Inside the fight for Somalia’s future
QORYOOLEY, Somalia — In the end, it wasn’t clan militias or Islamic militants but a government soldier who killed Dr. Osman.
Over his 54 years, the pharmacist had earned a reputation for fair dealing in business, kindness among friends, and piety in the mosque. A family man, he had survived Somalia’s clan wars and then kept his head down when the Islamic militants known as Al Shabaab overran his hometown in southern Somalia five years ago. A follower of a softer, mystical branch of Islam, he obeyed the ultraconservative occupiers’ harsh new rules — don’t smoke, don’t chew khat, pay the Islamic tax, go to the mosque five times a day without fail — and carried on.
In February of this year, the military offensive to retake towns like Osman’s, “liberating” them from extremist rule, began. As the fighting drew near Qoryooley [pronounced “kor-ree-oh-lay”], Osman sent his wife and seven children to the capital Mogadishu, telling them they would be safer there. He stayed behind to look after the pharmacy he had built from scratch. He told his family not to worry.
On March 23, after a fierce multi-hour firefight, Somalia’s flag was hoisted in Qoryooley for the first time in half a decade.
And on a Tuesday afternoon five weeks later, a soldier in Somali uniform shot Osman in the back of the head.
The bullet entered below the pharmacist’s right ear. It exited through his left cheek, taking with it teeth and bone, then sliced across his left hand, leaving two fingers dangling by bloody tendrils.
Osman’s cousin later told me the story he had heard. The soldier had accused Osman of being a member of Al Shabaab, and wanted to bring him “to the river” for questioning. Fearing a summary execution, Osman said he would only be questioned at the army base. The soldier assented, but then as the pharmacist was locking up the shop, shot him from behind with an AK-47.
As grieving relatives carried the body away wrapped in a bloodstained bedsheet, Osman’s cousin added a crucial detail: the killer, from Mogadishu, was a member of a different clan.
Somalia’s devastating clan conflict is reemerging, threatening to unravel the country’s gradual progress. As Osman’s murder shows, the end of Al Shabaab and the beginning of peace are not the same thing.
The future hinges on the Somali National Army (SNA) — the very group of individuals that included Osman’s killer.
“Even Al Shabaab,” Osman’s cousin said, “didn’t kill us in cold blood.”
A nation without an army
In 1991, the ousting of military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre triggered the disintegration of Somalia’s army. Barre’s loyal senior officers fled into exile. Lower-level soldiers joined the clan militias that had forced him out.
As rival clan warlords fought for control of Mogadishu, their rockets and bullets destroyed the prize they sought. The militias gained renown as casual killers and ruthless predators. With a gun as their license they did as they pleased for the next two decades — which is to say, they fought for anything of value.
Famines in 1992 and 2011 together claimed around half a million lives. Decades of unrest generated the largest and most widespread diaspora communities on the planet.
Al Shabaab, meaning “The Youth” in Arabic, emerged in 2006 as a rare cross-clan force united by radical Islamism — at least at the leadership level. It fought a guerrilla war against US-backed Ethiopian troops and then the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a peacemaking force deployed to Somalia in 2007. For a while Al Shabaab was winning. When Ivisited in 2010, Al Shabaab controlled all but a few square miles of the capital and almost all of the countryside. The 5,000 AMISOM soldiers controlled little more than the airport, seaport and the road to parliament.
The UN’s decision to more than quadruple the number of AMISOM troops over the intervening years turned the tide of the war. But although the forces evicted Al Shabaab from Mogadishu in August 2011, IEDs, close-quarter assassinations, mortar attacks, and suicide bombings inside the capital since then have shown the jihadists’ long reach. Al Shabaab also retaliated against Kenya for its presence in AMISOM with an attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in September 2013.
Somalia’s future rests on attempts to build a professional army: As in Afghanistan or Iraq, security is a prerequisite for good governance.
But turning Somalia’s anarchic and competing collection of militias into a unified, national force is no easy task.
Inside Mission Impossible
Mogadishu International Airport is Somalia’s version of the Baghdad “Green Zone.” Jazeera, a few miles outside the fortified perimeter, is the crucible of an international project on which the success of all other foreign engagement with Somalia hangs: to professionalize the Somali army. The stakes could not be higher, nor the challenge greater.
Beneath a blistering sun hundreds of SNA soldiers are being trained in battle readiness by a force of 100 troops from the European Union. Since 2010 the EU has trained more than 3,000 of the SNA’s estimated 20,000 soldiers. AMISOM has taken over classroom instruction, while the US, through private contractor Bancroft Global Development, has trained the mixed-clanDanab company — “lightning” in Somali — a specially trained and equipped infantry unit.
