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

Winning Another Front in the War on Terror – What the West Could Do Better in Somalia

August 2007

Right after 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan Somalia surfaced on the international agenda again. After nearly fourteen years without any central administration Somalia seemed to have become what some observers have called a second Afghanistan, a failed state that could serve as a potential safe haven for terrorists with links to Al-Qaeda or Al-Qaeda itself. However, international attention shifted to Iraq rather than Somalia, and the U.S.-administration, that had initially been keen to tackle the problem of failed states, set out to change the whole Middle East by intervening in Iraq. But why was Somalia dropped as a major source of concern by the U.S. administration again? Part of the answer is that the U.S. was looking for a means to fundamentally change the Middle East region, which it considered as the major source of threats to its national security. The whole concept of the Broader Middle East Initiative was designed to inspire a process of democratic transformation in the region. The war in Iraq can be seen as part of that particular campaign, although it soon overshadowed the whole initiative. Africa came only second on the agenda. Moreover, another military intervention in Somalia could have caused heavy casualties. Therefore the U.S. administration looked for a way of containing the problem of state failure in Somalia and chose to establish a maritime mission on the Horn of Africa in order to monitor the movements into Somalia and into the Middle East region. But by adopting this strategy the problem of Somalia will not be solved, quite on the contrary the Horn of Africa will remain as volatile and insecure as ever. Keeping in mind the limited resources now available, what could the West do better in Somalia?

Recognising Somali Efforts

The beginning of the 1990s brought considerable change to the Horn of Africa. The influx of cheap weapons and small arms from the former Soviet Union and its allies destabilised the region in the early 1990s, while many countries in the Horn had to rebalance their foreign policy as the collapse of the Soviet Union robbed them off their closest ally. At the same time a long history of deterioration in Somali politics washed away the dictatorship of Siad Barre leaving Somalia, once the most influential power in the Horn, to chaos and anarchy. However, the north-western province of Somaliland went through a process of peaceful conflict resolution. While Somalia had been a former Italian colony, Somaliland had been a British protectorate before it entered a union with the former Italian part in 1960. After Barre was ousted from power in 1991, Somaliland declared its independence again and has since been establishing a functioning democratic order. A new constitution was introduced after a referendum held nationwide in May 2001 and the presidential elections in April 2003 which were considered being free and fair. But although the Somalilanders managed to maintain political stability and even introduced democratic reforms the international community is still reluctant to acknowledge the efforts being made by Somalis without foreign help and the considerable success they had in doing so.

What the West could do better in this instance is to finally acknowledge the progress being made by Somalilanders; meanwhile Somalilanders developed a strong feeling of nationalism towards their country. Fourteen years of independence and relative prosperity produced a national dynamic, a reluctance to accept any central authority that could possibly emerge in Mogadishu or anywhere else in the South of Somalia. A success of the current peace process in the South – although the Transitional Government was relocated from Kenya to Jowhar near Mogadishu, a success remains highly unlikely – would necessarily lead to a war between Somaliland and Somalia as soon as the new administration would set out to tighten its grip on the country. International recognition of Somaliland is not only a prerequisite for any successful peace process within Somalia but would also show the West’s willingness to readily acknowledge indigenous efforts for stability. Moreover, international recognition of Somaliland would not pose a precedent for state secession in other parts of Africa. As Somaliland has been a single entity before independence its recognition would be in line with the international communities’ politics of maintaining the colonial borders in Africa. Like in Eritrea’s case for national independence in 1993 colonial borders would be restored rather than destroyed. An independent Somaliland would also offer an ideal base for strengthening East African governments in their stance against terrorism and Somaliland could easily be integrated in the US’ East African Counter Terrorism Program (EACTP) that already unites Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Tanzania in the global struggle against terrorism. So far only the U.S. and the United Kingdom are considering international recognition, but doing so would require an active U.S. policy in overcoming especially Italy’s aversion of an independent Somaliland.

