Is Somalia the next Iran? Or is it the next Afghanistan? While the west sleeps and celebrates the king of peace, the US‘s man on the ground, Ethiopia, has launched a covert invasion which may draw the entire horn of Africa into conflict. Somalia will soon be transformed, either into an Iranian-style Islamic republic or a reviled Ethiopian quisling, cursed with mujahideen and proxy wars. These events have been triggered by a remarkable new phenomenon. After 16 years of chaos and bloodshed, one faction in its civil war, the Union of Islamic Courts, has gone from being a minor player to being ready to wipe the last town held by the discredited UN-, US- and Ethiopian-backed regime from the map.
At this dramatic juncture, a secret Islamic order, purportedly written by the most important man in the Union, Sheik Aweys, has been leaked. It proclaims an Islamic Republic of Somalia. Its purported secrecy is underscored by its final directive: whosoever leaks this information and is found guilty should be shot. But is it genuine? Is it a bold manifesto by a flamboyant Islamic militant with links to Bin Laden? Or is it a clever smear by US intelligence, designed to discredit the Union, fracture Somali alliances and manipulate China? What is the future for Somalia?
If we want to imagine a stereotype of poor African governance, or rather, no governance at all, Somalia’s history over the past 15 years provides a ready, if reluctant, example.
Since 1991, battles between warlords and their militias, shifting from one stalemate to another, have crippled nearly every aspect of Somali society. The wounds of warlord lawlessness barely dried during the fearfully incompetent 1992-1995 UN-sanctioned US intervention. When the US fled, the wounds were opened afresh, and they have bled freely until early this year. No faction emerged as dominant; alliances shifted, battles were fought, but chaos remained.
But that was before the rise of Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). Only emerging in 2006 as a serious military force, they rapidly became ascendant, prosecuting an extraordinarily successful military, ideological, religious and social campaign. Putting to one side the northern semi-autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland, the Islamic Courts are in effective control of the entire country except for the town of Baidoa near the Ethiopian border.
It may be somewhat surprising to hear of courts – ostensibly judicial bodies – fighting in a civil war. But the Union of Islamic Courts is precisely that: a loose affiliation of disparate judges and courts practicing Islamic or Sharia law. Their unusual quasi-federalist structure has united Somali clans and language groups. Originally dealing with local issues such as petty crime and business disputes, they expanded to fill a vacuum in education, health care and policing. Backed by smuggled weapons from sympathetic countries, the militias which enforced their decisions have become a formidable force.
And while the Islamic Courts strike boldly, one of their leaders preaches boldly – the purported author of the leaked secret document, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys.The US listed him as ‘linked to terrorism’ after he led a militant Islamic group in the 1990s, and refuses to deal with him. With a red flame of a beard, Koran close to hand and scores of machine guns and anti-aircraft guns at his command, Aweys typifies the firebrand cleric. He fought and was decorated in the 1977 Ogaden war against Ethiopia, and is regarded as the military genius behind the Islamic Courts’ recent successes. At 61 years old, he does not fight directly, but reportedly organizes training and strategy. He heads the courts’ shura consultative council, and is regarded as the spiritual leader of the organization. Privately soft-spoken and calm, he is a Muslim scholar and lives in a middle class suburb of Mogadishu. He’s strong on building community, but his public rhetoric has also been confrontational and expansionist, calling for war against Ethiopian forces in Somalia and for a ‘greater Somalia’ incorporating ethnic Somali regions of Ethiopia and Kenya.
Meanwhile on the ground, a crucial deadline has come and gone for foreign troops to leave the one remaining holdout of Baidoa. In response Ethiopia has launched an invasion of Somalia with uncertain objectives. There is an imminent risk of wider regional war; there is currently covert involvement by a number of other neighboring countries and overt involvement by the African Union (AU), the UN and the US.
Baidoa is not the Somali capital (Mogadishu), which was taken by the UIC in July. But it is the home of the UN-sponsored transitional federal government (TFG), formed in 2004 in Kenya. The transitional administration could never establish itself in Mogadishu, as the city suffered the turf wars and bloody violence of rival warlords. Indeed, many of the same warlords whose militias vied for control of Mogadishu were given high-level posts in the transitional administration, continuing to operate their militias privately in the capital. Mogadishu was too dangerous for the militarily weak transitional administration, and Baidoa was chosen as the temporary seat of government instead.
