Washington, DC — The accusation that Somalia is a terrorist state is based on deduction and supposition, not proven fact, according to Ken Menkhaus, an associate professor at Davidson College who is a specialist on Somalia and its Islamic movements.
There is little direct information on terrorist networks in Africa, he said. Media and government “depend on deductive reasoning” to conclude that Islamic states, failed states, poor states or inaccessible states are likely havens of terrorist groups. “By these criteria, Somalia makes the short list.”
The United States “should avoid direct intervention in Somalia at all costs, short of some clear and present danger,” Menkhaus warned.
Bush Administration officials have accused the group Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya or “Unity of Islam” of being a terrorist organization, but according to Menkhaus, that characterization ignores a more complex reality. Al-Itihaad was formed in the late 1980s, a half-dozen years before Al-Quaeda, and has traditionally been more of a social movement than a political movement. But it wears several different faces in Somalia.
The group is not considered a highly organized or structured organization by most knowledgeable analysts. “You can’t say, ‘Aha, we know who the leader is,'” says Ted Dagne of the Congressional Research Service and a careful observer of the region. “You can’t say: ‘These are what their plans are.’ Al-Itihaad operates differently in different parts of Somalia. We should be navigating this very carefully.”
The press exaggerates, says Dagne. “They’re looking to break a story on the second phase of the war [against terrorism]. Somalia is easy speculation.”
And he warns: “By lumping everyone together, we may wind up creating an organization that is truly anti-American and evil.”
Most of Al-Itihaad’s energy is concentrated on their vision – fundamentalist but not necessarily terrorist – for fixing a shattered Somalia, says Menkhaus. They “are most concerned with a domestic, not an international agenda,” says Menkhaus. That requires care in a clan-conscious Somalia. “They have attempted to integrate into local communities and while many have shaved their beards, people know who they are. They are not being secretive, they are being discreet.”
In Puntland, using a tactic that Menkhaus called a “Turabi strategy” (in reference to the now-jailed Sudanese Islamist leader Hassan al-Turabi), Al-Itihaad has burrowed into the judiciary and mid-levels of government where they exercise influence, “but are not trying to take over.”
And while there has been some violence near the Kenyan border, and elsewhere in the region, Menkhaus called Somalia “inhospitable terrain” for al-Quaeda because of “highly unpredictable and unstable alliances,” that are typical of the Horn nation. Also, said Menkhaus, there is a traditional “absence of secrecy” in Somalia, and if you are a non-Somali, “it is difficult to have what you are doing not known.”
Press speculation that Somalia, along with Sudan and Yemen will be targeted next in the U.S. global anti-terror campaign has been intense, particularly following the targeting of Somali company Al-Barakaat as a conduit for terrorist funds. Al-Barakaat is the largest company in Somalia, with interests in telecommunications, banking, postal services and refreshment.
The company has had to close services throughout Somalia, after British and American business partners terminated their relationship with the group. The move has greatly limited telephone contact between the country and the outside world and cut off a channel widely used by Somali expatriates to send money back home.
While acknowledging that Somalia could be useful as a transshipment point for the movement of money and men, Menkhaus said there is “much we don’t know.” He described the freezing of assets of Al-Barakaat by the Bush Administration as taking “a sledgehammer approach.”
Another panelist at the symposium was David Shinn, a former ambassador to Ethiopia, and also a past director of the State Department‘s Office of East African Affairs. He said Al-Barakaat’s presence in the United States “is individuals who operate out of 7-11s, little shops. they’re not big fish.”
Shinn suggested the United States was paying a price now, for past inattention. “Trying to get any interest in Somalia was like knocking your head against the wall.”
The Administration’s approach makes little sense for a U.S. government seeking to win friends, allies and understanding, says Ted Dagne. “I am not going to love you if you come into my house and take my food away. I will respect you if you say, ‘Here is a drink to go along with your food.'”
According to Bronek Szynalski, UN Humanitarian Coordinator – Horn of Africa, cash remittances from abroad have fallen by 50% in the wake of the freezing of Al-Barakaat’s operations. The loss of hard currency inflows, a punishing drought, inflation due to the depreciation of the Somali shilling and the flare-up of Rift Valley fever which is devastating livestock and therefore exports, are all factors causing deep gloom among humanitarian workers.
It isn’t clear what form action against a perceived terrorist threat from Somalia might take, but a concerned Szynalski, speaking at a press conference in Washington, DC, to launch the UN’s consolidated appeal for humanitarian aid, said that while he and colleagues were hoping there wasn’t going to be any political intervention in the country, they were making “contingency plans”.