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USA/Somalia: Slippery Slope

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Sep 15, 2009 (090915)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

A U.S. commando raid in Somalia on Sept. 14 reportedly killed Kenyan Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, accused of links with al-Qaeda and of responsibility for a terrorist truck bomb at a Mombasa hotel in 2002. It is being applauded as a win by U.S. counter-terrorism officials, not least for its success in avoiding civilian casualties. But critical observers warn that its impact could nevertheless be counter-productive, producing new recruits for extremist groups in Somalia and reinforcing accusations that the fragile Somali government is too close to Washington.

See for a summary report.

The raid comes against a backdrop of a high-profile U.S. decision to provide at least 40 tons of arms to the Somali government, as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's meeting with Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad. The government of Sharif Ahmad, a moderate Islamist, has broad representation, and is supported by the African Union, the United Nations, and the Arab League. But it controls only very limited territory. It is militarily vulnerable to extremist Islamist groups, although those groups are considered to represent only a minority of Somalis. But the closer the ties with the U.S., a U.S. military official commented earlier this year, the more the government is de-legitimized.

An extended analysis of U.S. policy by William Minter and Daniel Volman, written in June, appeared as the cover article in the July issue of In These Times. It stressed the temptations for the U.S. to get it wrong in Somalia, again ( Our conclusion, shared by many analysts, was that there is no good formula for getting policy right in Somalia. But there are many temptations to counterproductive military engagement. As of last June, we were of the opinion that the Obama administration to date had been appropriately cautious. But the latest developments seem to be moving down the slippery slope of a narrow counter-terrorist and counter-insurgency response, at the expense of diplomatic and humanitarian actions.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from several articles with commentary both on U.S. policy and on other aspects of the situation in Somalia. Elizabeth Dickson in Foreign Policy comments on disagreements within the U.S. government about the shipment of arms supplies to the government in Mogadishu. Minnesota Public Radio comments on repeated airport searches of two prominent Somali-American professors at the University of Minnesota. UN Special Representative for Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah reports on recent events in his latest monthly letter to the Somali diaspora (for additional background on Ould-Abdallah's activities, see - Ould-Abdallah's role is not uncontroversial, but he has consistently advocated an inclusive negotiation posture). And an Oxfam press release highlights the horrific conditions in refugee camps for Somali exiles, such as the Dadaab camp in Kenya, estimated to house soome 280,000 people,

For a series of testimonies before Congress on U.S. policy toward Somalia, in May and June 2009, see
(Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of State)
(Ted Dagne, Congressional Research Service)
(Peter Pham, James Madison University)
(Ken Menkhaus, Davidson College)

In a September 9 op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor, Alexander Noyes and Richard Bennet of the Council on Foreign Relations argue that "To avoid aiding rebels, Obama must cease direct aid to the government and work with regional neighbors." See

Other recent commentaries of interest include
Ken Menkhaus, "Too Big a Problem to Fail"
Foreign Policy, August 6,
Karen Rothmyer "Misreading the Somali Threat"
Nation, April 22,
Nuradin Dirie, "Future Viable Options for Somalia"
Chatham House, June 11,

Most analyses, including the ones cited here, focus primarily on the situation of open conflict in southern Somalia. The situation in the semi-autonomous Puntland and in the separately governed but not internationally recognized Somaliland is also difficult, but very distinct. See, for two recent reports with background information, Human Rights Watch on Somaliland
( and International Crisis Group on Puntland (

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Arming Somalia

The United States sent RPGs, machine guns, mortars, and -- in the words of one U.S. official -- "cash in a brown paper bag" to Somalia last spring. Foreign Policy reports on how the shipments took place, and who's not happy about it.

By Elizabeth Dickinson | September 10, 2009

Foreign Policy

[excerpts only: for full article see]

Late in May, as violence consumed the streets of the infamously violent capital city of Mogadishu, Somalia, packages of ammunition, weapons, and cash began arriving from the United States as part of an attempt to help the country's flailing Transitional Federal Government (TFG) stave off collapse. At the time, the Somali government was literally about to fail, reportedly controlling no more than a neighborhood in Mogadishu thanks to a fresh assault by two Islamist insurgent groups: al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam.