But now the Islamic courts are poised to take Baidoa. The transitional administration struggles to survive, with virtually no military force of its own, lacking authority anywhere else in the country, propped up by Ethiopian troops, and backed diplomatically by UN resolutions and US threats. The UN clings to the results of its diplomatic efforts, even as they are destroyed, along with their legitimacy, by facts on the ground.
Somalia is on a knife edge between two futures. At this critical time, a document has been leaked from the Somali transitional administration, via Chinese sources to WikiLeaks.Org. It is apparently a ‘secret decision’ signed by Aweys from November 2005 outlining tactics for the Islamic Courts movement. Is it credible? Many of the strategies it recommends have been pursued, but some of it sounds like a smear. Understanding its credibility requires some knowledge of Somali history and politics. But if it is authentic, then it is the first policy document of the Islamic courts, beyond public announcements, to make it into the hands of the international media. And whether the document is genuine or not, one is still forced to ask: How did Somalia find itself in this situation? How did the UN find itself in this situation? What is the Union of Islamic Courts, and how did they rise so fast in such a chaotic situation, where no others have succeeded? And what is likely to happen if they gain control of the country? What hope is there for Somalia’s future?
If ‘Somalia’ or ‘Mogadishu’ resonates in the Western mind, it’s probably due to the US propaganda movie ‘Black Hawk Down’, or news reports of the 1992-1995 UN-sanctioned US intervention.
That intervention was a domestic political disaster for the US. But it was an even larger disaster for Somalis. And larger again, because it follows the outcome of many previous colonial interventions.
Differing regions of Somalia have been ruled by British, French and Italian colonial powers. Somalis often fought as proxies for their imperial overlords. Their lands were split along arbitrary lines, with members of the same ethnic group finding themselves separated by imperial borders; as with much of the rest of Africa, they were fought over and treated as pawns in the African edition of “The Great Game”. Ethnic Somalis live in areas of the present-day countries of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti, as well as Somalia. The colonial situation persisted through World War II. Somalis were regularly lured and coerced into fratricide.
In 1950, five years after the end of World War II, the UN established a trust territory under Italian control. In 1960 the former British and Italian Somali colonies became independent as a united Somalia. The formerly British part is the north-western region known as Somaliland, and today operates as a de facto independent nation, though without any international recognition.
President Muhammad Said Barre (1969-1991)
From 1969 until 1991 the country was ruled by Muhammad Siad Barre, a Soviet- and then US-backed dictator. Barre established several social programmes, raised literacy and educational standards, improved infrastructure, and implemented capital works programmes. His regime was also brutally authoritarian, murdering thousands. It was corrupt and dependent on foreign aid, which was often diverted to projects of political largess and self-aggrandizement rather than social welfare. Barre engaged in a futile war with Ethiopia over the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, leading to tens of thousands of deaths. Somalis were subject to one of the worst African dictatorships.
Part of Barre’s success lay in his ability to unite the Somali clans. Somali society is clan-based and the clan always holds a Somali’s first political loyalty. Alliances are often expressed through clan affiliations and traditional clan institutions. The clan structure of society has helped people to endure the harshness of their climate and geography, even in the face of national government neglect or abuse. The cost of Barre’s clan support was an extensive network of allegiances maintained through largesse. The corruption inherent in that system led to a great disillusionment and cynicism towards the state amongst ordinary Somalis, reaffirming their relative trust in clan loyalties.
After the Barre Presidency (1991-1998)
Following Barre’s death, a struggle for power between rival militias threw the country into chaos. In 1991 the north-western region of Somaliland declared independence, and still considers itself an independent nation; it has a relatively stable democratic government, along Kurdish lines, though the country has no foreign recognition. In 1998 the northern region of Puntland declared autonomy, asserting that it will govern itself until Somalia has a functioning government, which it will then rejoin. Puntland and Somaliland have been spared much of the violence of the rest of the country; together they form a contiguous region which is approximately the northern third of Somalia.
