19 May 2007 04:22


  • [SW Country] (Carnegie Endowment. ) Africa, Islam, and Terrorism - Meeting Summary :Posted on [21 Dec01]

 Africa, Islam, and Terrorism - Meeting Summary

Synopsis prepared by Jeffrey Krutz, Junior Fellow with the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment.


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SW News] ( VOA Dateline ) TITLE=Africa Terrorism Update: Is Somalia Next?  


Since the events of September 11, sub-Saharan Africa has largely been ignored in the American media. However, the region is of great relevance to the current campaign against global terrorism, since Osama bin Laden once operated from Sudan and some of the perpetrators of attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania likely operated out of Somalia. In addition, nearly 20% of the world's Muslims, amounting to over 200 million people, live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Professor Menkhaus' Presentation

A "parlor game" is currently being played in Washington regarding where the U.S. campaign against al Qaeda and global terrorism will proceed after Afghanistan. Decisions about where to strike next could be made inductively (via direct evidence of terrorist activities) or deductively (based on information about where terrorists are likely to be operating). Lack of reliable intelligence has resulted in a dearth of hard evidence regarding terrorist operations in Africa, so U.S. officials are more likely to use deductive reasoning in determining whether or where to strike next. Likely candidates for U.S. action will likely possess the following criteria:

--areas with large, aggrieved Muslim populations;

--failed states;

--poor states, where security can readily be purchased;

--dangerous areas, where outside forces and individuals have limited access.

Somalia meets all of the aforementioned criteria and is thus a possible target for U.S. action.

The most likely target in Somalia would be al Ittihad, which has been the primary radical Islamist group in the country for over a decade. Al Ittihad arose in the 1980s from study groups in Mogadishu formed by young, professional males, many of whom had experience studying or working abroad. These young men were particularly disenchanted with the corrupt, repressive government of Mohammed Siad Barre. Following the collapse of the state in early 1991, al Ittihad attempted to take over the port of Bosaso on the northern coast and briefly won Merka and Kismayo in the South. The movement did control Luuq in the Gedo region near Kenya from 1991 until Ethiopian troops invaded and drove it away in 1996. Despite their imposition of shari'a and reports of human rights abuses, international aid groups found al Ittihad easier to work with than other factions in Somalia, and the movement was largely successful in bringing law and order to previously anarchic areas.

Al Ittihad failed in its earlier attempts to exert control over territory in Somalia because:

1) Al Ittihad's attempts to work independently of clans, which dominate Somalia, generate suspicion and tensions;

2) Sudanese involvement in al Ittihad led many to believe that it was a foreign puppet, and Ethiopia's invasion of Gedo in 1996 was precipitated by Addis Ababa's fears of excessive Sudanese involvement in the region.

Following their defeat in Luuq, al Ittihad leaders concluded that Somalia was not yet ready for Islamic rule, and instead focused on a long-term strategy that included:

1) Promoting education in fundamentalist Islam. Al Ittihad's educational activities in Somalia should not be equated with those of groups such as the Saudi-funded al Islah, Professor Menkhaus said. Al Islah's primary goal is to educate with the goal of deepening respect for the Islamic faith and should not be confused with al Ittihad's educational goals, which are more political.

2) Decentralization. Al Ittihad now works within clans to avoid the problems it experienced earlier in the 1990s when it tried to work across them.

3) Embrace of the "Turabi strategy" of infiltrating existing governmental organizations, rather than seizing power. Holding independent power previously made al Ittihad an easy target for opponents, such as the Ethiopians. Therefore, al Ittihad has taken key posts in many governments while allowing the secular authority to continue to function. For example, al Ittihad controls the judiciary in Puntland and has tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to do the same within the Transitional National Government in Mogadishu.

4) Increased ties with traders. Al Ittihad has recruited business leaders and encouraged members to enter business themselves in order to increase the organization's resource base. Except for a small minority, most Somali businessmen's relations with al Ittihad are purely pragmatic. The U.S. could easily use its resources and influence to break these tenuous alliances.

It is important not to portray al Ittihad as a monolithic organization. Unlike al Qaeda's, most of al Ittihad's goals are domestic and not international. Of those al Ittihad members whose interests extend beyond Somalia, most are concerned primarily with Ethiopia. Likewise, al Ittihad members' reactions to Westerners varies tremendously.

