Back in Somalia: An Interview With Hussein Soyan

Hussein Soyan was formerly a candidate for president of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. He attended the May 2003 Somali National Peace and Reconstruction Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, where debates on reconciliation and mediation between warlords helped lead to the present Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. However, the still-forming Transitional Federal Government of Somalia has been sidelined by the recent furious fighting in Mogadishu, where a "warlord" militia backed by the United States recently received a surprise defeat at the hands of a group of Islamists that the U.S. says are influenced by al-Qaeda. In the aftermath of that defeat, I asked Hussein Soyan to explain what is happening in Somalia and how the U.S. should react. This interview was conducted by e-mail during the week prior to publication.

MARK ROTHSCHILD: U.S. influence in the Horn of Africa is now focused in Djibouti where the U.S. has established a military base at the abandoned French Foreign Legion camp, Camp Lemonier. It was from Camp Lemonier in 2002 that the CIA successfully launched a Predator drone attack across the Red Sea against an al-Qaeda target in Yemen. Are the Somali warlords fighting in Mogadishu receiving logistical support from Camp Lemonier?

HUSSEIN SOYAN: It has been acknowledged by the Somali president and members of his government that the U.S. administration has supported the warlords financially, and it’s widely believed that U.S. agents based in Kenya and Djibouti met the warlords at the beginning of this year.

MR: It is generally accepted that the warlord Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism [ARPCT] [.pdf] has received funding from the U.S. But it has also been claimed that the U.S. is providing military assistance to some of the same actors implicated in the Blackhawk down tragedy in 1993. Is this true?

HS: Yes, the warlords who reported they received financial support from the U.S. administration. such as Mohamed Qanyare Afrah and Abdi Qaybdid, were both top lieutenants of the late General Mohamed Farah Aideed in 1993.

MR: The Red Cross and others have noted a renewed American military presence on the streets of Mogadishu and rumors are now flying that U.S. covert operations teams from Camp Lemonier have infiltrated into Mogadishu in order to support the ARPCT warlords in the next round of fighting. What is your opinion of the exact nature of the U.S. intervention? Is the U.S. military now active in Mogadishu?

HS: Yes, the U.S. military is active inside Somalia, and U.S. planes have flown over Somalia in the past from its base in Djibouti so there is no reason to suggest that they wouldn’t be now. Local residents have reported seeing many of these flights, though I am not aware of any U.S. personnel on the ground, but certainly, they conduct aerial reconnaissance, especially over the city of Mogadishu. As you may be well aware, the U.S. military have a base built for exactly this purpose in Djibouti.

MR: Should foreign observers expect an administration sympathetic to al-Qaeda to eventually emerge in Somalia?

HS: I have not seen any credible evidence of an al-Qaeda presence in Somalia, nor has anyone else including the U.S. government produced any evidence to support that claim. In addition, the homogeneous culture of the Somali people would make it difficult for foreign fighters to hide inside Somalia.

Considering there has been a decade and a half without government in the capital, leaving the people at the mercy and whim of warlords, the Somali people have shown characteristic restraint in rebuffing any form of Islamist extremism. They are by nature moderate by faith – a patient and enduring people who would give no license to extremist views or rule.

MR: But aren’t the Islamic courts and their Islamic militias receiving support from other Islamic countries?

HS: I am not aware of any outside country that financially supports the Islamic courts in Mogadishu. Their main financers are the local business community, especially those in Mogadishu area.

MR: How do you explain the popularity of these Islamic groups?

HS: Following 15 years and more without a government, Islamic groups appeared and assumed responsibility for providing social amenities such as hospitals and schools. They became the only "authority" to alleviate the lack of facilities for the local people and they are the only ones seen to be making a difference in Somali lives. Also, through this social approach they are able to propagate their beliefs.

MR: Traditional Islam as practiced in Somalia has often been characterized as "restrained." Do you expect it to remain so?

HS: Yes, but this natural restraint could easily change should Somali sensibilities be offended by an American intervention that was regarded as being totally about U.S. interests rather than coupled with their own. The situation in Iraq could easily be replicated if similar policies were applied in Somalia.

MR: What other outside geopolitical factors are contributing to the current fighting?

HS: There is the consideration that after Eritrean independence Ethiopia became landlocked, so she has a vested interest in obtaining access to Somali ports for transit of fuel and goods. Control of the Somali ports will also be vital to secure for any international power that eventually acquires access or control of latent energy resources in the region.

President Yusuf of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia has been a long-term friend to Ethiopia’s president and an ally to the Bush administration’s fight against terrorism. They have reciprocated by having offered him continuous support throughout his political struggles. So Ethiopia and its ongoing conflict with Eritrea is a key factor.

Currently, there are accusations that a variety of Ethiopian and Eritrean agents have sprung up inside the country, creating an environment of conflict, implementing a policy where your enemy’s enemy is your friend. However in the current conflict in Mogadishu none of these governments have shown public support of the two groups, but there are rumors that both Ethiopia and Eritrea supplied small arms and large ammunition to the warlords and the Islamic courts respectively.

MR: After their recent setback in the fighting in Mogadishu, do the U.S. backed "counter-terrorism" warlords retain much popular support?

HS: In my view, the Mogadishu warlords are the most hated faction in Somalia. In the absence of a national government they traded drugs, built roadblocks, killed many innocent people, looted and demolished the entire public infrastructure built by international aid agencies in the years when we had a government – even destroying schools and hospitals. I believe my opinion is born out by the very recent demonstrations seen in the capital just this weekend.

As regards the "counter-terrorism" name given to or created by the warlords, it is ironic. It is essential that a group be formed that can restore peace and fight terrorism – but the warlords are not it! In a country where every border is open to terrorists and international gangs, my view is that the warlords are the biggest obstacle to defeating terrorism because they make it impossible to restore law and order.

It would certainly appear that conflict in Somalia is becoming a proxy war between the U.S. and al-Qaeda. Should the current situation in Mogadishu become further inflamed and even spread to other regions of the country, it would provide the perfect mandate for the Islamists to recruit more youth in the name of martyrdom.

Even if U.S. concerns about al-Qaeda operatives or “foreign fighters” inside Somalia were valid, arming "counter-terrorism" war criminals to fight a proxy war against Islamists will only destabilize the whole region.

And this is completely avoidable because the vast majority of Somalis are moderate Muslims and not extremists. A high percentage of Somalis desire a country led by a strong, receptive government that reflects their Islamic beliefs in a temperate and tolerant manner.

Moreover, in my view, the international super power relations are shifting. If one U.S. long-term interest is to assure itself of access to the strategic untapped energy reserves of Somalia, it would do well to avoid escalation of current events in Mogadishu.

The best option for the U.S. is to attempt reconciliation between the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia and the Islamic courts.

In light of the events of the past, I think the U.S. also has a moral responsibility towards the restoration of peace, security, and reconciliation in Somalia.

Preventing terrorism means that the world’s only superpower has to reach a decision based on measured judgment before waging a war on the world’s poorest nation abandoned by the West.