UN-, US-led intervention (1992-1995)
Following the brutal murders of Pakistani UN troops by the militia of Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, US-led UN forces soon abandoned neutrality and the mission, rather than establishing a stable, impartial, transitional order, became a war against Aidid. During a meeting of leaders and elders from Aidid’s clan, discussing a peace agreement with the UN, the US received “erroneous intelligence” that Aidid was planning attacks, and ordered that it be bombed. As respected leaders of Somali civil society discussed their future, that future was brought to an end. Fifty-four senior members of Somali society died. No apology was given; no US or UN military leader was brought to justice. Somalis united against the intervention forces. The ‘Black Hawk Down’ situation soon followed. None of these relevant facts make the Hollywood version. UN troops were withdrawn in short order, leaving Somali society further exposed. The US lost 18 soldiers. In the course of the ‘Black Hawk Down’ operation alone, the US estimates that 1000 to 1500 Somalis died, including both militia and civilians.
To those who believe in the essential benevolence of US power and foreign interventions – which includes the entire permissible spectrum of US political thought – the intervention in Somalia is the prime example of such benevolence. When critics point to some fairly dubious US interventions – Chile, Guatemala, Iran, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, the list goes on – the reply is, okay, but what about Somalia! No direct US interests there – what altruism! Critics wonder about the lucrative US oil exploration going on at the time. Paranoids! But then what are we to make of the US using oil company Conoco’s offices as a temporary embassy? The Somali intervention was supposed to be easy, painless (at least for US soldiers), and effective, returning functioning government swiftly to a region torn by strife. And perhaps it could have been.
Post intervention civil war, pre UIC (1995-2005)
Since then, the civil war has continued unabated. The smaller northern populations in Somaliland and Puntland have enjoyed relative stability, while elsewhere factions, militias and warlords have struggled to control territory, people and resources. UN and regional efforts to achieve ceasefires repeatedly failed; attempts to form temporary governments repeatedly failed; attempts to achieve peace repeatedly failed. Outside Somaliland and Puntland, the rest of the country, in particular the capital Mogadishu, remained without any effective government.
The ability of Somalis to survive in Mogadishu under conditions of widespread brutality and violence testifies to their resilience. To cross from one warlord’s region into another involved major risk; sometimes even to leave one’s house entailed major risk. Nevertheless, many of the bazaars and markets continued to function. Life goes on.
Anarcho-capitalists regard the situation in Mogadishu as hopeful, pointing the way, they say, to an apparently utopian model of a capitalist economic system without a state. As evidence they cite the better functioning of the telecommunications system than some nearby countries (Somalia has 15 telephones per 1000 people, rather than 10 as in neighboring countries). Never mind that the network is operated in conjunction with major multinational corporations such as Sprint and Telenor, that the system was established with the help of the UN and the International Telecommunications Union, and that the Somali Telecom Association is headquartered outside the country in Dubai. They cite private provision of water access. Never mind that many families are now in debt for water, and that no market incentive or regulatory obligation has convinced those private operators to purify their water: access to safe water is low even by African standards. They also cite air travel operation without any government regulation. Never mind that other countries are relied upon to maintain aircraft, and that Somali airports operate without trained aircraft controllers, fire crews, runway lights, or even fences to keep out stray animals. Perhaps there’s an anarcho-capitalist utopia, but Somalia is not the model.
We may admire the hardiness of Somalis and their ability to continue life, in many respects as normal, under such adverse circumstances. They have continued with traditional institutions and systems, which help to maintain social cohesion. They have endured the ravings, the egos, the bullying and the brutality of the warlords; and as the warlords have been banished from ever larger parts of the country by the Union of Islamic Courts, they have applauded, if nothing else, their newfound ability to go about their lives unhindered.
The rise of the Union of Islamic Courts (2000-)
It may well seem like a miracle: indeed, some have explicitly said so. The Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), existing in some form since 2000, only became a powerful political and military entity in early 2006. Major fighting was reported in March, and by June they had taken the capital Mogadishu. The warlords fled, and suffered defeat upon defeat. The Islamic Courts have swept all before them – even Mogadishu garbage, which hadn’t been collected since 1991 – and are now fighting for the one remaining town, Baidoa, seat of the transitional federal government (TFG), which is defended by Ethiopian planes, troops and artillery, and backed diplomatically and financially by the US and UN.
