Association of Concerned Africa Scholars Review (previously: Bulletin)
ACAS Bulletin 77: North Africa and the Horn in the Vortex of the US War on Terror

In Pursuit of al-Qaeda in Somalia: A Critical Analysis of U.S. Foreign Policy Towards Somalia

August 2007

In an attempt to monitor and curb terrorist activity in East Africa, the United States launched an aggressive campaign against the Union of Islamic Courts—a rising political force in Somalia, including a direct invasion, which ensued a failed attempt by the CIA to defuse the movement. In this effort to weave the Horn of Africa into this ever-exhaustive war on terrorism, there has been a tendency to demonize the UIC and portray the organization as another menacing and monolithic Islamist movement without doing justice to the complexity of Somali politics. It is often the case that the UIC is inappropriately linked with other Islamist movements, such as al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah. Such allegations have largely been reported as fact in media outlets even though supporting details remain weak. Publications and news stories with headlines, such as, “The Hunt for al-Qaeda in Somalia,”[1] “Al-Qaeda Threat Seen Looming if Government Fails,”[2] and “U.N. Says Somalis Helped Hezbollah Fighters,”[3] dominate media discourses and perpetuate the idea of a menacing movement emerging in Somalia. Additionally, much of the existing representations of the UIC in Western media invoke an alarmist sense of urgency to act and dismantle the group. In this paper, I argue that the U.S. approach to Somali politics has largely been shortsighted and uncritical. I deepen this argument by examining the tactics employed by the U.S. and the ramifications of such policies.

U.S. Policy in East Africa

In general, U.S. foreign policy towards Somalia is characterized by strong disapproval of UIC. This condemnation manifests itself in two forms. The first is an aggressive military campaign, which developed into support for the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. The second is a propaganda assault in which there exists strong demonization of the UIC in political, and consequently media circles. Somalia became an area of interest after senior members of the Bush administration conveyed that instability in Somalia posed a significant terror threat for the United States,4 and on May 2006, a U.S. spokesperson openly confirmed that the president would not allow Somalia to exist as a safe haven for terrorists.[5] U.S. officials also conveyed that five al-Qaeda operatives, including some connected with the U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi and Tanzania were in Mogadishu.[6] This was perhaps the beginning of the formal declaration of opposition against alleged terrorist elements in Somalia. Though the U.S. openly expressed concern regarding Somalia’s status as a failed state and also regarding the question of the five al-Qaeda operatives, it became clear that there was more anxiety over the increasing popularity of the UIC and the existence of Islamist politics in Somalia. Instead of pursuing a more surgical approach to the issue of the al-Qaeda operatives or attempting to mediate collaboration between the UIC and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) for a more stable Somalia, the U.S. took a different course.

On February 2006, Washington began its campaign to exert political pressure on the UIC through the CIA funded “Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism in Mogadishu” (ARPCT). The alliance created a coalition of warlords to monitor and defuse Islamist politics in the capital.[7]This network was eventually defeated by the UIC, and this defeat was followed by a deepening of U.S. involvement in Somali politics via neighboring Ethiopia. In recent months, Ethiopian presence on ground has escalated. As early as July 2006, Ethiopian forces were seen crossing into the country and in October, Meles Zenawi declared that the state was “technically at war” with the UIC.[8] In November, the UIC conveyed that Ethiopia was shelling a town in Bandiradley[9] and the UIC launched an attack in response. Ethiopia does not admit fighting until December 24, 2006, and then claims that it was an act of “self-defense,” as the states actions received little criticism from abroad, in addition to the blessing of the U.S. government. Aside from the green light Washington gave to Ethiopia, the U.S. itself has actively participated in air strikes in the south. The attacks by foreign elements and those by the national army have been dismissed by the United Nations. The internationally recognized and U.S. and Ethiopia backed Somali president, Abdullahi Yusuf, has openly expressed that his troops will shell civilian areas in order to eradicate rebel forces. Even so, Yusuf has been free of adequate criticism by international governmental bodies and human rights organizations alike.[10] The latest assault on the Somali people is the utilization of Ethiopian prisons. Nowadays, it seems that carrying out the “war on terror” includes the service of interrogators and the use of detention centers; the conflict in Somalia is certainly no exception. But given the disturbing history of prisoner abuse in Ethiopia, the future of hundreds of individuals captured from Somalia and Kenya is a grave concern for Somalis.[11]

