Somalia: Al-Qaeda's Next Battleground?
From Asharq Al-Awsat, London
Al-Qaeda's appeal to the Somali people to stage an Islamic uprising fell on deaf ears; however, the militant, violent nature of the appeal stirs up aversion among ordinary people, who hope that the new Somali leader will be able to end the 18-year long anarchy.
According to analysts, Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden's appeal, which he addressed to the Somali people last week to topple President Sharif Sheikh Ahmad, was an attempt to raise the morale of fighters who sympathize with Al-Qaeda, but who are increasingly losing popularity, not a realistic political action plan.
Fundamentalist Islamists in London told Asharq Al-Awsat that Al-Qaeda wants to return to Africa through Somalia. They noted that, in addition to Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Somalia is a vital new base for Al-Qaeda. In a telephone call to Asharq Al-Awsat, Dr Hani Al-Sibai, director of the Al-Maqrizi Studies Center in London, said that "since the early 1990s, Al-Qaeda has not given up Somalia where it fought battles." He said that before Bin Laden made his latest speech in which he urged the Somali people to depose and kill Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad, an audiotape had been posted in a website by Abu-Yahya al-Libi, one of the Al-Qaeda leaders. He added that while in Sudan at the beginning of 1990s, Al-Qaeda was greatly interested in Somalia. He noted that Abu-Ubaydah al-Banshiri (Ali Amin al-Rashidi), brother-in-law of Abdul-Hamid Abdul-Salam, who took part in the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat, (traveled to Sudan). Al-Banshiri was viewed in armed fundamentalist groups as the chief of staff of the Al-Qaeda army. He was the first military officer of Al-Qaeda to travel to the heart of Africa in an exploratory mission. He drowned in Lake Victoria as he was training a number of the Al-Qaeda organization members in carrying out the bombing of the two US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
Al-Sibai said that Al-Qaeda has been interested in the Horn of Africa region since the 1990s, noting that the region witnessed the first actual attack by Al-Qaeda soon after the declaration of its founding in 1998 under the name "The International Front for Fighting Jews and Crusaders." The first operation this organization carried out was the suicidal attack on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Al-Sibai noted that in its literature, Al-Qaeda regards Somalia as a source of pride because its tribal society is suitable for Al-Qaeda activities.
Al-Sibai revealed that 10 to 20 of the Somali Mujahidin Youth Movement (MYM) were in Afghanistan with Osama Bin Laden prior to the 9/11 attacks, and that they founded the first nucleus of the MYM although this group did not have a structural link with Al-Qaeda.
In a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat, Dr Kamal al-Hilbawi, former official spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood in the West, said: "We want to know the form of government that Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri want in Somalia. They are neither satisfied with HAMAS, nor the Muslim Brotherhood organization, or the moderate leader, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad; there is something wrong that must be addressed." He added that Bin Laden believes he can rule the world from his hide-out. Al-Bilhari, who is the founder of the Islamic League, and of the British Islamic Council in Britain, said although these people call for jihad, they have no vision. He said that he personally wonders whether Somalia should be left in the hand of secularists after the withdrawal of the Ethiopian forces.
Asharq Al-Awsat had earlier published parts of Al-Qaeda's secret correspondence that was posted on websites, which belong in one way or another to the US Department of Defense (Pentagon). One of these was a message from Salih Abdul-Wahid to Abu-Hafs, (Muhammad Atif), the official in charge of military affairs in Bin Laden's organization, who was killed in a US air raid on Qandahar in November2001. In that message, dated December 1993, he spoke of the Mujahidin's strategy in Somalia and of his meeting with Sheikh Abdullah Sahl and Sheikh Hassan Tahir, two of the leaders of the Islamic Union. He said that "during the meeting, we discussed these issues: The need to strike at US forces in Somalia to turn the country into another Vietnam-like quagmire, and to strike at the UN forces in general.
