Somalia's nomad government pleads for help to quell terrorists

By Aidan Hartley
(Filed: 04/09/2005)

"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 27-year-old Englishman."

Abdullahi Yusuf
President 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 alarming trip.

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 planning minister.

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 Djibouti.

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 year.

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 1990s.

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 said: "Nothing."

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.