us inside his spacious rent-free government villa, and then
disappeared to change his clothes. I heard some women’s voices and wandered
down the hall. Behind a half-opened door, four women were sitting on their
beds minding small children. The youngest was one of the sheikh’s wives. She
hated Asmara and missed Mogadishu, she explained as she rocked a newborn
baby and scolded a boy of four or five, who was chasing a smaller girl
around the room. “Halas, Osama,” she said. Osama, enough!

Aweys appeared at the bedroom door—he had changed from the blue tracksuit
into a white robe—and led me back to the parlor, where he served popcorn and
tea. The talk turned inevitably to his connection to al Qaeda. “Let’s assume
I met with al Qaeda. Is there a sin in it?” he asked. “Al Qaeda was a small
baby. My commitment was much bigger,” he said. In 1986, Siad Barre sentenced
Aweys to death by firing squad, but thanks to intervention from other
leaders in the Muslim world, he survived. “While we were already having a
system, a history and a profile, Al Qaeda came.”

Although Osama bin Laden might have wanted a base in Somalia, Somalia didn’t
want bin Laden. Al Qaeda struggled there right from the start. In letters
seized by U.S. intelligence and analyzed by the Combating Terrorism Center
at West Point, Africa Corps’ disgruntled operatives complained about cheap
and lazy Somalis. The salaries that al Qaeda could offer were meager
compared with what Somalis earned as freelance gunmen working for warlords.
And the “spiritual benefits package”—the millennial brand of faith that
guaranteed heaven—meant nothing to Somalis who didn’t buy into the violent
ideology. In Aweys and other leaders, al Qaeda was particularly
disappointed. Writing in the early nineties, one operative called him a
“coward” unwilling to wage violent jihad against the West. Even Saddam
Hussein and Mohamad Farah Aideed, the operative grumbled, “have more
manhood” than Aweys does.

Despite their frustrations with the Somalis, the arrival of the United
States in the country provided al Qaeda with a huge opportunity. As the
“southern flank” of Dar-ul-Islam, the home of Islam, Somalia represented the
strategic doorway to the Arabian Peninsula—a doorway that Osama bin Laden
and his followers wanted to protect. As they read history, the Crusaders had
defeated Islam by attacking the margins. Al Qaeda’s first attempt to attack
America took place in Yemen early in 1993. Bin Laden blew up a hotel where
U.S. soldiers billeted on the way to Somalia, but they’d left the day
before. Here was a new fight to wage: “When you entered Somalia, the Somali
arena was barren and futile,” one senior operative named Abu Waleed wrote in
the nineties to his field agents. “The situation changed however, after the
intervention of America and the Knights of the Cross [the United Nations].”
“Fire at the bald eagle. Kill the Knights of the Cross. God is with you.
After faith, God’s greatest blessing is the brain. Use it wisely; do not
fight like a rhinoceros.”

Still, the members of the Africa Corps continued to find Somalia difficult
territory, their rigid ideology never taking hold. Costs outweighed
benefits; al Qaeda’s business model failed. A handful of operatives still
used Somalia as a base—including the Comorian Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the
alleged mastermind of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in neighboring Kenya
and Tanzania, which killed 225 people, and the 2002 attack on the
Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa—but for the most part, al Qaeda
decamped for neighboring Kenya, underlining the fact that weak states—not
failed ones—suit terrorists best.

The Kenya Connection

Despite Kenya’s own simmering political problems, Nairobi’s wide,
acacia-lined boulevards, smoothie stands and coffee shops are havens for
most of the aid community assigned to Somalia. On a given day, the parking
lot at Java House near the United Nations headquarters is crammed with shiny
white SUVs paid for mostly with aid dollars earmarked for missions to
Somalia. For the past 20 years, the perils of civil war have made it
seemingly impossible for the aid community to function inside the country
they’re supposed to be helping. To be fair, Mogadishu is far more dangerous
than Baghdad is now for aid workers, journalists and other internationals.
Still, over time, there has been a level of disengagement because Somalia is
hard and so far way. “Many of us enjoy life in Nairobi, the UN Special
Representative to the Secretary General on Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah
said. “These are the taboos we have to address. We are part of the problem.”

