Is Somalia Destined for Foreign Intervention?


By: Omar Mashjari/

Somalia, known as the world’s most famous failed state is currently in the midst of pivotal change; with impending elections and increased interest by the West, Somalia’s is not only on the agenda of world leaders, but its future also seems more brighter than it has in a long time. On 23 February 2012, over 40 governments gathered in London to decide the future of Somalia. British Prime Minister, David Cameron was the first to candidly explain how Somalia, in his words “directly threatens British interests”.

These threats predominantly arise because of the presence of Al-Shabaab, an Al-Qaeda associate, the lack of stable governance and the notorious Somalia pirates. Cameron went on to highlight how nations such as the UK understand that unless they help the people of Somalia to build a stable future, the problems will keep reoccurring. Considering that the following this speech the African Union (AU) increased its troop presence in Somalia from 12, 000 to 18, 000, is the West signalling a renewed appetite for intervention as a final solution to Somalia’s problems?

The UK is not alone is in its pursuit for a solution to Somalia’s problems, Hillary Clinton has said that the “US will look for ways to increase our involvement in Somalia, including considering a more permanent diplomatic presence”. It worth noting that the US has previously tried its hand at a full-scale intervention in Somalia and put simply, the US got burnt so it would seem unlikely that they should wish to do involve. Therefore the prospect of more AU boots on the ground, finance by western nations would seem like a perfect fit for an interventionist agenda in Somalia. The realities on the ground mirror this prospect, for example air strikes reportedly by Kenyan aircraft in the southern town of Bardhere injured two children, with one in critical condition. Whilst Uganda, another AU force has continued to maintain that it has “substantial interest in the stability of Somalia” justifying its contribution of 6,000 troops even after the country lost 7 soldiers in a recent helicopter crash.

Further to this, recent events are indicating that the US is going beyond the ‘diplomatic mission’ objective Clinton made mentioned of in London. The US is now expanding its unmanned drones missions to Somalia territory and CIA have set up two secret facilities in Mogadishu, the capital. Some American military and intelligence officials see Al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia as a greater threat to the United States than the group that operates in Pakistan. Considering the huge threats emanating from Somalia, logically speaking from the perspective of the West, it would seem natural to argue that the only means of stablising Somalia would be by foreign intervention in form of US technical and financial support with AU boots on the ground. But how effective would an intervention of this sort be in Somalia? The horrors of Black Hawk Down remain firmly in the mind of all including the Americans, whilst Time Magazine estimated that there was between 1,500 to 3000 Somali causalities during the failed Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. Despite the causalities and destruction of Mogadishu, little was achieved as the US withdrew from Somalia, leaving the Somali’s in chaos. From this, one can easily conclude that US intervention in Somalia has never really done much to help the situation.

However US intervention did not end in 1993, in the aftermath of 9/11 the Bush Administration identified Somalia as a ‘breeding ground’ of terrorism. As a result the CIA created a various predatory warlords linked to the corrupt Transitional Federal Government in an attempt to eliminate them, even though TFG/warlords rule was widely loathed by the Somali public. This led to the formation and rise of proletarian Islamic Network acting under the umbrella of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). These Islamic courts brought a level of stability in the lawless regions they were operating in, as they were ensuring justice through Sharia law by mediating in land disputes and creating a makeshift criminal code. The CIA was concerned that Somalia was heading towards an Islamic Republic so they intensified their campaign against the ICU. With tremendous support from the vast majority of Somali’s across the country who were fed up with the CIA-backed warlords, the ICU overthrew and expelled the warlords from Somalia, bringing stability to the Somali capital for the first time since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991. Commentators remain adamant, and rightly so that this event was a “tremendous achievement” and argued that the “vast majority of the people involved in these courts were not Islamic radicals, were not supporting Al-Qaeda, there were twelve courts, they largely represented Somalia’s clan based system of governance”.

Al-Shabaab element in the Islamic Courts system was merely 13th entity, therefore it was as Jeremy Scahill highlights ‘tolerated but unpopular’ and therefore side-lined because of their radical culture which outside of mainstream Somali culture. Jeremy Scahill described Al-Shabaab as a “small ragtag group of nobodies, which the likes of Osama Bin Laden exploited by sending in small groups of foreign Al-Qaeda operatives” who were kept in check by the other members of the Islamic courts. That was until 2006, when Ethiopia was given the green light to invade Somalia with 30,000 to 40,000 troops backed by US air power, the CIA and the joint operations commands went in and over throw the ICU. Bearing in mind that ICU was the only government that was able to bring any stability to Mogadishu in a long time, it was only natural that Somalia would return to a state of chaos. Leaving, Al-Shabaab the once small unpopular ragtag group to immediately began to gain popularity as a force justice fighting to save the country from what was perceived to the ‘Christian’ foreign invasion. Any argument put forward in support of foreign intervention must be considered in the context of previous failed and rather misguided interventions.

Whilst the argument made reference by Cameron, that Somali pirates are a threat, which must to be neutralised is rather ironic considering that after the fall of the government in 1991, there was no one to enforce marine laws. Further to this, journalist Johann Hari reported that “as soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean”, resulting to the people of Somalia experiencing, illnesses, strange rashes, nausea, malformed babies. This was worsened by the 2005 tsunami which led to hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washing up on the shores, causing radiation sickness, leaving 300 dead. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia reported this issue to the UN, but he was unsuccessful as he claimed that “there has been no clean up, no compensation and no prevention, nothing”. Hari adds that “at the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia’s seas of their greatest resource: sea food”, it has been noted that 300m-worth of tuna, shrimp and lobsters are stolen every year by illegal trawlers, leaving fisher men starving. After calls in the UN were ignored, the following desperation was imminent. Such desperation which led to the influx in piracy activity, as reflected by a pirate himself who once said that “we [pirates] don’t consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be] those who illegally fish and dump in our seas”. It is needless to say that the nations that are currently pledging their support to rebuild Somalia and tackle its problems are the same nations which if not created the problems at least allowed them to arise in the first place.

History is a perfect and accurate representation of how foreign involvement in Somalia has not been a success, whilst there are no differing changes to prove that it will in the future. History also illustrates that the only time Somalia was close to stability under the ICU didn’t require foreign involvement. A lesson needs to be learned from Somalia’s neighbouring internationally unrecognized Somaliland who has established its own full-fledged democratic institutions, a national currency and a banking sector. Despite the lack of foreign recognition Somaliland’s economy has been steadily on the rise even though its unrecognized status means that it can’t access funding from the World Bank, IMF or other donors. The lack of foreign assistance as a result of its ineligibility has brought Somaliland success, providing peace, stability and democracy. The Somaliland success story shows that Somalis have the sufficient capacity to rebuild their own country in the right environment. The West must be very careful to maintain a fine line between supporting the people of Somalia in reaching their aspirations for stability and involving themselves too heavily, which could act to contradict these aspirations. Furthermore considering the fact that Al-Shaabab and the Somali pirates emerged as a form of foreign resistance, further foreign involvement might create further resistance from the West. The Somali people are beginning to realise the importance of stable governance, in the fight for the hearts and minds, the West must toe a line of caution. Any fully-fledged military intervention by the West in Somalia would not only be a disaster for Somalia’s future, but it might just prove to be a disaster for the security of western nations.

A piece co-authored by Omar Mashjari (@Omar_Mash) and Mahad Farah (@MahadHFarah).