Combating Terrorism

The 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam by Al-Qaeda left 224 people dead, most of them Africans. The embassy bombings proved to be one of the deadliest attacks until 9/11. However, the reaction of the Clinton-Administration was a confused mixture of a rapid military retaliation and a half-hearted political initiative to offer military instruction for African-peacekeepers in the African Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI) that was meanwhile succeeded by the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance Programme (ACOTA). It soon became clear that terrorism was a problem not only of Arab origin. The attacks on U.S. forces in Somalia during mission ‘Restore Hope’, the Embassy bombings, the attempted shooting down of an airplane at Mombassa airport in 2002 and the attack on an Israeli owned hotel complex again in Mombassa showed that the problem of terrorism in Africa will not simply disappear. On the core of the increasing number of terrorist incidents in East Africa lies a longer lasting strong drive towards further Islamisation of the East African coast sponsored by Saudi Wahabbism as well as Sudanese fundamentalist imperialism. Whilst many West African states are already being Muslim the attention of Islamic fundamentalists shifted towards East Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s. State failure in Somalia provided a fertile ground for movements like Al-Ittihad Al-Islamiya (AIAI), an Islamic organisation being held responsible for a number of attacks on American forces during mission ‘Restore Hope’ and for other terrorist attacks in East Africa. Al-Ittihad was sponsored by the Islamic Sudanese government in the early 1990s, and the U.S. administration subsequently focused on containing Sudanese influence in the region. As Walter Kansteiner, former Assistant Secretary for African Affairs put in 2002 with regard to state failure in Somalia:

“What better place for the seeds of international terrorism and lawlessness to take root?”

In fact, this rhetoric question shed some light on events unfolding in Somalia in 2006. Virtually at the beginning of this year did Islamists of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) challenge the authority of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). For the first time in the past one and a half decade is Mogadishu no longer divided between various warlords but under the firm control of one group, the Islamists. At the end of 2006 it looks as if the seeds are finally taking roots.

With international attention focused elsewhere another conflict, the bloody border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000 went by largely unnoticed by the U.S. and the international community. While a wide range of conflicts in the Horn remained unsettled, ‘purer’ versions of Islam could attract people looking for some sort of identity and stability. Moreover, the spread of Islamisation never really stopped. Apart from a Christian Ethiopia nearly all East African states are today Muslim or Muslim dominated, with an overwhelming majority belonging to Sunni Islam: As the scholar John Nyuot Yoh recently noted:

”The emerging latent rivalry between the Sunni and Shiite versions of Islam along the eastern coast of Africa might well pose a threat in some countries in the Horn where the numbers of Muslims and Christians differ widely.”

The East African coastal strip has indeed become an area most suitable for terrorist activities ranging from money laundering to carrying out attacks on Western targets. State dysfunctions, informal economies, and weak security infrastructures allow for an easy penetration of East African States by terrorist networks. What is more is that there is an inviting range of possible targets in these states: Embassies, liaison offices, and Western based Non-Governmental Organisations. The recent attacks on employees of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Somalia show how difficult it could become to serve the people in such an insecure environment. Especially Somalia should be of concern in this regard as a new terrorist group has recently emerged in Mogadishu under the alleged leadership of a certain Aden Hashi ‘Ayro. The group is being held responsible for the killing of four aid workers in Somaliland in 2003 and 2004 and is suspected of having links to Al-Qaeda.

Despite the insurgency in Iraq, parts of Africa and especially the Horn of Africa could still become a potential safe haven for terrorists as well as potential targets for terrorist attacks. Countries such as Kenya and Somalia have become a transit hub for fundamentalists from all over the world. Combating terrorism therefore requires a bunch of initiatives that could easily be started and should aim at:

1 making harbours and airports more secure,
2 promoting a system that could effectively prohibit money laundering,
3 promoting good governance,
4 and finally put an end to de facto free trade of small arms

These initiatives could allow for a better monitoring of the movement of people and goods, funding of terrorism could be seriously hardened and would finally support African governments in their attempts to fight terrorism and achieve greater in depth control of their national territory. Although many African countries are part of the international coalition against terror, they lack the means to effectively combat terrorism. Even though the U.S. national security strategy considers failed states as a threat to its national security the U.S. has so far been relative reluctant of getting involved in failed states or post conflict policing. As the U.S. military capacities are now largely bound in the Middle East the U.S. should seriously enhance its training efforts with African troops, as Gayle Smith, put it:

“If the United States is unwilling to commit troops to peace-keeping in Africa, then I think we have to be prepared to seriously support African Nations that are prepared to fill the gap.”

If these initiatives could be started multilaterally, national security would be enhanced and the international prestige of the United States would possibly improve.

