Last Updated: 6/8/06
Islamists Claim Rout of US-tied Forces in Somalia

Antiterror efforts of CIA suffer a blow

PRETORIA -- Islamic fighters claimed control over the Somali capital of Mogadishu yesterday following weeks of deadly street battles that left hundreds dead and wounded, dealing a major blow to US counterterrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa region.

The Islamist militia took up arms several months ago against a secular alliance of warlord-businessmen that had publicly committed to battle terrorist groups in Somalia. Those secular warlords had close ties with Central Intelligence Agency officials, who were pressing to dismantle Islamist factions in a hunt for Al Qaeda operatives, according to analysts and interviews with Somali warlords.

Reports from Mogadishu yesterday said most US-allied warlords had fled or were fleeing.

Somalia has been a critical location for US counterterrorism activities in the Horn of Africa because of the possibility that terrorists could set up base and buy protection in a country that hasn't had a functioning central government for 15 years. The bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the bombing of a hotel in Kenya in 2002 are thought to have been carried out by a Mogadishu-based Al Qaeda cell.

The US government has focused on several potential trouble spots in Africa, including the vast, unpoliced Saharan deserts in west Africa and sophisticated Islamic networks in South Africa that produce counterfeit passports, but none has been as worrisome as Somalia's lawless environment.

``The Islamist takeover means that the policy and the strategy of the United States has gone terribly wrong," said Suliman Baldo , director of the Africa program for the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit that works to resolve conflicts around the world. ``The US will need to think very quickly [what are] the alternatives to that strategy" that had depended upon Mogadishu's ousted warlords.

For two years, CIA officials have traveled frequently to the Mogadishu area and other Somali cities in hopes of learning more about and disrupting small bands of Al Qaeda members, who also operate in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, Kenyan pilots and two Somali warlords said recently in interviews. US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said that three Al Qaeda members indicted in the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania were still being protected by Islamists in Mogadishu.

In surrounding countries, and even in Somalia's semi-autonomous northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland, US covert officers have developed close relationships with governments and local powers.

In southern and central Somalia, CIA officers have relied on electronic eavesdropping and developing close ties with various warlords, paying them tens of thousands of dollars in some visits, two warlords said in interviews. The two -- Yusuf Mohammed Said, the ruling warlord in Marka , about 60 miles south of Mogadishu, and Mohammed Dhere , the warlord in Jowhar, about 40 miles east of the capital -- along with Kenyan-based pilots, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation, said US intelligence relied especially on warlords who controlled airports to monitor traffic in and out of the country.

`In this country, the US has been able to do what it wants to do," Dhere, who said he had extensive contact with US intelligence officials for more than two years, said in February, just as the Islamist militias began their battle in Mogadishu. ``I think that without the US efforts or interference, the country would fall into terrorist hands."

Dhere conceded that US covert officers and Somali warlords had not captured many Al Qaeda members in the last three years, but US intelligence efforts ``changed the environment," he said. ``Now everyone is under the table and limited in their movements and involvement."

US officials have long refused to comment on whether they were paying Somali warlords in the counterterrorism battle. But one US diplomat based in Nairobi, Michael Zorick , was transferred in April to another posting in Chad after internally criticizing such payments, according to Reuters.

US intelligence officials have either denied involvement in Somalia, or declined to comment. Major David Westover , spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa , said yesterday his Djibouti-based operation ``does not and has had no operations in Somalia."

Analysts said yesterday it was too early to assess what remained of US intelligence networks in the aftermath of the apparent Islamist militia takeover of the capital. But several pointed out that almost all of the US-backed warlords had fled Mogadishu, and those who remained would go into hiding to survive.

The recent battles around Mogadishu claimed more than 300 lives and injured more than 1,700 people. At one point, a warlord seized a hospital.

The Islamists come from a variety of moderate and radical ideological backgrounds, according to analysts, and were united in the fighting chiefly because of an opportunity to topple the secular warlords. Analysts said most were motivated by a chance to make money, while some were vehemently against US influence in Somalia. According to analysts, some of the factions are predisposed to support Al Qaeda.

Islam has thrived in Somalia for more than 1,000 years, but the political brand of Sharia , or Islamic law, did not take hold until the chaotic period of the early 1990s when local communities wanted improved security in the face of lawlessness. In Mogadishu, as many as 11 separate courts had been established by 2004; their leaders formed a single Joint Islamic Courts administration.

Some factions were members of Al Itihad Al Islamiya , including hard-liner Hassan Dahir Aweys , which had a goal of bringing Islamic rule to Somalia. But others, said the International Crisis Group in a report last year, hired gunmen that had no allegiance to a radical brand of Islam.

``There's not one movement," Baldo, of the International Crisis Group, said in a telephone interview from New York. ``This is a very loose alliance, driven mainly by business imperatives. There isn't the kind of ideological unity that the Taliban in Afghanistan had in the first place."

Still, several outsiders and Somalis were chilled by an Islamic court's death sentence last month in Mogadishu; a teenager stabbed his father's alleged killer to death before a large crowd.

A key question now will be whether Somalia's transitional government, which is based in the western town of Baidoa, and the Islamists in Mogadishu enter unity talks. Some consider this unlikely because interim President Abdullahi Yusuf , a former warlord, won his seat on an anti-Islamist platform.

But interim Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi appeared to welcome talks with the Islamists in Mogadishu after last weekend firing ministers who were part of the secular warlord alliance in the capital.

``It's a turning point for Somalia," said a businessman in Marka, south of Mogadishu, in a telephone interview yesterday. He asked that his identify be withheld because of fear for his security. ``We just don't know yet which way our country will turn."

John Donnelly can be reached at

Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

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