For days, weeks on end, we have been bombarded with earnest disquisitions on the “meaning” of 9/11, its implications for America and the world ten years down the line. Oceans of newsprint and blizzards of pixels have been expended on this question. But in all the solemn piety and savvy punditry surrounding the commemoration of the attacks, almost nothing has been said about the place where the true “legacy of 9/11” can be seen in its stark quintessence: Somalia.
That long-broken land is, in so many ways, a hell of our own creation. Year by year, stage by stage, American policy has helped drive Somalia ever deeper into the pit. Millions of people have been plunged into anguish; countless thousands have lost their lives. It seems unimaginable that the situation could get even worse – and yet that is precisely where we are today: on the precipice of yet another horrific drop into the abyss.
By now it should go without saying that the Nobel Peace Laureate in the White House has continued, entrenched and expanded his predecessor’s failed and corrupt policies in Somalia, as he has in so many parts of the degraded American imperium. And it is in Somalia that our serious, savvy bipartisan elite — and their innumerable enablers on both sides of the political fence — are building up what may turn out to be the mother of all blowbacks: generations of implacable hatred sprung from unfathomable suffering, inflicted on innocent people by vicious warlords in the pay of the CIA, by America’s own death squads ranging through the land, and by the entirely predictable (indeed, predicted) extremist insurgencies that arise in the chaos our elites create in their imperial marauding. Here, if anywhere, is the true legacy of 9/11.
The Way of the Warlord
All of this is captured vividly in a new article by Jeremy Scahill in The Nation. His piece, based on solid reporting in the field, is by far the best overview I’ve seen of the situation in Somalia today — and of how we got to this horrendous pass.
Scahill notes how the current situation is exemplified by one of the many warlords now being funded by the Peace Laureate:
The notorious Somali paramilitary warlord who goes by the nom de guerre Indha Adde, or White Eyes …is not simply a warlord, at least not officially, anymore. Nowadays, he is addressed as Gen. Yusuf Mohamed Siad, and he wears a Somali military uniform, complete with red beret and three stars on his shoulder. His weapons and his newfound legitimacy were bestowed upon him by the US-sponsored African Union force, known as AMISOM, that currently occupies large swaths of Mogadishu.
… Yusuf Mohamed Siad was not always known just as Indha Adde. As one of the main warlords who divided and destroyed Somalia during the civil war that raged through the 1990s, he brutally took control of the Lower Shabelle region, which was overwhelmingly populated by a rival clan, earning him the moniker “The Butcher.” Then … he remade himself into an Islamic sheik of sorts in the mid-2000s and vowed to fight foreign invaders, including rival warlords funded and directed by the CIA.
Perhaps more than any other figure, Indha Adde embodies the mind-boggling constellation of allegiances and double-crosses that has marked Somalia since its last stable government fell in 1991. And his current role encapsulates the contradictions of the country’s present: he is a warlord who believes in Sharia law, is friendly with the CIA, and takes money and weapons from AMISOM. …Over the past year, the Somali government and AMISOM have turned to some unsavory characters in a dual effort to build something resembling a national army and, as the United States attempted to do with its Awakening Councils in the Sunni areas of Iraq in 2006, to purchase strategic loyalty from former allies of the current enemy — in this case, the Shabab. Some warlords, like Indha Adde, have been given government ministries or military rank in return for allocating their forces to the fight against the Shabab. Several are former allies of Al Qaeda or the Shabab, and many fought against the US-sponsored Ethiopian invasion in 2006 or against the US-led mission in Somalia in the early 1990s that culminated in the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident.
This was precisely the same policy adopted by George W. Bush in 2002, when it was apparently feared that the tiny handful of scattered individuals then in Somalia who might possibly have some loose connection or vague adherence to “al Qaeda” would … er … build rocket ships that would drop atom bombs on the Super Bowl, or something. In any case, in the vast, Big Bang-like expansion of power and profiteering that gorged the military-security complex after 9/11, it was thought that “something” had to be done in Somalia. And that “something” was taking American taxpayer money away from schools, roads, hospitals and parks and giving it to Somali warlords, who proceeded to terrorize their own people … and fuel an Islamic insurgency, ostensibly the very outcome the policy was designed to prevent. Scahill notes:
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.” … 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.”