As already mentioned, the UIC is somewhat unusual, compared to other factions in the civil war. After the collapse of government in 1991, aided by businessmen desiring an orderly commercial environment, Sharia courts became the main judicial system, and evolved to provide education, health care and police services. They gained widespread public support, and helped to reduce robberies, drug-dealing and prostitution. The militias which enforced their decisions evolved into the fighting force which has effectively conquered most of the country. The affiliation of the courts is somewhat loose: each court makes its own decisions, and different courts and judges apply Sharia law in different ways. Somalia is a deeply Muslim nation, but has historically practiced a relatively mild form of Islam. The membership and leadership of the Courts both contain a spectrum of Islamic thought, from liberal to Wahhabist. This notable inclusiveness reflects the federalist structure of the UIC.
The UIC, through support from local imams, has gained significant popular legitimacy. Citizens can be expected to appreciate the work of any organization which ends years of violence and establishes peaceful social relations. But it appears that the uniquely religious, social and judicial elements of the UIC have also helped them to gain support, and to establish alliances with which to secure and consolidate power. The enforcement of conservative Islam may become repressive and unpopular where it occurs, but at least for an initial period, the UIC carries a significant amount of public goodwill. They have brought peace over regions they control, built schools and hospitals, created a form of justice and a stable business environment through their courts, and have emerged victorious. Numerous defections of enemy troops to the UIC have been reported throughout their advances; they are certainly seen as more legitimate than the warlords in the TFG. Nonetheless, their takeover of Mogadishu and the threat of full-scale war led to a stream of 18,000 refugees into Kenya by August.
On the other hand, the TFG may not have ever possessed as much legitimacy as its UN approval might suggest. Of course, as the result of an internationally-brokered agreement between major factions, it certainly has the potential to become a legitimate national government. But quite apart from Somalis’ ongoing mistrust of international institutions, the TFG’s very nature erodes its legitimacy. Being a compromise of the physically powerful, it includes hated warlords among its ranks, incorporating them into major ministerial posts. As the UIC took control of Mogadishu, the militias fighting against them were led by warlords who were ministers in the TFG, fighting in a ‘private’ capacity. At least some those ministers were expelled from the TFG shortly afterwards.
Sharia Law under the UIC
Hardline elements of the UIC have made major impingements on civil liberties, public expression and entertainment already, although we must be careful – the UIC’s federalist-clan structure makes it hard to draw conclusions from examples. They have shut down groups watching soccer matches. They have shut down theaters showing supposedly ‘pornographic’ movies – and it is not clear what counts as ‘pornographic’. There have been reports of strict dress code enforcement on women. Elopements have been banned. The UIC also banned khat, a popular stimulant, leading to protests. The US has accused the UIC of planning to establish a Taliban-like state; this has been denied and is unlikely given the existing Somali culture, federalist structure and no significant Arab inflow as occurred in Afghanistan. But we should remember that the UIC, whatever its federalist blessings, is a theocratic movement. Other than Aweys, the main leader in the UIC is Sheikh Sharif Skeikh Ahmed. Ahmed is the more moderate of the two: he is chairman of the UIC, a law graduate and former high school teacher. He heads the eight-member executive committee and is the public face of the UIC.
Aweys, al-Itihaad al-Islamiya and Osama bin Laden
In the 1990s Aweys headed an Islamist group, al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, which received funds from Osama bin Laden, but also had elements of a Somali social movement. According to US intelligence, al-Itihaad al-Islamiya cooperated with the al-Qaeda members who carried out the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Like the dictator Muhammad Siad Barre before him, Aweys calls for a greater Somalia. Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, on the other hand, has denied any great desire for land, professing that the courts are no threat and desire only order.
Power consolidation (2006-present)
As the UIC has taken further control of the country, it has imposed additional elements of governmental power. It has begun collecting taxes in the markets. It has sent its ‘foreign minister’ to Yemen. In November, talks between the TFG and UIC broke down, and the UIC has since moved to consolidate their position and move towards Baidoa. By December 4 Baidoa was effectively encircled. On December 12 the UIC gave Ethiopian forces a week to leave the country or face attack. Troops on both sides dug in around Baidoa on December 13, and an EU diplomatic effort to avert war began, though with no results yet. Ethiopian troops have backed up TFG fighters in recent battles, and remained stationed in Baidoa in the city’s defense. On December 19 the UIC-imposed deadline expired, and heavy fighting continues around Baidoa. On December 24 Ethiopian warplanes began bombing UIC targets.
