Iran in Latin America: Threat or Axis of Annoyance?

Senior Fellow Douglas Farah's analysis of the debate over the level of threat posed by Iran's expanding diplomatic, trade and military presence in Latin America, and its stated ambition to continue to broaden these ties.read more

Chinese Naval Modernization: Altering the Balance of Power

Richard Fisher details China's naval modernization program and the potential impacts on U.S. interests in the Western Pacific.read more

The Challenges of Somalia in the New World Order

emailEmail this article
printPrint this article

by Douglas Farah
Published on July 14th, 2006
ARTICLES

The victory of radical Islamists seeking to create an Islamist state in Somalia, much like the Taliban in Afghanistan, poses serious challenges for the U.S. intelligence and policy communities that will likely be frequently repeated in coming years. The fundamental challenge will be how to counter violent, radical Islamist movements that seek to establish control in stateless regions of the world where sending in U.S. troops is not a viable option and traditional tools in the diplomatic toolbox are ineffective. Somalia also demonstrates how overt U.S. aid to any groups in these regions is likely to result in the loss of legitimacy of the very groups the U.S. is seeking to aid.

Somalia, roughly the size of Texas with a population of about 9 million people, is only a part of the vast swaths of stateless areas, failed states and weak states that are attractive to terrorists and transnational criminal groups. Most of these regions are in Africa. According to a 2003 World Bank governance survey, none of Africa’s 53 states rated excellent or good governance. Only nine were rated as fair, and 44 ranged from weak (22) to very weak (13) or failed (9). There are only four failed states in the rest of the world.[1]

Despite the growing dependence on petroleum and other vital natural resources from Africa, in the post-Cold War era, U.S. policymakers and leaders of the intelligence community have largely failed to adequately define U.S. national interests in failed and failing states, develop workable options or employ effective tools in dealing with these regions and the non-state transnational criminal and terrorist groups that find refuge and profit in them.

To place the significance of the problem of failed and failing states in Africa in some context, one statistic stands out: The United States now imports some 15 percent of its oil and 20 percent of its natural gas from Africa. Within nine years, that total is expected to grow to 25 percent of the petroleum imports and 40 percent of the natural gas.[2]

Most is produced by Nigeria, with some coming from other states (Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon) in the Gulf of Guinea. But the production is unreliable because the states producing the oil, particularly Nigeria, are fragile. A 2005 National Intelligence Council (NIC) conference report on "Mapping Sub-Saharan Africa’s Future" listed the "outright collapse of Nigeria" as the primary threat to the continent.[3] The report said that currently "Nigerian’s are locked in a bad marriage that all dislike but dare not leave…If Nigeria were to become a failed state, it could drag down a large part of the West African region…Further, a failed Nigeria probably could not be reconstituted for many years—if ever—and not without massive international assistance."[4]

Stateless regions controlled by armed, non-state actors, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, are especially fertile for transnational criminal groups, terrorists, militias and insurgencies to meet, develop mutually beneficial relationships and arrange temporary alliances among their networks. For Islamists, especially, it is important to have common training and common combat experiences that foster a sense of community and inculcate the necessary mentality of rejecting the outside world and being fully obedient to the call of jihad.[5]

Gen. Charles Wald, deputy commander of U.S. European Command (EUCOM), which is responsible for most U.S. military in sub-Saharan Africa, has repeatedly stressed the need to devote more time and resources to dealing with the failed and failing states in the region. "It's an area we think is becoming appealing potentially for terrorist organizations or individuals to operate with semi-impunity," Wald said. "It has a lot of expanses of open area that are conducive to terrorist operations or sanctuary."[6]

Yet the U.S. has few resources deployed in the region. The only significant program is the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative, a program training a few hundred soldiers in each of nine countries in combating terrorism. The $100 million a year program is funded through 2010,[7] but represents a drop in the bucket compared to the magnitude of the problem.

