Is ‘Constructive Disengagement’ the Solution in Somalia?

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
Long War Journal
September 11, 2010

On Thursday, Joshua Foust published an article at PBS’s Need to Know that, though avoiding the term “constructive disengagement,” mirrors the arguments advanced by Bronwyn Bruton’s report for CFR, and those made by Fareed Zakaria in the wake of the bombings al Shabaab executed in Uganda. Though constructive disengagement is often advanced as a minor-league panacea to Somalia’s ills, I tend to have several issues with the way arguments for this solution are constructed, and Foust’s article is no exception. Using Foust’s piece as a basis for discussion, this entry will analyze some of the general problems with the advocacy of constructive disengagement.

I should say up front that I both like and respect Foust. He is smart, typically well-researched, and has little tolerance for sloppy, dishonest, or illogical argumentation. Thus, though I will argue at length that various oversimplifications in the way he frames aspects of the Somalia conflict unfairly shape his conclusion, I do not attribute this to dishonesty on his part. Rather, I think that his unfamiliarity with the Horn of Africa coupled with an over-reliance on the conclusions proffered by various secondary sources causes Foust’s thinking to reflect some of the unwarranted conventional wisdom that can be found in a certain segment of the literature.

Were the Islamic Courts an Islamic bogeyman?

One of the presumptions common to all arguments for constructive disengagement is that the threats of Islamism or jihadism in Somalia have been massively overstated by Western analysts. As Foust writes: “[T]he West seems to obsess on the messy southern part of Somalia, a region almost settled in 2006 by a confederation of Islamist factions, but then disbanded and thrown back into chaos by a misguided U.S. policy that sees Islamic boogeymen [sic] around every corner.” Thus, in Foust’s view, the West’s misperceptions extend back to the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006, when it intervened on behalf of the UN-recognized transitional federal government, and pushed the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) back from areas that it had come to control. This invasion was supported financially, and in other ways, by the US, and I know of no analyst who would argue that the invasion has gone well. Thus, several sources — including Marc Lynch, Martin Fletcher, Matt Yglesias, and the Los Angeles Times editorial page — have argued that the real threat was caused by the invasion itself. As the Los Angeles Times put it: “Al Shabab probably would not exist were it not for the disastrous failure of U.S. policies in Somalia.”

But the fact that the Ethiopian invasion has been frankly disastrous does not prove that the ICU was in fact “relatively moderate” (Lynch’s words), or that al Shabaab would have been marginalized within the ICU absent the invasion. I do not want to revisit the question of what the proper response to the ICU’s rise would have been (a question beyond the scope of this already long entry), but instead challenge the view that the ICU should clearly be understood as a relatively moderate Islamist movement. (I should note that it’s not clear this is precisely Foust’s position, but it’s an argumentative thread that tends to run through advocacy of constructive disengagement, and is suggested by his “Islamic bogeymen” remark.)

Bill Roggio, in a devastating response to one of Yglesias’s contributions to this debate, has pointed out a number of reasons that the ICU was seen as a threat in 2006. Roggio’s response is worth reading in full for those who are interested in this historical question, but I will highlight a few critical points. First, Roggio notes that known al Qaeda operatives served as leaders within the ICU; in fact, one reason I am deeply skeptical of the idea that Shabaab would have been marginalized absent the Ethiopian invasion is that Shabaab’s founder, Aden Hashi ‘Ayro, was the protégé of Hasan Dahir Aweys, who led the ICU’s consultative council. Second, Roggio highlights the training camps within Somalia, and the fact that the ICU’s island fortress of Ras Kamboni also served as “a major command, control, and communications hub for al Qaeda in East Africa.” Third, Roggio points to the presence of foreign fighters in Somalia in 2005 and 2006 (something often associated with the growth of salafi jihadi movements) and the fact that the ICU used Arabic-language propaganda tapes that As Sahab helped to produce to appeal to possible recruits in the Middle East. Moreover, Osama bin Laden gave several rhetorical nods to the Islamic Courts during the course of 2006, after its capture of Mogadishu. And finally, Roggio notes that Shabaab’s now-open lobbying to join al-Qaeda is not new, but “the result of years of links with the global terror organization.”