All told, a State Department official admitted at a June 26 news briefing that it shipped "in the neighborhood of 40 tons worth of arms and munitions" to Somalia. "We have also asked the two units that are there, particularly the Ugandans, to provide weapons to the TFG, and we have backfilled the Ugandans for what they have provided to the TFG government," the official told journalists. The cost was "under $10 million." A different State Department official working on Somalia counterterrorism policy told Foreign Policy that of the total amount, the bulk was spent on ammunition, while the air freight bill was $900,000 and $1.25 million was "cash in a brown paper bag."


The arms transfer was among the new U.S. administration's first moves toward Somalia, a country that many see as a test case for President Barack Obama's counterterrorism policy. The country has been in a state of war for nearly two decades, displacing a quarter of the country's population, with half a million refugees scattered across the region and another 1.5 million displaced internally within Somalia. But in recent months, the East African country has become a growing concern for U.S. officials as local groups, most notably an Islamist faction named al-Shabab -- some of whose leaders are thought to have been trained by al Qaeda -- have expanded their control of the country.


According to experts on the region, the policy's intent was both symbolic and tactical. "The symbolic [aspect] is a way of sending a message to Somalis that the United States is going to stand behind the TFG -- that the United States will not allow it to fail and sees it as the only viable solution," said Ken Menkhaus, a leading Somalia analyst, in an interview. Tactically, the intent was straightforward: to help the TFG fight back against its heavily armed opponents.

But there have been concerns about just how effective the arms shipments have been. On Aug. 11, Garowe, a Somali radio station and online news outlet, reported that arms transferred to the Somali government were being sold on the street. ...

To many observers, this seemed all too predictable. The small-arms trade has flourished for the 18 years that Somalia has been in conflict, with weapons proliferating dramatically despite the arms embargo. One of the most frequent channels has been through desertions; 14,000 of the TFG's 17,000 forces deserted last year, many with their guns and uniforms. Today, desertions are less common thanks to a new, more popular president, according to the regional analyst. But he estimates that government forces, including police, only number about 5,000 -- and that's just on paper. In practice, the TFG forces are less a uniform force than a series of militias that operate independently, loyal to one government official or another. ...

Regardless of whose hands the weapons are ultimately in, other analysts question the wisdom of sending more small arms to a country that is already all too rife with gunfire. ,,,

The policy also raises questions about the broader U.S. stance toward Somalia. The State Department official working on Somalia counterterrorism policy told FP that "every element of the U.S. government seems to have its own piece of the Somalia plan." There was no formal policy, he said, because of a disagreement about whether and how to support the Transitional Federal Government. "The Department of Defense thought they were just out of their minds [to send the arms shipment]," he said. "But since it was State's money, the plan went through." (Queried about this claim, Defense Department spokeswoman Almarah Belk responded via e-mail, "Policy toward Somalia is coordinated via the NSC [National Security Council]. DoD [Department of Defense] agrees and supports the DOS [Department of State] security assistance to the TFG.")

There is also some question as to how popular the shipment was within the State Department itself. The State Department official told FP that there was no support and even active opposition to the plan among his colleagues. When a reporter at the June 26 briefing insinuated that the decision "was made at the highest level," the briefing official replied that the policy was a "national decision" agreed upon by "the secretary and the NSC," meaning Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the National Security Council.


Somali-American professors angered over repeated searches

by Laura Yuen

Minnesota Public Radio August 24, 2009

[Excerpts; For full article see For a series of articles by Minnesota Public Radio on Somalis in Minnesota see]

Minneapolis - Two Somali-American scholars at the University of Minnesota say they're outraged by what they consider invasive questioning and searches while traveling abroad this summer.

Abdi Samatar chairs the U's geography department. He's married to Cawo Abdi, a sociology professor. Since June, the husband and wife say they've been pulled aside a total of six times at airports for lengthy interviews that have lasted up to two and a half hours. They believe customs officials targeted them for being Muslim and ethnic Somalis.