With specific regard to al Qaeda, Somalia would be "relatively inhospitable terrain" for bin Laden's organization. Alliances in the country are incredibly fluid, and the difficulty of keeping secrets in the country would make it difficult for al Qaeda to operate clandestinely. Somalia has proven useful and could be used again as a "transshipment point" for terrorists carrying out operations in other parts of the world, largely because of its long coastline and lack of government.

The U.S. should devote more resources to improving intelligence-gathering capabilities in Somalia, make a concerted effort to co-opt the business class now allied with al Ittihad, and pressure the Saudis to monitor more closely and limit the operations of their charities in the country. U.S. policy-makers should avoid an over-reliance on information from the Ethiopian government, since it has a vested interest in exaggerating al Ittihad activities in order to receive assistance in combating the group. They should also mistrust rumors from Somalis. Excessive reliance on local groups willing to fight al Ittihad must be avoided, because most of these groups are probably more interested in continuously receiving U.S. resources than actually eliminating terrorist threats. Finally, the U.S. must not take from taking direct military action in Somalia without hard evidence of an imminent threat emanating from groups in the country.

Ambassador Shinn's Presentation

In Ethiopia and Eritrea, Islam has traditionally been decentralized and has not been an important political force. Since its introduction into the region, Islam has adapted to local tribal, Semitic, and Cushitic cultures. Christianity was already well-established in Ethiopia, particularly in the highlands, by the time Islam arrived; therefore, Christianity remained the dominant religion, and Muslims were often isolated politically and militarily. Islam only became a significant force in Somali nationalism and Eritrean separatism in the last half of the 20th century.

Ethiopia's population is roughly 45% Ethiopian Orthodox and 40-45% Sunni Muslim. The country's links with Islam began in the 7th century, when Ethiopia gave refuge to members of the Prophet's family. Islamic forces raided the Ethiopian highlands in the late 15th century, and Islamic fighter Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al Ghazi, or "Gragn the Lefthanded," controlled most of eastern and southern Ethiopia from 1532 until 1543. Ethiopian Christians also defeated Islamic invasions from Egypt in 1875-6 and Sudan in 1888-9. Because of these and other invasions from Islamic Somalia, Sudan, and Egypt, Ethiopian leaders have long viewed expansionist Islam as the most serious external threat to their country.

Until its collapse in 1991, the Somali government strove to occupy all Somali-inhabited territory in the Horn, including the Haud and Ogaden in eastern Ethiopia. Conflict along the Somali-Ethiopian border was ubiquitous following Somali independence in 1960, and Somali forces overran most of the Ogaden in 1977.

The greatest exogenous threat to Ethiopian security is now al Ittihad. In September, an Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman accused al Ittihad of having direct connections with bin Laden, and the Ethiopian government has long implicated al Ittihad in the attempted assassination of its minister of transport and communication in 1996 and a series of hotel bombings in Addis Ababa, Harar, and Dire Dawa in the past 5 years. Ethiopia has responded by periodically attacking al Ittihad bases within Somalia. In November 2001, Ethiopian authorities closed all branches of Somali remittance organizations while investigating possible ties to terrorist organizations. Ethiopian-Sudanese relations, on the other hand, are somewhat more cordial; both sides have decreased support of groups trying to overthrow the other's government.

Domestic Islamist groups opposed to the Christian government have been rarer in recent Ethiopian history. Since 1961, the Western Somali Liberation Front has advocated that Somali-inhabited lands in Ethiopia unite with Somalia. Largely inactive Islamic groups include the Afar Liberation Front and the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromia. The Ogaden National Liberation Front is a more active threat. The EPRDF government has dealt with most of these movements either through co-option or brute force. Still, the Ethiopian government provides the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs with a great deal of freedom, and shari'a courts have jurisdiction over Islamic family law.

