More than a decade after U.S. troops withdrew from Somalia following
a disastrous military intervention, officials of Somalia's interim government
and some U.S. analysts of Africa policy say the United States has returned to
the African country, secretly supporting secular warlords who have been waging
fierce battles against Islamic groups for control of the capital, Mogadishu.
The latest clashes, last week and over the weekend, were some of the most violent
in Mogadishu since the end of the American intervention in 1994, and left 150
dead and hundreds more wounded. Leaders of the interim government blamed U.S.
support of the militias for provoking the clashes.
U.S. officials have declined to directly address on the record the question
of backing Somali warlords, who have styled themselves as a counterterrorism
coalition in an open bid for American support. Speaking to reporters recently,
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States would "work
with responsible individuals . . . in fighting terror. It's a real concern of
ours -- terror taking root in the Horn of Africa. We don't want to see another
safe haven for terrorists created. Our interest is purely in seeing Somalia
achieve a better day."
U.S. officials have long feared that Somalia, which has had no effective government
since 1991, is a desirable place for al-Qaeda members to hide and plan attacks.
The country is strategically located on the Horn of Africa, which is only a
boat ride away from Yemen and a longtime gateway to Africa from the Middle East.
No visas are needed to enter Somalia, there is no police force and no effective
The country has a weak transitional government operating largely out of neighboring
Kenya and the southern city of Baidoa. Most of Somalia is in anarchy, ruled
by a patchwork of competing warlords; the capital is too unsafe for even Somalia's
acting prime minister to visit.
Leaders of the transitional government said they have warned U.S. officials
that working with the warlords is shortsighted and dangerous.
"We would prefer that the U.S. work with the transitional government and
not with criminals," the prime minister, Ali Mohamed Gedi, said in an interview.
"This is a dangerous game. Somalia is not a stable place and we want the
U.S. in Somalia. But in a more constructive way. Clearly we have a common objective
to stabilize Somalia, but the U.S. is using the wrong channels."
Many of the warlords have their own agendas, Somali officials said, and some
reportedly fought against the United States in 1993 during street battles that
culminated in an attack that downed two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters and left
18 Army Rangers dead.
"The U.S. government funded the warlords in the recent battle in Mogadishu,
there is no doubt about that," government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari told
journalists by telephone from Baidoa. "This cooperation . . . only fuels
further civil war."
U.S. officials have refused repeated requests to provide details about the
nature and extent of their support for the coalition of warlords, which calls
itself the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism in what
some Somalis say is a marketing ploy to get U.S. support.
But some U.S. officials, who declined to be identified by name because of the
sensitivity of the issue, have said they are generally talking to these leaders
to prevent people with suspected ties to al-Qaeda from being given safe haven
in the lawless country.
"There are complicated issues in Somalia in that the government does not
control Mogadishu and it has the potential for becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda
and like-minded terrorists," said one senior administration official in
Washington. "We've got very clear interests in trying to ensure that al-Qaeda
members are not using it to hide and to plan attacks." He said it was "a
very difficult issue" trying to show support for the fledgling interim
government while also working to prevent Somalia from becoming an al-Qaeda base.
A senior U.S. intelligence official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity,
said it was a "Hobbesian" situation -- that the transitional government
operating from Kenya was in its "fifteenth iteration" and that it,
too, was a "collection of warlords" that played both sides of the
fence. The official said that it presented a classic "enemy of our enemy"
The source said Somalia was "not an al-Qaeda safe haven" yet, adding,
"There are some there, but it's so dysfunctional." U.S. officials
specifically believe that a small number of al-Qaeda operatives who were involved
in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania are now residing
Analysts said they were convinced the Bush administration was backing the warlords
as part of its global war against terrorism.
"The U.S. relies on buying intelligence from warlords and other participants
in the Somali conflict, and hoping that the strongest of the warlords can snatch
a live suspect or two if the intelligence identifies their whereabouts,"
said John Prendergast, the director for African affairs in the Clinton administration
and now a senior adviser at the nongovernmental International Crisis Group.
"This strategy might reduce the short-term threat of another terrorist
attack in East Africa, but in the long term the conditions which allow terrorist
cells to take hold along the Indian Ocean coastline go unaddressed. We ignore
these conditions at our peril."
"Are we talking to them and doing some of that? Yes," said Ted Dagne,
the leading Africa analyst for the Congressional Research Service. "We
fought some of these warlords in 1993 and now we are dealing with some of them
again, perhaps supporting some of them against other groups. Somalia is still
considered by some as an attractive location for terrorist groups."
The issue of U.S. backing came to the forefront this winter when warlords formed
the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism after a fundamentalist
Islamic group began asserting itself in the capital, setting up courts of Islamic
law and building schools and hospitals.
Soon after, the coalition of warlords were well-equipped with rocket-propelled
grenades, mortars and antiaircraft guns, which were used in heavy fighting in
the capital last week. It was the second round of fighting this year, following
clashes in March that killed more than 90 people, mostly civilians, and emptied
neighborhoods around the capital.
In a report to the U.N. Security Council this month, the world body's monitoring
group on Somalia said it was investigating an unnamed country's secret support
for an anti-terrorism alliance in apparent violation of a U.N. arms embargo.
The experts said they were told in January and February of this year that "financial
support was being provided to help organize and structure a militia force created
to counter the threat posed by the growing militant fundamentalist movement
in central and southern Somalia."
In March, the State Department said in its terrorism report that the U.S. government
was concerned about al-Qaeda fugitives "responsible for the 1998 bombings
of the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and the November 2002 bombing
of a tourist hotel and attack on a civilian airliner in Kenya, who are believed
to be operating in and around Somalia."
The United States relies on Ethiopia and Kenya for information about Somalia.
Both countries have complex interests and long-standing ties and animosities
in the country. In December 2002, the United States also established an anti-terrorism
task force in neighboring Djibouti, with up to 1,600 U.S. troops stationed in
Africa researchers said they were concerned that while the Bush administration
was focused on the potential terrorist threat, little was being done to support
economic development initiatives that could provide alternative livelihoods
to picking up a gun or following extremist ideologies in Somalia. Somalia watchers
and Somalis themselves said there has not been enough substantial backing for
building a new government after 15 years of collapsed statehood.
"If the real problem is Somalia, then what have we done to change the
situation inside Somalia? Are we funding schools, health care or helping establish
an effective government?" Dagne said. "We have a generation of Somali
kids growing up without education and only knowing violence and poverty. Unless
there is a change, these could become the next warlords out of necessity for
survival. That's perhaps the greatest threat we have yet to address."
Somalis far from the factional fighting in Mogadishu said they were waiting
for anyone to help ease their destitute lives during the worst drought in a
In Waajid, a dusty town about 200 miles northwest of the capital, thousands
of villagers have left their farms for squalid camps, searching for water and
living in open, rocky fields under low-lying, fragile shelters of sticks and
rags that look like bird's nests.
Many people here say they feel that the United States has ignored Somalia since
the failed 1993 military intervention. Today many Somalis said they regret that
chapter in their history and thank the United States, the largest donor of food
and funding for water trucks during this season's drought.
However, they said that news that the U.S. government was talking with warlords
has awakened feelings of resentment.
"George W. Bush, we welcome the Americans. But not to back warlords. We
need the U.S.A. to help the young government," said Isak Nur Isak, the
district commissioner in Waajid. "We won't drag any Americans through the
street like in 1993. We want to be clear: We don't want only food aid, but we
do want political support for the new government, which is all we have right
now to put our hopes in. We can't eat if everyone is dead."
Wax reported from Waajid, Somalia, and Nairobi.
DeYoung reported from Washington.