Despite this, one can still reasonably argue that the perception of the threat emanating from the ICU was overstated. But the problem with virtually every argument I’ve seen that the ICU was an “Islamic bogeyman” is that they do not deal with these facts that give rise to legitimate threat perceptions: instead, such analyses tend to deliberately ignore them. And that is no basis for forming a legitimate threat assessment.

Assessing the threat of Shabaab

I have spent considerable space critiquing arguments that the ICU was not a real threat for two reasons. First, this is not a mere historical quibble: it is in fact an important part of arguments for constructive disengagement. After all, if the ICU was not a threat, that means that the current jihadist challenge in Somalia is a US creation. This provides a concrete reason to believe that disengagement now would yield better results. Second, looking at the various factors that might have made the ICU itself dangerous can help us assess the current threat posed by al Shabaab.

Foust argues that Shabaab itself should not be seen as a transnational danger. “It’s only in the last 60 days,” he writes, “that al-Shabaab has shown any interest in expanding its activities beyond Somalia proper. And that expansion seems to be purely reactionary—an immune response, of sorts, to foreign intervention in Somalia’s violent power politics.” But this argument, phrased so broadly, is simply untrue: key Shabaab leaders have in fact expressed their interest, repeatedly, in aligning with al Qaeda and striking outside of Somali territory.

One important document defining al Shabaab’s outlook, written by Abu Mansoor al-Amriki (aka Omar Hammami), is entitled “A Message to the Mujaahideen in Particular and Muslims in General,” issued in January 2008. It is by no means the only such ideological statement on Shabaab’s part, but is particularly comprehensive. The document makes Shabaab’s global jihadist outlook clear, and runs directly counter to the claim that the group lacks interests beyond Somalia proper: in fact, Amriki attacks the ICU for having “a goal limited to the boundaries placed by the Taghoot [the impure],” while “the Shabaab had a global goal including the establishment of the Islaamic Khilaafah [caliphate] in all parts of the world.” Amriki also provides an extended discussion of Shabaab’s manhaj, or religious methodology, writing that it “is the same manhaj repeatedly heard from the mouth of the mujaahid shaykh Usaamah Bin Laden … the doctor Ayman ath-Thawaahiri … and the hero, Abu Mus’ab az-Zarqaawi” (distinctively salafi transliterations were in the original).

Since then, other Shabaab leaders have made clear Shabaab’s global jihadist outlook and allegiance with al-Qaeda. Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, al Shabaab’s now-deceased chief military strategist, formally reached out to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in a 24-minute video entitled “March Forth,” which circuited the jihadi web on Aug. 30, 2008. In it, Nabhan offers salutations to bin Laden and pledges allegiance to “the courageous commander and my honorable leader.” In November 2009, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Shabaab’s intelligence chief, was named al Qaeda’s East African commander. Upon being appointed, he said: “After Somalia we will proceed to Djibouti, Kenya, and Ethiopia” — indicating ambitions beyond Somalia’s borders. And in February 2010, Shabaab issued a statement saying it had agreed “to connect the Horn of Africa jihad to the one led by al Qaeda and its leader Sheikh Osama Bin Laden.”

Moreover, al Qaeda leaders have not ignored Shabaab’s overtures. As previously mentioned, the rhetorical nod from al Qaeda’s senior leadership began when the ICU was the dominant Islamist movement in Somalia. But al Qaeda leaders have also lauded Shabaab specifically. On Nov. 19, 2008, Zawahiri responded to Nabhan’s video with one in which he called al Shabaab “my brothers, the lions of Islam in Somalia.” He urged them to “hold tightly to the truth for which you have given your lives, and don’t put down your weapons before the mujahid state of Islam [has been established] and Tawheed has been set up in Somalia.” Bin Laden himself issued a video devoted to al Shabaab in March 2009, entitled “Fight on, Champions of Somalia,” where he addresses “my patient, persevering Muslim brothers in mujahid Somalia.” He explicitly endorsed al Shabaab and denounced Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, comparing him to “Sayyaf, Rabbani, and Ahmed Shah Massoud, who were leaders of the Afghan mujahidin before they turned back on their heels.” Bin Laden explained that Sharif “agreed to partner infidel positive law with Islamic sharia to set up a government of national unity,” and in that way apostatized from Islam.