Bringing Stability into the Region

The major obstacle to lasting peace in the Horn and in Africa in general is the free availability of small arms. Yemen has served as the supermarket for small arms trade to Somalia for years, despite a UN arms embargo. Although the maritime mission Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa (CJTF-HoA) already monitors the region, the influx of small arms into the Horn from Yemen has never really ended. The limited authorities of the naval mission do not allow for the stopping of suspicious vessels leading directly to a continuing breakdown of the UN arms embargo against Somalia. Given the fact that Yemen and Somalia are either failed or failing states, the only way of stopping the free trade of small arms is during its journey on the sea. Therefore the international community should seriously consider that in combating terrorism it will be necessary to police the important waterways and, in doing so, the international community must give the participating naval forces the means to fulfil the assigned tasks effectively. By broadening the mandate of the Joint Task Force the Operation Enduring Freedom could contribute to multilateral efforts to combat the trade of light weapons that were being made under the auspices of the United Nations (UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects – UNPoA) and on the multilateral initiative of East African countries (as formulated in the Nairobi declaration on the Problem of the Proliferation of Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons).

In bringing stability to East Africa the West can again contribute to measures being taken by Africans themselves. Thirteen East African countries are currently in the process of establishing an East African Standby Force (EASBRIG). To support this development the West should assist the participating countries on a wider scale. The American ACOTA Initiative and the French Reinforcement of African Peacekeeping Capacities Programme (RECAMP) are already leading in the right direction but in order to avoid another clash of French and U.S. interests in Africa these initiatives could be melt under the aegis of NATO. This would allow for significant contribution by new and small members of the Transatlantic Community. What should be envisaged is a Partnership for Peace for Africa, a way of offering military instruction, technical support and logistical competence to partners rather than recipients. Still the costs of such measures would be limited especially as the burdens would be shared among the NATO member countries.

Regional integration should be another essential part of any effort to achieve a lasting and sustainable peaceful environment in the Horn of Africa. A good way of promoting regional integration would be to bring in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which is still a weak regional organisation founded originally in 1993 to promote food security. Renamed in 1996 it had to focus primarily on security issues in the Horn; in the meantime the Sudan and Somalia peace processes have become the major focus of the IGAD as continuing political instability persists as the major obstacle to enhanced food security. While the United Nations was preoccupied with the violent border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, IGAD focused on the peace process in Sudan. A peace treaty between the Sudanese government and the SPLM/A in Southern Sudan could open a way of ending the insurgency of the Lords Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, leaving Somalia as the remaining major threat to lasting security in the Horn. Especially Djibouti and Kenya had been very keen to initiate a peace process in Somalia but so far every effort to bring the contending parties together failed. The current 14th attempt to establish a new government for Somalia is sponsored by IGAD and has so far been the most successful initiative to restore order in Somalia reaching a climax with the relocation of a Transitional Government and Transitional Parliament to Jowhar near Mogadishu. But the return of the two provisional bodies to Somalia caused deep divisions between two varying parties in the transitional institutions over the question where the government should be based; in Mogadishu or Jowhar until the security situation in Mogadishu improves. This dispute meanwhile led to a serious encounter with some observers fearing an armed conflict between the two parties. As nearly all figures in the transitional institutions are warlords and the Prime Minister Abdullah Yusuf is regarded by most Somalis as an Ethiopian puppet the new government lacks authority and legitimacy. If the peace process shall be successful it cannot rely on warlords longing for peace but must be prepared with the help of the international community. An unavoidable prerequisite for lasting peace apart from recognizing Somalia is the prevention of further small arms trade. The Joint Task Force could easily be integrated into this task. Effectively stopping the arms influx to Somalia will make it much easier to achieve a peaceful settlement.


As the Horn of Africa is located in a strategic zone with access to two of the most important waterways in the world, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, the limited intervention by the international community is more than debatable. But with a bitter insurgency in Iraq and a state-building mission in Afghanistan the West’s resources are strained. However, the international community cannot afford to leave any continent behind in the war on terror, nor can it afford that another safe haven for terrorists emerges while the West tries to rebuild Afghanistan. While failed states from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Liberia and Somalia can easily be penetrated by terrorist network organisations like Al-Qaeda, rebuilding failed states is a major task that stresses the financial and military resources of the U.S. and its allies over years. On this point terrorists can claim a strategic advantage. But the West can still try to balance this disadvantage by relatively modest and financially cheap means. Doing so would first of all require a greater political willingness, a greater awareness of how easily weak and failed states in East Africa can be penetrated by terrorist networks and better multilateral co-operation in bringing together East African governments and the West.

About the Author

Dustin Dehéz is Director for Northeast African Studies at the Düsseldorf Institute for Foreign and Security Policy (DIAS).