Situation in Somalia Remains Precarious

Andrew McGregor

May 22, 2007

After several weeks of relative calm in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, expelled Islamist leaders now based in Eritrea have pledged to continue attacks despite setbacks suffered in battles with Ethiopian troops in March and April. Two-thirds of the original Ethiopian force has now been withdrawn, and a three-week old cease-fire between Ethiopian troops and Mogadishu’s dominant Hawiye clan appears to be holding. Some 1,500 Ugandan soldiers of the African Union’s peacekeeping force are patrolling Mogadishu, but the rest of the projected 8,000-man force has yet to materialize, despite pledges from Nigeria, Burundi, Ghana and Malawi. The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry claims that 800-900 insurgents were killed in March and April, although this figure appears to include some of the 1,400 civilians killed in the fighting. Ethiopia also disputes the number of refugees, claiming the existence of only 80,000 displaced persons as opposed to UN estimates of 400,000 (SomaliNet, May 19). The UN’s relief chief for Somalia has described the refugee crisis as “worse than Darfur” (Shabelle Media Network, May 15).

Ethiopian TanksEthiopian Tanks in a Somali Market

Indiscriminate retaliatory shelling from Ethiopian troops, following attacks on their bases, devastated many Hawiye neighborhoods and cost the insurgency in terms of local support. After assessing their losses, the insurgents appear to have abandoned their preferred methods of hit-and-run mortar attacks and open gun-battles in favor of a shift to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and targeted assassinations. For example, a remote-controlled roadside bomb hidden in a pile of trash killed four Ugandan soldiers and injured five more on May 16. Four days later, a large roadside explosive device hidden in a plastic bag killed two civilians, while another bomb narrowly missed a Transitional Federal Government (TFG) convoy, killing two civilians instead. The main road through the Bakara market was closed the same day when another bomb was discovered close to a TFG base.

TFG Prime Minister Ali Muhammad Gedi was nearly killed on May 17 by a grenade thrown by a would-be assassin. Former warlord and new Mogadishu mayor Muhammad Dheere was targeted on May 20 by grenades thrown from an assassin in a tree. Dheere survived, noting: “It seems the Islamic insurgents are still active in Mogadishu, but we will get rid of them” (Shabelle Media Network, May 20). The TFG has responded with controversial new tactics of its own, including seizing and burning women’s veils to prevent insurgents from disguising themselves in women’s garments (al-Jazeera, May 9).

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has urged AU members to pursue a more vigorous form of “peacemaking” that is closer to conflict intervention than the traditional definition of “peacekeeping.” “If we follow the UN concept of waiting for peace to return before we deploy peacekeepers, then we are bound to lose many lives,” he explained. “We should deploy even when fighting is still going on” (Shabelle Media Network, May 16). Ugandan troops are struggling alone in Mogadishu, waiting for the arrival of the rest of the AU peacekeeping force. The deadly attack on a Ugandan convoy suggests that the insurgents regard any foreign detachment as an occupying force. It does not help that the AU headquarters are located in Addis Ababa. The trouble is that the AU deployment was intended to replace the much-hated Ethiopian army, not work alongside it. There is little alternative, however, as an immediate Ethiopian withdrawal would place an isolated Ugandan force in a precarious position, with little choice but to drive an evacuation column overland back to Uganda or to evacuate by sea from their base on Mogadishu’s waterfront. The AU’s and Addis Ababa’s U.S. patrons have warned the Ethiopian government against making a hasty withdrawal. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi complains of the “onerous” financial burden imposed on Ethiopia by keeping its troops there. According to Zenawi, the resistance has been broken and conditions have been established for peacekeepers “to do their job” (Shabelle Media Network, May 15). Zenawi has promised that Ethiopian troops will leave as soon as AU forces arrive in support of the Ugandans.

Mogadishu’s powerful business associations have begun to transfer small arms to TFG depots, but lacking confidence in the permanence of the new government, they have failed to turn over their heavy weapons or “technicals” (armored pick-up trucks equipped with anti-aircraft weapons) (Banadir, May 4). After several large-scale robberies by men wearing TFG uniforms, the businessmen are now demanding that Ugandans rather than TFG men provide security for the commercial district (Shabelle Media Network, May 17).