Peace is No Object: The Essence of Imperium
But of course peace was not what Washington had in mind for Somalia. It is never the object of imperial foreign policy. The object was, as always, domination. Obedience. A regime that toes the line – and crosses the palms of Western elites with the proper amount of silver. The Islamic Courts Union was outside of Washington’s control. One couldn’t “do business” with them. They were the wrong kind of Muslim fundamentalist – not like those nice head-choppers and hand-choppers and palm-crossers in Saudi Arabia. So the ICU – and Somalia’s brief window of peace – had to go. Scahill:
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.” …
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.
Note well the telling phrase in the passage above: the United States would “not allow” the ICU to rule Somalia. There, in sum, in microcosm, is the essence of the American Imperium, its guiding philosophy and modus operandi for more than 65 years: no nation has the right to determine its own destiny. Only the American power elite can make that decision: it can “allow” a government to rule, if it suits American interests – or else it can institute “regime change.” This is the bedrock principle that informs and determines American foreign policy across the board, across both parties, and across many decades.
(Of course, this principle cannot always be put into practice to the extent that our elites would like: a frustration that accounts for, say, the vindictive strangulation of Cuba for more than half a century – during which time Washington has “done business” with regimes far more repressive. But it is the pliability of a regime, not its political structure – and certainly not its attitude toward human rights – that determines its “legitimacy” in Washington’s eyes.)
Scahill goes on:
…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.”
Perhaps. But control of Shabab was not the issue. Control of the ICU was. And since this was not forthcoming, then many, many thousands of innocent people had to be murdered. This is what Washington proceeded to do. The Bush Administration instigated the slaughter; the bipartisan foreign policy establishment gave its approval.
…..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 …
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. ….“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.”
Again, as we have seen constantly, repeatedly throughout this low, dishonest decade, a policy ostensibly designed to quell extremism and insurgency instead creates it. Given the clock-like regularity of this outcome, a cynic might be forgiven for beginning to detect a pattern that could almost be described as deliberate.
As in Iraq, the lawless invasion bred an endless cycle of further crimes, which I wrote about extensively at the time. [For more, see “Silent Surge: The Bipartisan Terror War Intensifies in Somalia,” especially the links at the end.] Scahill gives a capsule description of the American-induced invasion and its aftermath:
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.
…. 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. ….
Predictable. Preventable. Again, the same old pattern. Terrorize people with your warlords and proxies, your black ops and secret armies – and you will breed terror in return.
The Death Squads of the Peace Laureate
In 2008, of course, the United States finally had its own “regime change.” The despised and discredited Bush Regime left office, and a fresh-faced “agent of change” swept into power, riding in on a wave of global goodwill unprecedented in modern times. Lauded, laureled, he stood at the center of a transformative moment in history, when, lifted on that mighty wave, the ship of state could have been turned from the course of empire and set in a new direction.
That never happened, of course. It was never going to happen. Obama himself had made clear, throughout his campaign, that he did not have the slightest interest in changing the imperial course (as opposed to recalibrating the imperial PR a bit). And so it has proven – nowhere more so than in Somalia, as Scahill notes:
When President Obama took office in 2009, the United States increased its covert military involvement in and around Somalia, as the CIA and JSOC intensified air and drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen, and began openly hunting people the United States alleged were Al Qaeda leaders. In September of that year, Obama authorized the assassination of Saleh Ali Nabhan, in his administration’s first known targeted-killing operation in Somalia. A JSOC team helicoptered into Somalia and gunned down Nabhan. JSOC troops then landed and collected the body.
By late 2010 the Obama administration unveiled what it referred to as a “dual-track” approach to Somalia wherein Washington would simultaneously deal with the “central government” in Mogadishu as well as regional and clan players in Somalia. “The dual track policy only provides a new label for the old (and failed) Bush Administration’s approach,” observed Somalia analyst Afyare Abdi Elmi. “It inadvertently strengthens clan divisions, undermines inclusive and democratic trends and most importantly, creates a conducive environment for the return of the organized chaos or warlordism in the country.”
The dual-track policy encouraged self-declared, clan-based regional administrations to seek recognition and support from the United States. “Local administrations are popping up every week,” says Aynte. “Most of them don’t control anywhere, but people are announcing local governments in the hopes that CIA will set up a little outpost in their small village.”
The New York Times had more on Obama’s “dual-track approach” in a story over the weekend:
For the first time in years, the Shabab Islamist group that has long tormented Somalis is receding from several areas at once, including this one, handing the Transitional Federal Government an enormous opportunity to finally step outside the capital and begin uniting this fractious country after two decades of war. Instead, a messy, violent, clannish scramble is emerging over who will take control.