But perhaps Foust means his statement about Shabaab’s lack of “interest in expanding its activities beyond Somalia proper” more narrowly. Zakaria, for example, downplays the statements emanating from Shabaab and al Qaeda by contending that “Al-Shabab’s ‘links’ with Al Qaeda seem to be mostly rhetoric on both sides.” At the outset, I think commentators like Zakaria are mistaken to brush these statements off so casually, particularly those coming from al Qaeda’s senior leadership. After all, al Qaeda has been very conservative about endorsing other jihadi groups: one example is that, despite al Qaeda’s rhetorical focus on the Israel, it has not endorsed any of the salafi jihadi groups that have emerged in Gaza.

Connections between Shabaab and al Qaeda are a bit less clear at an operational level, in part because much of the relevant information is not publicly available. But there is reason to think that commentators like Zakaria are understating the connection between the two. I have already alluded to interlocking al Qaeda/al Shabaab leadership (as exemplified by Fazul Abdullah Mohammed), and the way al Qaeda was able to gain a foothold in ICU-controlled Somalia, even before the rise of the more-radical al Shabaab (the example of Ras Kamboni). Moreover, earlier this month Kuwait Al-Siyasah Online (a leading independent Arabic-language daily) reported that “more than 200 armed Al-Qaeda elements,” including Anwar al-Awlaki, escaped from fighting with the Yemeni government in the city of Lawdar in Abyan Governorate. Ahmad Ahmad Ali al-Qafish, director general of Lawdar District, told the newspaper “that Saudi, Pakistani, Egyptian, and Syrian nationals were among the al-Qaeda elements who fought in Lawdar, in addition to about eight Somalis from the pro-al-Qaeda al-Shabab al-Mujahidin Movement.” Other counterterrorism analysts have similarly seen increased operational linkages between Shabaab and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. What we do, and do not know, about operational linkages between Shabaab and al Qaeda merits a much more detailed treatment. But suffice it to say that, as with the ICU’s linkages to transnational jihadism, some commentators unfairly give this short shrift.

From the available evidence, I predict that Shabaab will at some point officially merge with al Qaeda, similar to the trajectory that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) took. If one wishes to argue that Shabaab does not really have transnational ambitions, there is much more analysis and thought to undertake. Merely declaring that only recently did Shabaab show interest outside Somalia, and “that expansion seems to be purely reactionary,” is too flip.

Evaluating constructive disengagement

This response to Foust does not prove that constructive disengagement is a bad idea. But he has not really made his case for it, just as other advocates have failed to do so. Foust’s perception that Shabaab does not pose much of an external threat, just as the ICU did not, causes him to argue that the situation should work itself out with little US involvement. The key precondition for the hands-off approach is that a terrorist safe haven will not emerge that poses a threat to Somalia’s neighbors and the United States, and Foust’s argument falls short of demonstrating this.

Moreover, I have one substantial problem with the solution he offers: “The international community should instead take lessons from Puntland and Somaliland — Somalis are smart, industrious, and care deeply about improving their communities. Why not allow them to take charge of their own fate? With minimal help — providing basic security (which is to be contrasted from the partisan AMISOM approach), building some schools or limited infrastructure development — the rest of Somalia can begin to develop itself.” I should note that I have questions about what “basic security” means, in contrast to the AMISOM approach. The AMISOM approach is clearly riddled with problems, as I have written about at length, but I’m not sure you can solve its ineffectiveness through simple “streamlining.”

Foust is correct that Somaliland and Puntland are better governed and more stable than TFG-governed Somalia (“governed” being used very loosely here), and mentions that Somaliland “has tried to become a sovereign state.” However, he does not mention why. The best case I have heard for Somaliland sovereignty was articulated in a conversation I had earlier this year with Saad Noor, the North American representative of the Republic of Somaliland, who argues that sovereignty is necessary for preventing Somaliland from being dragged down by the problems in the rest of the country. Currently Somaliland cannot enter international agreements and undertake other actions associated with sovereign actors. Noor’s concern is that because of this, at some point the chaos that predominates in TFG Somalia will inevitably spread to Somaliland absent sovereignty.

I am neutral on the issue of Somaliland independence, but the concerns Noor expresses are valid. So this raises a final, critical question: Would constructive disengagement have the exact opposite effect that Foust intends? Rather than seeing order spread, might we see chaos spread to the parts of the country that are now stable? That is the danger of constructive disengagement, and thus the reason for much more careful analysis about Somalia than can be seen in some of the constructive disengagement advocates.

See the original article here.