On May 17, the United States appointed career diplomat John Yates as special envoy to Somalia. Yates wasted no time in claiming that the roadside bombing that killed four Ugandans was evidence of al-Qaeda activity in Mogadishu (Reuters, May 18). A spokesman for the AU also alleged al-Qaeda responsibility for the attack (Shabelle Media Network, May 18). In Uganda, public opinion is quickly turning against the Somali mission as reports of casualties come in. There are calls in the Ugandan press for the AU to admit its inability to manage the Somali mission and turn over responsibility to the UN. The chairman of the AU Commission, Alpha Konare, conceded on April 27 that, “If other countries do not commit troops soon, it will be a disaster for Africa” (New Vision [Kampala], May 7).


This article first appeared in the May 22, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus

Weapons and Tactics of the Somali Insurgency

Andrew McGregor

March 5, 2007

After being driven from the Somali capital of Mogadishu to the port city of Kismayo by Ethiopian troops in late December, Islamist leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed urged “Islamic Courts fighters, supporters and every true Muslim to start an insurgency against the Ethiopian troops in Somalia” (Shabelle Media Network, December 30, 2006). In mid-January, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) reorganized into an insurgent group with the name Popular Resistance Movement in the Land of the Two Migrations, or PRMLTM (, January 19). The insurgents are dedicated to removing the Ethiopian-imposed, but internationally recognized, Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) as well as expelling all foreign troops from Somalia. According to TFG President Abdullahi Yusuf, “Those who throw grenades at night are definitely the remnants of the Islamic Courts and we can defeat them” (Shabelle Media Network, January 14). The government estimates that 3,000 Islamist fighters are still active in Mogadishu. In light of these threats, it is important to assess the tactics that insurgents will use in their operations against TFG, Ethiopian and other foreign troops deployed to Somalia.

Somali Tactics 1Somali Technical (Peter Turnley/CORBIS)


Modern Somali combat tactics are typically based on the use of the “technical,” an armor-plated pick-up truck equipped with an anti-aircraft gun, used for firepower and battlefield mobility. Insurgents have largely abandoned the use of the technical in urban Mogadishu, where civilian vehicles attract less attention from Ethiopian patrols. ICU technicals in Mogadishu were returned by the Islamists to the clan militias that had originally donated them. Nearly 100 technicals in Kismayo were driven out of the city when the Islamists abandoned it on January 7. The technicals are, in any case, no match for Ethiopian armor. Insurgents are active mostly at night when the police, TFG troops and Ethiopians retreat to their compounds, but daytime attacks are not uncommon.

Somali insurgents prefer three types of operations against allied (TFG/Ethiopian) positions:

  1. Mortar or rocket assaults on allied positions are the most common form of attack, occurring on an almost daily basis in Mogadishu. The mortar is usually transported to a residential neighborhood by car or pick-up truck before deployment. Typically, a small number of rounds are launched before the target is engaged with automatic weapons fire, while the mortar is withdrawn. Firefights can last a few minutes or several hours, with government or Ethiopian forces generally reluctant to emerge from their positions until the firing has stopped. As the gunmen withdraw, retaliatory allied rocket or artillery fire targets the neighborhood from which the mortar fire came. TFG/Ethiopian troops may conduct a house-to-house search for weapons in the neighborhood the next day. At one point, TFG soldiers began to confiscate cell phones from people in the street, fearing that they might be used to direct mortar attacks (SomaliNet, February 21).
  2. Assassinations are the second most common tactic. Politically-inspired killings of government officials or police officers are often carried out in a “drive-by” fashion by gunmen in a car. Bombs may be used for significant targets, although it is much more common for a hand grenade to be tossed through a house or car window. A TFG spokesman claimed that assassinations are a long-standing technique of the Islamists: “Before Islamists took control of the capital, specific individuals were being assassinated and when they clutched control of the capital, assassinations halted. Now that they were defeated, killing has restarted” (Shabelle Media Network, January 28).

Somali Tactics 2Al-Shabaab RPG (Garowe Online)

  1. RPG and automatic weapons fire on TFG/Ethiopian convoys is rare in comparison, but offers the insurgents the best opportunity to kill allied troops outside their well-defended compounds. In a February 8 daylight RPG attack on an Ethiopian convoy, the grenade missed the convoy entirely and took out a civilian Toyota, killing two people. Ethiopian troops can overreact to such situations. On January 20, for example, a man fired a pistol at an Ethiopian convoy in a north Mogadishu market. While the man slipped away, Ethiopian troops opened fire on the market crowd, killing four and wounding many others. In early January, there were two instances of gunmen in cars or pick-up trucks attacking allied convoys or positions with RPGs and automatic weapons, but this tactic has been little used since (although passing cars may still lob a grenade into army positions).