Earlier this month, Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan -- the "Brad Pitt of India" -- made headlines around the globe when he was stopped at a New Jersey airport. Khan said, at the time, that he believed he was questioned because his Muslim name raised red flags in a post-Sept. 11 world.

But countless Somali-Americans who don't enjoy Khan's level of celebrity say they've been subjected to similar searches, called secondary inspections, upon re-entering the U.S.

"He went through every little thing that was in my wallet, one by one," Abdi Samatar said, recalling the inspection of one customs officer. Samatar, who sports a graying beard and bookish, gold-rimmed glasses, said he has counseled the U.S. State Department on Somali affairs and travels around the world for his research.

But he now believes he's of interest to the government for other reasons. Since June, Samatar has gone through four secondary searches, which he described as demeaning and humiliating. U.S customs officers, sometimes acting apologetically, have rummaged through his personal diary, his toiletries, his kid's diaper bag, and academic papers on Somali pirates.

One officer took a keen interest in the papers, Samatar said. The officer wanted to know why he was reading them. The professor said he was planning to write about the issue of Somali piracy. When the officer asked why Samatar wanted to write such things, the professor said he responded: "We are scholars, and we write papers and books."

Samatar said the last time he was pulled aside for additional screening -- upon returning to Minnesota from Sweden for a conference --- he refused to answer the customs officer's questions and was eventually released.

Samatar believes the searches must be related to a federal investigation into about 20 Minnesotan men of Somali descent. Authorities say the men left for East Africa to fight with an extremist group. One of the travelers blew himself up last fall in Somalia, becoming the first U.S. citizen to carry out a terrorist suicide bombing.

Authorities fear those fighters could come back to the U.S and inflict harm here. Samatar said he understands those concerns, and agrees that government agencies should be on high alert. "But they should be on high alert on an intelligent basis, rather than on a dumb basis," he said. "It seems to me there is a sort of 'Dumb Operating Procedure,' which picks up people for all kinds of nefarious reasons: You have a Muslim name, you live in Minneapolis, you are a Somali, and you travel a lot. Therefore, you become a target."


Samatar and his wife are both U.S citizens with American passports. In August, they were returning from South Africa on separate flights and were steered into a waiting room at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. "We looked at each other, and we smiled, and we said, 'OK, let's see where this takes us," recalled Cawo Abdi, Samatar's wife. But now, Abdi said, she feels indignation. ...

Handling all Somali travelers with suspicion will undermine the FBI's investigation, she said. Abdi believes the government can't afford to alienate her community because it needs its help to solve the case. The FBI wouldn't say whether the airport security measures were in connection with the investigation. The agency deferred all questions to Customs and Border Protection. Both professors believe they're on some kind of government watch list. ...

Individuals who routinely experience difficulties while traveling can file requests for redress through the Department of Homeland Security. Samatar and Abdi said they are formally seeking information from the U.S government to find out why it seems so interested in them. They say they won't rule out a lawsuit.

United Nations Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS)

Letter to the members of the Somali Jaaliyadda (no 17)

Nairobi, 25 August 2009

[This and earlier letters also available at

As-Salaamu Alaikum,

Dear friends,

  1. The Holy Month of Ramadan is the month during which the Holy Koran was revealed. Ramadan is time for peace and forgiveness. It is the time to renew our spirits, faith and relationship with our Creator, and also with one another as Moslem brothers and sisters. This time of spiritual reflection is also a time for considering those less fortunate than ourselves. I would like all of us to pray to God that Somalia will, Insha Allah achieve peace and stability, regain its dignity and see the return of displaced and refugees before the next Ramadan.

  2. Which brings me to the plight of the Somali refugees currently in camps. We are all aware of the overcrowding, harsh conditions that these refugees must endure in exchange for a security away from home. The efforts and generosity of host countries helping the Somalis in need is commendable, but certainly the burden of responsibility should lie with the Somali elites communities, who are in a position to help by bringing peace home.