This comes at a time when over 400,000 people in Somalia are affected by flooding, with up to 900,000 at risk if the flooding worsens.
The so-called Somali civil war cannot be regarded as entirely an internal affair. Several countries have provided support to the factions in the conflict. Somalia is subject to an arms embargo, so any such armed intervention, military aid or provision of arms and material is illegal under international law.
Perhaps the largest involvement is that of Somalia’s western neighbor Ethiopia. Somalia and Ethiopia have a long history of violence, dating back at least to the 1977 Ogaden war. There is substantial evidence of several Ethiopian government interventions in Somalia in recent years. Since the rise of the UIC, the main interest of largely Christian Ethiopia has been to prevent the establishment of an Islamic state on its border, and to support the TFG, which is led by a long-time Ethiopian ally. According to Reuters, a confidential UN report estimated 6,000-8,000 Ethiopian troops were in Somalia in early November. The buildup has continued since then, and Reuters quotes witnesses and security experts estimating 10,000 Ethiopian soldiers presently in the country. The UIC has repeatedly declared jihad on Ethiopia for supporting the TFG; Ethiopia has repeatedly denounced the UIC as a threat.
It seems clear from multiple confirmed reports that, despite Ethiopian denials, there are tens of thousands of Ethiopian troops in Somalia at present, mainly around Baidoa, defending the TFG. Since the TFG is so militarily weak, it is effectively dependent on Ethiopia, appearing as little more than an Ethiopian puppet.
On December 12, the UIC issued an ultimatum to Ethiopian forces in Baidoa to leave; that ultimatum expired on December 19, and heavy fighting continues, including aerial bombing by Ethiopian forces.
The United States
The US has also been involved. Its main interest now, like Ethiopia, is against any Iran-style Islamist regime. As a result, in an extraordinary act of cynicism, the US came to support some of the same warlords who were US enemies in 1993, demonized in ‘Black Hawk Down’. The CIA funded an alliance of warlords, the ‘Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism’, in their battle against the UIC for control of Mogadishu. Not only did this strategy fail militarily when the UIC took control in June, it also enhanced the legitimacy of the UIC. The US has repeatedly claimed that terrorists in Somalia are planning suicide attacks in Kenya and Ethiopia, and repeatedly denounced the UIC as harboring al-Qaeda terrorists. In particular, it has accused Aweys of connections to al-Qaeda, presumably referring to his previous involvement with al-Itihaad al-Islamiya. US rhetoric appears inflated, for example, the US assistant secretary of state on December 15:
- The Council of Islamic Courts is now controlled by al-Qaeda cell individuals, East Africa al-Qaeda cell individuals. The top layer of the court are extremists. They are terrorists. They are killing nuns, they have killed children and they are calling for a jihad.
Such denunciation seems contradicted by the organization of the UIC, as discussed previously, and achieves obvious political and propaganda goals. The ‘killing nuns’ accusation apparently refers to the murder of a nun outside a Mogadishu hospital on September 17, swiftly condemned by the UIC, with two arrests made shortly afterwards. Thus the US seems to conflate the UIC with extremist elements that the UIC itself publicly denounces and pursues – tarring them with the same brush, a strategy which will go unquestioned by a servile mainstream media, and which succeeds in demonizing the UIC, guilt achieved by association.
UN Security Council (2006)
The US introduced a resolution into the UN Security Council in late November, which authorized African Union peace-keepers to defend the TFG; it was passed unanimously on December 7. Such a proposal will surely not be implemented in the near future, and poses major practical problems, but rather operates as diplomatic support, backed by the eventual threat of official UN military action. The resolution sparked major protests in Mogadishu, and is likely seen in Somalia as giving license to Ethiopian incursion. Backing such a weak, increasingly illegitimate and dependent regime as it nears collapse may not only be a futile strategy: it may also further enhance the legitimacy of the UIC, as the TFG appears desperate and little more than a US-Ethiopian puppet. The International Crisis Group warns that this move in the Security Council could trigger a regional conflict; it suggests that the UN should pressure both sides to resume negotiations, rather than favoring one.
