Blowback in Somalia
Qanyare is a striking presence, physically and intellectually. He is tall, and his eyes, ringed with wrinkles, gleam with intensity. As he tells it, he grew up “in the bush” in Somalia and conned his way into an education by Mennonite missionaries, who taught him the trade of accounting. As a young man, Qanyare parlayed that skill into a job doing the books for the Somali secret police, which kicked off his career in Somali war politics. He often dresses in guayabera suits, perfectly pressed, though his unkempt mane gives him a rougher edge.
When I first met Qanyare, in Nairobi, he was living at the Laico Regency Hotel, owned by then–Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi. Qanyare has made millions of dollars over the decades on real estate investments in Nairobi and uses the city as a base to plot his return to Somali politics. He retains a seat in the Somali Parliament, but that is a pro forma designation, allocated by the country’s clan-based system of representation. He tells me that he intends to run for president if the country ever has an election. That was supposed to happen in August, but an intervention by the Ugandan president postponed elections, extending the current government’s mandate for another year. “My agenda is very clear,” he says. “I know Al Qaeda and Al Shabab. What we need is to fight with them mercilessly.”
In December 2002, Qanyare was approached by a friend who told him that some agents from the CIA wanted to talk with him. The day after Christmas, he met them at a hotel in Nairobi. Qanyare had certain assets that were of strategic value to the United States. After 9/11 the Bush administration was concerned about Al Qaeda members fleeing Afghanistan in the aftermath of the US invasion and using Somalia as a base from which to plot attacks against US interests in East Africa. Indeed, on November 28, 2002, a month before Qanyare met with the CIA, Al Qaeda operatives had carried out simultaneous attacks in Mombasa, Kenya. One was on a vacation resort, the other was on an Israeli jetliner at Mombasa’s Moi International Airport. Details emerged that implicated suspects in the 1998 US Embassy bombings.
At the time, Qanyare was known as a secular warlord who commanded a militia of about 1,500 men. More important, he had his own airport outside Mogadishu. “The airport is inland, inside the bush. So the airport itself is very secretive,” he boasts. “We designed it not to expose or to see easily who is landing.” The Americans, he says, “enjoy that.” On January 5, 2003, a small group of US agents flew into Qanyare’s airfield, where he greeted them and took them to one of his homes. The men, he says, were “special military intelligence and CIA.” That meeting kicked off a three-year relationship between Qanyare and US intelligence agents.
Qanyare says agents would fly in to see him at least once or twice a week. The CIA, he says, began paying him in the ballpark of $100,000 to $150,000 a month to use his airport. At times, he would take agents around Mogadishu, pointing out various headquarters or houses he said were occupied by Al Qaeda figures. Qanyare soon became Washington’s man in Mogadishu.
But Qanyare complains that the Americans didn’t give him sufficient money to build a force capable of targeting Al Qaeda, saying the CIA gave him only “pocket money.” “Pocket money and a war fund [are] vastly different,” he says. He also asserts that in the beginning the agents were reluctant to pull the trigger on any targeted-killing operations in Mogadishu, saying they preferred to capture their targets. He claims he even gave them GPS coordinates for a house used by Saleh Ali Nabhan, who was wanted by the United States. “They were worried that innocent people would die because of their action, [but] to arrest them is not easy because they got protection from other local Al Qaeda people. They were not using force. They were only collecting information.” (Nabhan was ultimately killed in a September 2009 strike authorized by President Obama.)
While the Americans, according to Qanyare, were reluctant at the time to conduct the type of targeted-killing operations in Somalia that have become the norm in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and, eventually, Somalia, the program was hardly one of passive intelligence-gathering. Believing they had the backing of Washington, Qanyare and other secular warlords began hunting down people the United States had identified, as well as those the warlords deemed worthy of Washington’s attention. Although there was certainly a small Al Qaeda presence in Somalia before the United States launched its operations—and Islamic militants did carry out assassinations, including the killing of four foreign aid workers in the relatively peaceful Somaliland region in late 2003 and early 2004—the actions of Qanyare and his fellow CIA-backed warlords gave the Islamic militants fodder for an effective propaganda and recruitment campaign.