The insurgents’ targets include police stations, the presidential compound, the Defense Ministry, hotels housing TFG, Ethiopian or AU officials (such as the Banadir Hotel, Hotel Kaah and the Ambassador Hotel), TFG/Ethiopian army compounds (including the Difger Hospital, commandeered for military use), the seaport (where Ethiopian troops are quartered) and the airport (the PRMLTM threatened to shoot down aircraft using the airport, but so far only mortar attacks have been carried out). Insurgent losses during operations in Mogadishu appear to be remarkably small. Those killed or wounded are apparently recovered before pulling out. No insurgent has been taken prisoner in the course of an operation in Mogadishu. Nearly all insurgent attacks occur in the Mogadishu region, with a small number of attacks in the port city of Kismayo. This does not, however, indicate a state of peace in the rest of the country, where clan fighting and battles between tribal militias and government forces claim as many lives as the insurgency.

A spokesman for the PRMLTM recently threatened the use of suicide attacks against AU peacekeepers: “We promise we shall welcome them with bullets from heavy guns, exploding cars and young men eager to carry out martyrdom operations against these colonial forces” (, February 25). So far, suicide attacks have been rare in a population little inclined to such methods. Iraq-style bombings directed at masses of civilians have also failed to appear in the Somali insurgency.

As the Ethiopians entered Somalia last December, Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad “Indha-Adde,” the ICU defense chief, made an appeal for foreign assistance: “The country is open to all Muslim jihadists worldwide. We call them to come to Somalia and continue their holy war in Somalia. We welcome anyone, who can remove the Ethiopian enemy, to enter our country” (Shabelle Media Network, December 23, 2006). At the time, TFG Prime Minister Ali Muhammad Gedi claimed that 4,000 foreign fighters had joined the ICU. While several scores of foreigners have been arrested at the Kenyan border, the prime minister’s tally seems to have been greatly exaggerated. There is no evidence yet that foreign fighters are involved in the current clashes in Mogadishu, although TFG military commander Saed Dhere accused unnamed foreign countries of financing the attacks (SomaliNet, February 24).

Despite disarmament efforts, arms can be found everywhere in Mogadishu. When the Islamists withdrew from the capital, they abandoned large stocks of arms that were then plundered by looters (Shabelle Media Network, December 28, 2006). Incredibly, the Bakara and Argentina arms markets in Mogadishu remain open, selling hand grenades, RPGs, machine guns, anti-aircraft guns and the ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifle. Several warlords who turned in their arms during the government’s disarmament campaign (including Mohamed Dheere, Muhammad Qanyare Afrah and Abdi Nur Siyad) have been observed stocking up on new RPGs, heavy machine-guns and other weapons (Terrorism Focus, February 27). The AK-47 remains the insurgents’ most common weapon, many of these having been seized from the police.


Deputy Defense Minister Salad Ali Jelle claims that the insurgents always target the civilian population in Mogadishu in order to create a perception of instability for foreign consumption (Shabelle Media Network, February 7). The insurgents actually do not target civilian areas so much as display ineptitude in finding the proper range with their mortars, leading to widespread destruction of civilian areas and large losses of life compared to the relatively few casualties they inflict on the government compounds. Further casualties are created when allied forces lash out blindly with artillery and rocket fire when they come under attack from residential neighborhoods. The wounded have difficulty reaching already overwhelmed hospitals due to continuous weapons fire or roadblocks erected by allied forces. Nearly half of the wounded perish after they finally reach medical care.

Religious and community leaders in Mogadishu have begged both sides to stop the devastation created by these endless rounds of attacks and counter-attacks. Sheikh Ali Haji Yusuf urged the formation of local security forces until the government can establish security in Mogadishu. The sheikh’s call was apparently heeded; in the evening of February 21, vigilante forces discovered and beat a team of gunmen attempting to deploy a mortar from their car to fire at government positions in Mogadishu. Some gunmen have found new careers as vigilantes for hire in different neighborhoods.

Mogadishu police retired to their compounds several weeks ago after a series of assassinations and have rarely emerged since, leaving control of the streets to gunmen, vigilantes, criminals and the well-armed security forces of Mogadishu’s business community. The TFG claims to have developed new teams of counter-terrorism specialists, but these appear to have had little effect so far.