Not everyone agrees with this position. In fact, the UN’s political
engagement has been part of the problem for humanitarian workers. In the
last year, one out of three aid workers killed worldwide was killed in
Somalia. In its report released recently, Human Rights Watch points out the
link between the targeted attacks on humanitarian workers—including the
assassination of the head of the UN Development Program—and United Nations
funding for the training of Somali police. Since the UN pays the salaries
for what amounts to a militia, its workers are considered fair game for
militants. Despite ongoing frustrations, the UN Special Representative has
managed to convene peace talks with the various factions, including the
moderate Islamists. They have signed a provisional peace deal with the
failing government, but what that means practically is anyone’s guess.

Last spring, Ould-Abdallah had invited the ousted Islamists to a luxury
tourist hotel at the edge of the city. There, under a giant thatched hut in
the lobby, I met with Professor Ibrahim Addou, the former Foreign Minister
of the Islamic Courts Union now living in exile. Around us a busload of
tourists snapping group photos around a life-sized stone elephant. Girls in
spaghetti-strapped bathing suits drifted by. Addou, who lived in Georgetown
for twenty-four years, (near Wisconsin and Calvert, next to the Soviet
embassy) was unruffled.

Like Aideed, Addou is an American citizen. “I am a Somali and an American
too,” he said. He’s also a moderate Islamist, and a member of the opposition
fighting to wrest their country from Ethiopia’s grasp. They’ve known each
other for 25 years. When Aideed first arrived in America, Addou picked him
up at the airport. Addou was blacklisted for opposing the communist regime
of Siad Barre, as well as his cousin, who was the ambassador. Now, Addou
represents those who want to mix religion and democracy to form a new
government in Somalia.

Until 2002, he was teaching history at American University in Washington,
D.C. He returned home to Somalia to revamp the university system, but was
then was appointed foreign minister. Within months of the Islamists’ rise to
power, Professor Addou said, the courts disarmed most of Somalia. Militiamen
for the warlords were suddenly accountable for decades of robbery and rape.
Wives could take their deadbeat husbands to court for chewing the mild
stimulant qat all day and not working. It was safe to walk at night in
Mogadishu for the first time in 20 years.

There were also more ominous signs. The moderates like Addou couldn’t
control the militants within the military wing. Killers like Ayro
assassinated whomever they chose. Other freelance hardliners banned watching
the World Cup, short hair, and seized movies. “I can see we made certain
mistakes,” he conceded. “We didn’t train people. They were volunteers. We
weren’t paying them. We accept our mistakes, but our record speaks for

When the Islamists were overthrown, Addou was tackling long-standing
environmental problems Somalia has never had the chance to address,
including deforestation, illegal commercial fishing off of Somalia’s coast,
and the reported dumping of toxic waste by both Italian and Swiss
companies—including discarded nuclear material.

Moderate leaders like Addou are looking for a way to engage with America.
The first step, he argued, is talking with moderates like him about how to
rebuild Somalia. They want U.S. recognition and support in building a
coalition government. “This is a rare opportunity for the US—a unified
opposition that isn’t against America but is willing to deal with America,”
Addou said. He will do anything he can to open the door for the next
administration. This is not just about Somalia. He thinks the country could
be a poster child, of sorts, to help the U.S. to rebuild its relationship
throughout the Muslim world.

Mogadishu’s Mr. Mayor

One of the most notorious of Somalia’s warlords is Mohamad Dheere, who,
until earlier this fall, was the Mayor of Mogadishu. With a head of thick,
well-oiled curls and a doublewide girth, he rarely left the seaside rubble
of the whitewashed colonial city, the territory where the transitional
federal government holds onto its last scrap of power. Since 1991, more than
a dozen attempts at building a government have failed. The current regime,
supported by Ethiopia, also looks to be near collapse, due to internal
rivalries. President Abdullahi Yusuf, the former president of Somalia’s
semi-autonomous region of Puntland, currently heads the transitional
government. Dheere, the warlord, is one of his allies, a dubious distinction
which earned him the title of Mayor—and Governor—of Mogadishu until this
fall, when he was deposed due to infighting. His militia still terrorizes
Mogadishu’s dwindling number of inhabitants.

