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The U.S. secret war in the Horn of Africa

Little is reported concerning the role the U.S. played in Somalia, as it continues to engage in semi-secret operations, using Ethiopian troops as surrogates.

By Philippe Leymarie
[Translated by George Miller]

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Guerrilla warfare has continued in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, since the fall in January of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which controlled much of the centre and south of the country.

The huge Bakara market in Mogadishu, known for its stalls selling arms and munitions, went up in flames in October after rebels attacked the defence ministry. Radio Shabelle, one of the few independent stations, was forced off air by the army, and its director, Bashir Nur Gedi, was assassinated on 19 October.

Sheikh Muktar Robo Abu Mansur, the head of the underground Shabab (youth) movement, the radical wing of the Somali nationalists, has claimed that they "fought fiercely with the Ethiopian invaders and their Somali lackeys." 

According to the UN’s special envoy, the Mauritanian Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the humanitarian situation in Somalia is the worst in Africa. Many emigrants continue to flee towards Yemen across the Gulf of Aden. Some ten thousand made the crossing between this January and August, but 500 others are dead or missing. In September there were reports of boats adrift, filled with dead refugees; other refugees had been sprayed with acid by their “guides” and their bodies tossed into the sea. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, others came under fire near the Yemeni coast.

American-made F-16 fighterjets were used to bomb Mogadishu airport
Ethiopian forces entered Somalia in December 2006 to remove the UIC, which had held power for six months. And yet the Ethiopian foreign minister, Seyoum Mesfin, and Ali Mohamed Gedi, who has now announced his resignation as prime minister of Somalia’s transitional federal government (TFG, long based in Nairobi and then in Baidoa in Somalia), raised the Ethiopian flag over the new Ethiopian embassy in Mogadishu. The ceremony gave Gedi an opportunity to say: “Our country’s peace and stability has been endangered by a handful of extremists who claim to be religious, which runs counter to the principles of Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance."

The same day, the head of the Ethiopian mission in Somalia claimed that his troops were “an army of liberation, not an army of occupation." A few days earlier the Italian foreign minister, Patrizia Sentinelli, had come to a different conclusion after a meeting with the Somali president, Yusuf Abdullahi, who owes his position to Ethiopia’s tanks. The presence of Ethiopian troops was, Sentinelli said, unacceptable to the Somali people and they should leave as soon as African Union peace-keepers were fully deployed: 1,200 Ugandan soldiers have been on the ground since March, out of a projected force of 9,000.

  • Anti-Ethiopian feeling

Anti-Ethiopian feeling is strong in Mogadishu. Ethiopia and Somalia are ancient enemies: they went to war in 1964 and 1977-8, over a border dispute and the sovereignty of the Ogaden region, where the population is mainly Somali but which is governed by Ethiopia. To gain control of the capital this April after an offensive by the UIC militia, a movement “created by businessmen seeking a semblance of normality in a city controlled by warlords," Ethiopian artillery shelled districts believed to be most hostile, killing 1,700 people and provoking the exodus of hundreds of thousands.

Ethiopia’s recent intervention in Somalia was meant to dislodge the UIC, which refused to recognise the legitimacy of the transitional government established with support from the international community. In invading Somalia, Ethiopia benefited from considerable support from the United States, which has conducted war by proxy in Somalia. To the U.S., Somalia has long been synonymous with failure: under President Siad Barre (1969-91) Somalia initially allied itself with the Soviet Union and allowed its fleet to use the port of Berbera. Somalia later switched its allegiance to the U.S., but that didn’t stop the regime collapsing under pressure from a dozen regional independence movements. Thereafter Somalia slid into a state of chaos from which it has yet to re-emerge.

To protect a population that had suffered at the hands of feuding clan leaders turned warlords, a multinational operation called Restore Hope was set up in 1992 under U.S. leadership. The UN took over the operation in 1993, absorbing the U.S. contingent. But things went badly wrong when 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush in the heart of Mogadishu. After these events, the United States avoided Somalia and refused to take part in any African operations or peacekeeping missions, even during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

  • Change after 9/11

After 9/11 things changed: The whole of the Horn of Africa, especially Somalia, came under surveillance. From 2002 the U.S. navy, aided by European navies, has patrolled the Somali and Yemeni coastlines and the Bab el-Mandeb Straits. Task Force 150’s brief is to secure one of the world’s most important seaways to ensure that shipping can reach the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean to the west, the Cape and the Americas to the south, and Asia and the Pacific to the east.