Although Mogadishu’s Islamist insurgents may be willing to start a large-scale insurgency, their lack of training on most weapons more powerful than an AK-47 restricts the effectiveness of their attacks on allied positions. Just before the Ethiopian invasion, large numbers of students were handed arms from Islamist stockpiles. Predictably, Ethiopian regulars and warplanes quickly routed these inexperienced would-be jihadis on open ground. Mogadishu is another story. Here, TFG and Ethiopian troops have shown distaste for urban operations. TFG forces rely on Ethiopian firepower, while the Ethiopians are already in the process of withdrawal.

The first of 8,000 AU peacekeepers are scheduled to arrive on March 2. Uganda asserts that its contingent will include counter-insurgency veterans and is well trained in countering suicide attacks (, February 25). AU peacekeepers will have to be more aggressive than the Ethiopians to contain the Mogadishu insurgency, although such tactics might reinforce popular perception of the peacekeepers as an occupation army. TFG soldiers and police will also be certain to stand aside while AU troops do the heavy work. With time, the effectiveness of the insurgents will improve, leading to the possibility of intense fighting as long as the TFG refuses to include the Islamist leadership in the national reconciliation process, as urged by Ethiopia, the United States and the European Union.

This article first appeared in the March 5, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor


Expelling the Infidel: An Historical Look at Somali Resistance to Ethiopia

Andrew McGregor

February 21, 2007

The U.S.-supported Ethiopian invasion of Somalia has an unsettling resemblance to the British-supported Ethiopian incursions in the early years of the 20th century. In both cases, the Western powers became involved because of perceived strategic considerations, while their proxy, Ethiopia, went to war as a result of Somali resistance to Ethiopian domination of the ethnic-Somali Ogaden region. Last December’s invasion succeeded in bringing the Ethiopia-friendly Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmad to power in Mogadishu. Although the Islamists have been dispersed for the moment, there are signs that a guerrilla campaign is in the making.

Sayyid Muhammad 1Sayyid Muhammad ‘Abdullah Hassan

Like the late 20th century, the late 19th century witnessed an international Islamic revival, spurred in part by the military occupation and economic domination of Muslim nations by the Western world. The Egyptian withdrawal from its short-lived occupation of the Somali coast in the 1880s and the failure of the Ottoman Empire to press its claims on the region opened the region to the advances of Britain, Italy, France and Ethiopia. In Somalia, there was a rare shift in public affairs as religious leaders became involved in traditionally secular Somali politics, using their unique position to transcend traditional clan divisions. The most notable of these leaders was Sayyid Muhammad ‘Abdullah Hassan, who led his “dervishes” in a 21-year struggle against foreign domination.

Introducing Political Islam

As a young man in Mecca, Muhammad adopted the austere teachings of the Salihiya sect of Islam. Like today’s Somali Islamists, Muhammad rejected foreign influence and enforced the strict observance of Islamic law. The uses of alcohol and tobacco were forbidden, as was the use of Qat, a narcotic leaf widely consumed in Somalia. In Somalia’s devastated economy, the Qat trade continues to be one of the most reliable ways for entrepreneurs to make money. The prohibition of the trade by the Islamic Courts Union damaged local support for these modern Islamists only weeks before the Ethiopian invasion (Terrorism Focus, November 28, 2006). Sayyid Muhammad was a harsh critic of Somalia’s dominant (but relatively tolerant) Qadiri Sufi order, who in turn called the renegade holy man “the Mad Mullah,” the name by which he is best known to history.

Like many modern Islamist leaders in Somalia, Muhammad cut his teeth as a political militant in the Ogaden region, preaching resistance to the Christian Ethiopians who were steadily occupying the area. One of Muhammad’s greatest strengths was his mastery of oral poetry, a powerful social and political tool in Somalia, where a man could be ruined by an effective attack in verse or a tribe brought to war by skillful alliteration. At first, the British imperialists who occupied his native northwestern Somalia tolerated Muhammad’s preaching, believing that adherence to Sharia law would help bring order to the wild tribesmen of the interior. It was not long, however, before Muhammad turned his attention to the British because of their support for Ethiopia. By 1899, he had broken with British rule and enraged the Ethiopians with a ferocious but ultimately unsuccessful attack on their forces in the Ogaden. With Britain’s colonial army forced to concentrate on the concurrent war in South Africa, British authorities invited Ethiopia to join the campaign against this troublesome preacher.

