Somalia next on the block?

Alarm bells were sounding in East Africa this week, amid reports of Osama Bin Laden fleeing Pakistan and surfacing in Somalia and of imminent United States strikes on alleged Al-Qa’eda strongholds in Yemen, Somalia and Sudan.

War-torn Somalia is widely seen as a potential hideaway for Bin Laden and his band of Muslim warriors, and both the government and the population at large fear a punitive US strike. Last Tuesday, neighbouring Yemen launched a pre-emptive strike on a supposed Al-Qa’eda hideout in the village of Al-Hosoun in the country’s Ma’rib province, 200km south of the capital Sana’a. But the Somali government is considered too weak to follow the Yemeni example and lash out against its own Islamists and suspected Al-Qa’eda members.

News that the world’s most wanted man was on their doorstep did not go down very well with Somalia’s shaky central government which does not have full control of the capital Mogadishu, let alone the entire country. Nevertheless, the Somali authorities arrested nine suspected terrorists — reportedly Iraqi nationals of Kurdish origin — over the weekend.

Even if Bin Laden were to be captured or killed, however, there remains the worry that militant Islamist groups associated with Al-Qa’eda are still at large in the Horn of Africa, one of the world’s most politically volatile and war-battered regions.

The transitional Somali government hotly denies allegations that Bin Laden or any of the leading figures of Al-Qa’eda have sought refuge in Somalia, claiming that the nature of the Somali geography makes it very difficult for members of Al-Qa’eda to find safe haven. Most of Somalia is a barren and exposed terrain of open scrub land. There are few mountainous areas except in the self- proclaimed independent state of Somaliland in the northwest, which falls outside the jurisdiction of the transitional Somali government. On the other hand, with a 1,000km Indian Ocean coastline and being situated a stone’s throw from the heartlands of Islam in the Arabian peninsula, Somalia has numerous small ports which have been ideal conduits for the shipment of small arms and drug-trafficking.

The Somali government has called on Washington to carry out extensive investigations into the activities of all suspect Somali organisations, and pledged to give full backing to the US authorities and to hunt down the terrorists. Interim Somali President Abdul-Kassem Salad Hassan and other senior members of his administration played down reports that many Somali militiamen receive their instructions from mujahidin, or Islamic holy warriors — the so-called Arab Afghans originally set up and trained by Americans to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.

The Somali government, however, insists that Somali militant Islamist groups were dealt a severe blow during the civil war. These groups are widely discredited in the eyes of the population at large and are all but finished politically and militarily, according to the government.

“It would be regrettable if US warmongering is a question of settling old scores or simply pounding us for pounding’s sake,” according to Abdallah Hassan Mahmoud, Somalia’s ambassador to Egypt and permanent representative at the Arab League.

He told Al-Ahram Weekly that at present, “there are no groups that threaten US interests in Somalia. At the moment, a US delegation is visiting Somalia to investigate realities on the ground in the country. Moreover, there have been many such visits in the past few years. Somalia does not harbour terrorists.”

However, it is plausible that two of Somalia’s neighbours might volunteer to do the clean-up job on behalf of the handicapped Somali government. One of them is Ethiopia, which has in the past done battle with Somali Islamist groups on both Ethiopian and Somali territory. The other is Kenya, derided for its poor human rights and corruption records and, therefore, seeking to ingratiate itself with Washington.

Ethiopia, straining for a fight and wanting to settle old scores, is waiting with bated breath for the green light from Washington to charge into Somalia. The ostensible aim would be to hunt militant Islamists — but in reality, Ethiopia would probably seek to further its ambitions as a regional power and to exert greater influence over the domestic affairs of its restive eastern neighbour and traditional enemy Kenya.

The Kenyans are still licking their wounds after the bombing of the US embassy in the heart of the country’s capital Nairobi in August 1998. Kenya is also home to a number of local militant Islamist groups and is eager to clamp down on both its own and neighbouring Somalia’s Islamists, and to curry favour with the West — killing two birds with one stone.

“Kenya has no designs on Somalia. Ethiopia, however, occasionally warns of the presence of militant Somali Islamist groups that threaten both Ethiopian and American interests in the region. The Ethiopians have even claimed that the Somali transitional government is a terrorist entity. These allegations are unfounded and betray Ethiopia’s ulterior motives. They are most regrettable,” stressed Ambassador Mahmoud.

