America’s Warlord

Background on U.S. security concerns in Somalia.

Mohamed Qanyare Afrah

NAIROBI, Kenya—If you search for “Somalia parliament chair fight” on YouTube, you will find a shocking video. In the clip, old men in suits shout and beat each other with chairs. In one astonishing sequence, two men observe the fracas, turn to look at each other, pick up chairs in unison, and start slamming another man on the head.

The way you react to this video is likely the way you would feel if you met Mohamed Qanyare Afrah. He’s a former warlord and a member of Somalia’s transitional parliament. He ran for president in 2004 and came in third. He plans to run again next year when the current transitional charter runs out.

We meet on the patio of Nairobi’s Grand Regency hotel. Qanyare—graying, jocular, handsome in a navy-blue suit and red-and-white tie—remembers the day with a smile. “I was in there!” he boasts. The fight was between President Abdullahi Yusuf’s supporters and his opposition, which includes Qanyare. The opposition did not want Yusuf to invite African Union peacekeeping troops to pacify warlord-controled Mogadishu, where the president held little sway. *

Today Qanyare lives in Nairobi because Islamists ultimately overthrew Mogadishu’s warlords two years ago, and he fled. But he’s not satisfied with the Ethiopian troops that then broke up the Islamic Courts government, and like most Somalis, he wants the Ethiopians to leave. As far as Mohamed Qanyare is concerned, the only acceptable leader of Somalia is Mohamed Qanyare. Until he gets the job, he will contribute nothing to Somalia’s nominal government. “It’s not functioning. It’s nothing,” he says of the parliament. The European Union doesn’t pay MPs enough, he adds, only $1,100 a month. The parliament is supposed to be meeting in Baidoa, Somalia, when Qanyare and I are talking in Nairobi.

Very few people know what a warlord is. Qanyare doesn’t call himself one; his preferred term is faction leader. His faction was Murusade, a family, or subclan, of south Somalia’s powerful Hawiye clan. With a lucrative transportation business that moves cargo across Africa, the 67-year-old is also a wealthy businessman. He launched the company in the 1970s while living in exile from Siad Barre’s regime.

The “war” in warlord was Qanyare’s competition with other armed faction leaders for control of Mogadishu. Their rivalry was born in the power vacuum after Barre’s deposition in 1991. The anarchy that resulted from this competition prevented Somalia from becoming a functioning state for 15 years. From the mid-1990s until 2006, Qanyare led a militia of about 2,000 young Murusade men. He controlled an airstrip that aid agencies and khat dealers used to import their material from Kenya. He controlled an area of Mogadishu. He had a lot of weapons, makeshift tanks, and money.

“It was not a cool atmosphere politically, but that was between me and the other faction leaders. Anyone who tells you my militia was killing innocent people or making roadblocks, they must be cheating you,” says Qanyare defiantly. Like feudal lords, warlords in Africa are known for taxing people living in their zones, and their soldiers, usually teenagers, are known for setting up roadblocks and charging people to pass. “I only defended myself,” says Qanyare. He was also defending his airport, which brought in $100,000 a month, he says. His fundamental objective? “Ever since I returned to Somalia in 1991, I have been a political man,” he says over a fourth cup of chai tea. “I used to be a businessman, now I have only one goal.” That goal is to be president.

“I am the man who told the United States there was al-Qaida in Somalia,” says Qanyare. “They could not believe!” Eventually, they did believe. After 9/11, the CIA recruited Qanyare and other warlords to hunt down radical clerics and send them off for interrogation at a U.S. base in Djibouti. As an aspiring president, Qanyare had his own reasons for resisting Islamist revolution. In 2006, the warlords announced that they had forged an alliance: the CIA-funded Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism. The irony of warlords running a peace alliance was not lost on Somalis.

Qanyare says the CIA didn’t pay him. Somali journalists say he was vastly enriched with cash deliveries. The counterterrorism tactic was controversial, and U.S. diplomat Michael Zorick was transferred from his post in Nairobi as a punishment for speaking out against it. Zorick later won a “constructive dissent” prize from the American Foreign Service Organization. Somalis were horrified by the alliance, and many now consider the United States their No. 2 enemy after Ethiopia. “One thing people know is the warlords are the worst people in Somalia, and the Americans are helping the worst people,” Somali politician Mohamud Uluso told me.

Ask ordinary Somalis about Qanyare, and without fail, the first thing anyone who lived in Mogadishu back then will say is that he kidnapped innocent Muslim clerics to make money from the CIA. “Warlords were all kidnapping Muslim scholars and flying them out of Somalia systematically, and Mohamed Qanyare had his airport,” says Hassan Mohamed, a 29-year-old who grew up in Qanyare’s Mogadishu territory.

Qanyare says he wasn’t very successful at catching terrorists, and his militia caught only one, by accident. He says the man he caught and flew out to Djibouti killed two British schoolteachers in Somaliland. Somaliland’s former interior minister, Ismael Adam Osman, says the man who killed Richard and Enid Eyeington in 2003 was caught in Mogadishu and handed over to the CIA in Djibouti, but Osman doesn’t know how he was caught. Mohamed Ali Isey currently awaits the death penalty in a Somaliland prison.

Qanyare’s cooperation with the United States was a symptom of his unusual American bias. “Some people, they believe all roads lead to Rome,” he says of elders who worshipped Italy, Somalia’s former colonizer. “Me? I think all roads lead to Washington.” On the topic of Islamist governance, he looks disgusted. “I’m a secularist,” he says. “I’m not the person sent from God to regulate the peoples’ religions. We must have a multiparty democracy.” Qanyare is a Muslim. He wakes up every morning at 5 a.m. to pray—and to watch CNN.

Since 2006, Qanyare’s relationship with the United States seems to have deteriorated, and he’s angry that Washington accepts the Ethiopian occupation arranged by President Yusuf. “America is the sick person,” he says, referring to 9/11 and the U.S. Embassy bombings. “They wanted to see the physician, and they are using a witch doctor—Yusuf and Ethiopia. I used to give my advice to the CIA. But I think nobody cares about American taxpayers. Now everything is bad there [in Somalia].” The people fighting Ethiopians in Somalia have a right to do so, says Qanyare, expressing a sentiment echoed by most Somalis. “They have a right to jihad with Ethiopia, because Ethiopia invaded a sovereign country.”

Our meeting is wrapping up, and several demure Somali ladies are waiting for Qanyare in the hotel lobby. “Is one of those women your wife?” I ask him. “I don’t know those ladies—I think they want my money,” he says, dismissing them with a harassed wave.

If Qanyare is elected president, he will move back to Mogadishu. It’s not in the state it was when he left in 2006. That was anarchy. Today it’s compared to Baghdad.

Is he scared to go back? “My dear,” says Qanyare, “I only fear God.”

Abdiaziz Hassan Ahmed contributed to this article.

Correction, Sept. 26, 2008: This article incorrectly summarized Mohamed Qanyare Afrah saying he was present at a parliamentary chair fight over the Somali president’s decision to invite Ethiopian forces to combat an Islamist uprising in Somalia. Qanyare remembered the incident as is historically accurate: It was a manifestation of government divisions not relating to an Islamist uprising, which occured only later. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)