Sayyid Muhammad grew concerned that the Ethiopian and Western Christians sought to destroy Islam in Somalia, a fear shared by Somalia’s modern Islamists. In the period 1901-1904, the dervishes repulsed four Anglo-Ethiopian expeditions, although their own losses were often severe. Sayyid Muhammad’s stern and often ruthless measures in dealing with rivals cost him the opportunity of uniting the Somalis against foreign rule.

Somalia’s social structure is also a major obstacle in the development of a unifying Islamist cause. Muhammad never quite succeeded in overcoming the reluctance of Somalia’s many clans and subsections to join a movement that was not directly devoted to enriching or empowering their own group. Military success brought supporters, while failure led to desertions. The problem persists to this day, accounting in large part for the quick collapse of the Islamic Courts Union when an Ethiopian victory became obvious in December.

The Ethiopian and British Campaigns

The first Ethiopian campaign against Muhammad was a disaster. A massive army of 14,000 men chased the dervishes around the near-waterless Ogaden in 1901, its numbers shrinking daily from heat, hunger, thirst and disease. With typical Somali fractiousness, some Ogaden Somalis accompanied the Ethiopian forces against their would-be liberator. To the British authorities, the lesson was obvious, and it was decided in typical colonial fashion that Somalis must fight Somalis. Thousands of tribesmen were recruited under Indian NCOs and British officers to destroy Muhammad’s army. Similarly, the United States engaged Somali warlords under the guise of the “Anti-Terrorist Coalition” to depose of the Islamists last summer. The strategy was a complete failure, with the warlords being driven from most of the country.

A second Ethiopian expedition to the Ogaden in 1903 killed only a few of Muhammad’s men, while suffering terrible losses of their own from lack of food and water. In familiar language, the dervishes were at one point characterized as “terrorist thugs,” and joint British/Ethiopian campaigns continued until the devastating loss of 7,000 dervishes at the 1904 battle of Jidbaale. During these four campaigns, Ethiopian troops were accompanied by British advisers. There are reports that British SAS units are now acting as advisers to Kenyan border forces in an effort to trap fleeing Islamists (Sunday Times, January 14).

sayyid muhammad 2After the defeat at Jidbaale, Sayyid Muhammad agreed to settle peacefully in Italian Somaliland, but within months he and his followers were again raiding the Ogaden and British territory in an attempt to drive out the “infidels.” Ethiopia had dropped out of the fighting, leaving Britain to carry on alone. Today, there is a danger of U.S. forces meeting the same fate, as Ethiopia is seeking only a brief occupation and most African Union states (except for Uganda) are very reluctant to commit peacekeepers to a conflict they view as intractable. As Under Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1908, Winston Churchill pointed out the enormous expense involved in holding this deeply impoverished wilderness and the unlikelihood of British-led Indian and Somali troops ever providing security in the interior. Churchill suggested withdrawing to the coast and leaving the barren interior to the dervishes. It was two years before this policy was implemented, but the withdrawal did nothing to end the fighting.

A strong blow was dealt to Sayyid Muhammad’s movement when two defectors succeeded in obtaining a letter in 1908 from the leader of the Salihiya movement in Mecca condemning Muhammad as a heretic and an infidel. Despite this, Muhammad’s call for an anti-colonial jihad continued to spread and his quick-moving horsemen dominated the desert wilderness. As the First World War broke out in Europe, fierce fighting continued in Somalia, almost unnoticed by the outside world. The conflict continued as Sayyid Muhammad grew older and ever more corpulent, no longer able to perform the feats of horsemanship for which he was once known, but still able to use his poetic oratory to inspire his dervishes. Sayyid Muhammad’s army was finally broken in a combined infantry and Royal Air Force assault on their fortresses in the Somali desert in 1919. Most resistance collapsed with Muhammad’s death from influenza in 1921.


The dervish war with Britain was a direct result of the empire’s cooperation with Ethiopia, which sought to use British support to solidify their rule of the Ogaden region. Although Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi speaks of the importance of joining the “war on terrorism,” it was threats from the modern Somali Islamists that they intended to “liberate” the Ogaden that brought Ethiopia to war. There are signs that Ethiopia is taking advantage of its occupation to round up members of the Oromo and Ogaden rebel movements (Garowe Online, January 13). Others have been intercepted trying to flee into Kenya (Ethiopian News Agency, January 8).