The U.S. navy routinely searches coasters and cargo ships with the aim of preventing fighters fleeing Afghanistan and Iraq from seeking refuge in the Horn of Africa. The border region of Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia is one of the most notorious in Africa. It connects with the old caravan route to Chad, Libya, Mali, Algeria, and Mauritania on the Atlantic coast.

In 2002, the Pentagon established a special forces unit in Djibouti, a tiny state previously within France’s sphere of influence. With a force of 2,000, this is the only U.S. base in Africa; located just a few kilometres from the Somali border, it also serves as a launch pad for covert missions, targeting suspected al-Qaida members in Yemen and Somalia.

Osama bin Laden is believed to have spent time in Somalia in the early 1990s. Some “Afghan” Arabs close to him were implicated in the 1993 attacks on U.S. soldiers in Mogadishu. From 1991 to 1996 he lived in Sudan. He invested in the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant (which the U.S. bombed in August 1998 in retaliation for attacks on Nairobi in Kenya and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania) and in the Al-Shamal Bank.

An initial wave of attacks against the U.S. army and other U.S. interests followed: Aden in 1992; Mogadishu in 1993; Riyadh in 1995; Khobar (Saudi Arabia) in 1996, the year in which Bin Laden left Sudan for Afghanistan, where he met Mullah Mohamed Omar, future leader of the Taliban. In August 1998, Bin Laden claimed responsibility for the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, with 224 dead and over 4,500 injured.

  • U.S. freezes assets

A few days after 9/11 President George Bush ordered the freezing of the assets of 27 groups and individuals believed to have links with international terrorism. Among them were Al-Barakat, the biggest company in the remittance trade in Somalia (half a billion dollars are sent back each year by the Somali diaspora, providing a living for an estimated 800,000 people), and also the movement al-Ittihad al-Islami (Islamic Union), which is suspected of having taken part in attacks on U.S. helicopters in Mogadishu in 1993 and of giving logistical support to the Mombasa attacks in November 2002.

Al-Ittihad was defeated in 1997 after an initial incursion by the Ethiopian army, but its leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former colonel who came to prominence during the Somali-Ethiopian war of 1977, turned up again in 2006 as president of the UIC.

At an opposition meeting in September held at Asmara in Eritrea, Aweys (who is on the U.S. wanted list) described himself as “a nationalist fighting for a free, united Somalia, which the Americans regard as terrorism.” He has challenged Washington to prove his al-Qaida links, noting that U.S. foreign policy is strangely bellicose towards Somalia.

Somali Islamists, suppressed under Siad Barre’s regime, increased their influence during the 1990s. They took control of Luuq, a small town in the south near the border with Kenya, which had expelled them. In 1996, however, they lost their stronghold in Puntland, a self-proclaimed state in northeast Somalia. Egyptian, Afghan and Chechen members of al-Ittihad began to leave the country as the “local Islamists gave up military activity in favour of doing business with the Gulf states, teaching in Quranic schools and defending Shariah” and by 2000 the recently formed UIC was prepared to take part in a first attempt at transitional government.

But a 1995 UN report claimed that Aweys, who has his base in the Galgaduud region of central Somalia, was already receiving arms from Eritrea and was in touch with representatives of the National Liberation Fronts of both Ogaden and Oromo, which oppose the Ethiopian government.

U.S. secret services have detected dangerous signs of “Talibanisation” in the traditionalist outlook of the UIC. They tried to buy some of the Somali warlords in February 2006, but they were unable to check the advances of the Islamists, who had won overall control of Mogadishu by July.

This new setback was followed by a bold move: There would be no repeat of Black Hawk, nor any U.S. forces deployed on the ground, at least officially Instead, with a mandate from Washington, the Ethiopian army marched into Somalia to support the TFG, which had been unable to take possession of its capital. By December 2006, the Ethiopian forces had removed the Islamists from Mogadishu.

