Déjà Vu

Somaliland soldier.
Somaliland soldier sitting outside an archaeological site that attracts foreign visitors

NAIROBI, Kenya—Somalia is on the brink of famine. There is no end in sight to the war between Islamist guerrillas and the Ethiopian soldiers supporting Somalia’s feeble transitional president. The June 2008 peace agreement between one Islamist faction and Somalia’s transitional government promised a cease-fire and the withdrawal of government-allied Ethiopians from Somalia. But Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi promptly derailed the arrangement when he refused to withdraw before defeating the jihadists. The Islamist fighters say they will not stop fighting until the infidels leave. Their powerful leader has dismissed the peace agreement. The stalemate and contingent humanitarian crisis are déjà vu for Somalia.

Almost 100 years ago, a Sunni sheik named Mohammed Abdullah Hassan fomented an Islamist revolution against colonial Italians and British in Somalia. Somalia’s first nationalist, “Mad Mullah,” as he is known, allied with varying clans and built a strong army called the Dervishes. In 1910, the New York Times described the British response as the most costly project in the annals of 10 Downing St. “It represents an expenditure in the last eleven years of $50,000,000 and 5000 lives and a mortifying, humiliating failure without a jot of compensation,” Walter Littlefield wrote. Shortly after, one-third of the inhabitants of British Somalia died in a famine. Anthropologist I.M. Lewis says hungry Somalis resorted to eating rats in a depraved period known as the “time of eating filth.”

Somalia’s current Islamist leader, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, considers Mad Mullah a hero. “It is something existing in the world, to name your enemy as a terrorist, as the British colonialists called the Somali hero Mohammed Abdullah Hassan,” he told Newsweek in 2006. “For instance, the [apartheid-era] South Africans said that [Nelson] Mandela was a terrorist, and his people know him as a hero.” Aweys, who now lives in exile in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, denied my interview requests. The U.S. State Department and the United Nations have designated Aweys and his late apprentice Aden Hashi Ayro terrorists, and Aweys could be targeted by U.S. airstrikes if he were in Somalia. Ayro was a commander of Somalia’s radical Islamist militia, Al-Shabab, which translates to “the Youngsters” in English.

Ayro was also a member of al-Qaida, a discovery former warlord Mohamed Qanyare  takes credit for. Qanyare says he told the CIA, which in 2005 hired him to catch Ayro and deliver him to the U.S. base in Djibouti. Qanyare’s militia didn’t succeed in catching Ayro, but they did perplex him. Mohamed Uluso, a political leader of the clan Ayro and Aweys both come from, says he met with Ayro to chastise him right after Qanyare’s militia attacked Ayro’s house. “He said to me, ‘We never committed any crime against Americans—why are they looking for us?’ ” remembers Uluso. “We said, It’s because you are hiding the people who bombed the [U.S.] Embassies [in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam].” Five U.S. missile strikes later, on May 1, 2008, the U.S. Navy killed Ayro, along with 30 other people.

In 2005, journalist Massimo Alberizzi visited an Italian cemetery in Mogadishu after Ayro desecrated the site so he could it use as a militia training camp. Alberizzi says bones were removed from a mausoleum and discarded all over the land outside. Since 2002, Ayro had been implicated in the killing of a British BBC producer who was working in Mogadishu, a Somali peace activist, a Swiss man working to build a chicken farm for the poor in Somaliland, an Italian nun, two British schoolteachers, and a Kenyan development worker. Somaliland authorities say Ayro ordered terrorists to disrupt the 2005 parliamentary election. Somaliland intelligence agents caught some men with an arsenal of explosives and prevented the planned violence.

Aweys says these incidents are Somalia’s internal affairs and none of America’s business. They are my business, however.

I was not able to go to south Somalia to report this series, because the security that is recommended to prevent assassination in Mogadishu costs $500 a day. That’s two cars of armed guards, in case one gets blown up and I’m stranded with shrapnel wounds and no ride to the overburdened Medina hospital. The attack could be meant for the car in front, or Al-Shabab youngsters could learn which cars were transporting me and target them because I am an “infidel” whose country trains and funds their Ethiopian enemies, whose CIA funded their warlord enemies, and whose military targets their leaders, killing random civilians in missile strikes. They might also target me if Somalia’s transitional government were somehow involved in my security.

No insurance company would cover my trip for more than $375,000 worth of injuries, and I couldn’t afford the premium, anyway. I tried to get around it by planning a visit to the Somali countryside, which at the time was safer than the capital. Bad idea.