Eritrea's population is approximately 50% Sunni Muslim and 40% Eritrean Orthodox. Due to its coastal location on the Red Sea, Eritrea has had sustained contact with Arab Muslims. Islam has played a more dominate rôle in Eritrean than in Ethiopian politics, and religion was an important factor in the country's war for independence. The Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), launched in Cairo in 1960, was essentially formed as an Islamic organization; the ELF was subsequently supported by Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and Sudan. Eventually, the ELF expanded to include some Christians, but the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) was formed in 1972 as a Christian-Muslim alternative to the Islamic-dominated ELF. The ELF subsequently became more radically Islamist. In 1980, the increasingly dominant EPLF attacked the ELF and drove it out of Ethiopia, thus becoming the only organization capable of challenging Ethiopian hegemony over Eritrea.

An independent Eritrea has so far avoided major schisms between Christians and Muslims, although the EPLF government is suspicious of Islamic countries' potential machinations in Eritrea. Both the ELF and Eritrean Islamic Jihad are currently largely dormant, but Khartoum could easily reactive them at any time. Khartoum-Asmara relations are currently rather cordial.

In conclusion, the greatest threat to Ethiopia could come from al Ittihad and warned that terrorist activity against the country might increase if Addis Ababa is viewed as being too supportive of Washington. The EPRDF's tight control over Ethiopia and its willingness to attack al Ittihad bases in Somalia should help the country deal with any terrorist threats. On the other hand, Eritrea faces a potentially more dangerous political threat from radical Islam than does Ethiopia, due to its geographical location and slightly higher proportion of Muslims.

Professor Paden's Presentation

There has been a revival of Islam in Nigeria since the institution of democratic federalism in 1999. As President Olusegun Obasanjo was pledging his support to President Bush's war on terrorism in the White House Rose Garden this fall, riots in support of bin Laden were raging in Kano. Nigeria is particularly significant, since nearly 1 in 4 Africans lives in the country, and the 50% of the population that is Sunni Muslim gives Nigeria one of the largest Muslim communities in the world. Nigeria is neither a failed state nor a relatively poor one; therefore, it does not fit many of the criteria that terrorists seek when deciding where to base their operations.

The democratic transition has taken the lid off some simmering tensions and has led to phenomena such as the demand for shari'a in personal and criminal law domains in the northern states. Out of 36 states, all 12 northern states have embraced shari'a. Since the return to civilian rule, between 5,000 and 7,000 people have been killed in the north in clashes, many over religion and its rôle in the state. With the volatility that has come from September 11, there is the question of whether religious polarization can be avoided in Nigeria. Federal and state elections are due in 2002/3, and religious issues are likely to be politicized to an even greater extent.

There are seven cross-currents within the Nigerian Muslim community. The first four comprise the "establishment," since these groups have influence in economic, social, and political spheres.

1) "Mainstream Muslims", who live within three main cultural zoknes in the Sokoto caliphal 19th-century "emirate states," Borno in the northeast, and Yoruba-speaking areas in the southwest. (Most Muslims are relatively well-integrated into Yoruba society in the latter.)

2) Sufi brotherhoods. Islam came to Nigeria in the form of Sufi brotherhoods, particularly the Tijaniyya and Qadiriyya, through the trans-Saharan trade.

3) Legalists. Following independence, the legalist trend challenged dominate Sufism. Many of the legalists, particularly Izala groups, were young males from the north who had been trained abroad, had strong ties with Saudi Arabia, implemented the first shari'a codes, and interpreted the Qur'an into many local languages. Most Izala leaders died in the early 1990s, and few have replaced them.

4) Intellectual reformers. Students of Islam in northern universities often turn to either the Sokoto caliphate or the Medina period as bases for an ideal Islamic state.

Anti-establishment currents include:

1) Anti-establishment syncretists. During the early oil boom, unprecedented urbanization led to the emergence of anti-establishment syncretists, who blended traditional Hausa beliefs with selections from the Qur'an. Many were "dispossessed" newcomers to urban centers, and often violent clashes resulted.

2) The Ikhwan has also been a relatively violent anti-establishment group.

3) Unemployed youth and Qur'anic students are often disillusioned but lack coherent leadership; many of these youths were the main perpetrators of this fall's "Osama riots."

Since all police in Nigeria operate at the federal, not local, levels, there is often an overreaction to unrest in the country, with the state of emergency commonly imposed. In the 1970s, the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) was formed and, in times of severe tension, the group meets with other religious organizations to find mechanisms for resolution.