Wald’s assessment is borne out by al Qaeda’s own recent writings, where sub-Saharan Africa is discussed as being a particularly inviting target for expansion, in part because of the necessity of creating safe rear-guard areas. A recent article in Sada al-Jihad (Echo of Jihad), an on-line magazine supporting global jihad, outlines al Qaeda’s growing interest in expanding into sub-Saharan Africa. The Project for the Research of Islamic Movements (PRISM) translated some of the June 2006 article by Abu Azzam al-Ansari, titled "Al Qaeda Moving to Africa," and published in the magazine’s June issue, the seventh time the magazine has appeared.

The author clearly states the advantages Africa offers global mujahadeen in their struggle. Among the primary ones he cites are: 1) The broad weakness of the governments and corruption, making it easier to operate in Africa than "in other countries which have effective security, intelligence and military capacities"; 2) The number of people with significant combat experience that can be recruited across the continent among the many large Muslim communities; 3) The poverty and social conditions which "will enable the mujahadeen to provide some finance and welfare, thus, posting there some of their influential operatives"; 4) The availability of cheap weapons in many parts of the continent; 5) The richness of Africa in oil and raw materials.

These favorable conditions recognized by al Qaeda as beneficial to establishing a more robust presence in Africa arise in large part from the chronic instability and conflict on the continent. The United Nations has deployed 57,600 peacekeepers in seven missions in Africa, compared to less than 9,000 in the seven missions in the rest of the world.[8]

In recent weeks the conflict in Somalia has come into sharper focus because of the triumph in Mogadishu, the capital, of the coalition of radical salafists calling themselves the Islamic Court Union. The stated goal of the militia is to create a sharia state that forces Islamic jurisprudence even on non-Muslims. The U.S.-backed alliance of non-Islamist warlords, receiving help from the intelligence community and the Pentagon, has in recent weeks been pushed from key areas of Mogadishu. In fact, the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, has retreated to isolated enclaves of little territorial or political significance.[9]

U.S. officials admit they have little understanding of the Islamist movement in Somalia or its potential consequences. They also publicly cling to the belief that -- despite the stated intentions of the ICU to create a sharia state and impose their salafist model of government -- that a dialogue with the weak and ineffective central government is still possible.

Henry Crumpton, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month that his Department didn't anticipate the events in Somalia and has an "imperfect understanding" of the Islamic group. 

"We expect them [ICU] to work with the transitional government, and we also expect them to work with us to hand over al-Qaida and foreign fighters."[10] Crumpton said. The same policy line was restated in a later hearing by other senior officials.

This assessment is severely flawed, and clearly visible as such from the moment of the Islamist triumph in Mogadishu.

Among the first thing the Islamist alliance did was name as its leader Hassan Dahir Aweys, one of the region’s staunchest al Qaeda allies. Aweys is a U. S.-designated terrorist sponsor, a former army colonel and one of the driving forces of al-Itihaad al-Islaami, (AIAI). AIAI was also designated a terrorist organization by President Bush in the immediate aftermath of the 9-11 attacks. The group, a band of salafist militants, developed an alliance with al Qaeda in the early 1990s. Bin Laden’s forces helped train AIAI and the militias that in October 1993 downed a U.S. military Blackhawk helicopter.[11] The pictures of the angry mobs dragging the body of a U.S. Ranger through the streets have come to symbolize the inability to successfully fight in areas where the rule of law does not apply and national interests are not clearly defined.

"Islam is one body; if you're wounded in one place, you feel it everywhere," Aweys said in a September 2005 interview, defending the right to attack Americans in Iraq and elsewhere. "We all feel it when Americans kill Muslims. I know in my heart I cannot accept when they say we must stay outside. Western countries fight to take what they want from us. We won't accept those conditions."[12]

The naming of Aweys as the leader of the victorious militias at a time when the international community was at least momentarily focused on the conflict and publicly expressing deep concern over the emergence of a hard-line Islamic regime is significant. So is the decision to make one of the first acts of the new rulers the execution by public stoning of five suspected rapists. Other ominous portents include the violent closing of cinemas showing the World Cup soccer matches, watched by billions around the world,[13] and the declaration of prominent sheikh Abadallah Ali that that anyone who did not pray five times a day according to the dictates of Islam, would be killed.[14]