Qanyare and his allied warlords engaged in a targeted kill-and-capture campaign against individuals they suspected of supporting Islamic radicals. “These people were already heinous warlords; they were widely reviled in Mogadishu. And then they start assassinating imams and local prayer leaders who had nothing to do with terror,” says Abdirahman “Aynte” Ali, a Somali analyst who has written extensively on the history of the Shabab and warlord politics. “They were either capturing them and then renditioning them to Djibouti, where there is a major American base, or in many cases they were chopping their head off and taking the head to the Americans or whoever. And telling them, ‘We killed this guy.’”
In a handful of cases, the warlords caught someone the United States considered to be of value, like Suleiman Ahmed Hemed Salim, captured in March 2003. One of Qanyare’s fellow warlords, Mohamed Dheere, seized Salim and rendered him into US custody. Salim was reportedly later held in two secret prisons in Afghanistan. Scores of other “suspects” were abducted by the CIA-backed warlords and handed over to American agents. In many cases, the United States would determine they had no intelligence value and repatriate them to Somalia. Sometimes, according to several former senior Somali government and military officials, they would be executed by the warlords so that they could not speak of what had happened to them.
The “US government was not helping the [Somali] government but was helping the warlords that were against the government,” Buubaa, the former foreign minister, tells me. Washington “thought that the warlords were strong enough to chase away the Islamists or get rid of them. But it did completely the opposite. Completely the opposite.”
While the CIA was working with the warlords in Mogadishu, who grew more brutal and powerful by the day, Somalia’s internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was powerless in exile. “The whole mess started from that point,” says Ali Mohamed Gedi, who served as Somalia’s prime minister from 2004 to 2007. Qanyare and the other warlords, Gedi says, “were misinforming the US government” and in the process weakening the newly formed government while strengthening and encouraging individual warlords.
By the beginning of 2006 (if not well before), the CIA’s warlords had become universally despised in Mogadishu. Nearly everyone I interviewed in Mogadishu about this period characterized them as murderers and criminals. The warlords formed a formal coalition whose title reeked of CIA influence: the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism.
“This was a turning point in Somalia,” says Aynte. At the time, he explains, the Islamic courts were little more than small groups of poorly armed, autonomous militias who supported the implementation of Sharia law and the provision of social services in their regions as a counterbalance to the warlord-sponsored lawlessness that infected the country. They had no central authority. “But they realized that the sooner they unite, the sooner they can defend these innocent people who have been murdered across the city.” And so they formed the Islamic Courts Union, and local businessmen funded it, allowing the ICU to purchase weapons to take on the warlords. “People started siding with the Islamic courts,” says Buubaa. The ICU “brought about some semblance of order and stability to Mogadishu. And a lot of people in Mogadishu appreciated that.”
In the summer of 2006 the ICU, along with fighters from the Shabab, ran the CIA’s men out of town. “The warlords were ejected out of Mogadishu for the first time in sixteen years. No one thought this was possible,” recalls Aynte. From June to December 2006, the ICU “brought a modicum of stability that’s unprecedented in Mogadishu,” reopening the airport and the seaport. “You could drive in Mogadishu at midnight, no problem, no guards. You could be a foreigner or Somali. It was at total peace.”
Qanyare and the other warlords were forced to flee to bases outside Mogadishu or outside Somalia. I ask Qanyare why the Counterterrorism Alliance failed. Lack of money and willpower from Washington, he replies. “If they funded it, we should win. We should defeat them,” he says. “But that did not happen.” He says that at the time, he warned his US handlers that if they failed to eliminate Al Qaeda and its allies, “it would be too expensive to defeat them in the future.”
“I was right,” he concludes. In the Horn of Africa, Qanyare says, “Al Qaeda is growing rapidly, and they are recruiting. And they have a foothold, safe haven—vast land, all sorts of money that they have got. Taxing, getting revenues, growing, training.”
Indha Adde, who had cast his lot with the ICU and the regional militias, says the ICU had two goals. “One was to rule Somalia according to the Holy Koran. The other goal was to defeat the warlords,” he recalls. “We disarmed the warlords, but we didn’t reach our first goal. Outside intervention blocked Islamic rule in Somalia.”
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