Blowback in Somalia
Madobe was wounded. He believed that a ground force would come for him. “I picked a gun and a lot of magazines. I believed that death was in front of me, and I wanted to kill the first enemy I saw. But it did not happen.” Madobe lay there, losing blood and energy. At around 10 am, he said, US and Ethiopian forces landed by helicopter near his position. He recalled a US soldier approaching him as he lay shirtless on the ground. “Are you Ahmed Madobe?” the soldier asked. “Who are you?” he replied. “We are the people that are capturing you,” he recalled the soldier telling him.
They loaded Madobe onto a helicopter and took him to a makeshift base in Kismayo. The US forces, he said, immediately began interrogating him, and only after Ethiopian forces intervened did they give him water and medical treatment. In Kismayo, he was regularly interrogated by the Americans. “They had names of different rebels and fighters on a list, and they were asking me if I knew them or had information about them,” he said. A month later, on March 1, he was rendered to Ethiopia, where he was held for more than two years. For the first eight months in Addis Ababa, he was held in a hospital or in prison. While there, he said, he saw many ICU leaders and some of the foreign fighters who had come to Somalia to fight the Ethiopians. “While I was in jail in Addis Ababa, around fifty foreigners shared the jails with me,” he recalled.
Eventually, Madobe was placed under house arrest in a hotel. During his numerous “interviews” with US officials, as Madobe put it, they “sorted out differences.” It is clear that the Ethiopians, who had long funded various Somali warlords and other political figures, forged a new relationship with Madobe. “The view I had about Ethiopia greatly changed, as did the one I had about international policy on Somalia,” he told me. After reaching an agreement in 2009 with the Ethiopian and Somali governments, Madobe returned to his region.
Upon his return, Madobe discovered that local leaders had cut a deal with the Shabab forces that had filled the void after he was snatched. By 2010 Madobe’s forces had announced they were at war with the Shabab and supporting Somalia’s government forces. I asked him who is financing and supporting his fight against the Shabab. Some say it is Kenya, others Ethiopia. He smiled as he provided a nonanswer: “I would accept any American offer to support me,” he said. “The legal way.”
According to the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia, Madobe’s forces have received “training and support” from the Kenyan government, as well as “technicals.” In some battles with the Shabab around the key city of Dhobley, including this past March, “artillery for these incursions was provided by the Kenyan military, which included military helicopters to provide air support.”
As we finished our discussion, Madobe headed out with his men, all of them wearing crisp new uniforms and wielding new weapons and technicals, and they disappeared back into the bush.
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The Ethiopian invasion was marked by indiscriminate brutality against Somali civilians. Ethiopian and Somali government soldiers secured Mogadishu’s neighborhoods by force, raiding houses in search of ICU combatants, looting civilian property and beating or shooting anyone suspected of collaboration with antigovernment forces. They positioned snipers on the roofs of buildings and reportedly responded to any attack with disproportionate fire, shelling densely populated areas and several hospitals, according to Human Rights Watch.
Extrajudicial killings by Ethiopian soldiers were widely reported, particularly in the final months of 2007. Reports of Ethiopian soldiers “slaughtering” men, women and children “like goats”—slitting throats—were widespread, according to Amnesty International. Both Somali government and Ethiopian forces were accused of horrific sexual violence. Gedi, who was returned to Mogadishu by the Ethiopian forces and says he worked closely with the United States, denies that any such abuses took place, saying soldiers “never targeted” any civilians. “I don’t believe that Al Qaeda is a negotiable institution. They have to kill you, or you have to kill them. Sometimes human rights agencies, they exaggerate in their activities.” In June 2007 Gedi survived a massive attack on his residence in Mogadishu, when a suicide bomber burst through his gates in a Toyota Land Cruiser laden with explosives, killing six of Gedi’s guards. It was the fifth assassination attempt against him. Later that year, he resigned.
In backing the Ethiopian invasion, the United States calculated that it could crush the “jihadist” elements of the ICU, while encouraging a reconciliation between its more moderate members and officials of the TFG. While the government that would emerge after the invasion included many former leaders of the ICU, Washington grossly miscalculated the blowback from the invasion. “The end result of the US-backed Ethiopian invasion and occupation,” Buubaa, the former foreign minister, told me, was “driving Somalia into the Al Qaeda fold.”
