Iraq in the Horn of Africa

"The jihadist leads a double life." That’s the opening line of Scott Johnson’s disturbing report on Somalia in the latest edition of Newsweek. Johnson’s piece covers the worsening conditions in the country, and offers some sobering cost-benefit observations on the pitfalls of burning down the barn to weed the needle out of the haystack.

Standing in the shade of a crumbling, Mussolini-era balcony, a phone headset clipped to his ear, he affects a casual, corporate air. But then he pulls his blue oxford shirt aside to reveal a fresh bullet scar. He spies on his co-workers, he admits, and feeds information about them to the Islamist rebels who are laying siege to Mogadishu. "God willing, we’ll take over the country soon," he tells a NEWSWEEK reporter, one of the few Western journalists who have ventured into Somalia in months. The State Department recently added al-Shabaab (meaning "youth") to its list of terrorist organizations, making the group a target for attacks by U.S. forces operating in the Horn of Africa. The jihadist is unconcerned. "We’re like a centipede," he says. "You cut off one of our legs, we just keep going."

Unfortunately, he’s probably right. In late 2006 the United States backed Ethiopia’s incursion into Somalia, designed to oust the Islamic Courts Union, the Islamist coalition that had taken over much of the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country. (Al-Shabaab was the Courts’ military wing.) Washington accused the Islamists of harboring Qaeda operatives involved in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But the Courts had also brought more stability than Somalia had enjoyed in years. Somalis could walk the streets and do business again, and many welcomed the Islamists just as war-weary Afghans hailed the Taliban in the 1990s.

Now, by trying to prevent another terrorist haven like Afghanistan from developing, America may have helped create another Iraq, this one in the volatile Horn of Africa. "Every year this fighting continues, the situation worsens," says Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Abdul Salaam of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government. The Islamists’ eviction in 2006 left a power vacuum that the U.N.-backed government still hasn’t managed to fill. Ethiopian troops are loathed as occupiers and rarely leave their heavily fortified bases. And al-Shabaab has broken off from the Courts to wage a brutal and effective insurgency. The guerrillas have overrun at least eight Somali towns this year and control parts of the capital. Where once they brought order to Somalia, they now gleefully spread chaos.

There’s more. Go read it. 

Johnson, Scott. "Dilemmas of the Horn." Newsweek (21 April 2008).

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