Egypt, Eritra, Djibouti, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Hezbollah (2006)
For its part, the UIC also receives foreign support. According to a UN report, it receives aid from Iran, Egypt, Djibouti, Libya, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Eritrea. Djibouti has provided uniforms and medicines; Egypt has provided training within Somalia; Iran has provided arms and ammunition; Hezbollah has provided military training and arms, and UIC fighters fought Israeli soldiers alongside Hezbollah in July 2006; Libya provided training, funds and arms; Eritrea provided arms, ammunition and military equipment; Saudi Arabia provided logistical support and ammunition. This support, it seems, has not extended to the provision of official military personnel, although this is not clear. There are fears that the conflict could become an Eritrea-Ethiopia proxy war. Arrivals of thousands of foreign Islamic fighters have also been reported, especially in recent weeks, although it is difficult to see how this observation could be made with any reliability.
The secret Aweys order for an Islamic Republic
The Aweys secret order was passed from the TFG to Chinese agencies on October 14, 2006 and subsequently leaked to WikiLeaks.org. It bears the imprimatur ‘Islamic Republic of Somalia, Islamic Courts Administration, Office of the Chief of the Imams’, and lists its subject as ‘secret decision’. Dated November 9, 2005, it purports to be an overall statement of UIC policy in the civil war: the footer describes it as a ‘plan of action for governance based on the principles of Islam and restoration of justice in all Somalia regions’.
The Islamic Republic of Somalia
The heading itself is meaningful: the phrase ‘Islamic Republic of Somalia’ is very rarely used to refer to the UIC. Aweys has occasionally used it in local media; others have used it to refer not to the UIC, but to the potential establishment of an Iranian style Islamic state over all of Somalia. The phrase amounts to an assertion of sovereignty, not only over the lands the UIC controls, but over the northern autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland as well. The inclusion of Somaliland and Puntland is made clear by reference to ‘all Somalia regions’ and further within the text, which calls for the opening of Islamic courts in all districts of Puntland and Somaliland. Puntland has an uneasy truce with the UIC, having agreed to the establishment of Sharia law, though on its own terms, using different methods from the UIC. Although the UIC’s expansionist ambitions are now quite clear, Somaliland and Puntland might find such an apparent assertion of sovereignty alarming and certainly would have in November 2005.
The preamble expounds goals which are clearly, but not unusually, Islamist, including the establishment of an Islamic state practicing Sharia law. It denounces Muhammad Siad Barre’s regime as unjust, undermining and violating Sharia law. It denounces the TFG as hunting religious leaders, and responsible for influencing the international community to believe that the UIC is a terrorist organization. The document goes on to list strategies to be followed as part of this plan.
By and large, the strategies advocated in the document are those which can be expected by any faction in a civil war. Any party in a civil war can be expected to try to spread influence, establish alliances and undermine enemies. So, for instance, the document advocates opening Islamic courts in Puntland and Somailand in collaboration with clan elders. As mentioned previously, Puntland has agreed to the establishment of its own version of Sharia law. It advocates ‘plots’ to mar the relationships between the TFG, Puntland and Somaliland, though it is not clear what this amounts to; subtleties of translation may be important here. It advocates infiltration into the armed forces of Puntland and Somaliland: we know of no factual reports to this effect, however. It advocates purchasing weapons used by Puntland and Somaliland armed forces, and from their ‘custodians’, which seems rather curious. It advocates alliances with clans, supporting local leaders. It advocates religious lectures to influence the public in the UIC’s favour; no doubt this has been the case. It recommends that public friction with the TFG, Puntland or Somaliland administrations be minimized, while allies are identified within their cabinets and support provided to them. It advocates supporting ethnic Somali rebels in Ethiopia, to weaken the capability of the Ethiopian military in Somalia: again, a natural strategy. It advocates welcoming and influencing minority clans which are marginalized by the TFG, Somaliland and Puntland administrations. It singles out particular clans and individuals for support against their rivals. It advocates minimizing animosity with religious leaders. All of these are natural, and perhaps obvious, strategies.
Two of the purported decisions, however, are more controversial. If the document is genuine, they are damaging to the UIC and to Aweys. If the document is a forgery, they are smears and we must ask how they came to be.
The first advocates cooperation with ‘criminals’; making large payments in return for assassinations of TFG, Somaliland and Puntland officials. So the UIC is prepared to deal with criminals, but the targets are to be officials, not civilians, and the UIC is not prepared to carry out such actions itself. Perhaps this, again, is simply an expression of the reality of civil wars – every warlord is in some sense a criminal – but it perhaps indicates a lesser moral caliber than the UIC proclaims for itself; and it would no doubt disappoint or outrage some local followers. But this is the extent of advocacy of terroristic activity. No activities in Kenya or Tanzania are mentioned, such as those of which the US accuses the UIC.