The collective impact of these various pressures has been the most draconian events to ensue since the Somali Civil War. Since the initiation of ground combat, chaos has unfolded in the capital. Hundreds of Somalis have perished in the hands of Ethiopian troops and TFG soldiers. Mass displacement continues to spillover neighboring countries and towns, and many of the city’s two million inhabitants are seeking refuge elsewhere. Astonishingly, the reverberations of the human suffering of this conflict have yet to be experienced beyond the regional borders Somalia, with the exception perhaps of the vibrant Somalia Diaspora abroad. This disregard can perhaps be attributed to the framing of the discussion. The tragedy that results from this propaganda assault is that the death of the other suddenly becomes justified, as the conflict is seen as a necessary component to the greater “war on terror.” Instead of mourning for the dead, a lost life suddenly becomes “collateral damage.” And since the culmination of the Cold War, politicking in this era of globalization has replaced “the enemy” from the communists to the Islamists. More recently, the events on 9-11 invoke a sense of urgency and fear that has not previously existed. By effectively using the rhetoric of post 9-11 discourse, it becomes easier for individuals to accept the fall of Mogadishu and the loss of Somali life. Likewise, U.S. approach to the political factions in Somalia has relied heavily on the exploitation of the fear of the Muslim other. Moreover, by creating false binaries, such as, “good, secular Muslim” versus “bad, extremist Muslim,” and imagining an al-Qaeda connection that did not exist, the rhetoric against the UIC becomes a powerful political and military tool. Ultimately, the construction of such a polarizing factions leads to unchecked power and uncritical alliances.

U.S. Policy and the Miscalculation of Intra-Somali Politics

The recent attacks on Somalia, although largely labeled “successful,” were shortsighted, as it failed to do justice to the political context in Somalia and socio-economic realities that Somalis face. The excursion achieved the shallow objective of ousting the UIC temporarily from one area without establishing stability or eliminating any of the existing condition, which plague the Somali populace. The fighting did not draw out peace, security or order. In fact, since the direct invasion of Ethiopian forces, Mogadishu has returned to its anarchic—post bellum status quo and the U.S. has chosen to unconditionally align itself with an unpopular force.[12] In addition to the resurfacing symptoms of the old anarchy, Somalia has recently experienced its first suicide bomb, in addition to an overall escalation in what some identify as insurgency attacks. Despite that, the bombardment on civilians and the destruction of the city is indeed contributing to the resistance that the TFG and Ethiopian forces confront. Although many Somalis did not initially embrace the UIC or its policies, even more are fundamentally opposed to the Transitional Federal Government for its ineffectiveness and corruption. Members of the TFG parliament include ruthless warlords previously supported by the U.S. Additionally; its membership can be deduced to clanmanship—a dangerous practice for a country already torn by tribal loyalties.[13] Furthermore, Prime Minister Gedi and the TFG have no authority in Mogadishu; they have long attempted to command Somalia from Nairobi, Kenya. For leaders who until recently did not dare reside in the country they supposedly rule, it’s clear that they are disconnected from the vast majority of the people.

Since the recent events, the Somali populace is understandably skeptical of this regime, which allowed Ethiopia to destroy the infrastructure of its own country, especially given the context of the historically bloody border between Ethiopia and Somalia—a history that is without a clear reconciliation process. The decision to embrace Ethiopian troops at the expense of Somali lives is not well received by Somalis. In addition to this skepticism, there is the fear of Ethiopian influence in the country. And while this influence does exist, the mere presence of this perception of power and influence brings about tremendous outrage. This is perhaps most evident in the riots and protests against the TFG, Ethiopia and the Americans that have been erupting in Somalia’s capital,[14] and as articulated previously, the inception of newer resistance in Mogadishu.