… Already, clashes have erupted between the anti-Shabab forces fighting for the spoils, and roadblocks operated by clan militias have resurfaced on the streets of Mogadishu, even though the government says it is in control. Many analysts say both the Shabab and the government are splintering and predict that the warfare will only increase, complicating the response to Somalia’s widening famine.
“What you now have is a free-for-all contest in which clans are unilaterally carving up the country into unviable clan enclaves and cantons,” said Rashid Abdi, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, which studies conflicts. “The way things are going, the risk of future interregional wars and instability is real,” Mr. Abdi added, “even after Al Shabab is defeated.”
More than 20 separate new ministates, including one for a drought-stricken area incongruously named Greenland, have sprouted up across Somalia, some little more than Web sites or so-called briefcase governments, others heavily armed, all eager for international recognition and the money that may come with it.
Officials with the 9,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force, the backbone of security in Mogadishu, say they are deeply concerned by this fragmentation, reminiscent of Somalia’s warlord days after the government collapsed in 1991. …
So we are witnessing a return to the darkest days of Somalia’s decades of hell: hydra-headed warfare among merciless warlords carving out petty fiefdoms for themselves through terror, robbery and murder. And what does the Obama Administration think of this development? One unnamed (of course) American official told the NYT:
“It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to have a local leader with some charisma and grass-roots support.”
The hell of warlordism is A-OK with Washington, in other words – as long as the terrorizers, murderers and thieves play ball with the Potomac overlords, of course.
The Killing Cult of Profit and Control
Scahill also tells the story of how the fruits of imperial policy in Somalia have turned ploughshares into swords, tracking the conversion of a non-violent aid group into one of the most deadly fighting machines in the land. Here too we see how one of the most sinister developments of our age has entered the killing fields of Somalia: the ever-accelerating rise of corporate mercenaries, killing for private profit, bankrolled by public funds.
One of the more powerful forces that has emerged in Somalia’s anti-Shabab, government-militia nexus is Ahluu Sunna Wa’Jama (ASWJ), a Sufi Muslim paramilitary organization. Founded in the 1990s as a quasi-political organization dedicated to Sufi religious scholarship and community works — and avowedly nonmilitant — ASWJ viewed itself as a buffer against the encroachment of Wahhabism in Somalia. Its proclaimed mandate was to “preach a message of peace and delegitimize the beliefs and political platform of … fundamentalist movements.”
…By some accounts, the ASWJ has been among the most effective fighters battling the Shabab outside Mogadishu, winning back territory in the Mudug region and several other pockets of land. But like most powerful paramilitary groups in Somalia, the ASWJ is far more complex than it may seem.
This past July, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia declared that some ASWJ militias “appear to be proxies for neighboring States rather than emergent local authorities.” According to the UN report, ASWJ also received support and training from Southern Ace, a private security firm. Technically registered in Hong Kong in 2007 and run by a white South African, Edgar Van Tonder, Southern Ace committed the “most egregious violations of the arms embargo” on Somalia. Between April 2009 and early 2011, according to the United Nations, Southern Ace operated a 220-strong militia, paying $1 million in salaries and at least $150,000 for arms and ammunition.
Southern Ace began acquiring arms from the weapons market in Somalia, including scores of Kalashnikovs, heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and an anti-aircraft ZU-23 machine gun with 2,000 rounds of ammunition. Its arms purchases “were so substantial” that local officials “noted a significant rise in the price of ammunition and a shortage of ZU-23 rounds.” The company also imported to Somalia “Philippine army-style uniforms and bullet-proof jackets in support of their operations,” according to the UN.
Backed by Ethiopia and Southern Ace, ASWJ conducted a series of major offensives against the Shabab that the UN alleged were supported through violations of the arms embargo. While Ethiopia and the United States undoubtedly see ASWJ as the best counterbalance to the influence of the Shabab and Al Qaeda, in just three years they have transformed a previously nonviolent entity into one of the most powerful armed groups in Somalia. “To a certain extent, the resort to Somali proxy forces by foreign Governments represents a potential return to the ‘warlordism’ of the 1990s and early 2000s, which has historically proved to be counterproductive,” the UN soberly concluded.
Counterproductive, indeed. Unless, of course, your main concern is not bringing peace to Somalia, but imposing your fanatical agenda of domination and war profiteering– whatever the cost. On that score, the record of American policy toward Somalia over the past two decades is clear. Through Republican and Democratic administrations, through many changes of partisan control of Congress, Washington has pursued the path of domination, exacerbating violence, division, corruption, and plunging millions of people into anguish, despair, starvation and death.