In this regard, two bombings have taken place in Somalia this year. On September 18, double suicide car bombings failed to kill TFG president Abdulahi Yusuf. And on November 30, a car bomb exploded at an entrance to Baidoa, though the intended target is not clear. The bombings were condemned by the UIC. It is possible they were sponsored by the UIC, and would be consistent with the strategies enunciated in our document; but that is a far cry from the sort of terrorism of which the US accuses it.
Leakers to be shot
The other controversial decision is the final one: ‘Whosoever leaks this information and is found guilty should be shot’. In times of war most countries have the death penalty for espionage, and this language is not atypical of Aweys, but if a forgery, this sounds like a somewhat ham-fisted way of calling attention to the document.
Is the leak genuine?
Our Chinese source gives us little on the credibility of the document other than that it was being passed on directly, not anonymously, by the TFG. Without direct contacts to the inner circle of the UIC, we have no way of directly verifying the document. But we can assess the plausibility of the document being genuine, or a forgery, based on its content.
Would Aweys write such a document? In timing and outline, the general content of the document is certainly plausible. At the end of 2005 the UIC would have been establishing strategies to be used in the coming year. Many of the strategies in the document came to fruition. And Aweys would certainly be an appropriate person to write such a document. It is strange that he would refer to the organization already as the ‘Islamic Republic of Somalia’, a title which if adopted by the organization could alienate potential allies immediately by its implicit assertion of sovereignty; but, at a time of early planning, one might aim high, and later in public use more diplomatic language. At that time much of the country was controlled by warlords: one might have expected him to spend more time dealing with strategies against them. But the document does suggest favoring certain warlords over others; warlords which were ministers in the TFG might well be regarded simply as part of the TFG; and the document was more one of political than military strategy. In a secret document he might be prepared to advocate less scrupulous tactics, such as assassinations and cooperation with criminals: note that the UIC itself would not be performing the assassinations, and could achieve deniability through this strategy. These tactics stop short of terrorism against civilians or foreigners, and it is plausible that this might be the extent of the UIC’s terrorist inclinations. A forger intent on smearing Aweys and the UIC might be expected to go further: the revelation is not that damning, given the context. As for shooting leakers, it is certainly a dramatic flash of rhetoric, but Aweys is a regular practitioner of fiery oratory; and he refers only to those who leak the information and are found guilty, which sounds quite plausible from a Muslim judge and less plausible from a forger.
If genuinely written by Aweys, there is still the matter of explaining how it got to the TFG. As it was sent to the Chinese, the document came in 4 files: three jpeg image files, one scan of each page of the original paper document in Somali, and a word file with what appears to be an accurate English translation. The word file metadata lists its author as a “Captain Weli” from the “Department of State”. A US State Department computer; or a TFG official calling their fledgling office a “Department of State” – either is quite plausible. Using tools that were effective against Blair’s “sexed up” Iraqi dossier word file, we see that the TFG translation was last modified on Oct 3, 2006, underwent at least two revisions, was last saved by “hi” (an intelligence in-joke, or coincidence?).
The Great China Project
If the document is genuine, there is still the question why it was not released to the Chinese until mid October 2006. One can make all manner of speculations: the TFG was protecting its source; the document was not captured until then; the TFG started circulating it as a last desperate measure to embarrass the UIC as its position crumbled; the particular documents chosen to circulate internationally may be somewhat capricious. But still, if the TFG captured the document not long after its creation, and was prepared to share it internationally, one would have expected they would do it earlier. Perhaps, since it is not terribly damaging, it received low priority; it is plausible it was circulated elsewhere but not seen fit to use publicly, since it is not quite consistent with the usual inflated denunciations. But note the following dramatic timeline:
- Sep 18: Attempted Baidoa assassination of TFG President Abdulahi Yusuf. President’s brother and 5 guards killed.
- Oct 3: Final edits to the Aweys document English translation.
- Oct 14: TFG sends the Aweys document images and the English translation to Chinese contacts.