  3. I particularly appeal to the Somali elite, inside and outside the country, who are fortunate enough to live with their families in comfortable, secure homes and with access to good schools to remember that only stability will end the long suffering of refugees and internaly displaced persons. It will also help you to have, once again, a place to call proudly homeland. To that end, dialogue is better than the killing of Somalis by Somalis. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) promoted the spirit of compromise at Al Hudaibiya and that Pact is seen as a noble example of strength rather than a weakness. Why shouldn't Muslim Somalis emulate this heroic action of the Prophet and talk to each other?

  4. In my previous letter, I mentioned that my office was in the midst of planning several important developments on the way forward and some of those have since then taken place:

  5. The Government is making progress towards reforming and improving security. On 25 July, the Joint Security Committee (JSC), now comprised of key Government figures, AU/AMISOM, the UN, EU/EC, LAS, Italy met in Mogadishu for the first time. That meeting laid the ground work for coordinating the cooperation between the Government and the international community. On 12 August, a second meeting of the JSC took place also in Mogadishu and established three technical working groups to be devoted to strengthening the security sector. Soon the High Level Committee will start its meetings.

  6. From the 1 to 5 August, former Minister of Defence Professor Ghandi and I co-chaired a very productive meeting in Washington, DC with the former Somali senior military officers. One of the reasons for convening these former military officers is because of their institutional memory which, combined, offers a good option for analyzing past successes and failures and establishing improved policies and procedures to work with in restructuring Somalia's security forces. At the same time, it should be reiterated that the Government has never strayed from its initial pronouncement that it is committed to dialogue and is open to all segments of Somali society and ready to accommodate members of all oppositions. This includes former military officers or any Somali who wishes to contribute to the restoration of stability and national reconciliation.

  7. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's meeting on the 6 August with President Sheik Sharif was an encouraging sign for Somalis and a strong show of support and belief in the Somalia's people and Government. On behalf of the US, the Secretary of State made a firm commitment to support Government efforts in in improving humanitarian assistance, health, water, education and in building a secure enivironment for the Somali people. Now, it's up to the Government to leverage this and all the logistical and technical support of their international partners with swift and efficient actions.

  8. During my visit to UN Headquarters at the end of July, I held several bilateral meetings and addressed the UN Security Council. I underscored the support needed from the Council to help restore stability in Somalia and outlined concrete steps that the international community could take including political and financial assistance to the Somali Government and AMISOM and support for IGAD and the African Union. I also told the Council, that the UN should show it is serious about moving to Somalia, to be closer to the people.

  9. After the Security Council, I travelled to Ottawa where I met the Foreign Minister, Lawrence Cannon, to discuss the latest situation in Somalia. Following meetings with other Ministry officials, I spoke to some 30 Diaspora community leaders whose large majority expressed interest in becoming more actively involved in the peace process.

  10. Impunity is a priority issue for Somali and should be addressed. A culture of impunity is toxic and leaves no soul unscathed. A society cannot have peace, let alone prosper and develop without justice. Back in November 2008, a first workshop on Justice and Reconciliation was held in Djibouti and participants committed themselves to begin to address impunity under a Unity Government. A second conference: "Addressing Impunity: Towards Justice and Reconciliation" which included members of the Government, parliamentarians and civil society representatives from inside Somalia has just concluded its work. A number of well-known international experts as well as members of the Nairobi based UN Monitoring Group made important and lively contributions. There was a significant number of women and youth participating at the conference. Ways of moving forward were outlined and various mechansims for addressing impunity were presented.

  11. Armed violence continues. It continues even though there are no longer any Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu the previous justification. What reason is there now to continue fighting unless it is to capitalize on the insecurity for personal gain? Everywhere I go foreigners ask me in particular this question. This is a question I put forth to those who lately have threatened to redouble their attacks during the Holy Month of Ramadan, particularly as the President has precisely invited for dialogue. What is the sanctity in killing innocent Moslem civilians? What moral justification is there for instilling fear and terror in the population?

  12. I am saddened every time I read a media report that mentions the Somali conflict as spawning a terror threat that is spreading throughout the world. This affects all Somalis and those of you living in the Diaspora more so. Even though you may have national passports from Western countries you may still be seen as suspicious. To be presumed suspicious or a threat by the rest of World because of one's origin strips one of freedom and dignity. It is time to end this long conflict at home, that of Somalis fighting Somalis.

