The systematic murder of 147 Kenyan university students by members of the Somalia-based Shabab organization on April 2 is raising an uncomfortable question: Was the massacre an unintentional blowback from U.S. anti-terrorism strategy in the region? And were the killers forged by an ill-advised American-supported Ethiopian invasion that transformed the radical Islamic organization from a marginal player into a major force?
As Kenyans were mourning their dead, opposition figures were openly opposing Kenya’s occupation of southern Somalia and bringing into question Washington’s blueprint for fighting terrorism: drones, Special Forces, and regional proxies.
Speaking in the port of Mombasa (Kenya’s second largest city), former prime minister and opposition leader Raila Odinga called for the withdrawal of Kenyan troops, as did the speaker of the National Assembly, Justin Muturi. Speaking at the funeral for one of the victims, Senator James Orengo said, “We know very well the consequences of a war of occupation. We must withdraw our troops from Somalia to end this.”
Absent from most of the mainstream American media was an examination of exactly what role the U.S. has played in Somalia over the past decade, and how Washington has helped create the current crisis.
A little history
When military dictator Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991, Somalia fell into the chaos of clan warfare, sparking off a U.S. military intervention in 1992. While billed as a “humanitarian intervention,” the Americans aggressively sought to suppress the plague of warlords that had turned the nation’s capital, Mogadishu, into a shattered ruin. But the expedition derailed in 1993 after 18 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Somalis were killed in the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident. The U.S. withdrew the following year.
Which doesn’t mean the U.S. went away, or that it didn’t apply a new strategy for Africa, one designed by the right-wing Heritage Foundation. The genesis of that plan came from James Carafano, a West Point graduate and head of Heritage’s foreign policy section, and Nile Gardiner, director of the think tank’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, who drew up a document entitled “U.S. Military Assistance for Africa: A Better Solution.”
The strategy called for the creation of a U.S. military command for Africa, a focus on terrorism, and direct military intervention using air power and naval forces. The authors argue against putting U.S. troops on the ground, instead enlisting those of allies. Those recommendations were adopted by the Bush administration – and later the Obama administration – lock, stock and barrel. African Command (Africom) was created, along with the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative, to train troops in 16 nations that border the vast area embraced by the world’s biggest desert.
While targeting “terrorism” is the strategy’s public face, Carafano and Gardiner argue that U.S. “vital interests” are involved on the continent. “With its vast natural and mineral resources,” Africa, say the two scholars, “remains important to the West, as it has been for hundreds of years, and its geostrategic significance is likely to rise in the 21st century.”
A major rationale behind the strategy is to checkmate Chinese influence in Africa and short-circuit Beijing’s search for raw materials. China gets about one-third of its oil from Africa, plus platinum, copper, timber and iron ore.
Somalia and the Shabab
The new policy made its début in Somalia when the U.S. actively aided Ethiopia’s 2006 invasion to support the unpopular and isolated Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFGS). The invasion overthrew the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had brought Somalia its first stable government in 15 years.
The ICU was a coalition of Islamic organizations that included a small group calling itself the “Shabab,” Arabic for “Youth.” While the ICU was Islamic in ideology, it was more moderate than the Shabab. The ICU also had more support than the TFGS, because it had routed the clan warlords who had dominated Somalia since 1991.
However, those warlords – united in an organization incongruously called the “Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counter-terrorism” – were strongly supported by the U.S. CIA. Claiming that the ICU was linked to al-Qaeda, Washington leaned on Ethiopia to invade. When they did, U.S. Special Forces based in Djibouti accompanied them and gave them intelligence and equipment. The U.S. Navy shelled a town in Southern Somalia, killing, according to Oxfam and the United Nations, 70 civilians and wounding more than 100. While the New York Times claims that U.S. support for the invasion was “covert,” it was anything but.
The powerful Ethiopian Army crushed the ICU, but the brutality of the occupation that followed fired up a resistance movement led by the Shabab. Given that Ethiopians and Somalians are traditional enemies, and that the former is largely Christian, the latter overwhelmingly Muslim, one wonders what Washington was thinking when it backed the invasion.
It was the 2006 Ethiopian-U.S. invasion that turned the Shabab into a major player, just as the invasion of Iraq fueled the creation of, first, al-Qaeda and then the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) in Iraq and Syria.