When I met Dheere last spring, the Somali shilling was falling so fast,
thanks to counterfeiting scheme run by businessmen and politicians, that
shopkeepers no longer accepted the bills. As insurgent attacks shut down
the city and hundreds of thousands of its residents fled their homes for
squalid camps, Dheere showed me a wooden map hanging on the wall of his
air-conditioned office. As Mayor, his first two priorities were “security
and taxes.” Security meant his private militia of red-eyed boys who robbed
people at checkpoints. Taxes meant that he was actually about to start
making the few people left in Mogadishu (those too old or poor to flee from
town) pay for the right to live in a war zone.

That afternoon, Dheere took me along to his city council meeting. At a
large private home called Richmond Residence—after its owner, who lived in
Virginia, men drank peach soda and chewed qat—the leafy narcotic banned by
the Islamists. A leopard pelt hung on the wall behind Dheere’s head. He laid
out his tax plan: everyone had to pay.

“But my area is too small to collect tax. We don’t even have a market,” one
local official protested.

“No place is too small to pay tax!” the Mayor shouted. The room rang with
gravelly laughter, the mood enhanced by the small pleasure of qat.

Dheere defends his policies in the name of battling al Qaeda. “Since the
collapse of the government in 1991, these groups have gotten strong,” he
warned. His staunchest enemy was Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, whom the Mayor
accused of destroying the country.

Dheere was a member of a group of Somali warlords, the Alliance for
Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, which was backed by the CIA in
return for their help in capturing and killing suspected terrorists. “The
Americans approached us,” Mayor Dheere explained. “They had their own
intelligence about the number of international terrorist suspects using
Somalia as a safe haven.”

U.S. agents would fly into a private airport that belonged to a warlord
named Mohamad Qanyare, who outlined the system to me. (He prefers to be
called, he told me, “a very, very, very successful businessman.”) The
warlords and American agents met repeatedly at his compound, which Qanyare
kept heavily guarded. He claimed that he even safeguarded the Americans’
food to make sure they weren’t poisoned. The intelligence agents brought
with them suitcases of U.S. dollars to pay the warlords and their
militias—reportedly about $100,000 a month.

According to Dheere and Qanyare, the Americans (and the Israelis following
the 2002 Mombasa attack) gave the warlords a list of people to kill,
capture, or kidnap and then fly them in secret from Qanyare’s private
airport to places unknown. The Somalis involved claimed they turned over
about 20 people in this manner. The most comprehensive list of reported
extraordinary renditions to date, published by Peter Bergen in Mother Jones
in March of this year, reports that three terrorist suspects have been
rendered from Somalia. (A CIA spokesperson, Marie Harf, declined to

Dheere is especially proud of the capture of Suleiman Abdalla Salim Hemed,
aka Issa Tanzania, a 20-something Yemeni linked to the 2002 Mombasa attack.
Dheere claims that he captured Hemed in Somalia in 2002. He was then
reportedly flown to Afghanistan and is one of an estimated twenty-odd
foreigners being held out of sight and incommunicado at Bagram Airbase
outside of Kabul. “Bagram is the new Guantanamo,” Tina M. Foster, a U.S.
attorney for detainees held there said. According to Foster, Hemed claims
that he was tortured in U.S. custody.

When the warlords and Islamists began to fight in 2006, the Islamist
militias quickly proved stronger and more organized than the rag-tag warlord
militias. The Somali people threw their support behind the Islamists less
because they were devoted to Islam than because they hated the warlords. As
quickly as the public outcry arose, the warlords’ American intelligence
colleagues vanished, and with them, the suitcases of U.S. cash.

Once the U.S. decamped, Dheere made his money elsewhere. His greatest source
of revenue was the main checkpoint about eight miles out of Mogadishu, where
he has stationed his militia. Every afternoon, these stoned,
sometime-soldiers rob passersby or take random potshots at vehicles with
their AK-47s. At the checkpoint, trucks line up for weeks because they can’t
pay whatever “tax” the militia demands. Hundreds of thousands of refugees
have fled along this road, and everyone passing through pays, including
relief workers carrying supplies.