One of my sources arranged for me to visit a town called Beletweyne, where his childhood friend Daud Hassan Ali had just built an English-language school. Daud and I exchanged dozens of e-mails, and he insisted that Al-Shabab was not operating in his region. He was 64 and had just returned to Somalia after living in Birmingham, England, for four decades where he worked as a school psychologist. I would stay for an affordable rate in a local Save the Children guesthouse, and they would provide my transport and security. I would not be able to get out of the car, except within the school compound or the NGO compound, nor could I take photographs while riding in the car. For taking a picture of a bridge in his town, Daud told me, he had been accused of being a spy and threatened by a local Islamist.

In April, Islamist fighters captured Beletweyne, released some prisoners from jail, and fought with Ethiopian soldiers who were stationed nearby. On the night of April 13, Islamists went to Daud’s school and shot three of the teachers dead. They chased Daud to a neighbor’s house, were he hid for a short time before he was dragged into the street and shot to death. The next morning, Al-Shabab claimed responsibility, though it was impossible to know if they organized the raid or if the killers were local upstarts sympathetic to the revolution. Daud was a Christian and a British citizen, and he taught English at his school, possible explanations for his unpopularity among jihadists. He made it clear in his e-mails to me that he considered the Islamist uprising a crude and menacing development.

In 1910, Mad Mullah also killed British sympathizers among the Somali population. “Mad Mullah Kills 800, Tribesmen Slaughtered, Towns Razed, and Vast Areas Laid Waste” reads one New York Times headline. He declared that any marriage ceremony conducted by a subject of King Edward VII would be null and void. His zeal developed after a visit to Mecca at age 20 where he studied under Sheik Sayyid Muhammed Salih, a Sufi with his own mystical brotherhood called Salihiya.

These days, the Arab influence comes from the long-passed Sheik Muhamad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of Wahhabism. Since the 1970s, hundred of thousands of Somalis have worked or settled in Saudi Arabia, a country ruled by a Wahhabist interpretation of Islamic law. One Somali visitor was Sheik Aweys.

Aweys brought the militancy of Wahhabism back to moderate Somalia. Other sheiks brought ideas from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood movement. Together, in 1982, they formed Al-Itihad, a Somali Islamist movement and militia that intended to unite all Somalis living in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somaliland, and Somalia under an Islamic rule that would prohibit television, music, movies, soccer, and women’s rights. (Somali territory was doled out during late 19th-century imperialism, so Somalis live in all these countries.) Al-Itihad fought Somali warlords and made incursions into Kenya and Ethiopia, but the militia was always defeated.

In the warlord-ruled anarchy of the 1990s, Mogadishu developed a network of clan-based sharia courts meant to enforce law and order. When these ad hoc units came together as the Islamic Courts Union in 2000, Al-Itihad merged with the union. The ICU militia, commanded in part by Aden Ayro, fought and defeated Mogadishu’s CIA-funded warlord alliance and came to power in 2006. The Islamists brought peace, stability, and punishing sharia law to the capital for six months. Mogadishu had not been peaceful since 1989, so residents reveled in the calm. The ICU gained immense popular support.

But Somalia’s feeble transitional government was excluded from the Islamist regime. After three meetings in Khartoum, Sudan, neither the government nor the Islamists would agree on a power-sharing deal. There was uproar, and Aweys threatened to have the Islamists invade Ethiopia, the main backer of the transitional government. President Abdullahi Yusuf then invited Ethiopia’s army to invade Somalia and defeat the Islamists, which happened in December 2006.

Political leaders from the ICU, including Aweys, are being given sanctuary in Eritrea, Ethiopia’s great rival. The Islamists remaining in Somalia are fighters, not philosophers. They want the Ethiopians out, and they consider President Yusuf’s government a junta. Their ideological leaders say they are nationalists fighting for Somalia’s sovereignty. But their fight causes massive collateral damage. Roughly 6,500 civilians have been killed in the last year, and 3 million Somalis are starving, according to the United Nations. That’s one-quarter of Somalia’s roughly 10 million inhabitants.

If Sheik Aweys has his say, the Youngsters won’t stop fighting until all ethnic Somalis in the Horn of Africa are living under one Islamist government. “We will leave no stone unturned to integrate our Somali brothers in Kenya and Ethiopia and restore their freedom to live with their ancestors in Somalia,” Aweys told Mogadishu’s Radio Shabelle in 2006. In other words, there will be war, indefinitely.