Osama bin Laden personally, in his statement released July 2, specifically singled out Somalia as a jihadist battleground and offered moral support to efforts to attack any international peacekeeping force that might be sent there, saying they would be agents of American "crusaders." While Aweys did not immediately embrace the bin Laden endorsement, he also did not distance himself from it.[15]

Sharif Ahmed, who was replaced by Aweys, had sent letters to Western embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, promising to fight terrorist and to turn over al Qaeda operatives. He also had softened his rhetoric on the establishment of sharia, saying the militias should abide "by the will of the people." Those actions, perhaps perceived as weakness, may have led the ascendancy of Aweys. Ahmed has left Somalia and returned to Minnesota, where he lives.

The ICU actions clearly signal their view that there can be no compromise in establishing an Islamic state, despite a publicly expressed willingness to negotiate with the weak and ineffective interim government backed by the United Nations. Such negotiations are unlikely to be a dialogue. The central government, with does not even sit in Mogadishu, lacks legitimacy, a standing army and money. It will be hard pressed to dictate anything to a somewhat coherent armed group that has a clearly enunciated goal and program. However, the U.S. remains wedded to the policy of supporting a government with no authority and seeking dialogue through a multilateral diplomacy.

It is also worth noting that the U.S. government has publicly stated it has information that financiers from Saudi Arabia helped fund the Islamists in Somalia, and that confederates in Yemen helped provide the weapons. "I don't want to say the Saudi government is supporting any particular [Islamic] court," Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Jendayi Frazer said in a Congressional hearing on June 29. "But I do know that there is money coming in from Saudi Arabia."

However, she said, despite the support the Islamists in Somalia were receiving from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, no punitive actions were being considered. Rather, she said, the administration had expressed concern to the relevant governments and was hoping to "reach out" to them.[16]

Somalia represents a different type of failed state like Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and it presents different challenges. States like Liberia, Nigeria and the DRC have significant natural resources, and therefore an easily-definable interest to criminal and terrorist groups. In its 2005, the International Crisis Group, while acknowledging the dangers of the presence of al Qaeda and other Islamist groups in Somalia, said the stateless land is of limited usefulness: "there is no sympathetic authority to provide protection; the flat, open terrain offers few opportunities for concealment; and a rich oral tradition makes it difficult to maintain secrets."[17]

However, this assessment ignores several important factors. Because it has no functioning, existent state government and no easily-exploitable natural resources, its primary resource is land for training and proximity to other theaters of jihadi activity. The proximity to other weak states where al Qaeda has also shown the repeated ability to strike is vital. Somalia was a vital rearguard area for the Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania; the attack on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen; the Mombassa attacks of 2002 and others. One cannot say these attacks would not have been possible without the use of Somalia as a rearguard area, but they all certainly would have been much more difficult to plan and their operational security more difficult to guarantee.

Somalia sits at the crossroads of various jihadi routes to and from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the African continent. In an era where the United States and its allies are seeking to limit the spread of salfism and the ability of Islamist groups to train and arm disparate groups of people, such areas are of vital importance.

Somalia has long been within al Qaeda’s area of influence, and not by accident. Beginning in 1992, Bin Laden established a network in Somalia and shuttled operatives in and out of the territory as well as established numerous training camps.[18] It is interesting to note that the Islamist leadership in Somalia has traditionally been closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, and most of its leaders were members of the Ikwan.[19]

This is not accidental. The international leaders of the Brotherhood cross the normal sectarian divides among Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, and have been behind the financing, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars in the past decade, of the spread of not only wahhabist mosques and charities in Africa, but behind the surge in radical Iranian outreach among Shi’ite Muslims. The Brotherhood has also worked for several decades to set up a financial infrastructure in Africa, extending from Islamist banks in Guinea and Sudan to business investments in Nigeria.