  13. The Government has made cooperative acts at the political level with Ahlu Sunnah wal Jamaah and we support that productive effort. I hope more will be done in Mogadishu with all willing Somali brothers not yet at peace with the Government and with Somalia itself. All doors are open to peace.

  14. Some may be satisfied with the present Government. Some not. But it is time, after 20 years, to remember that a new government is better than no government. With patience, by the Grace of God, you will have the Government that you all call for. To get there, your unity in strengthening the Government is essential. This Government will succeed and patriots shouldn't miss this moment. I pray that you remember this important fact in this holy month of Ramadan.

Ramadan Kareem!

Yours Faithfully

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah

Oxfam International (Oxford)

East Africa: Overcrowded and Desperate Camps in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia 'Barely Fit for Humans'

3 September 2009

A total failure of the international community to deal effectively with the Somalia crisis and help end the war is resulting in a spiral of human suffering and exodus to neighbouring countries, warns international agency Oxfam.

Hundreds of thousands of Somalis who have fled the violence are now trapped in horrifically overcrowded or poorly managed camps in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia itself.

Oxfam says poor sanitation and little access to basic services such as water and medicine due to an ineffective response are creating a public health emergency in camps, which needs to be urgently addressed.

"Somalis flee one of the world's most brutal conflicts and a desperate drought, only to end up in unimaginable conditions in camps that are barely fit for humans. Hundreds of thousands of children are affected, and the world is abandoning the next generation of Somalis when they most need our help. Why does it seem like you matter less in this world if you are from Somalia?" said Robbert Van den Berg Oxfam International's spokesman for the Horn of Africa.

Somalia has recently seen a major increase in conflict, and the country is suffering its worst drought in a decade. The failure of the international community to address adequately these overcrowded and unsanitary camps is shameful given the level of need and human suffering,

In Northern Kenya, each and every month, around 8,000 Somali refugees pour into Dadaab camp. Now home to 280,000 people, the camp was originally built to only house a third of that amount. The severe overcrowding means many families do not have regular access to latrines or clean water, and in some of the worst parts of the camp over 20 families share one single latrine. "The Kenyan government has repeatedly promised to provide more land to ease the overcrowding but has so far failed to do so, despite the urgent and critical needs. More pressure from the international community is needed to make it happen", Van den Berg continued.

In Ethiopia's Bokolmayo camp, almost 10,000 people are already in the camp and nearly 1,000 people a month continue to arrive. Yet the current infrastructure and services are insufficient to cope with more arrivals, and there is still an important funding gap for the operation. The UN refugee agency's response to the impending crisis has been weak and inefficient. Oxfam called on the agency to exercise much greater leadership in ensuring Somalis get adequate assistance by supporting host countries to respond effectively to the humanitarian crisis.

In Somalia many of those fleeing Mogadishu have looked for refuge in the nearby Afgooye area, which with up to at least 485,000 people sheltering on a 15km strip of land is now said to be the world's densest concentration of displaced people. The high insecurity makes it extremely difficult for international agencies to deliver enough aid to meet people's needs. Somalis themselves are now on the frontline of delivering aid through their local organisations, yet they lack funds to carry out their life-saving work and need much more support from donors.

"In all three locations Afgooye, Dadaab and Bokolmayo the services being provided to vulnerable and desperate people are far below international standards. While NGOs need to scale up their response, donors cannot shy away from providing funding for this emergency. This is a human tragedy of unthinkable proportions where countless people have now been deprived of a home and a sense of normality for months and months," said Van den Berg.

"Ultimately, the root cause of the problems in all of these camps is the ongoing conflict, lawlessness and humanitarian disaster inside Somalia. Our governments must put Somalia top of their list and do more than simply keeping the country on life-support. What we need is a different approach and sustained senior level commitment to end this outrageous human suffering that has been going on for over 15 years," he said.

Note: There are now 1.4 million displaced people in Somalia and more than half a million refugees in countries around the region, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Yemen, Uganda, Eritrea, Tanzania and Djibouti.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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