In the Somali army, units are mostly clan-based. But when the soldiers arrive at Jazeera they are mixed together in the hope of creating integrated, multi-clan fighting groups. They are given a package of documents labeled “Fight for Somalia” that includes a copy of the constitution. Every morning they sing the national anthem while standing in front of the Somali flag.
In a sweltering, tin-roofed, cinderblock classroom in late April, a group of soldiers were being taught how to strip down and rebuild AK-47 assault rifles and PKM belt-fed machine guns.
Outside on the scraggly thorn-bush and trash-covered dunes more Somali troops, armed with wooden sticks, went through drills overseen by a broad-shouldered Swedish soldier. “Bang! Bang!” they shouted, charging an imaginary machine-gun nest. Then they carried away their make-believe wounded.
Another class, lacking actual vehicles with which to practice roadside bomb identification, walked around hazard tape that marked a car-sized rectangle in the sand, holding plastic bottles as stand-ins for inspection mirrors.
For many of the Somali soldiers it was the first real training they had ever had.
But mindset is as important as technique.
“This generation has known only war, they grew up fighting,” said Colonel Jesus Gonzalez, the EU mission’s Spanish senior training officer. “They don’t know how to read or write but they are very good fighters, but as individuals. What we are trying to create is a spirit of fighting together, for Somalia.”
After a few weeks these soldiers will be back on the front lines. How they behave when they are there will to a large degree determine whether Somalia’s future is one of growing stability or descent into more war.
The scale of the challenge
Past behavior gives little ground for hope.
Desertion is commonplace. “You leave 200 men somewhere and the next day there are only 20,” said Colonel Ali Aden Humad, the Djiboutian spokesman for the 22,000-strong AMISOM force, when I spoke to him in the air-conditioned container that serves as his office at Mogadishu Airport. “There’s no backbone, no mid-ranking non-commissioned officers to keep the army in good shape.”
Loyalty is a constant worry. “The Somali National Army are not infiltrated by Al Shabaab, they are Al Shabaab,” one exasperated Ugandan intelligence officer told me.
Government-issued weapons and uniforms are readily available on Mogadishu’s black market. In February the United Nations Monitoring Group, set up to investigate infringements of the country’s arms embargo, reported that weapons were being deliberately “diverted” from government stocks to clan militias and even Al Shabaab.
Deadly clashes and turf wars frequently erupt between police, district militiamen, and soldiers who are supposed to be working together to keep the peace.
And as Al Shabaab retreats, dangerous clan and resource conflicts are re-emerging. In the absence of a stronger and more orderly Somali military force, the power and stability vacuum could drive people back into the arms of the Islamic militants under whose reign they were at least safe, if not free.
Death of a pharmacist
Nowhere is that danger starker than in Lower Shabelle, a 150-mile-long wedge of coastal land south of Mogadishu. The Shabelle River that gives the region its name has made these plains Somalia’s breadbasket, an area that challenges the common perception of Somalia as a harsh and inhospitable place prone to famine and drought. A thick stripe of deep green mango trees marks the Shabelle River out from the flat of the land. Decades-old Italian-built locks, sluice gates and irrigation canals water the vegetable fields and orchards. Palm trees dot the rutted roads.
The town of Qoryooley sprawls on either side of a long, broad dirt road lined with shade-giving“neem” trees. Most buildings are single story and made of cinder blocks or mud bricks. Homes are painted dull colors, but shopfronts are adorned with bright murals advertising their wares: pills, plates of food, sacks of flour and cement, spare tires.
This is Al Shabaab heartland. Nearby Bulo Marer was the site of a failed attempt by French commandoes to rescue their captured intelligence officer, codenamed Denis Allex, in early 2013. In the wake of last year’s Westgate attack US Navy SEALs tried, and failed, to snatch an Al Shabaab tactician from Baraawe, further south.
The morning of Osman the pharmacist’s murder, a month after the government capture of Qoryooley, I watched at the makeshift military base as US-trained Ugandan soldiers used hand-launched surveillance drones to spot clusters of suspected militants just a few miles away in Far Xaano. Larger groups were believed to have fallen back to Bulo Marer and Baraawe, one of the group’s last major strongholds and the target of the next phase of the military offensive.
In the center of Qoryooley, as the day wore on, scores of men sat in the shade of wooden awnings that stick out into the street. They far outnumbered the women who scurried by dressed in hijabs. Some of the men drank sweet tea made with camel milk as they chatted; others gazed across the dusty road as donkey carts trundled past.
A convoy of Ugandan AMISOM soldiers moved through town, the rumble and clatter of armored personnel carriers drowning out the Muslim call to prayer.