The Shabab quickly took over most of southern and central Somalia, although their brutality and strict interpretation of Islam eventually alienated them from much of the population. However, the one thing that Somalians could unite around was expelling the Ethiopians, and after two years of ambushes, roadside bombs and suicide vests, Addis Ababa withdrew most of its forces.
At the time, the Shabab was not affiliated with al-Qaeda – it did not do so until 2012 – and its concerns were mainly local. The organization was more like the Taliban in Afghanistan, albeit with a more extreme interpretation of Islam. But that distinction was lost on Washington, which pressed the African Union (AU) to send in troops. In 2007, the AU, with UN compliance, established the African Union Mission in Somalia (AUMIS) and deployed 9,000 troops to support the TFGS.
It is no coincidence that the bulk of AUMIS troops are from Uganda and Burundi, two countries that receive U.S. aid, as does Ethiopia. From 2009, U.S. military aid to Addis Ababa jumped 256 percent.
The U.S. also footed the bill for private mercenary organizations, like Bancroft Global Development, to train Ugandan and Burundian troops in counter-insurgency warfare. The fact that Bancroft is a private company shields it from public scrutiny, including by the U.S. Congress.
While the initial AUMIS deployment was not very successful, it finally drove the Shabab out of the nation’s capital, Mogadishu, although that was, in part, a reflection of the Shabab’s loss of support among Somalians, alienated by the group’s brutality. Eventually the organization was driven out of all Somalia’s major cities. But even with numerous setbacks, a recent attack in the capital that killed 15 people and wounded 20 demonstrates the Shabab still has a bite.
Kenya – another recipient of U.S. aid whose soldiers are trained by U.S. Special Forces – invaded southern Somalia in 2011 and seized the Shabab-controlled port of Kismayo. While publicly the reason for the invasion was Shabab kidnappings of Kenyans and tourists, apparently Nairobi has long had its eye on the port of Lamu as part of a development plan for the northeast part of the country.
Again, the Shabab was scattered rather easily, but only then to resort to guerilla war and attacks on civilian targets in Kenya and Uganda. In 2011, it set off two bombs in Kampala, Uganda, that killed 76 people. In 2013, it killed 67 people in a shopping mall in Nairobi and then topped that with the latest massacre at Garissa University on April 2.
The response of the Kenyan government has been targeting ethnic Somalians living on the Kenyan side of the border with Somalia, threatening to close down one of the largest refugee camps in the world, and squeezing the country’s Muslims. Those are actions liable to alienate Kenya’s large ethnic Somali population and its minority Muslim communities. “Shabab needs to create an atmosphere of fear and suspicion to gain a foothold,” security analyst Mohamed Mubarak told the Financial Times. “And they may succeed if the Kenyan response is not thought out carefully.”
The blowback attacks have soured most Kenyans on the invasion. A poll taken last fall, six months before the Garissa University bloodbath, found that a majority of the country wants its troops out of Somalia, and two in three Kenyans thought there would be more terrorist attacks.
What seems clear is that the Heritage Foundation’s blueprint for using military force in Africa has been a disaster. It has destabilized Somalia by overthrowing the ICU, spreading the war to Uganda and Kenya. It turned Libya into a failed state, which in turn unleashed a flood of arms that have helped fuel civil wars in Mali, Niger and the Central African Republic.
The widespread use of drones may kill some terrorist leaders, along with large numbers of civilians, and, rather than destroying organizations like sl-Qaeda and the Shabab, it ends up atomizing them into groups that are smaller and harder to track, but no less capable of committing mass murder. Indeed, for organizations like the Shabab and al-Qaeda, drones have proved to be the 21st century’s most effective recruiting sergeants.
Military occupation sows the seeds of its own destruction, and, while using drones and proxies may keep the American death count down, that strategy ultimately creates more enemies than it eliminates.
The solution in Somalia (and Syria and Yemen) is political, not military. According to Bronwyn Bruton of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Shabab is “not a monolithic movement,” but includes leaders from the old Islamic Courts Union that the U.S. and it allies so disastrously overthrew. “Some of these leaders are extremists, and the idea of talking with them is unappetizing. But the United States can and should negotiate with them directly.”
In short, talking beats bombing and works better.
This article originally appeared at Conn Hallinan’s blog Dispatches from the Edge.
Photo: Relatives hold photographs of student Selpha Aoko Wanda, 21, who was killed in the April 2 attack on Garissa University College in Nairobi, Kenya. At right is Selpha’s mother Rosina Nafuna Wanda. AP/Ben Curtis