Shabaab, not the US, responsible for the rise of Islamic terror in Somalia

Shabaab commander Sheikh Abu Mukhtar Robow (left) and former al Qaeda leader Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan (faced covered) in a propaganda video acquired by The Long War Journal. US Special Operations Forces killed Nabhan in a raid in September 2009. Nabhan was one of the top leaders in Shabaab and worked to integrate the group into al Qaeda’s global network.

Here’s an idea that never seems to die. At the Times Online, Martin Fletcher blames the US (and specifically the Bush administration) for the rise of Shabaab and Islamic terrorism in Somalia. To sum up Fletcher’s thesis, had the US only kept its nose out of Somalia, it would have been a moderately Islamic region governed by the Islamic Courts. He writes:

It [the US] has delivered a people that practised a moderate form of Islam into the hands of religious extremists. Its efforts to combat terrorism have turned Somalia into a launchpad for global jihad. Somalia is now the ultimate failed state whose mayhem threatens to destabilise the region and whose pirates maraud the vital shipping lanes off its shores. Its people endure Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis.

I have addressed this same argument twice since December 2008, first when Matthew Yglesias made the argument, and second when the Los Angeles Times, pining for the Islamic Courts, repeated the meme. Below is my response to Yglesias, which also applies to Fletcher.

There is plenty of criticism to direct at the Bush administration for its failure to develop a coherent strategy to deal with the al Qaeda-backed insurgency. But Matthew Yglesias’s criticism is far wide of the mark. Yglesias demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of the situation in the region, the nature of the Islamic Courts, Ethiopia’s strategic interests in preventing the rise to power of the al Qaeda-backed Islamic Courts, and the recent history in Eastern Africa.

In a nutshell, Yglesias argues that the United States pushed Ethiopia to invade Somalia to dislodge the Islamic Courts from power, and as a result the U.S. “is breeding a new generation of anti-American jihadists.” This is wildly wrong for several reasons, just a few are listed below.

First, Ethiopia has a long history of fighting the rise of Islamist extremism in Somalia. Ethiopia battled Al-Ittihad-al-Islamiyah, the predecessor of the Islamic Courts Union and the same group behind the notorious Black Hawk Down battle in Mogadishu, throughout the 1990s. Al-Ittihad-al-Islamiyah conducted bombings in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa in 1996 and 1997 and small-scale attacks throughout the country. Ethiopian forces battled Al-Ittihad-al-Islamiyah in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia and inside Somalia.

Second, the Islamic Courts isn’t just some “Islamist movement that arose out of sharia courts that had begun to provide some measure of local judicial authority amid Somalia’s anarchy.” The group has received backing from the same sources in the Middle East that support al Qaeda. Senior leaders of the Islamic Courts trained in al Qaeda camps and are considered al Qaeda leaders. For instance, Hassan Dahir Aweys, the leader of the Islamic Courts, is also a senior al Qaeda leader [note: Aweys is designated by the US as a terrorist under Executive Order 13224.]

The Islamic Courts sheltered the three al Qaeda operatives behind the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. These same operatives served in senior leadership positions in the Islamic Courts. For instance, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed served as the intelligence chief for the Islamic Courts prior to its fall in early 2007.

Third, al Qaeda had established training camps and bases in Somalia long before the Ethiopian invasion. During the Ethiopian invasion in late 2006 and early 2007, several al Qaeda camps were targeted. The island fortress of Ras Kamboni was a major command, control, and communications hub for al Qaeda in East Africa. The Islamic Courts conducted suicide attacks in Somalia prior to the Ethiopian invasion.

Fourth, foreign fighters were encouraged to flock to Somalia to wage jihad in 2005 and early 2006, again long before the Ethiopian invasion. Osama bin Laden gave several nods to the Islamic Courts in 2006. The Islamic Courts issued propaganda tapes in Arabic to appeal to Arabs throughout the Middle East to join the jihad. Al Qaeda’s propaganda outfit As Sahab helped to produce these videos. Islamic Courts leaders boasted of foreign involvement. In these videos, foreigners were seen training in camps and fighting.

Finally, As Shabaab, the new incarnation of the Islamic Courts, has openly lobbied to join al Qaeda. Again, its senior leaders are also senior al Qaeda leaders in East Africa. This didn’t happen out of the blue, it is the result of years of links with the global terror organization.

This merely scratches the surface on Yglesias’s ignorance of the Islamic Courts, its links to al Qaeda, and the reasons for the radicalization of “a new generation of anti-American jihadists.” The fact is al Qaeda has been working to radicalize Somalia’s youth before Ethiopia got involved, and Ethiopia had strategic reasons to halt the rise of the Islamic Courts.

Yglesias is essentially arguing the United States should have allowed the Somali version of the Taliban to take control of Somalia unopposed. We saw what that brought us in 2001.

There should be no doubt the United States encouraged and supported an Ethiopian invasion, but it should be remembered that the UN-backed Somali Transitional Federal Government requested Ethiopian assistance. The failures in Somalia occurred after the invasion. The United States failed to provide minimal support to the Transitional Federal Government. For a small price, perhaps tens of millions of dollars, the United States could have helped prop up the Somali military and police forces, and paid for some basic services. Instead, the U.S. state department and the European Union blocked funding and insisted on negotiations to include the Islamic Courts in the government. This inaction allowed the insurgency to fester.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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