- Oct 16: TFG ambassador to China receives “The Great China Project” message (see below)
- Nov 2: President Yusuf arrives in Beijing.
- Nov 4: Forty-eight African countries that have diplomatic relations with China participate in a two-day Beijing summit. The Somali conflict is on the agenda.
The “Great China Project” message is another WikiLeaks.org leak, from a different source, this time an intercept of Somali TNG diplomatic traffic:
Intercepted diplomatic traffic
Date: Mon, 16 Oct 2006 01:57:45 +0400
Dear Amb. Mohamed Awil and Abdirahman Haji;
Brothers, as I was just talking to brother Syed Ali and Abdirahman, and having obtained now the consent, elderly blessing and directives of HE, the President, thanks to Syed Ali for that, it is about time to do the last few actions requested by CHEC.
The Preliminary delegate coming to Beijing for the meeting consist of:
1-Hon. Said Hassan Shire, Minister of Rebuilding and Resettlement. (Invitation letters, tickets, and hotel arranged already).
2-Hon. Abudlahi Yusuf Harare, Minister of Petroleum. (Please correct the name for me if Harare is just nickname and not the official third name)
Brothers, as CHEC requested, we need to officially request a meeting between our above mentioned ministers and:
1-With the Chinese Minister/Ministry of Foreign Affairs (international Cooperation liaison office)
2-With the Chinese Minister/Ministry of Commerce.
3-With the Governor of Export and Import Bank.
YE, additionally, brothers there are some of us who are coming there to Beijing to lobby for the project, in a very SILENT manner we will be working from the background and support the Ministers, President delegates, Embassy so that the mission ends with the anticipated successes.
Analysis of intercepted traffic
Note carefully the relevant priority ministers. Could there be a Somali oil rights for Chinese arms swap? Such oil rights would have to be renegotiated if the UIC controlled Somalia. China also enjoys TFG money for infrastructure reconstruction projects.
Other motivations for forgery
What other motivations are there for forgery? Anything embarrassing to Aweys and the UIC, which undercuts its alliances and internal cohesion, aids the TFG and its allies. A forger does not want to appear over the top, but still wants to inflict damage on the target. The damage here appears unreasonably mild for October 3 of this year. If the intended audience were internal to Somalia, it does not seem likely to weaken the UIC drastically: the time to unite Puntland and Somaliland against the UIC had largely passed by Oct 3. Perhaps Puntland and Somaliland had received the document much earlier and kept it quiet. If the intended audience were foreign, such as the US or Ethiopia, a forger would be expected to cater to those interests and their fear of radical Islam and terrorism.
A forger would have to make a plausible fake version of the document on paper, scan it into a computer, and write an English translation. This seems beyond the TFG’s immediate concerns in October, as it struggled for its own existence; but not beyond that of its foreign allies such as the US. It is not implausible, and not without precedent: US spooks have a long history of leak fabrication.
But if the document is a forgery, one large question remains: the aim being to embarrass Aweys and the UIC, why was it not spread more broadly and given a more immediate date? If the audience were external, it should have been leaked further and made more use of by the US. But there seems to be no evidence of this. was the TFG trying to protect a UIC mole or protect a forgery from public scrutiny? If US intelligence was behind the forgery, was it worried about being caught out again influencing US domestic political opinion with its fabrications?
One cannot conclude with certainty that the document is genuine or otherwise. But based on the above analysis, it seems that either the document is genuine, slightly modified or is an earlier forgery recycled for the Chinese.
Today, the UIC’s ultimatum against Ethiopian troops in Baidoa has expired and fierce fighting rages. Ethiopian forces have become involved, and there is potential for a wider regional war and great tragedy. If the UN continues in its present role, blindly supporting the TFG as its legitimacy erodes and its ‘seat of government’ is overrun, it cannot improve the situation. If the US continues treating the UIC as if it consists primarily of terrorists, it will lose all credibility (if it has not already) among Somalis who, whatever their misgivings, appreciate the stability provided by the UIC. The situation is far more complicated and interesting than any simplistic reading will imply.
If the leak is genuine, the secret order reveals insights into Aweys’ thinking and strategy. If fake, it still says something about the intrigues of Somali and global politics. But whatever the case, Somalis, together with the international community, should seek to understand Aweys and the UIC, in order to clarify what they are dealing with, and establish a lasting peace and good governance in Somalia.