Most of the town’s residents did not want to talk to foreigners or give their names out of fear that Al Shabaab fighters or sympathizers might accuse them of treachery, regardless of what they had to say.
But 70-year-old Ibrahim Mohamed, whom I found sitting on a doorstep wearing a traditional sarong-like “macawis,” a short-sleeved shirt, and a keffiyeh draped over his shoulders, was more bold.
The reason there were so few women and children around, Mohamed said, his beard stained orange with henna, was because many had sent their families away for safety and now found they were unable to return.
“When Al Shabaab was here there was free movement in and out but now that has stopped,” he said.
The flow of goods and produce stopped with it, partly the result of a surprisingly low-tech tactic by the retreating militants: closing river locks in areas downstream, flooding the surrounding area to halt the AMISOM-SNA advance, which has no air support. The roadblocks and flooding have turned Qoryooley into an island.
“Ramadan is on its way and if the situation continues people will starve,” said a man who did not want to be named. “We can’t afford what’s here and nothing is coming in.”
Cooking oil, he told me, had more than doubled in price over the last few weeks, and pasta had increased by a quarter. Schools were closed and security was worse than it had been in years. Local administrators had been appointed but seemed unwilling to spend much time in the town itself where, on most nights, gunfire and occasional explosions could be heard.
That morning, as Ugandan AMISOM soldiers crouched behind trucks, peered around corners, and trained their rifles on alleyways and windows, there was almost no sign of Somali government authority, apart from a tattered flag hanging from a pole in the courtyard of a derelict administrative compound. The previous black flag of Al Shabaab’s jihad lay tangled in the dirt nearby.
Mohammed Abdi, the 52-year-old SNA commander in Qoryooley, tossed aside a cigarette and struggled awkwardly into his camouflage jacket when I arrived. On his feet were scuffed leatherwinklepickers with stacked heels.
He spoke sympathetically of the blocked roads hampering civilian movement.
He also said there were 220 of his troops in town. I had only seen a handful, lounging around the tumbledown army headquarters or ambling along the street looking as bemused as the locals by the show of Ugandan force.
When one of those soldiers encountered Osman a few hours later, half a dozen shortcomings came into play at once.
Osman did not die immediately after being shot, despite his grievous wounds. In fact, he remained alive until the following morning.
Bystanders took him in a pickup truck to the military base. The army doctors stopped the bleeding, bandaged Osman’s wounds and gave him painkillers. But there was no blood for a transfusion, and no one knew Osman’s blood type, anyway. His wife and children were far away, stuck like other wives and other children in Mogadishu. They didn’t get to say goodbye.
In the wake of the killing, soldiers in the town did not have a good explanation for what had happened. Some believed, like Osman’s cousin, that the soldier had accused the pharmacist of Al Shabaab sympathies. Others had a working theory that the killer himself was an Al Shabaab sympathizer. Still others pointed to clan rivalries.
Weeks after the pharmacist’s death, a Ugandan officer told me the killer had been arrested and then released a few days later. He said the man was arrested again outside Mogadishu but did not know whether a trial had begun.
“Securing the place is one thing but what comes afterwards in terms of installing a better administration that can meet the needs of the people is definitely a challenge,” Nick Kay, the British diplomat who heads the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM), said when I met him at his Mogadishu Airport office.
“I think it will take some time before people in these areas feel the full benefit of the military successes.”
The question is whether Somalia can afford that time.
The land grab
With its emphasis on Islam, Al Shabaab succeeded in suppressing Somalia’s clan divisions some of the time while successfully exploiting them at others. The same was true of Siad Barre’s old dictatorship. Somalia’s problem is thus a classic one: a strong central force, whatever its drawbacks, keeps sectarian conflicts at bay. Dismantling that force invites factionism.
Somalia’s regional and Western allies want a strong government, but a federal rather than a centralized one. The idea is that if power is shared among political elites, the zero-sum battle for control of Mogadishu will end, at last.
But the provisional constitution drafted on this theory in 2012, and due to be ratified before elections in September 2016, is proving a powerful source of fresh tension. The constitution allows two or more regions to join together to form a federal state. Disputes over where those new boundaries are drawn, and over how much and what sort of power is devolved (and to whom), are driving the resurgence of clan rivalries in the power vacuum Al Shabaab left behind.
“Lower Shabelle is ground zero for these very contentious clan debates over how federal states are drawn up,” said Ken Menkhaus, a professor of political science at Davidson College in North Carolina and a leading expert on Somalia. Menkhaus told me that what’s going on in Lower Shabelle is, in essence, “a land grab.”