In the early 1990s Bin Laden and other Islamists, fresh from the victory in Afghanistan over the Soviet army, hoped to make Mogadishu a Kabul or a second Beirut for the Americans. Bin Laden urged fighters to go to Somalia to fight U.S. efforts to dominate Muslim lands, and said attacking U.S. forces would "cut off the head of the snake" of American aggression.[20] However, after Aweys’ al-Itihaad al-Islaami was formally disbanded in the mid-1990s, many of its leaders drifted away.

There is significant disagreement over whether the AIAI remains a group at all. The International Crisis Group, citing intelligence sources and Somalis, believes AIAI is either defunct or disbanded. However, a March 2005 report by a United Nations Panel of Experts, described the AIAI not only as intact, but running 15 terrorist training camps and active in Somalia’s chaos. It said AIAI was procuring weapons in order to acquire "ultimate control of the people and territory of Somalia."[21]

There is a little agreement over who led the formation of the most recent Islamist incarnation, the Islamic Court Union. Some analysts believe that it is an independent jihad that emerged in Mogadishu in 2003, led by young militants trained in Afghanistan. This group announced itself by murdering four foreign aid workers in Somaliland. The emergence of Aweys, however, seems to argue for the continued influence of the leaders of AIAI, rather than the young warriors.

While it is not entirely clear who runs them, there are reportedly several large jihadi training camps in Somalia, where different factions can improve their military prowess. They appear to cater mostly to Sunni, Salafist groups and little presence of Shi’ite groups has been detected.[22] However, as in past circumstances in Africa, particularly in Liberia and during bin Laden’s stay in Sudan, Hezbollah (Shi’ite) and al Qaeda (Sunni) exchanged training techniques and training camps.

The nature of the U.S involvement in the current Somali conflict is not entirely clear. A Joint Combined Task Force-Horn of Africa, based in nearby Djibouti, was established in 2002 to help underpin counter-terror efforts in the region through training, intelligence gathering and covert operations. U.S. intelligence operatives have helped arm the groups. Weapons bought by the Pentagon from Bosnia, while officially being designated as going to rearm the new Iraqi army and security forces, appear to have been diverted to Somalia to help arm the militias there.[23]

While the current operations have not been successful, U.S. operations in Somalia have had some notable successes. These include the capture of Suleiman Ahmed Hemed Salim in April 2003 and the capture of Mohamed Abdi Isse Yusuf, a jihadi leader of an important assassination team.[24] Intelligence officials believe that many of the surviving members of the al Qaeda group that carried out the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings and other attacks belong to this group or interact with the group regularly. Among those suspected of operating from Somalia is Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who also dealt al Qaeda diamonds in Liberia, and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who was in direct contact with bin Laden and the head of the Mombasa network.[25]

Less successful have been the efforts of the United States and United Nations in reestablishing anything close to a central government in Somalia, which has been without one since 1991. In 2004 the new Transitional Federal Government, the product of negotiations in neighboring Kenya, was formed. But it now exists only because the triumphant militias allow it to, for the time being.

The Somalia-type of failed state stands in contrast to other models of failure that present equal challenges to U.S. security interests, most of them also in Africa. Liberia, Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea are usually listed as failed states. These type of countries have or have recently had strong central governments that had, in effect, become functioning criminal enterprises. Under Charles Taylor, Liberia followed the classic "honey pot" model, controlling access to globally scarce but locally abundant resources that are easy to exploit. In the case of Liberia it was primarily diamonds, and to a lesser degree timber. This model applies also to Zimbabwe (gold, timber, iron), Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria (oil, natural gas), Angola (oil, diamonds), and multiple other states, to greater or lesser degrees. The Democratic Republic of Congo is different still, a state with an inept and corrupt government that exercises some control over part of the national territory, while armed militias and armies from other states control access to most of the natural resources.

The criminal state offers other advantages to terrorist organizations that completely failed states such as Somalia do not. These include the right to issue internationally recognized passports, including diplomatic passports; aviation registries; central banking facilities; access to important resources such as diamonds and tanzanite that have been exploited by both terrorist and criminal organizations, sometimes simultaneously.[26] Criminal states also offer the ability to secure the entry and exit points for criminals and terrorists who need to travel to and through the host country. Both situations are of strategic and operational value to Islamist groups.

