Somalia's nomad government pleads for help to quell terrorists
By Aidan Hartley
"I like Britain," Somalia's
President and former warlord Abdullahi Yusuf told me. "In fact, a
part of me is British." He patted his stomach and revealed that he'd
had a liver transplant in London. "I owe my life to the donor, a
Abdullahi Yusuf: 'We must rely on Western countries'
As if on cue, several aides
produced British passports. "Wembley!" said one. "Kentish Town,
innit?" chimed another. This was in Jowhar, a dusty Somali village
where Mr Yusuf's recently appointed government is camped like a
nomadic horde north of the capital Mogadishu.
The Cockney accents bring into
focus the global consequences of a forgotten crisis in Africa that
President Yusuf, aged 70, says the West ignores at great peril. If
his secular government fragments, Somalia will remain a failed
state, its capital in the hands of Islamic terrorists who would step
up attacks across the region, and the world.
"If we don't succeed, Somalia
will become a home to Islamic extremists, to terrorists," said Mr
Yusuf, whose government has only just established itself in Somalia
after three years of talks.
"But we have no money. We must
rely on Western countries. I don't know what they are doing."
I have reported on Somalia
since it collapsed into anarchy in 1991. Last month I returned to
report on the "war on terror" in the Horn of Africa. It was an
Mr Yusuf's government grew out
of the 14th peace process in as many years of chaos. He has set up
in Jowhar because he claims that Mogadishu, 50 miles to the south,
is a hive of terrorists.
Now, as fresh conflict
threatens, ministers say they cannot hold on much longer without
funding. "A few months, maybe a year," said Abdirazak Osman, the
Up to 500,000 Somalis have
died in 14 years of war, pestilence and famine. Britain and other
Western countries have already donated vast quantities of aid and
taken in thousands of refugees.
An American-led United Nations
mission collapsed in 1995, two years after the ignominious Black
Hawk Down battle in Mogadishu, when Somali militias dealt a
humiliating blow to United States special forces. The operation to
end famine and establish democracy ended with US forces helicopters
firing on civilian districts.
Today, Western forces dare not
set foot in Somalia but conduct surveillance by air and from
offshore. More than 1,800 US troops are based across the border in
Mr Yusuf's enemies say that he
is a stooge of neighbouring Ethiopia, Somalia's age-old
Christian-led adversary, and that troops from Addis Ababa fill his
ranks. "There are no Ethiopians," he told me. But in Wajid, near the
Ogaden frontier, we saw Ethiopian military instructors training
recruits for a new national army.
They might be deployed against
the warlords and Islamic radicals who oppose the government if UN
efforts to broker peace between the factions collapse. UN workers
say fresh conflict will create a humanitarian disaster in rural
Somalia, where rains have failed to arrive for the third successive
To test Mr Yusuf's claims of
Islamic militancy in the capital, we went to Mogadishu, the first
film crew to visit since Kate Peyton, a BBC television producer, was
shot dead there in February.
Mr Yusuf's government itself
is already divided, and Peyton went to Mogadishu on the invitation
of politicians who claimed that the city was safe. A string of
execution-style killings have occurred since then. Most recently,
peace activist Abdulkadir Yahye, an old friend of mine, was shot
dead at home in front of his wife.
Some believe that the killings
are the work of Islamic militants; others that they are being
carried out by Ethiopian assassins. One leading militant who sees
the hand of Ethiopia in Somali politics is Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys
of the Wahhabi group al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (Islamic Unity - AIAI),
who for the first time went on the record about his ambitions to
lead an Islamic state in Somalia and elsewhere in Africa.
His group has long been a
target for Mr Yusuf, a former army commander and ally of the West,
who claimed that he had wiped out 2,000 AIAI militants in the early
The US accuses Shaykh Aweys,
70, and AIAI of being among several surrogates for al-Qaeda in the
Horn of Africa. Washington put them on its wanted list after 9/11,
but intelligence services allege that they have been involved in
bombings and other terrorist attacks dating back to the attacks on
Black Hawk helicopters.
The cameraman James Brabazon
and I were the first Western journalists to meet him in his
Mogadishu lair. According to many reliable sources, the CIA pays out
millions to local warlords to capture terror suspects. But Shaykh
Aweys, a former colonel, was on home turf and entirely relaxed.
I asked him if he was a
terrorist. "I am not a criminal," he said. "I am a politician." He
compared AIAI to Hamas or the FIS in Algeria. "We have never
committed crimes against the West but they stamp us as terrorists
because they fear we can take over the country with an ideology they
find unacceptable," he said.
"Every day we have C130
aircraft flying over us and warships surround our shores. The West
is fighting against us but they don"t want us to fight back.
"My objective is to establish
Islamic government in Somalia, then other countries." He said he
would like to spread Islamic rule "across not only Africa, but also
the world". I asked if he meant to do that by peaceful means or by
jihad. "If it's possible to handle it by peaceful means we'll do it
that way," he said. "If not we'll do it the jihadi way."
Western intelligence services
say that foreign terrorists are hiding in Somalia, but Shaykh Aweys
denied this. He said he was not afraid of being attacked or captured
by the Americans. "A Muslim should not fear death," he said. "If we
are attacked for our beliefs, whether free or in prison, we will
never surrender our goals." blamed the spate of assassinations on
Ethiopia, which he demonised as playing a role in Africa similar to
that of Israel in the Middle East.
As we chatted, a Koranic
sermon blared out from a nearby compound where a mosque was recently
erected over a colonial-era Italian cemetery. According to reports,
Italian graves were dug up and the bones tossed into the street.
That we were able to speak to
Shaykh Aweys and get out alive was significant, according to a
Western political analyst. "This is a signal he wants to enter
politics," he said. "He pretty much feels Mr Yusuf's government is
about to collapse and he sees this as an opportunity."
If the West assisted the
government with technical and training staff - as Britain did in
Sierra Leone - Mr Yusuf's ministers say they would not have to rely
on Ethiopia. When I asked the President what the US forces and
Allied warships in the Gulf of Aden were doing, he shrugged and
After Mogadishu, we flew to
Djibouti. Here, we saw US forces train local government soldiers in
"anti-terrorism" tactics. Unable to set foot in Somalia, the
Americans spend a lot of their time mending nomads' teeth,
vaccinating their livestock or handing out free spectacles - all on
a vast military budget. And across the frontier, Somalia is still
without the rule of law 14 years on - the longest period any state
has remained in anarchy since the UN was founded.