But once installed in Mogadishu by the Ethiopians, President Abdullahi had to abandon his plan to disarm the clans and the militias. Popular protests against the presence of the Ethiopian army grew more frequent. Attacks by the resistance resumed around the capital. On 30 March, the battle of Mogadishu began. In April, in an attempt to end it, Ethiopian artillery bombarded the fighters. The rebel strongholds in the north of the capital fell, and within a few days refugees began to make their way home.

The U.S. army’s hunt for real or supposed members of al-Qaida continued. In January 2007, it undertook its first major operation, the machine-gunning of a group of “fugitives” by a heavily armed C-130 Spectre gunship, first used in the Vietnam war. Operations such as these, unscrutinised, in semi-secrecy, mark the return of a robust U.S. stance in the secret war in the Horn of Africa. In February, special forces carried out operations in the south of Somalia and on 2 June, a U.S. navy warship fired on targets near the port of Bargal in Puntland, which, it was claimed, were hideouts for “fugitive members of al-Qaida” -- though these claims are unverified.

Raids have also increased in Mogadishu since the Ethiopians and President Abdullahi’s forces took control. Just being a former member of the UIC is sufficient grounds for being classified as a terrorist. Estimates of the number who have disappeared range from 200 to 1,000; they are believed to be being detained in the Villa Somalia in the port or in the National Security Agency’s underground cells. This augured ill for a reconciliation conference scheduled for June in Mogadishu. It opened a month late and lacked any participants from the Islamist groups and the Hawiye, the majority clan. It concluded on 30 August without any significant outcome.

  • Reopening old wounds

In entrusting the dirty work to Ethiopia, the United States has risked reigniting smouldering tensions in the region. In pushing towards an internationalisation of the Somali conflict, it has allowed the Ethiopian and Eritrean regimes, which fought an inconclusive war from 1998 to 2000, to reopen old wounds. Eritrea has little sympathy with the UIC, but has nonetheless provided it with arms: A UN report in November 2006, which warned of a generalised conflict, described an endemic flow of arms into both camps. It accused Eritrea of having made “at least 28 deliveries of arms, munitions and military equipment” (including surface-to-air missiles) to the Islamists, who then controlled Mogadishu after the conflict with the U.S.-backed warlords.

Last September the Eritrean government, which Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian president, has again accused of supporting Somali’s terrorists, hosted a conference for opposition groups with the aim of creating a “new alliance for the liberation of Somalia”. This organisation’s first act was to call for the withdrawal of the Ethiopian army, which it considers a U.S. pawn. It then launched a new offensive against Mogadishu in September.

Ethiopia has always supported the TFG. The U.S. government secretly gave it the green light to make emergency arms purchases from North Korea, in violation of the sanctions imposed on Pyongyang by the Security Council -- at the request of the U.S. 

U.S. foreign policy seems to have accepted that a regime as undemocratic as that of Zenawi -- which still has a monopoly on power thanks to the Tigre Liberation Front, which he leads, and which suppresses political parties, unions and student movements -- will profit from the war on terror in order to win financial aid and political credit.

In delegating the task of restoring law and order to Somalia’s enemy, the United States has also opened the possibility that Ethiopia will take part in Somalia’s dismemberment. (In the colonial era Somalia was divided: Present-day Somaliland was ruled by the British, while Mogadishu and the centre of the country was Italian, and Djibouti in the northwest was French.)

Washington’s policy has done nothing to stop the spread of anti-Americanism, as prevalent in Somalia as in the rest of the Islamic world. It increases the risk of indirectly relaunching the claims of the Ogadenis, Afars and Omoros, nations historically hostile to the centralising ambitions of Addis Ababa, which have long dreamt of the disintegration of the former empire. Africom, the new United States Africa Command launching in 2008, must consider all this if it wants to prevent the Horn of Africa catching fire as it did in the 1970s and 1980s.

 Philippe Leymarie is a journalist with Radio France International.
Copyright © 2007 Le Monde

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