Last October, workers were distributing U.N. food supplies at a refugee camp
along this road to thousands of recent arrivals when Dheere’s militia
attacked. In an effort to steal the food, they fired anti-aircraft guns into
the crowd, according to eyewitnesses. They’d even brought empty trucks to
cart it way. But the inhabitants fought back and, somewhat miraculously,
forced the militia to retreat.

“I’m ready to kick the militia’s asses,” Dekko Mohamad, a Somali-American
doctor working at the camp told me on my trip last spring. We shared a 7-Up
during a rare break between patients. She’d traveled from Atlanta, Georgia,
to help run the camp’s hospital for women. As we talked, her mother, Dr.
Hawa Abdi, whom I’d met the previous year, came to sit with us. She peeled
back her headscarf to reveal a scar across her skull. Since I’d last seen
her, Dr. Abdi had survived a bout with brain cancer.

During the famine of the early 1990s, Dr. Abdi had buried more than 10,000
bodies on this land, which used to be her family farm. When the first
President Bush visited Mogadishu, she shook his hand. For a moment, her
humanitarian work made her a national hero. Now, as a result of the latest
war, 20,000 people have come to live with her. More arrive daily, but this
time there’s no one to see it, or to help out.

Her daughter, Dekko, desperately wanted to go back to Georgia but her mother
needed her too badly. “I’m stuck,” she said, blinking hard behind her red
Prada eyeglasses. The Somalia she’d left as a child and the one to which she
returned last spring were very different. “Mogadishu is way more religious.”
She saw this especially among the NGOs, where most doctors wouldn’t even
tell their patients that they had HIV, she said. After her training in the
Soviet Union and the United States, this shocked her, and she told the
doctors so. “Don’t use your western mentality here,” they responded,
“they’ll kill you.” Dekko was not the only aid worker to come under threat.
The militants deliberately target aid workers and members of civil society
in order to gut any opposition. They do so, of course, in the name of

Partly as a result of rapes by militias, but also due to a new religious
conservatism, women couldn’t move as freely as in the past. They had trouble
seeking medical care and Dekko was seeing an unusual number of miscarriages.
This new step backwards for women scared her. Over the past decade, as the
UN and other aid agencies moved to Nairobi and the conflict dropped out of
the spotlight, Somalis were left largely to fend for themselves. Religious
NGOs formed the main humanitarian presence and their aid dollars were used
to spread a more conservative Islam. Some Saudi NGOs, for example, paid
women $50 to wear Islamic clothes. This wasn’t the Islam she knew. “The
prophet’s wives were educated,” she said. To her, this retreat by Somalia’s
legendarily powerful women felt false and misguided.

All of these social problems stemmed from the lack of a real state, her
mother added. “This government has no power,” she said. “It wasn’t chosen by
society, but by the international community.” A country that functions in
absentia doesn’t function at all. She tied her scarf back over her scar and
got ready to go back to the operating room. “How many millions are being
wasted on Somalia in other countries?” she asked. “Aid is a business.”

The next afternoon, on our way to the airport, we came across the aftermath
of a food riot. A crowd had thrown stones at a man driving a sugar truck,
striking him in the head and causing him to crash. With cups and sacs and
buckets, the looters took what they could before police showed up. Then the
police held the people away from the sacs by brandishing guns. Most people
were no longer eating every day, but the Mayor continued with his plan to
beautify the shattered city. He didn’t begin with schools, or feeding
centers, or hospitals, but with the Central Bank, which he painted robin’s
egg blue. As people began to starve, he was already depositing their “taxes”
in his new, blue bank.

After the Hand-wringing

Without question, Somalia is worse off than it has been in a decade.
Frustrated by the lack of support from the international community, Ethiopia
has recently announced that it will pull its troops out of Somalia by the
end of the year. If and when Ethiopia leaves, the weak transitional
government it has supported is sure to collapse, and rival militias are
likely to take to the streets of Mogadishu and wage all-out war. Ethiopia
wants international peacekeeping soldiers to step in and take over the
burden. “There are peacekeepers in so many countries—including Africa—but no
one is paying attention to Somalia,” said Ethiopian spokesperson Wondimu
Asamnew. This move’s potential impact on the U.S. is a humanitarian,
security and political nightmare.