But it appears that the Americans, too, are not entirely convinced of Somalia’s innocence. US naval forces are currently patrolling Somali coastal waters. According to reports in Britain’s Sunday Observer, Pentagon sources have claimed that US reconnaissance planes recently flew over Somalia in an attempt to locate the whereabouts of Al-Qa’eda strongholds in the sprawling East African country. The paper also reported that the US State Department has advised humanitarian relief agencies in Somalia to prepare for the evacuation of their foreign staff.

Worse, there is a danger that the different Somali factions — many of which are sceptical of the government installed after the Somalia reconciliation conference held in Arta, Djibouti, last year — may take advantage of the tense political situation to make military and political gains. This would unsettle the precarious peace imposed on the country after the Arta conference.

The Somali government claims that the militant Islamist Al-Itihad Al-Islami (Islamic Unity) group was disbanded after being routed in 1996 and 1997 by Ethiopian forces and their Somali protégés in Gedeo region, southwestern Somalia. “It is a spent force,” argues Ambassador Mahmoud. However, one of the Somali government’s staunchest critics, Hussein Aidid — son of the warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid — has claimed that armed paramilitary groups belonging to the Al-Itihad Al- Islami movement are infiltrating territory previously held by his own militiamen.

“Hussein Aidid and his ilk work against the interests of the Somali people. They use the supposed presence of militant Islamist groups as a pretext to ingratiate themselves with world powers. This unscrupulous behaviour will have dire consequences,” Ambassador Mahmoud told the Weekly.

But Al-Itihad Al-Islami is not the only Islamist group in the virtually 100 per cent Muslim country. Other Somali Islamist political and paramilitary organisations include the Muslim Brotherhood, who are also known by other names such as Harakat Al-Islah or “Reform Movement” — not to be confused with Al-Islah Al-Islami or “Islamic Reform,” led by Sheikh Mohamed Ali Ibrahim Alu, or with Al-Harakah Al-Islamiya or “Islamic Movement.” The leader of the Somali Muslim Brothers is none other than the head of Mogadishu University, Dr Ali Sheikh Abu-Bakr, and the movement is well-oiled by Gulf Arab money, especially from Kuwait.

While the Muslim Brothers are the largest and most influential group, other like-minded groups include the Islamic Party of Somalia. There is also the Gamaat Al- Tabligh Al-Islami, which shuns political action and limits its activities to the propagation of religion and encouraging women to don the veil and men to quit the traditional local stimulant qat.

Somalia is also home to Ahl Al-Sunna wal Gama’a, one of the country’s oldest Islamist groups. Beyond this, there is the Somali Hizbullah, Tahaluf Al-Qabael Al- Islamiyah Al-Mowahada or “The United Alliance of Islamic Tribes,” the Independent Muslims, and the Islamic Youth Union. This last group is headed by Hassan Abdel-Salam and concentrates its activities in the northern part of the country.

Washington has already frozen the assets of the Al- Barakat Group — a Somali charitable Islamist organisation — for allegedly funding terrorists. Thousands of poverty-stricken Somalis who depended on Al-Barakat’s hand-outs, soup kitchens and extensive health, education and social welfare provisions have been adversely impacted by Washington’s fiat.

German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping said recently that US air strikes on Somalia are imminent. But while US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied reports that Somalia is on the US hit-list, Washington has dispatched Glenn Warren — the official in charge of Somali affairs at the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya — to Somalia to check reports about Al-Qa’eda training camps in Ras Kamboni in southern Somalia near the Kenyan border.

Ethiopia and its Somali allies in the Somali Reconciliation and Restoration Council (SRRC) — which was set up as a rival Somali administration with Ethiopian backing — claim that the Somali government itself, which is backed by Islamist courts formed during the Somali civil war, is Islamist in orientation.

Kenya is hosting a conference in Nairobi to which Somali government officials and SRRC leaders were invited. While some SRRC leaders — including SRRC Secretary General Mawlid Maan — attended, others like Hussein Aidid declined to participate in the conference. A deal was signed on Monday between the SRRC warlords in attendance and the trasitional Somali government. Aidid, however, rejected the deal. The Kenyan government hopes to create an enlarged transitional government that will include disgruntled SRRC members.

“Kenya is working hard with all Somali factions to end the state of political instability and war in Somalia,” was the assurance that Mahmoud Mohamed Maalim, Kenya’s ambassador to Egypt and himself of ethnic Somali origin, gave to the Weekly. “Naturally we want to contain the terrorist threat in East Africa and any terrorists — Somali or otherwise — caught on Kenyan soil will be brought to book,” he added.