With growing opposition to his government at home and international criticism of his regime’s human rights abuses, Zenawi has strengthened himself by achieving the inviolable status that comes with being a “vital partner” in the U.S. war on terrorism. His power base in the Tigrean-dominated army has improved through U.S. funding, training, intelligence cooperation and the practical (if limited) experience of mobile warfare gained through the invasion of Somalia. The war is also seen as an antidote to recent defections in the officer corps to the Oromo Liberation Front (an Ethiopian resistance movement). The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) declared on January 7 that “the ONLF will continue to resist the presence of Ethiopian troops in Ogaden and we shall resist the use of our territory as a logistical and planning center for Ethiopian occupation troops in Somalia” (ONLF Statement on Ethiopian Occupation of Somalia, January 7). With political unrest in his own country, Zenawi cannot spare the best units of his army for long.

Despite an al-Qaeda video released on January 4 urging Muslims to go to Somalia to fight the Ethiopians (“the slaves of America”), there is little indication that any have done so. Somalia has always provided an inhospitable environment to foreign adventurers. Popular support for the Islamists was not an expression of approval by Somalis for international terrorism, and Ethiopian/American suggestions that al-Qaeda fugitives had usurped the leadership of the Somali Islamists seem highly unlikely in light of the traditional patterns of Somali power structures.

The United States, like Britain, often tends to regard militant Islam in any form as “fanaticism,” directed by irrational religious impulses. Too frequently, however, foreign intervention is the fuel that allows political Islam to grow in an otherwise hostile environment. TFG Minister of the Interior Hussein Aideed (a former U.S. Marine) provided the Islamists with a rallying point by urging Somali integration with Ethiopia, including the use of a single passport (Shabelle Media Network, January 7). Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan, the TFG speaker, does not share President Abdulahi’s pro-Ethiopian position, stating “I believe that the security created by the [Islamic] Courts during their six-month rule cannot be recreated by Ethiopian troops, even if they stay in Somalia for another six years” (Garowe Online, January 13).

Despite their desperate position, Somalia’s Islamists remain defiant: “If the world thinks we are dead, they should know we are alive and will continue the jihad against the infidels in our country” (Shabelle Media Network, January 7). Their words are a modern echo of Sayyid Muhammad’s verse: “And I’ll react against the malice and oppression unleashed upon me, Yes, I am justified to smite, to sweep through the land with terror and fury, And I’ll go out to make the country free of infidel influence” (Quoted in Said S. Samatar: Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism, Cambridge, 1982, p.192).

This article first appeared in the February 21, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Somalia Hostilities Threaten Outbreak of Regional War

Andrew McGregor

October 31, 2006

After years of mutual hostility, the armed forces of two states and the armed militias of one failed state are poised to unleash a potentially devastating war in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia are each moving troops up to their borders in preparation. All parties have agreed to a third round of Arab League-brokered peace talks in Khartoum this week. The negotiations may represent the last opportunity to avoid the outbreak of a general war in the turbulent and highly strategic Horn region.

Greater SomaliaGreater Somalia

The importance of these talks is reflected in the decision to invite the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to join mediation efforts (Shabelle Media Network, October 22). IGAD is an important regional assembly of seven East African countries that negotiated the formation of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in 2004. The TFG is now isolated in the Somali town of Baidoa, where its existence relies on the support of Ethiopian troops and various Somali militias. Soldiers of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), Somalia’s coalition of militant Islamists, are now poised for an attack on the makeshift capital where TFG leaders are engaged in bitter disputes with each other. Fighting has already broken out between the Islamists and combined TFG/Ethiopian forces for control of the approaches to Baidoa.

There is a strong irredentist strain in ICU politics based on the goal of creating a “Greater Somalia,” incorporating the ethnic Somali populations of neighboring countries like Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti. The ICU is led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a veteran of fighting in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Ethiopia and Somalia already went to war in 1977-78 over the Ogaden region, home to a Somali Muslim population of four million. The ethnic Somali Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) is allegedly supplied by Eritrea (The East African, October 23). Sheikh Aweys’ repeated calls in recent days for jihad against the Ethiopian regime have succeeded in inflaming tensions on both sides of the border.

Even as he is criticized for human rights abuses in Darfur, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is set on applying his prestige as this year’s chief of the Arab League to bring a successful resolution to Somalia’s Khartoum-based peace talks brokered by the Arab League. Fresh from negotiating a peace deal with eastern Sudan’s resistance movement, the Sudanese regime would like to add a diplomatic success to its efforts to present Sudan as a responsible member of the international community by resolving the conflict in Somalia, an important step in warding off a UN military intervention in Darfur.