The U.S. has supported the idea of an international peacekeeping force since
2007, and although such a force may be an option, there are pros and cons to
the idea. First, the 2,000-odd African Union troops already in Somalia are
targeted daily by insurgents, who see the UN as just as much their infidel
enemy as the U.S., or Ethiopia. One potential solution would be to send
international troops first to regions where they are likely to be welcomed,
like the semi-autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland, and leave for
last Mogadishu and the coastal towns the insurgents currently hold.

Among many Somalis, U.S. policy toward their country has been largely
discredited. In a larger sense, Somalia cuts to the core of one of our
biggest problems in the war on terror: proportionality. As Menkhaus puts it,
“In order to pursue a handful of people, we’ve laid waste to an entire
country. In my 25 years of experience working in the country, I’ve never
seen anything like this level of fierce anti-Americanism. Rightly or
wrongly, the Somalis hold the U.S. responsible for the occupation: a
sub-contracting out of the War on Terror.” Somalis are waiting to see if a
new U.S. administration will take a new—more even-handed—approach.

“The key is to get a functioning government,” says U.S. Undersecretary for
African Affairs Jendayi Frazer. “One could chase terrorists all day long.”
Clearly, Somalia has been one of the most maddening and dismal of pages in
the Bush Administration’s Africa file. Now, with the wisdom of hindsight,
Frazer is raising a warning about abandoning Somalia politically. One option
for the incoming Obama administration would be to appoint a super-envoy, or
czar, for the Horn of Africa. Frazer has her eye on the United Nations
Ambassador-designate Susan E. Rice, who had extensive experience in Africa
during the Clinton Administration and was in office when al Qaeda launched
its 1998 attack against the U.S. embassies in both Kenya and Tanzania.
“Susan Rice is going to be critical on Somalia,” she said. “No single
country wants to handle this.” The incoming administration has already
signaled that the U.S. will hold to a higher standard. "President-elect
Obama has spoken repeatedly about the importance of preventing failed states
as they are incubators for extremism and terror,” Brooke Anderson, policy
adviser and chief national security spokesperson for the Obama
administration told me. “Clearly the situation in Somalia is dire— the world
has a stake in restoring order as it affects security for all nations."

There is a danger in Somalia, and in Africa in general, for the new
administration if it returns to “Clinton and Bush-era policies,” argues
Chris Albin-Lackey, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. Spread thin
elsewhere, the administration might choose to ignore the host of complicated
actors in Somalia, and turn instead to the devils we know—leaders like
Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi. But Somalia faces a massive crisis of governance,
which is more than two decades old and now pulls in warlords, businessmen,
and moderate Islamists, all of whom must be part of a solution.

Moreover, the era of Africa’s big-man politics is over. Nothing makes this
clearer than the life and times of Hussein Aideed, who despite his pedigree,
holds little sway with Somalis. “I was never with them. That’s the problem.
I was in California. This was a big shock,” he said, referring to his
father’s assassination and his own elevation as president. “All my credit
cards, my bank, my cars everything—I didn’t go back. So I’ve been stuck from
then ‘til now.” This brings us, inevitably, to the other American,
Professor Ibrahim Addou, and the role of moderate Islamists in rebuilding a
new Somalia—a role the United States will have to get behind for two
reasons. First because the vast majority of Somalis now want some form of
democracy and Islamic government. Second, because in Somalia at least, it’s
how we can defeat al Qaeda’s war of words: by proving to Somalis—who are
extremely pragmatic—that we aren’t out to destroy their religion.

Whatever political shape Somalia takes, it’s clear that current U.S. policy,
with its ever-ready Predator drones buzzing overhead, is polarizing the
population in a way that even bin Laden’s Africa Corps couldn’t a decade
ago. This past summer, an American Tomahawk missile struck the compound of
Aden Hashi Ayro, Sheikh Aweys’ militant protégé. The missile killed ten
people, including Ayro. Word on the Mogadishu Street was that the Tomahawk
cost about $600,000 U.S. dollars. Three and a half million people were
starving and America spent so much money on just one man, many Somalis joked
darkly. How lucky Ayro was: all those American dollars aimed right for his

Eliza Griswold, a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of
Wideawake Field (2007), is working on a book about Christianity and Islam,
The Tenth Parallel.



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