According to experts, while Bin Laden's local allies in Somalia pose a real military threat, most of the Somali people seem to be more convinced of the former teacher, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad, 42, and of his ability to achieve stability in the country, than they are of the war message preached by Al-Qaeda organization. Rashid Abdi, expert in Somali affairs in the International Group for Addressing Crises, said: "There is no possibility of a rebellion erupting in Somalia. The (Bin Laden's appeal) primarily aims at raising the morale among the MYM." He added: "Bin Laden's appeal shows that Al-Qaeda has designs in Somalia, but, politically speaking, most of the country sides with Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad." He said that the MYM is a strong group of Islamic fighters who are sympathetic to Al-Qaeda. They are in control of large parts of the country and they, along with movements that embrace the same ideology, are staging a rebellion against the government. He added that against this military threat, there is a deep feeling among ordinary Somalis that Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad, a moderate Islamic leader who won the elections during talks hosted by the UN in Djibouti in January, provides the best opportunity in years to build a new future in the country.
Analysts believe that Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad has a real chance of settling the worst disputes among the 10 million people of Somalia in view of his Islamic roots and the feeling in the West that he must be given an opportunity to achieve stability in the Horn of Africa region.
Abdi Samatar, a researcher in Somali affairs and professor of geography and international studies at the University of Minnesota, said: "Bin Laden can say whatever he wants, but this will not change the political scene as far as the YMY is concerned." He added: "The will of the people is to say no to war; this attitude represents a major obstacle for Bin Laden. The main enemy of the MYM up to January was the Ethiopian occupation forces, which were sent to Somalia with tacit US approval in 2006 to crush presumed activities by Al-Qaeda.
The presence of Ethiopian forces in Somalia triggered national sentiments among Somalis to prove their patriotism, sentiments that many Somalis understood. Analysts however believe that the complete withdrawal of the Ethiopian forces eliminated a key political reason for support for the MYM, which seems to be striving to remain a coherent force in the absence of the Ethiopian military presence. The new Somali leader faces numerous major dangers, primarily an assassination attempt by the MYM, which continues to receive funds from foreign sources and which tightly keeps its secrets, something that is not easy in a gossipy society where people exchange information quickly and competently.
Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad so far does not have a considerable military force, for the government forces and the African Union peace-keeping force of 3,500-strong control only some parts of Mogadishu. He also faces many challenges, notably stopping acts of violence and piracy, establishing relations with the new US Administration, rebuilding roads and ports, and curbing militiamen leaders and greedy businessmen who have interest in weakening the government's authority.
The wide-range changes that occurred in the political scene in Somalia over the past six months mean that the possibilities have improved for handling these tasks and ending the anarchy that was fed by tribal propensities over the past18 years. The major development in the country has been Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad's assumption of power. This encourages confidence because he led the Islamic Courts which defeated leaders of the strong militias in Mogadishu, and achieved a measure of stability in the capital and in most of the southern parts of Somalia in2006.
However, Sheikh Sharif Ahmad's success did not last long. The West accused the Islamic Courts of having links to terrorist groups. And Ethiopia dispatched forces to overthrow the Islamic Courts from power, prompting Sheikh Sharif Ahmad to flee the country and establish a group opposed to Ethiopia. He has now returned from exile and is seeking to consolidate his power on the ground and to communicate with the Islamists fighters who were part of the Islamic Courts he led. His moderate Islamic roots may be useful to him in his mission and in his effort to persuade some Arab countries to provide funds to his administration. He said that he backed implementation of Islamic Shariaa in Somalia, a statement that might dilute opposition to him among the Islamic groups even though his view of the Shariaa is unlike the more militant view preferred by the Taliban rebels in Afghanistan.
The Ethiopian forces have withdrawn from Somalia, ending an occupation that was seen in Washington as part of the war on terror, but locally was regarded as a flagrant violation of Somalia's sovereignty. According to some analysts, apprehensions about Ethiopia's role in Somalia continue to exist, and while Ethiopia has long been accused of preferring to see a weak Somali government to be able to dominate it, Ethiopia maintains that the opposite is true.