Tuesday, July 7, 2009
I was interviewed about Somalia by Life Week. You can access the original article in Chinese here, or an English version (via Google Translate) here. Below, I have also included the text of the Q&A, which occurred on June 26. Life Week: The Somali government has declared a state of emergency. How serious is this situation? Amb. Shinn: The situation if very serious. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia, which is recognized by the United Nations, African Union, and Arab League, is being threatened by an extremist organization, al-Shabaab and an allied group known as Hizbul Islam. Al-Shabaab has stated publicly that it has links with al-Qaeda. It has strong external support, including a growing number of foreign jihadis from the Middle East, South Asia, and northeastern Africa. Al-Shabaab and probably Hizbul Islam also receive financing and weapons from outside Somalia. The two groups have seized by force significant parts of Mogadishu, the capital city, and southern and central Somalia. Life Week: The Speaker of Somalia’s Parliament said they were under attack by foreign terrorists. Is it true that some foreign fighters participated in the fight? Why do they do so? Amb. Shinn: Most of the fighters for al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam are Somalis. They have joined these groups for different reasons. Some believe in the extreme version of Sharia advocated by these organizations while others simply want to seize power. Some have come from the Somali diaspora in Europe, North America, and elsewhere. Some of the fighters are not Somali and have joined the battle in order to impose their extreme interpretation of Sharia on the Somalis. Virtually all Somalis are Muslim; they have traditionally practiced a moderate version of Islam. Life Week: Some people said the foreign fighters and the al-Shabaab have a very close relationship with al-Qaeda. Is that true? Why does al-Qaeda support anti-government forces in Somalia? Amb. Shinn: Many of the foreign fighters almost certainly have links with al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban in Afghanistan. Some of them probably do not have ties with these groups but have been attracted by the radical ideology of al-Shabaab. A few of al-Shabaab’s Somali leaders also have past associations with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. I suspect that most of the Somali rank and file members of al-Shabaab do not have ties with al-Qaeda. Life Week: Some Somali analysts say the conflict between the TFG and al-Shabaab will drag on for months fueled by outside support for both sides. Besides al-Qaeda, what support do both sides receive from the outside? Amb. Shinn: Those Somali analysts are probably correct; the conflict will drag on for months fueled by outside support. Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam also receive support from the government of Eritrea, some Somalis in the diaspora, and private non-Somalis in the Middle East and South Asia. The TFG receives humanitarian and moral support from most of the international community, including the United States. Several European countries have provided training to TFG security forces. The U.S. State Department confirmed on June 25 that it has delivered a shipment of arms to the TFG. Somalis in the diaspora also support the TFG. Life Week: Somalia has become an international conflict. How does the unsettled situation in Somalia affect neighboring countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia? Why is Ethiopia so concerned? Amb. Shinn: Somalia shares a lengthy border with both Kenya and Ethiopia. The persons living in those neighboring parts of Kenya and Ethiopia are Somalis. There is a long history whereby past Somali governments have wanted to incorporate those territories into Somalia. This has led to conflict. In the late 1970s, Somalia invaded Ethiopia and occupied most of the Somali-inhabited territory for a number of months. The TFG has disavowed any desire to take control of these territories, but al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam have not. In fact, a few of their leaders have explicitly raised the possibility of occupying these territories. The borders are very porous; it is not difficult to cross them and carry out attacks on the other side. Kenya is the location of hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees who have fled Somalia because of the unrest there. This puts an additional burden on the government of Kenya, which recently sent additional forces to its border with Somalia. The neighboring countries do have legitimate security concerns, but it is important that they not take actions that will worsen the situation. Life Week: Somalia’s Parliament pleaded Saturday for its neighbors and the international community to send in troops. Will the neighboring countries and the international community take such action? Amb. Shinn: This is a highly controversial issue. First, the African Union has 4,300 Ugandan and Burundi troops in Mogadishu. Their mandate only allows them to protect the TFG’s state house, the port, and airport. They are not permitted to seek out and confront the groups that are trying to overthrow the TFG. Second, the United Nations sponsored a major military intervention in Somalia from 1993 until 1995. It was not a good experience. It did not end Somalia’s failed state, and it alienated a lot of Somalis in the process. Third, Somalis do not like the idea of foreign troops in the country, including the foreign jihadis that support al-Shabaab. The international community would risk alienating Somalis again if it sent troops in support of the TFG. The sending of foreign troops would not, in my view, help the TFG over the long term. At best, it would postpone tough decisions that the TFG must make now. I doubt that the international community will send forces to Somalia. Although the African Union may increase the number of troops it has in Somalia, it will make little military difference so long as the AU mandate is one of static defense. Life Week: Will the U.S. attitude influence the situation? Amb. Shinn: The attitude of all permanent members of the UN Security Council, including the United States and China, in addition to the European Union, African Union, and Arab League will influence the situation in Somalia. It is in the interest of all these governments and organizations to encourage stability in Somalia and to help create a government that has the widespread support of Somalis. Life Week: Why are the anti-TFG groups such as al-Shabaab unwilling to negotiate with the government? What is their claim? Amb. Shinn: Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam want power and will do anything they can to achieve their goal including suicide bombings and political assassinations. They have no interest in power sharing. They claim they are trying to force foreign elements out of Somalia while relying increasingly on foreign jihadi fighters for their own support. Life Week: Why has Somalia been unable to achieve political stability since 1991? Amb. Shinn: This question is more appropriately directed to a student writing a dissertation for a doctoral degree. The answer is long and complex. For fear of oversimplifying, it is important to recall that the last national government in Somalia, the one led by Siad Barre, failed completely in 1991. Northwest Somalia declared its independence as Somaliland in 1991 and has actually put in place surprisingly democratic government. The rest of Somalia broke up into fiefdoms led by local administrations such as Puntland or warlords in Mogadishu and parts of southern and central Somalia. The right combination of circumstances and Somali leadership has not yet come together to convince the vast majority of Somalis that they should support that leadership. Somalia also became a proxy war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Finally, extremists from outside Somalia decided to take advantage of the failed Somali state for their own purposes. This is an oversimplification but probably as much as your readers want to know.