Terrorism, petrol, and international competition: Turkey in Somalia


By: Fuad Ferhavi

Somalilandsun – At the start of the month the Turkish Embassy in Mogadishu was the target of a suicide car-bombing. A Turkish policeman lost his life in the attack and three others were wounded. The extremist movement al-Shabaab (The Youth), an off-shoot of al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attack.

The attack raised a number of questions about why the Turks had been targeted. For several years now, Ankara has played a very important role in attempts to alleviate the human tragedy in Somalia caused by the civil war and drought. So what could have enraged the assailants? What is the message they were trying to send to Turkish decision-makers?

1. Attacks in Somalia and the Turks.

An examination of the security record in Somalia over the past year and a half reveals that this is not the first attack targeting Turks. The recent report of the UN Secretary-General’s office, S/2013/326 issued on 13 May 2013 shows that one of the Turkish aid convoys was attacked by a vehicle driven by a suicide bomber. In October of last year, Mustafa Haşimi, head of Africa operations in TIKA (the Turkish International Aid Agency), was attacked by armed militias in central Somalia near the town of Galkayo and slightly wounded. According to Somali media, there had been fierce clashes between the militia and units attached to the Puntland police escorting the TIKA official. During the clashes one of the militants was killed and three others were wounded. Earlier still, in March 2012, Muhtar Abu Zubayir, the leader of the al-Shabaab movement attacked the Turkish state in a recorded message he sent out via a radio station, accusing Ankara of being the gateway through which Western colonialism enters Somalia. Sheikh Mahmud Ragi (Ali Tayri), the official spokesman for al-Shabaab threatened to carry out more attacks on Turkish diplomats.

These incidents are evidence that Turkey’s Somalia policy has now entered a new stage, and that the turmoil inside the country and its repercussions abroad will have adverse consequences on Turkey’s work in the country. Ever since the Somali state went bankrupt at the start of the 1990s it has experienced a series of complex security challenges. Security, political, tribal, clan, and religious issues are entangled with one another, and a steady rise in foreign involvement has further complicated the picture.

Bearing this complexity in mind enables us to better understand the remarks of Mohammed Mirsel Sheikh, Somalia’s ambassador to Turkey, to the Anatolia Agency in Ankara earlier this month. The Somali ambassador alluded to the confused state of affairs in his country when he remarked that “the machinery of the state is weak in Somalia, including its security apparatus.” The ambassador continued, “the fact that al-Shahaab al-Mujahidin has claimed responsibility for the attack on the Turkish embassy in Mogadishu is not by itself sufficient. It is essential that we work together with the Turkish government to identify those responsible for the attack.”

2. The Turkish-Somali Military Agreement: A Turning Point?

The attacks on Turks appear to have started early in 2012. The attacks have not been continuous but appear to be occurring at intervals and, as such, are reminiscent of the attacks on the African forces in Somalia. In addition to the strategic aspect of Somalia’s relations with Turkey, it’s important to remember that after the war with Kenya and before the recent attack on the Turkish Embassy, al-Shahaab had itself been subject to attacks in the areas of southern Somalia that it controlled. [1]During al-Shabaab’s war with Kenya, the Somali government had also been involved, despite an initial delay. In order to strengthen the combat capabilities of the weak Somali government forces, Ankara and Mogadishu signed a military training agreement on 13 April of last year. It included training programs, exchanges, visits, and discussions between the Turkish and Somali armies. There’s little doubt that the al-Shabaab movement blames its defeats (particularly the loss of Kismayo Harbour in September 2012) on the foreign powers which had fought directly against it and those who were indirectly involved by training Somali government forces. Turkey falls into this latter category.

The war waged against al-Shahaab by Kenya, Africa, and the Somali government forces came onto the international agenda at the same time as the Arab Spring. Libya’s former leader, Muammar Gaddafi devoted a lot of effort in his final years to playing a key role in Somalia and channelling weapons to the various factions and groups there. Eritrea has also been accused of arming various Somali groups, among them al-Shabaab, though it has persistently denied these accusations. Nevertheless, Eritrea’s president Isaias Afewerki lost his biggest ally when Gaddafi was overthrown and now finds himself facing a much bigger challenge.

The clashes taking place in the Middle East have been strikingly reflected in the Horn of Africa, particularly in Somalia. [2] Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, and Israel all regard this region as important to their national security. There have been a lot of reports published recently which mention a gradual increase in Iran’s presence in the area, in parallel with the crisis in Yemen and escalating Western opposition to Teheran. Indeed, Iran has been accused many times of supplying weaponry to al-Shabaab by sea. Leaving aside the veracity of the accusations, and regardless of whether the Somali government currently appears more stable than it did in previous years, Somalia is a prime candidate for an arena where increasing tensions from regional and international conflicts will be expressed.

3. Oil? Now What?

Somalia has recently witnessed a number of important developments with economic and strategic consequences. From the start of last year, there have been increasing signs that international petroleum and natural gas companies have renewed their interests in Somalia. Reports indicate that Somalia has rich reserves of petroleum, natural gas, and uranium. If this is the case, Somalia could become one of the world’s largest energy producers. However these developments have led American, Italian, and British companies to compete and jockey for position, much like they did in the 1990s. There are those who argue that this competition was responsible for the failure of “Operation Hope”, the joint U.S.-UN intervention in Somalia of the early 1990s. There are accusations that Italy had supported Muhammed Farah Aidid, the clan leader who was the main enemy of the American military. As Somalia’s former colonial master, Rome argues that Washington knew nothing about the social fabric and tribal structure of Somalia, claiming that this was the cause of the mission’s failure. More recently, in October 2012, the government of Somaliland (the territory which unilaterally proclaimed its independence from Somalia in the early 1990s) signed an agreement with General Energy. Turkey has since also joined the line of investors interested in Somalia.

There are other questions which could be asked about the details mentioned above. Is the Turkish government aware of all these complications in Somalia? Does it have the capability to deal with increasing attacks on Turkish targets and interests in the country? In Turkish role, was it only targeted at the need for humanitarian assistance- maybe it was done in way that it worked for a political stability that helped the interests of oil companies and traditional powers be in Somalia or Horn of Africa-? It appears that Turkish decision-makers are feeling the need to review their regional policy, partly with regard to checking the degree of acceptance for their roles in Somalia and partly to further their understanding of tribal and political relations in the country and their impact upon its domestic and foreign policies. The military forces now being trained for the benefit of the Somali state could quickly turn into an anti-government force if political and tribal interests prevailed over loyalty to the state. They could even also turn against the foreign country training them. What applies to the Somali government is equally applicable to al-Shabaab: all these armed groups are either being organized within the government or splitting off from it—depending on their interests and their tribal links. This fact creates potential internal and regional weaknesses which reflect the fluctuations already mentioned. Therefore, Turkish decision-makers determining Somalia policy should take these weaknesses into consideration.