Almost five years after 9-11 attacks were carried out by non-state actors operating from a failed state, the Defense Department and elements within the intelligence community are just beginning to focus on both phenomena in a serious way. The premise that these non-state groups pose a tier-one security priority is still not widely accepted. Somalia, and in coming months other regions, will show that such recognition is long overdue.


[1] Analysis and statistics are more complete in: Richard H. Shultz, Douglas Farah, Itamara V. Lochard, Armed Groups: A Tier-One Security Priority, Institute for National Security Studies, U.S. Air Force Academy, September 2004, Occasional Paper 57,

[2] Estimates provided by Gen. Charles Wald, deputy commander, U.S. European Command, in interview with author in spring 2005.

[3] Conference Summary, "Mapping Sub-Saharan Africa’s Future," National Intelligence Council, January 2005, p. 16.

[4] Ibid.

[5] For a more detailed discussion of the use of different types of stateless areas by armed groups, please see: Richard H. Shultz, Douglas Farah, Itamara V. Lochard, Armed Groups: A Tier-One Security Priority, Institute for National Security Studies, U.S. Air Force Academy, September 2004, Occasional Paper 57,

[6] Todd Pitman, "U.S. General Says al Qaeda Eyeing Africa," The Associated Press, March 5, 2004.

[7] Statistics taken from www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/tscti.htm.

[8] Statistics compiled by author from UN website on peacekeeping missions: www.un.org/Depts/dpko/dpko/index.asp

[9] Associated Press, June 1, 2006.

[10] Henry A. Crumpton, "The Changing Face of Terror: A Post 9/11 Assessment," testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, June 13, 2006.

[11] Rohan Gunaratna, Inside al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, Columbia University Press, New York, 2002, pp. 153-155: and International Crisis Group, Counter-Terrorism in Somalia: Losing Hearts and Minds? July 11, 2005, p. 1.

[12] hotzone.yahoo.com/b/hotzone/blogs6684

[13] The Washington Post, June 27, 2006, p. A18.

[14] Guled Mohamed and Mohamed Ali Bile, "Pray or Die Islamic Sheikh in Somalia Tells Muslims," Reuters, July 7, 2006.

[15] "Somalia’s Fluid Politics Move Toward Polarization," Power and Interest News Reporting, July 7, 2006.

[16] Ibid.

[17] International Crisis Group, Counter-Terrorism in Somalia: Losing Hearts and Minds? op cit, p. 2.

[18] Rohan Gunaratna, Inside al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, Columbia University Press, New York, 2002, pp. 153-155: and International Crisis Group, Counter-Terrorism in Somalia: Losing Hearts and Minds? July 11, 2005, p. 1.

[19] International Crisis Group, Somalia’s Islamists, Dec. 15, 2005, pp. 4-5.

[20] International Crisis Group, Counter-Terrorism in Somalia: Losing Hearts and Minds? op cit, p. 7.

[21] J.E Tambi, M.E. Holt Jr., C. Li and J. Salek, "Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia pursuant to Security Council, Resolution 1558 (2004)," United Nations Security Council (S/2005/153), 8 March 2005, p. 7.

[22] Author interviews with U.S. and European intelligence sources.

[23] Author interviews with U.S. and European intelligence sources. For details of some of the suspicious flights, see: Amnesty International, Dead on Time—Arms Transportation, Brokering and the Threat to Human Rights, pp. 38-40.

[24] International Crisis Group, Counter-Terrorism in Somalia: Losing Hearts and Minds? op cit, p. 10.

[25] Author interviews; International Crisis Group, op cit, p. 7; and Matthew Rosenberg, "Al-Qaeda operatives built East Africa network by weaving into region’s Islamic society," Associated Press, Jan. 11, 2004. For a fuller discussion of Fazul’s role in the diamond trade, see: Douglas Farah, Blood From Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror, Broadway Books, New York, 2004.

[26] Farah, Blood From Stones, op cit.

back to top ^

Powered by eResources