Nigerian Muslims have many ties to the ummah outside of the country. Since most Nigerian ethnic groups have been split by artificial, international boundaries, borders are particularly porous. Additionally, during the oil-boom period, the government increased spending on infrastructure, which further increased external ties. The Sufi brotherhoods, urban youths, and legalists also have had extensive international ties. Since the oil boom, an increasing number of Nigerians have participated in the hajj to Mecca, as well.

Nigeria is not a secular country. It is a multi-religious country. The country has long maintained coherence by forging compromises between Muslim and Christian groups, but it is unclear how such power-sharing arrangements will work in upcoming elections and transitional structures. "The weakest link in this whole transition," he argued, "is the inability to decentralize without letting things go to extreme."

Questions and Discussion

In response to a question regarding al Ittihad's main sources of support, Professor Menkhaus noted that the marginalization of Somali minorities in Ethiopia and Kenya has increased support of radical groups such as al Ittihad. He cautioned, however, that al Ittihad is a relatively decentralized force in the Horn, and the group's tactics and goals vary from location to location. For example, groups with bases in Ogaden clans are somewhat more violent in their actions in Ethiopia. Ambassador Shinn agreed and said that "this is not the kind of thing that calls for a sledgehammer approach." Professor Menkhaus added that, although terrorism linked to Somalia is externally based, it depends on domestic realities to thrive there. He later said that the Somali "border itself is relatively meaningless," because Somalia is a "diaspora nation." Somalia is a "nation that's moved beyond internal and external," he argued, noting that between a quarter and a third of Somalis live abroad, and major Somali power and financial bases are now located in Dubai and Nairobi.

After an audience member questioned whether the Horn should be of higher priority on the U.S. foreign-policy agenda, Ambassador Shinn argued that the U.S. should work to prevent terrorist operations in the region and lower levels of conflict, but military action would probably be imprudent at this point. He noted that, as ambassador to Ethiopia, he urged that al Ittihad be placed on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

In response to an audience member's question regarding specific steps the United States could take to fill the current power vacuum in Somalia, Ambassador Shinn recommended that the U.S. government make a greater effort to maintain communications with a wide range of individuals within the country. He lamented that there are no U.S. embassies in Somalia, and contacts have been extremely limited. "It got to a point where about the only contact that existed between Somalis and the U.S. government was through the embassies in Djibouti, Addis Ababa, and Nairobi," he said. Professor Menkhaus suggested that the U.S. government only work with those Somali leaders who can prove that they are legitimately governing in the areas they claim to have power over.

On the issue of Nigeria, Professor Paden responded to a question regarding the feasibility of federalism in the country by warning that calls for a "confederation" could simply be a slippery slope to partition. He particularly noted that a sovereign national conference set up along the lines of ethnic groups would almost invariably lead to the dissolution of the country. After a different question regarding the source of anti-Americanism in Nigeria, Professor Paden noted that the pervasiveness of Saudi NGOs, charities, and oil money has profound effects there. Any anti-Americanism, though, probably has deeper roots in internal politics, and he warned that the U.S. should not choose sides in upcoming elections. Ambassador Shinn disputed claims that the U.S. is viewed as an enemy by masses in the Horn. If there is widespread animosity towards the United States, he suggested that it could be "guilt through association" because of Washington's close ties with Addis Ababa. He noted the lack of attacks against Americans or American interests by al Ittihad and other groups in the Horn.

In response to a question regarding al Ittihad's rôle in Kenya, Professor Menkhaus said that little is known, but stated the organization probably operates in Nairobi and along the border with Somalia and Ethiopia. Another audience member wondered whether failed states-such as Somalia-or "rogue states"-as Sudan is often called-are more dangerous to international security. Professor Menkhaus argued that failed and "rogue" states can pose identical dangers. Ambassador Shinn contended that, in some cases, it might be easier to do business in a failed state because of a lack of governmental controls. "Rogue" states can provide terrorists with resources such as finances, passports, and space for organization and training, but governments can conversely hamper terrorist activities if leaders decide that the costs of supporting terrorism, such as pariah status and sanctions, are greater than any benefits.

Synopsis prepared by Jeffrey Krutz, Junior Fellow with the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment.


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