Both political figures and the media exploited what Maxine Rodinson refers to as theologocenrism—a term used to describe how some professionals wrongfully use Islam to explain and describe the actions of Muslims. I contend that the actions and the debate surrounding the UIC as a whole demonstrate a promotion of Orientalist notions about Islam, specifically an attempt to manufacture a monolithic Islam. The term theologocenrism refers to a Western school of thought, which discusses all observable events about Muslims to Islamic theology.[15] The practice of this approach narrows the rise of the UIC to a strictly religious development; it ignores the context of lawlessness in Somalia and the role of the UIC in establishing a nationalist and more effective alternative to the TFG. It’s ignores the crucial context from which the UIC emerged. The UIC was able to glean support from Somalis for pragmatic reasons. The organization quickly becomes known for its honesty, as well as its success in providing much needed security. The UIC launched a strong weapons confiscation campaign, reopened the airport and seaport and established policies that attempted to limit drug use.[16] The UIC essentially established order and governance that has not existed since the fall of the Siad Barre regime. Regrettably, the smear campaign against the UIC not only fails to consider the diversity within the UIC or recognize the UIC as a popular, nationalist movement, but it rationalizes the unsubstantiated assaults on Somalia from various forces. Ultimately, such discourse prevents critical diplomacy from taking course.


I maintain that the exaggerated fears and the shortsighted incorporation of Somalia by the U.S. into the “war on terror” not only pushes the state near total collapse, but also compromises the prospects of regional stability, in addition to breeding more radical elements of discontent and advancing the U.S. towards an increasingly isolated world. The flagrant human rights violations, from the indiscriminate bombardment of civilian neighborhoods to the existence of detention centers in Ethiopia mimic the failed policies the U.S. employs in Afghanistan and Iraq. To avoid similar conditions in Somalia, it behooves the U.S. government to work towards a more neutral approach in the region. For a sustainable Somalia, it’s crucial to win hearts and minds—something the TFG, Ethiopian officials and the U.S. have yet to achieve from this military venture. When waging the “war on terror” exceeds the boundaries of democratic values and pushes struggling nations further collapse, it’s important to question how proportional such strategies are, especially as U.S. foreign policy continues to engage in destructive interventionist campaigns in the broader Islamic world.

About the Author

Ramla Bile immigrated to the United States with her family in 1989. She is finishing a Bachelor of Arts in Global Studies and Political Science at the University of Minnesota. She served on the editorial board of The Minnesota Daily where she currently works as a columnist. Ramla is also on the board of directors of the Arab American arts organization, Mizna.


1. Jeff Koinange, Barbara Starr, Jim Clancy, and Ralitsa Vassileva. The Hunt for al-Qaeda in Somalia (2007, January 13). In Inside Africa. CNN International.

2 Sands, David (2007, January 12). Al-Qaeda Threat Seen Looming if Government Fails. The Washington Times, World, A13.

3 Worth, Robert (2006, November 15). U.N. Says Somalis Helped Hezbollah Fighters. The New York Times. International.

4 Menkhaus, Dr. Ken (2007, February 6). “Exploring a Comprehensive Stabilization, Reconstruction, and Counter-terrorism Strategy for Somalia.” Hearing before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate.

5 Kelemen , Michele (2006, June 7). Islamist Militia Seizes Capital of Somalia. In Day to Day . National Public Radio.

6 Jeff Koinange, Barbara Starr, Jim Clancy, and Ralitsa Vassileva. The Hunt for al-Qaeda in Somalia (2007, January 13). In Inside Africa. CNN International.

7 Menkhaus, Dr. Ken (2007, February 6). “Exploring a Comprehensive Stabilization, Reconstruction, and Counter-terrorism Strategy for Somalia.” Hearing before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate.

8 Ethiopia is ‘technically at war’. (2006, October 25). BBC News, Africa.

9 Ethiopia accused of Somalia attack. (2006, November 28). Al Jazeera, Africa.

10 Lee, Matthew (2007, April 06). Bombing of Civilians Justified by UN-Supported Somali President, War Crimes Questions Raised. Retrieved April 10, 2007, from Inner City Press: Investagative Reporting from the United Nations Web site:

11 Mitchell, Anthony (2007, April 4). U.S. agents interrogating terror suspects held in Ethiopian prisons. International Herald Tribune, Africa & the Middle East.

12 Gettleman, Jeffrey (2007, February 20). In Somalia, Violence is Status Quo. New York Times.

13 Menkhaus, Dr. Ken (2007).Somalia: The Back-up Plan. CSIS African Policy Forum.

14 Ethiopia accused of Somalia attack. (2006, November 28). Al Jazeera, Africa.

15 Abu Khalil, As’ad (2006, March 20). “The Bush Doctrine: Assumptions and Realities in the Arab World.” Rice University . Fansworth Pavilion.

16 Mire, Amina (2007, January 2). Return of the Warlords. Counterpunch.

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