As I’ve noted here before, the leaders of the American Imperium are not cartoon villains, twirling their moustaches as they cackle over photos of dead babies and disembowelled mothers. They consider themselves good people: righteous, caring, humanitarian. If they could impose the strictures of their extremist cult without bloodshed or suffering, they would do so. Osama bin Laden was the same. But as leaders have found throughout history, humanity is a recalcitrant element. All too often, people stubbornly refuse to bow to the vision of reality proffered by the high and mighty, the wise and the worthy. In such cases (which is to say, in all cases), it thus becomes necessary to impose the worthy vision by force. The fate of individual human beings must give way to the higher calling. “Collateral damage” is an unfortunate but unavoidable necessity. As Stalin said, in explaining away the millions killed by the wise and worthy policy of collectivization, “when wood is chopped, chips fly.”
As for Somalia, the chips – that is, the absolutely unique, immeasurably precious lives of individual human beings who love, yearn, fear, rage, weep, laugh, hope and dream with just as much depth and reality as anyone else on earth (including, yes, those killed on 9/11) – will continue to fly. That is the inevitable result of the policies of the Nobel Peace Laureate, as Scahill notes in his conclusion:
Perhaps the Shabab is truly on the ropes, as the Somali government claims. Or maybe the group is implementing [its late leader’s] vision of a guerrilla terror campaign that gives up territory in favor of sowing fear throughout the country. In any case, the Shabab’s meteoric rise in Somalia, and the legacy of terror it has wrought, is blowback sparked by a decade of disastrous US policy that ultimately strengthened the very threat it was officially intended to crush. In the end, the greatest beneficiaries of US policy are the warlords, including those who once counted the Shabab among their allies and friends. “They are not fighting for a cause,” says Ahmed Nur Mohamed, the Mogadishu mayor. “And the conflict will start tomorrow, when we defeat Shabab. These militias are based on clan and warlordism and all these things. They don’t want a system. They want to keep that turf as a fixed post — then, whenever the government becomes weak, they want to say, ‘We control here.’”
That is precisely the vision and the goal that also drives our righteous, caring, humanitarian bipartisan elite in Washington: They want to say, “We control here.”
This is the foundation stone of the modern American imperium. This is what it is all about. This is the ugly, evil secret beneath all the displays of piety and patriotism, the stirring calls to “defend our values,” the endless evocations of our goodness and specialness. All of it is meaningless. All of it is belched forth in order to disguise – both from the victims and, in many cases, the perpetrators themselves – the true nature of the bizarre, brutal and barbaric cult of money and militarism that now controls American society: They want to say, We control here.
UPDATE: In Monday’s Guardian, Madeleine Bunting outlines how American policy in Somalia has been a crucial factor in the catastrophic famine that now threatens to kill up to 750,000 people by the end of the year.
The predicted death toll didn’t reach the top of television bulletins last week. Attention was focused on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But what is almost routinely overlooked – except by longtime observers of Somalia – is that its plight is bound up with 9/11 and the way that the war on terror shaped US foreign policy….
Somalia’s catastrophe is about how “humanitarian space” – the principles of neutrality crucial to effective intervention – has been destroyed by US policy in Somalia since 9/11. This is the key difference with the famine of the early 1990s, when the warring clans still recognised the neutrality of humanitarian aid rather than seeing it as a tool of western political strategy. Now the fringe extremist Islamist al-Shabaab militia, who control many parts of Somalia, will not allow access to most western aid agencies …. The result is that there is no one who can engineer the massive logistical effort required to provide the food needed.
The hostility of al-Shabaab to western aid is in all the media reports on the famine. It plays easily into stereotypes of senseless and cruel violence in obscure African conflicts. But what is often omitted is any explanation of why al-Shabaab are so hostile to westerners – one honourable exception is the US journalist Jeremy Scahill, who uncovered CIA sites in Mogadishu. His reports trace how al-Shabaab’s suspicion is rooted in the experience of a decade of devious US manipulation.
Much of that manipulation is noted above. But Bunting also points to another important factor:
Soon after 9/11, the US froze the assets of Somalia’s biggest remittance agency and a pillar of the economy, al-Barakat, and many lost money. Another US counterterrorism measure criminalised organisations whose support could end up in the hands of those with terrorist links. This has made any negotiations with al-Shabaab over aid to the regions they control very difficult for aid agencies.
There is much more in the article, which also draws on Scahill’s work, and adds other information and insights as well. Both pieces should be read in full.