If Somalia was already a playground for Islamic militants, the Ethiopian invasion blew open the gates of Mogadishu for Al Qaeda. Within some US counterterrorism circles, the rise of the Shabab in Somalia was predictable and preventable. Some veteran counterterrorism analysts agree with Aynte that the ICU could have been engaged. Others say the United States dropped the ball when it turned its focus to Iraq, and thus opened the door for an insurrection. “The top policy-makers made the decision that the pre-eminent national security threat to America was Iraq,” says a former aide to a US Special Operations team that participated in the Ethiopian invasion.
Gartenstein-Ross, who has advised US military forces deploying to the Horn of Africa, believes the ICU was a threat but acknowledges that may be a minority view, even within the US intelligence community. “The major problem is that no steps were taken to avert an insurgency—and indeed, very early on you had an insurgency arise because of lack of stability in the country,” he says. “What we ended up doing was basically depending upon the Ethiopians to stabilize Somalia. And that in itself was a terrible assumption.”
With the ICU dismantled and the brutal Ethiopian occupation continuing for two more years, the Shabab emerged as the vanguard of the fight against foreign occupation. “For them, it was the break that they were looking for,” says Aynte. “It was the anger that they had been looking for, to harness the anger of the people and present themselves as the new nationalist movement that would kick Ethiopia out. So throughout the three years that Ethiopia was in Somalia, Al Shabab never uttered a word of global jihad at all. They always said that their main goal was just to kick the Ethiopians out.”
With the ICU leaders on the run, Al Qaeda saw Somalia as an ideal frontline for jihad and began increasing its support for the Shabab. “With the help of all these foreign fighters, Al Shabab took over the fighting, with Al Qaeda leadership,” recalls Indha Adde, who had been the ICU defense minister. “The Shabab started ordering executions, and innocent Muslims were killed. They even targeted members of [the ICU]. I turned against the Shabab after seeing these violations against Islam.” Indha Adde eventually fled Somalia, along with Hassan Dahir Aweys, and began receiving support from Ethiopia’s archenemy, Eritrea.
Sheik Sharif, who was the commander in chief of the ICU, escaped to Kenya in early 2007 with the help of US intelligence. Gedi tells me, “I believe that [Sharif] was also working with the CIA. They protected him.” Gedi says that when Sharif fled to Kenya, the US government asked him to issue Sharif documents allowing him to travel to Yemen. Gedi says he also wrote letters on Sharif’s behalf to the Kenyan and Yemeni governments asking that Sharif be permitted to relocate to Yemen. “I did that upon the request of the government of the US,” he recalls. The New York Times reported that US officials considered Sharif to be a “moderate Islamist.” In Yemen, Sharif began organizing his return to power in Mogadishu. In exile, he and other ICU leaders helped form the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS). Sharif eventually ended up operating out of Djibouti, where the United States had a sizable CIA and Special Operations presence; another faction of the ARS, led by Aweys, based itself in Eritrea. While Aweys and his allies, including Indha Adde, vowed to continue the struggle against the Ethiopians and the Somali government, Sharif intensified his cooperation with the TFG and the US government.
The Ethiopian occupation began to wind down following an agreement signed in Djibouti in June 2008 between Sharif’s faction of the ARS and officials from the TFG. The “Djibouti Agreement” paved the way for Sharif to assume the presidency in Mogadishu in early 2009. To veteran observers of Somali politics, Sharif’s re-emergence was an incredible story. The United States had overthrown his ICU government only to later back him as the country’s president. When I met Sharif at the presidential offices in Mogadishu, he refused to discuss this period of his career, saying only that it was not the right time. Ironically, Sharif, who once declared himself a warrior against foreign occupation, would rely entirely on the African Union force that replaced the Ethiopians to keep his nominal grip on power.
When the ICU and the Somali government merged following the Djibouti Agreement, Aweys and his faction of the ARS, as well as the Shabab, rejected it, believing that ICU members “had submitted themselves to the infidels,” according to Aynte. They widened their insurrection, vowing to take down the new coalition government and to expel the AMISOM forces that had replaced the Ethiopians. Somalia became a prime target for increased influence from Al Qaeda forces.
In mid-2009, Indha Adde split with Aweys and then switched sides once again, serving as defense minister in Sheik Sharif’s government. Aweys began the formal process of merging with the Shabab. In May 2009 major fighting broke out between the former ICU allies, spurring the UN special envoy to Somalia to accuse Aweys of “an attempt to seize power by force—it’s a coup attempt.” The Shabab, once a ragtag militant group, had become a major force, one that would continue to benefit from a confused US policy that doubled down on past mistakes. As the Shabab began to rise, Washington once again hedged its Somalia bets with warlords, targeted-killing operations and foreign occupation.
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