“The fact is the Somali government and its external allies are fighting two different wars,” he said. “The external actors are fighting Al Shabaab but the Somalis are mainly clan-based armed groups that are scrambling to control valuable territory.”
The local territorial fight can take precedence, as when the government last year briefly allied with one clan warlord who was planning joint operations with Al Shabaab in a dispute over control of the southern money-spinning port of Kismayo.
The re-emergence of local grievances trumping the Al Shabaab fight was clear when I visited Ceel Jaale, on the beach a few miles south of Merca, where the national army is no more welcome than the jihadists who were beaten back last year.
The local clan here is the Biamal, and that means members of the SNA from Mogadishu are viewed as enemies: In the clan wars that erupted in 1991, the Biamal fought the Habar Gidir, a sub-group of the clan that dominates Mogadishu and the current administration.
“The government sends the Somali National Army but they don’t know the area,” Mohamed Osman, Merca’s district commissioner, told me as he, with other local dignitaries and officials, watched hundreds of young men — and some women — training on the beach as new recruits to a local militia. The trainees marched and stood at attention, performed ambushes with sticks for guns, and executed a strangely balletic slow-motion marshal arts display.
“This militia is better equipped to protect the local people because they are from here,” he said.
He confirmed that the majority of the recruits were from the Biamal clan.
A local elder was more forthright than the politician. “For more than 20 years they,” Yusuf Ali Bore said, referring to the Habar Gidir, “have been trying to occupy this area, to conquer us. It’s a kind of colonization,” he said.
The making of elite forces
Somalia’s chief of defense forces, an avuncular man with spectacles and a grey mustache, works in a large office at the defense ministry, sitting in a leather swivel chair beneath a portrait of himself. Like many senior officers, General Dahir Adan Elmi served under the dictator Siad Barre. When the government collapsed he went into exile, where he stayed for 21 years before coming out of retirement. “I came back because I think I can help the Somali army, in a couple of years, to rebuild itself to stand on its own two feet,” he told me.
The general said it is a tough job to construct a military mid-conflict out of the available components: a top-heavy officer class, and ex-retirees plus “local militia, tribal militia, freelance militias” all from different clans and regions.
His wish list for the Somali army reveals just how unfit it is: “We need more capacity building, more training, more small arms and ammunition. We need fuel, food, field hospitals, physical structures and buildings. And we need a biometric system,” he added, with a laugh. “Because most [Somalis] have the same name! There are so many Mohameds, so [at] any time which Mohamed are you talking about?”
Some suggest the way to transcend clan in the armed forces is to return to the kind of intensive military training that the likes of Gen. Elmi enjoyed in Siad Barre’s days, when for two years new, young recruits lived and trained together away from their families. “That cleaned them of the clan and made them national, obedient to their officers and the flag,” said Zacharia Yusuf, Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group. It is, he noted, a method used to great success by Al Shabaab. It’s also the sort of intensive training that AMISOM, the EU, and the US are now trying to carry out on a shorter time scale at Jazeera.
When Somalia’s nascent armed forces get it right, they are capable of success, as shown by the offensive which pushed Al Shabaab out of Qoryooley and a string of other towns. Operation Eagle, as it was called, placed SNA soldiers for the first time in the vanguard with AMISOM troops close behind.
And there is a test case for what Somali forces can do with greater resources and better training. The special forces of the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), known locally as the Alpha Squad, have reportedly been coached by the CIA and are better armed, better trained, and better equipped than any of their colleagues. Tasked with finding Al Shabaab operatives in Mogadishu, they carry out regular night raids on suspected cells
On a typically sweaty night in early May, Ugandan Special Forces, African Union police, the Somali army and police, and NISA conducted a joint operation to find and arrest a group of Al Shabaab bomb-makers and assassins close to the city’s Suqba’ad Market.
Arriving in a convoy of armored vehicles, the soldiers and police fanned out, establishing a secure cordon around a couple of blocks of low-rise cinder block buildings. The Alpha Squad, their identities hidden behind balaclavas, moved in and seized 10 men suspected of being Al Shabaab militants and sympathizers.
The suspects were blindfolded and made to kneel in the dirt. “There is still some investigation to do but we believe they are from the Amniyat,” a NISA officer told me, referring to an inner circle of terrorist planners and assassins close to Al Shabaab’s leader Ahmed Abdi Godane.
“We’ve been after these guys for a long time,” said army intelligence officer Colonel Farah Ali.
As dawn approached the suspects were loaded into pick-up trucks and driven away, bound for trial. The muezzin call sounded and the Muslim faithful appeared out of the gloom, passing armed and wary soldiers on their way to the mosque for morning prayers.
The roads to Qoryooley were still closed. Somewhere in the dim light, across the city, was Osman’s bereaved family.