Blowback in Somalia
Most of the entities that made up the Islamic Courts Union did not have anything resembling a global jihadist agenda. Nor did they take their orders from Al Qaeda. The Shabab was a different story, but it was not the most influential or powerful of the ICU groups. Moreover, clan politics in Somalia held the foreign operatives in check. “We deployed our fighters to Mogadishu with the intent of ceasing the civil war and bringing an end to the warlords’ ruthlessness,” says Sheik Ahmed Mohammed Islam, whose Ras Kamboni militia, based in the Jubba region of southern Somalia, joined the ICU in 2006. “Those of us within the ICU were people with different views; moderates, midlevel and extremists.” Other than expelling the warlords and stabilizing the country through Sharia law, he says, there was “no commonly shared political agenda.”
Sheik Islam says that almost immediately there were deep divisions within the ICU, and no one seemed to have a plan to govern beyond the revolution. Buubaa and other former Somali government officials told me that if the ICU had made overtures, a power-sharing deal could have been reached. Instead of capitalizing on the good will generated by expelling the warlords and working with officials from Somalia’s transitional government under the banner of national unity, the ICU leaders “started behaving like the warlords,” alleges Buubaa, saying they wanted to “squash” the government, the only “remaining national symbol of the Somali state.”
The Bush administration considered the ICU unreconcilable. It was viewed as a de facto Al Qaeda–supporting government taking control of an African capital. Many in the administration believed the ICU represented a dramatic reascension of al-Itihaad al-Islami (AIAI), a small jihadist group that had peaked in influence in Somalia in the 1990s during the civil war. Two weeks after 9/11, AIAI was declared a terrorist entity by the US government, but the group crumbled soon thereafter as more powerful militias overran Mogadishu. AIAI’s military commander, Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former Somali air force colonel, later rebranded as “Sheik” Aweys, became a leader of the ICU. The ICU also counted among its associates Aden Hashi Farah Ayro, whom the United States alleged attended Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and was behind the killing of foreign aid workers in Somalia; and Fazul, the alleged mastermind of the embassy bombings.
But by most credible accounts, the Al Qaeda influence at the time was small—consisting of about a dozen foreign operatives and a handful of Somalis with global jihadist aspirations. A UN cable from June 2006, containing notes of a meeting with senior State Department and US military officials from the Horn of Africa task force, indicates that the United States was aware of the ICU’s diversity, but would “not allow” it to rule Somalia. The United States, according to the notes, intended to “rally with Ethiopia if the ‘Jihadist’ took over.” The cable concluded, “Any Ethiopian action in Somalia would have Washington’s blessing.” Some within the US intelligence community called for dialogue or reconciliation, but their voices were drowned out by hawks determined to overthrow the ICU.
The United States “had already misread the events by aiding heinous warlords. And they misread it again. They should have taken this as an opportunity to engage the Union of Islamic Courts,” asserts Aynte. “Because out of the thirteen organizations that formed the [ICU], twelve were Islamic courts, clan courts who had no global jihad or anything. Most of them never left Somalia. These were local guys. Al Shabab was the only threat, that was it. And they could have been somehow controlled.”
The Islamic Courts Union lasted just six months. In December 2006, after a visit to the region by Gen. John Abizaid, then head of the US Central Command (Centcom), the United States gave the green light for Ethiopia—a nation widely reviled in Somalia—to invade. On the eve of the invasion, Indha Adde held a news conference calling for foreign Islamists to come and join the cause. “Let them fight in Somalia and wage jihad, and, God willing, attack Addis Ababa,” he said.
The Ethiopians invaded on December 24. It was a classic proxy war coordinated by Washington and staffed by 40,000–50,000 Ethiopian troops. “The US sponsored the Ethiopian invasion, paying for everything including the gas that it had to expend, to undertake this. And you also had US forces on the ground, US Special Operations forces. You had CIA on the ground. US airpower was a part of the story as well. All of which gave massive military superiority to the Ethiopians,” says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization and a frequent adviser to the US military, including Centcom. “If there’s one lesson in terms of military operations of the past ten years, it’s that the US is a very effective insurgent force. In areas where it’s seeking to overthrow a government, it’s good at doing that. What it’s not shown any luck in doing is establishing a viable government structure.”
The US-backed Ethiopian forces swiftly overthrew the Islamic Courts Union and sent its leaders fleeing or to the grave. Many were rendered to Ethiopia, Kenya or Djibouti; others were killed by US Special Operations forces or the CIA. By New Year’s Day 2007, Prime Minister Gedi was installed in Mogadishu, thanks to the Ethiopians. “The warlord era in Somalia is now over,” he declared. In a sign of what was to come, Somalis swiftly and angrily began protesting the Ethiopian “occupation.”
“If you know the history of Somalia, Ethiopia and Somalia were archenemies, historical enemies, and people felt that this was adding insult to the injury,” says Aynte. “An insurgency was born out of there.”
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Since the early 1990s, the stretch of land just across the Somali border from Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp—the world’s largest, and the epicenter of the humanitarian crisis in the region today—has been the stronghold of the Ras Kamboni movement, currently led by Sheik Islam, also known as Madobe, or Black. Madobe was a longtime deputy of Hassan Turki, one of the founders of militant Islamic radicalism in Somalia and a US-designated terrorist. As the Ethiopians invaded, Madobe, like other ICU leaders, was forced to retreat from Mogadishu to his home base. But his name was already on a US list of targeted ICU leaders. On January 23, 2007, as US Special Operations forces began using a secret airbase in eastern Ethiopia to launch raids inside Somalia, Madobe became the hunted.
In June of this year, I snuck across the Kenyan-Somali border with two photojournalist colleagues to meet Madobe, who provided me with an extensive account of the elite Joint Special Operations Command’s attempt to assassinate him.
To get to Madobe, we drove through a famine- and drought-plagued wasteland where we witnessed the beginning of what would become a globally recognized exodus of Somalis fleeing across the border. As Somalis trickled past us, carrying all the possessions they could handle, one of Madobe’s men met us on the Somali side of the border and directed us to a secluded area lined by trees, where we were told to wait.
About ten minutes later, pickup trucks of armed men approached us. The men searched all our bags and belongings and then produced a feast of processed junk food—candy bars, crackers, Coke and Sprite—and laid it out on a folding table. In the distance, more pickups descended. A cavalry of armed men formed a perimeter around Madobe, who was dressed in olive green fatigues and a matching boonie hat. Perched on his nose were reading glasses, and his full beard had traces of henna dye. Madobe, a hardened guerrilla, is soft-spoken and has the demeanor of a librarian.
“Every step taken by the US has benefited Al Shabab,” he told me. “What brought about the ICU? It was the US-backed warlords. If Ethiopia did not invade and the US did not carry out airstrikes, Al Shabab would not have survived so long, because they were outnumbered by those who had positive agendas.”
I asked him about the JSOC strike against him. He and eight of his people were on the run and were being surveilled regularly by US aircraft, he recalled. “Most of the time they were tracking us using unmanned drones. At night we were afraid of lighting a fire to cook, and in the daylight we did not want to create smoke and we had no precooked food, so it was really very tough. We also had Thuraya satellite phones, which clearly helped them easily trace us.”
On the night of January 23, Madobe and his small group set up camp under a large tree in rural southern Somalia. “At around 4 am we woke up to perform the dawn prayers, and that’s when the planes started to hit us. The entire airspace was full of planes. There was AC-130, helicopters and fighter jets. The sky was full of strikes. They were hitting us, pounding us with heavy weaponry.” The eight people with him, who Madobe said included men and women, were all killed.