Ethiopian Troops SomaliaEthiopian Troops in Somalia

Ethiopia has admitted to sending “several hundred” troops to aid the TFG in Baidoa, although independent reports suggest that the number is as high as 6,000-8,000 troops. Several battalions of Ethiopian troops and tanks have moved up to the Somali border to counter Sheikh Aweys’ calls for jihad. Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi government has its own problems as it is prosecuting more than 100 opposition members for treason after violent demonstrations following charges of electoral fraud in last year’s Ethiopian elections. Approximately 193 civilians were killed in clashes with security forces. There are also serious ethnic tensions between the Tigrean-dominated government and Amhara and Oromo members of the general staff, leading to questions surrounding army loyalty to the regime in a crisis.

After a bombing campaign blamed on “Eritrean-backed terrorist elements,” Ethiopia is adopting its first law on terrorism and is cooperating with U.S. forces based in Djibouti in an effort to intercept terrorists heading to the Horn (Daily Monitor [Addis Ababa], October 10; Shabelle Media Network, October 12). The Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a bold response to U.S. claims that Eritrea was shipping arms to the ICU. In a statement, the ministry accused the United States of using the charges to cover up the failure of its own policy in Somalia to justify the “disinformation campaign” surrounding terrorism in Somalia and to “create a pretext for the invasion of Somalia by its agent, the regime in Ethiopia” (, October 20). There is considerable bad blood between Ethiopia and Eritrea following a brutal border war in 1998-2000.

The UN reports 1,500 Eritrean troops with armor have assembled on the edge of the UN administered buffer zone with Ethiopia. Ethiopia claims the number of Eritreans massed on the border is closer to 10,000 when local militias are included (SomaliNet, October 25). Some Eritrean units may already be operating within Somalia in support of the ICU. Last week, senior ICU leader Hassan Abdullah Hersi al-Turki (a U.S.-designated al-Qaeda suspect) announced that the ICU was ready to attack Baidoa, Somaliland and Puntland (Horn Afrik Radio, October 24).

There is limited support in northeast Africa for a peacekeeping force in Somalia, whether under African Union or IGAD auspices. Uganda, an opponent of ICU ambitions, is the most enthusiastic advocate of such an intervention, offering 1,000 troops. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni maintains that Uganda’s main goal would be to train a Somali national army (New Vision [Kampala], October 10). Kenya’s efforts to train Somali TFG security forces have tainted it in the eyes of ICU leaders, although Nairobi has yet to offer any troops to a peacekeeping force. Sudan is expected to provide several thousand troops to the proposed mission, which is still without funding. The ICU violently opposes any talk of foreign peacekeepers in Somalia.

For the moment, all parties are at a standoff. Somalia is incapable of offering any resistance to Ethiopian regulars and armor in the open, where numerous ICU formations would be quickly cut off from each other. Anti-ICU militias such as the rejuvenated Juba Valley Alliance can be expected to go on the offensive against the Islamists, especially if Ethiopia decides to arm anyone ready to fight the ICU. If Ethiopian forces cross the border, the ICU could be expected to fall back on the cities, especially Mogadishu, where their experience in urban warfare would bedevil Ethiopian attempts to secure urban areas. Supplies and possible military assistance to the ICU from Eritrea would drag Ethiopia into a costly and ultimately futile attempt to impose the TFG on an unwilling population. For the Ethiopians, invasion would be easy, yet occupation would remain impossible. With its covert support for ICU forces, Eritrea seems less concerned with stability in Somalia than with keeping Ethiopia off-balance.

U.S. foreign policy is presented with a dilemma; a U.S. intervention in Somalia tends to inspire anti-American sentiment, with few, if any, material successes. Covert support for the failed anti-terrorist coalition of Somali warlords has undone the goodwill built by years of humanitarian assistance. Allowing the Khartoum peace talks to take their course might result in some sort of integration of the ICU into an emerging Somali power structure (a potential blow to Washington’s war on terrorism), while the insertion of an African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia without the cooperation of the ICU may spark a regional war capable of dragging in a number of neighboring states. Such a conflict will inevitably draw international jihadis operating under independent commands. In a highly underdeveloped region suffering almost continually from environmental disasters, all the ingredients are in place for a full-scale humanitarian catastrophe.


This article was first published in the October 31, 2006 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus