The Somalian Labyrinth

It did not take long after 9/11/2001 for certain American institutions with small minds containing bitter memories to see the chance to use the post 9/11 atmosphere to even some outstanding scores. The usual prime-time experts on places to which they had never been, with names they could not pronounce, insisted that Usama received much of his terror treasure from sympathetic Somalis, well known for their hoards of clandestine wealth, that his operatives (including those responsible for the 1998 embassy bombings) had taken advantage of Somalia’s lawless society, long shoreline, and porous borders to smuggle guns and operatives, and that bin Laden himself was intent on making the place his next hideout. He could also use Somalia to run lucrative rackets, particularly in drugs and counterfeit money, to bolster his finances.

To deal with the first, the U.S. Treasury right after 9/11 had blocked on virtually a world-wide basis the transfer of funds from the Somali Diaspora to families back home–at a time when those remittances, annually around $250 million (some estimates ran to $500 million), were the only thing keeping the country afloat. (Apparently no one bothered to point out to the Treasury that if the problem was Somalia as a source of terror funds, it made little sense to block the flow of money to the country.) To handle the second, the U.S. Navy quickly sent a warship to keep an eye on Somalia’s unguarded 1,000-plus kilometer coastline which is serviced by enough small smuggling vessels to make southern Florida blush with envy. To take care of the third, the military dusted off plans for direct intervention, while waiting the situation on the ground to become more propitious. After all, based on the emerging fiasco in Afghanistan and the inevitable drainage of forces that Iraq would entail, it had enough sense to let to wait until proxy forces could do as much of the work, face as much of the danger and share as much of the resulting opprobrium as possible. After all, it had bitter experience in such matters.

Information about bin Laden’s intimate association with Somalia came from the kinds of objective and disinterested sources so often called upon in the Terror War. They included landlocked Ethiopia covetously eyeing a strip of the Somali coast; Somali warlords who, eager to emulate the Afghan Northern Alliance, wanted to use the U.S. military against local rivals; and the Pentagon, which had its own grudge. Among the misdeeds in Somalia they jointly and severally imputed to the dour Saudi were: his central role in the lucrative traffic in qat, the popular local “narcotic”; his financing and/or training of al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya (Islamic Unity), a local terrorist movement that had repaid him by helping to bomb the U.S. embassies; and his role in killing eighteen U.S. soldiers who, in 1993, had been simply helping with relief aid in the famine-ravaged country. Proof of this last offense came during the invasion of Afghanistan, when U.S. troops found in an “al-Qaeda stronghold” a GPS system taken from a U.S. soldier killed in Somalia–where he undoubtedly had been using it to locate pockets of starving people in need of an Afghan-style food drop. Hours after the find was announced, the company that had supplied the unit pointed out, uncooperatively, that it had been manufactured four years after U.S. forces had precipitously pulled out of Somalia.



It remains somewhat of a mystery why the U.S. military blundered into Somalia in the first place. Even the most doctrinaire Marxist would have trouble blaming old-fashioned economic imperialism. Nearly 75 percent of the population lived a pastoral existence; manufacturing was almost nonexistent; and agriculture had been savaged by drought and war. Perhaps the fact that bananas were the main export crop triggered in Washington a conditioned reflex. Although indications of offshore deposits had excited some big oil companies, the discoveries came during a world glut. Apart from camels (hardly to U.S. taste even before 9/11) and cattle (of which the U.S. scarcely needed more), about the only local product foreigners found of interest was the gum from some of Somalia’s unique trees, which for more than four thousand years had yielded frankincense and myrrh. While a Christian “fundamentalist” might see that as ample reason to sound boots and saddles, at the time of the decision to intervene the U.S. was under the reign of George I, not his Born-Again son. In any case, the trees were in a part of the country that had already seceded by the time U.S. troops arrived in Muqdisho, the capital city.

Looking beyond the economic to the strategic, in the past one attraction had been the port facilities at Berbera, which the U.S.S.R. had briefly used. But with the end of the Cold War, the old Soviet fleet was rusting out in home ports; and other littoral states welcomed the U.S. Navy.

Perhaps the answer was simply that George I, who had just lost his re-election bid, wanted as his final act in office to show once again the same kind of humanitarian concern as when he had unleashed his Air Force to bomb slum areas of Panama and kill several hundred (perhaps many more) civilians in order to save them from misrule by a CIA agent allegedly turned drug dealer. A Somali intervention seemed costless (to him) and would bequeath to his successor the problem of extrication.

While Somalia is ethnically and religiously more uniform than almost any other country in Africa, it is deeply divided into clans (six major ones) and subclans (many hundreds). A geographic division partly overlaps the ethnic one. Greater Somalia as a political entity has never existed. Prior to the colonial era the interior was largely nomadic, while the coastal areas were commercial, with Arabic the lingua franca among those who traded ivory, ostrich feather, slaves, and frankincense. During colonization, Somalis came under five jurisdictions–the French ruled Djibouti; the British grabbed the north of present-day Somalia proper, which seceded again in 1993 to form the Republic of Somaliland; the Italians took most of Southern Somalia; another chunk of the South was incorporated by Britain into Kenya; and, after Ethiopia defeated a late-nineteenth-century Italian invasion, the British encouraged it to grab the Somali-inhabited Ogaden before the Italians could incorporate the region.

Although, to cater to domestic opinion, Somali politicians occasionally called for “reunification,” on independence the Italian and British pieces were joined into the Republic of Somalia, which officially accepted the general African consensus not to question colonial-era borders, lest that open a Pandora’s Box of competing claims. That was the theory. In practice different states covertly backed ethnic insurgencies on each other’s turf, hoping that a successful secessionist movement would, once recognized internationally, opt to join their country. Somalia, for instance, stirred up the ethnic Somalis who comprise 60 percent of the population in northeastern Kenya; and it equipped anti-Ethiopia rebels in the Ogaden. That was just business as usual in postcolonial Africa, until Somalia decided to change the rules.

In 1969 the country was taken over by the military dictatorship of Mohammed Sayed Barre, with support from urban elites fed up with traditional clan-based politics. Facing an Ethiopia strongly supported by the U.S., Barre responded with slogans about “scientific socialism” in which he combined elements of the Qur’an with random ideas from Marx, Mao, and even Mussolini. He nationalized banks, insurance companies, electrical power stations, petroleum distribution, sugar estates, and refineries, but not the banana plantations, the sole sector to have substantial foreign interests. The expropriated sectors were subsequently made into state agencies run by his kin and cronies. He also opened his ports to Soviet vessels and his Army to Soviet weaponry.

In 1974 the Ethiopian monarchy was overthrown in a pro-Communist coup. For a time the U.S.S.R. tried to balance its regional allies. But in 1977 Barre, sensing weakness as Ethiopia battled local insurgents, invaded the Ogaden. The Soviet Union dropped its support of Somalia and shipped massive amounts of weapons to its new protegé. Cuba followed with troops and advisors. Despite initial support from Washington, the now ardently capitalist Barre saw his forces chased from the area, then had to deal with half a million fleeing Ogadenis. Somalia had its first, but not its last, modern refugee crisis, followed by its first, but again not its last, emergency infusion of the foreign food aid, which would later play a big role in the collapse of state, society, and economy.

Barre survived the Ogaden debacle for three reasons. First, he still had the backing of Washington, which was happy to flood Somalia with its own weapons to replace the Soviet ones, some of which may have ended up in Afghanistan. Barre’s willingness to give oil concessions to four U.S. companies and port facilities to the U.S.Navy further raised his approval rating. Then came development aid, although the main thing developed was the bank accounts of the president’s relatives.

Second, Barre manipulated local rivalries, provoking clashes in a country where family loyalties ensured that vendettas could last for decades. He encouraged the Ogaden refugees to encroach on territory of less compliant clans while he maintained the veneer of commitment to the Ogaden by arming refugees (assembled into the Western Somali Liberation Front) with old Soviet weapons. Meanwhile he kept his own entourage happy with phony loans and foreign exchange advances from state banks along with “contracts” to provide nonexistent services to the state and by turning a blind eye to their contraband.

Third, Barre played the refugee crisis to his own ends. He inflated the numbers, then diverted food aid from international donors to maintain alliances or to sell on the black market. Later an investigation by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that perhaps 20 percent of the U.S. portion of the food aid ended up in the mouths of genuine refugees.

Although the formal economy shrank, the country was kept afloat by contraband, both money and goods. Remittances from tens of thousands (perhaps many more) of émigré workers in the Gulf bypassed the formal banking system to come home via underground channels. Livestock merchants underreported exports to bring the proceeds back via the black market. Most frankincense was snuck off to the Gulf, evading license requirements and taxes–the hard currency earned could be salted abroad or brought home without detection. Wages for government service were a pittance, but the jobs were a license to collect bribes and run rackets. In effect the economy switched from formal production and trade to trafficking and smuggling. It was when Barre tried to crack down on one of the most important parts of the off-the-books economy that his problems began to spin out of control.

In December 1992, when the Marines first charged ashore at Muqdisho, they were no doubt convinced that they were about to confront armies of doped-up terrorists plotting to flood the world with mind-blowing substances, then invest the proceeds in nerve gas and nuclear missiles. The U.S. military afterwards bragged that its Somalia operation had been planned with the effects of the national drug habit in mind–the troops arrived at 4:00 a.m., when local militiamen were presumed to be sleeping off their last high. Back home, the brass fretted about whether open availability of drugs would undermine “combat readiness” the way opiates had in Vietnam two decades back. No doubt all of them, armchair generals and grunts alike, were startled to find that Somalia’s notorious dealers were likely mothers selling little packets of largely innocuous leaves in open markets to raise a few shillings to feed their children.

The leaf of the “tree of paradise” had a long and honorable history in religious ritual and traditional pharmacology before the U.S. woke up to the dangers of another killer plague and became the sole major Western country to ban the stuff. Although folklore credits qat with many medical miracles, including the prevention of cholera, its main effect is as a mild stimulant; chewing fresh leaf releases alkaloids that suppress appetite and maintain alertness. Sometimes used by manual workers in need of extra energy (much as is coca leaf by Andean Indians) and by shepherds trying to remain alert to predators, it was also adopted by soldiers and Sufi saints.

In the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, troops were encouraged to use tobacco–nicotine kept them wired even when hungry and tired. The main alkaloid in qat, chemically akin to amphetamine, produces similar results. Hence the drug found favor among militiamen. As in war, so in prayer. Followers of Sufi orders decided (to the despair of orthodox ulema) that, since qat was not explicitly banned in the Qur’an, it was halal, particularly since chewing qat helped them to stay up all night reciting prayers. In lay society it was used ceremonially at business and political gatherings. With demand bolstered by the repatriated earnings of émigré workers, it also became a mass recreational drug. However, it was associated with sociability not self-indulgence–etiquette frowns on chewing qat in private.

The tree is indigenous to highlands in Yemen, Ethiopia, and Kenya–and does not grow in Somalia. Usama’s ancestral home of Yemen is self-sufficient. There small-scale farmers hire for the harvest extra labor paid with a share of the crop. Since the product is highly perishable, traders usually purchase only a day or so before harvest, then rush it in small lots to urban centres–the spread of paved roads was a boon to its traffic–for retail sale. An impressive (and probably exaggerated) 90 percent of the adult male population and a growing number of women are reputedly regular users, while some industries pay their workers partly in qat. In the old South Yemen, a nominally Marxist government had tried to ban use except on weekends, when it was permitted only if grown on state land where production could be taxed. On unification with the North, the regulations were dropped. Subsequently the government relied on exhortation and a 30 percent retail tax, which few dealers pay. However use of the drug is opposed by both orthodox clergy and secular modernizers–the first insist that, despite the absence of explicit mention in the Qur’an, qat is haram; the second blame the national pastime for low productivity and for keeping the population in an apolitical stupor.

In Ethiopia and Kenya, since growers are mainly non-Muslim, there is no religious sanction. Furthermore, domestic demand is low except among ethnic Somalis in Ethiopia’s Ogaden or Kenya’s Northeastern Frontier. There are no great international “cartels” running the resulting traffic. From Kenya, the biggest supplier, the qat, once harvested, must be rushed by local traders to Nairobi’s Wilson Airport (which serves domestic and regional traffic), where Somali buyers have small planes waiting even at times when the airport is technically closed. A few bribes suffice for air-traffic controllers to ignore overloading or lack of flight plans. Then the planes land in Somalia at several small airfields and at the major one in the capital. On arrival, qat is distributed to a horde of dealers waving bundles of cash. Qat also moves by sea from Mombassa to Somali port towns south of Muqdisho as well as by land through Somali-inhabited areas of Kenya, although overland loads are vulnerable to hijacking. With the spread of a refugee Somali population across Europe, new markets have opened there as well.

The expanding qat trade triggered old alarm bells. During Britain’s long struggle to impose its will on unruly Somali clans, it pointed the finger at Muhammed ibn Abdullah Hassan, the so-called Mad Mullah, a Sufi leader and poet who, the British claimed, financed his long insurrection through the proceeds of qat–which the British had tried in vain to regulate and tax. His uprising was the first major effort by Somalis to throw off foreign rule. Enormously costly in death and destruction, the rebellion was only crushed in 1920 after the British deployed air power they had developed in World War I. As to the notorious Usama as reincarnation of the Mad Mullah, while tales still abound of him and his followers, in cooperation or competition with so-called organized crime, muscling in on the supposedly lucrative international traffic, if he were really a “Wahhabi fundamentalist,” it would be odd for him to peddle a haram substance to hardcore Muslim followers who allegedly abound in Yemen and in Somalia. Furthermore, the notion that an outsider could impose his will on the trade is another drug-driven fantasy.

Not even the Barre government, with its military and police power, could do that. In 1983 the regime banned the trade, arresting hundreds of people, impounding dozens of vehicles, and confiscating (so it claimed) tens of thousands of kilos. Presumably most of what it did grab quickly returned to the black market before the stuff lost its kick. The government rationalized the crackdown by the need to stop drug abuse. More likely the reasons were that the traffic bypassed the national banking system, which the regime manipulated to its advantage; that much of the profit went to opposition groups; and that cronies of the president saw prohibition as a way to unleash the Army and police on their competitors.

Despite Barre’s success in mobilizing external support and manipulating internal politics, dissent grew. In 1978 disgruntled senior officers from the clan that dominated the northeast fled to Britain to form the nucleus of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front. Financing for its rebellion came not from an international Islamic terror chest but from Diaspora contributions and from “taxes” on smugglers running coffee and qat from Ethiopia into Northern Somalia. (By the late 1980s Somali was exporting fifteen thousand tons of coffee a year without the inconvenience of growing any.)

Barre managed to bribe away some SSDF leaders. But 1981 saw the emergence of the Somali National Movement, based on the clan that controlled old British Somaliland in the North. That region had special economic strengths. It was the place of origin of most Somalis who worked in the Gulf and sent their earnings home through the parallel money market. And it was home to the frankincense plantations. With the area increasingly restive, Barre launched a campaign of economic warfare. When he ruled that all frankincense exports required a special license, granted only to Southern supporters, tree owners just smuggled more or unloaded gum weighed down with stones and rocks on official buyers. When Barre jailed some of the owners, clansmen in the Gulf invested in fast boats to run arms into Somalia and frankincense back out again. Then Ethiopia, to repay Barre for his support of Ogaden insurgents, allowed the Somali National Movement to set up base camps.

In a sort of dress rehearsal for Washington’s anti-terror-dollar policies in the region, Barre tried (in vain) to get Saudi Arabia to cut off the underground flow of money from émigré workers back to the North; and he tried to squeeze the rebels locally by freezing bank accounts and preventing state banks from giving credit to any Northerners suspected of disloyalty. When the uprising spread, he hired white mercenaries to bomb the regional capital; and he tried to attack the Somali National Movement’s mini-navy. His only success was a deal with Ethiopia, which closed down the SNM camps in exchange for Barre ceasing to aid the Ogaden rebels. But that proved his undoing. Ogaden refugees denounced the sellout and linked up with dissidents in Barre’s own clan to form the Somali Patriotic Movement. Then, in the area around Muqdisho, the most powerful local clan, alarmed at Barre’s efforts to squeeze it out of urban trade, created the United Somali Congress. By the late 1980s the country had descended into a civil war in which four major clan-based insurgent groups were temporarily united against the regime.

The end of the Cold War also meant the end of Barre’s usefulness to Washington. With outside support gone, in 1991 he fled to Kenya and later to Nigeria. Left behind was a civilian population ravaged by war, drought, and famine. Hundreds of thousands ended up in urban shantytowns or in refugee camps; many tens of thousands more fled abroad. The remnants of the formal economy shut down, and the banking system collapsed. As in Afghanistan, people, particularly in the growing Diaspora, had to rely on informal bankers (the soon-to-be-notorious hawala system) for back-and-forth remittances. Then, in another development also seen in Afghanistan, different factions began to print their own money–people caught with another faction’s currency could be shot on sight. As the post-9/11 propaganda mills began to churn, Usama would get the blame for both–the hawlaa banks were singled out, along with Islamic charities, as the main targets in the financial War on Terror, while the head of the UN Committee monitoring financial sanctions against bin Laden gravely noted that “We suspect that al Qaeda has exploited the counterfeit currency trade in Somalia.” The UN official managed that brilliant insight at a time when the practice of printing and importing fake Somali currency was so widespread that not just warlords but even ambitious local businessmen were cashing in on the trend.

Yet another similarity to Afghanistan in the early 1990s was that victory over the common enemy was followed by a civil war that was even more destructive, at least to the capital city. Smaller clans, formerly content to follow the majors, formed their own militia groups; while the old factions squabbled over power and money. The United Somali Congress, which dominated the Muqdisho area, imposed a businessman named Ali Mahdi as “president.” That led the Somali National Movement in the northwest to proclaim independence. The Somali Patriotic Movement took up arms against the USC, then split into two antagonistic subfactions. So, too, a short time later did the USC itself after Mohammed Farah Aideed, its military leader and patriarch of one of its two main subclans, had a falling out with Ali Mahdi, a leading figure in the other. For the next five years Aideed insisted that he, not his rival, was the real “president.” The conflicts turned Muqdisho (like Kabul) into a free-fire zone. The city was further plagued by gangs staffed by country boys brought in by Barre to fight the clans, then left adrift with his departure. Owing no allegiance to any faction, they supported themselves by looting, trafficking qat, and extorting from relief agencies–whose presence may have done more harm than good.

While Somalia had hardly been a model of peace and prosperity, historically it had dealt with the vagaries of nature, if not of politics, reasonably well. Farmers stored grain in good years while, when drought threatened, nomads would exchange ailing or aging animals for farmers’ surplus grain. This reciprocity, which served to keep traditional farmer-pastoralist hostilities in check, was a mystery to foreign relief workers who poured into the country along with a massive influx of food aid. The effect was, no doubt, to save some, perhaps many thousands, from immediate starvation, but it threatened indigenous agriculture and helped prolong the wars by doing as much to feed militias with weapons as to provide refugees with nutrition.

In Somalia, political power grew both from the barrels of foreign-made guns and out of the bushels of foreign-grown grain. Control of food supplies by any faction meant priority of distribution to their own clansmen; while diversion to the black market allowed the purchase of more soldiers and more weapons, which, in turn, permitted the particular faction to control more of the food supply. Aid agencies, including the Red Cross and the UN, learned to strike deals with militia leaders for access to port and airstrip facilities; they hired from the militias security guards to protect relief stores and to guard convoys on the way to distribution centres; if necessary they paid off freelancers. Although there were still ambushes of trucks leaving the port, theft from storage sites, extortion en route, and rackets run by truck drivers–all of which drove up expenditures for security–the arrangements worked reasonably well. Furthermore by the summer of 1992 the famine had peaked: the drought had alleviated and local production began to improve. The real emergency seemed over. Then the USA came to the rescue.

As its food-aid program long worked, the US government bought farm surplus from a handful of grain companies, paid US shipping companies to move it, then sold it cheaply to governments of “developing” countries for local currency. They paid into local bank accounts from which the US embassy could draw to influence politics or make mischief. Although now gifts have replaced soft-currency sales, the economic impact is much the same. The influx of grain depresses prices of locally grown foodstuffs and drives small farmers off the land; it builds up a taste for (and infrastructure to process) US grains; it encourages a shift to luxury cash crops (usually grown on large, capital-intensive plantations that further dispossess the small-holder population) for export to the West; and it facilitates the rise of intermediaries who get rich distributing US food aid and who act as cheerleaders for pro-US policies. All of this is applauded by well-meaning NGOs who rush about the globe finding more humanitarian crises to reaffirm their importance and to ensure further funding, either direct from Western governments or from tax-deductible contributions by concerned individuals and grateful agribusiness corporations. Some people are certainly saved from starvation in the short run, while the recipient country is left more vulnerable economically and more dependent politically in the long run.

Throughout 1992, Western media were replete with pictures of starving Somali children and tales of massive looting of relief rations–up to 80 percent in some versions, while the Red Cross itself reported losses at a manageable 10 percent. The stories were usually linked to the qat trade–militias seized food and sold it on the black market to buy qat, which in turn drove them into a homicidal frenzy while innocent bystanders were left hungry. One person singled out for particular opprobrium was Osman Hassan Ali, a wealthy businessman who (under the title “minister of humanitarian affairs”) played the roles of finance minister and national security advisor to Aideed’s self-declared presidency. Allegedly Ali had taken over the racket of hiring out armed guards to aid agencies, taxed the fuel they needed for their operations, and cornered the weapons and q_t trades, paying for both with diverted food aid.

Thus Americans cheered when George I declared Operation Restore Hope–none so loudly as four big oil companies whose concessions had been thrown into doubt by the end of the Barre regime. Conoco even put its compound at the disposal of the newly reconstituted US Embassy, a gift the State Department, with its customary sense of good public relations, accepted. Then the Marines arrived to begin a farce that soon turned into a bloody tragedy and that cost in one year $2-4 billion, enough to feed all of Somalia many times over, and more than enough to restore the infrastructure so that the country could again feed itself. Ultimately it was not even clever politics–by the time the troops arrived, the presidential elections were over and George I was bound for retirement to nurse his wounded pride and to plot a comeback (even if by proxy), an urge the Pentagon would soon share.

Once the US forces arrived, priorities changed. Since much of the food aid that came with them was no longer necessary, it ended up making black-market dealers happy and further retarding Somali agricultural recovery. The primary US objective became to restore not hope but “stable government.” Therefore, unlike the Red Cross orUN , the UN decided to bypass the existing power structure. Yet General Aideed, who increasingly portrayed himself as a nationalist transcending clan and opposing neocolonialism, had repeatedly warned against a US presence without his explicit permission–never solicited or granted. Instead some four hundred members of the US elite Rangers were sent in (on top of troops already present) with the task of “neutralizing” Aideed. As in Afghanistan, there were two main targets: Aideed himself (the “warlord”) on whose head they posted a measly $25,000 reward; but also Osman Hassan Ali (“the financier”). Thus, the United States closed Aideed’s airport, proclaiming that they were trying to stop the flow of qat (which would scarcely enhance US popularity) and weapons. They shut down a radio station that broadcast Aideed’s message, killing several demonstrators in the process. They fired missiles from helicopters at a gathering of Aideed’s clansmen, killing fifty. They kidnapped Osman Hassan Ali. Then they went looking for the Aideed himself.

Aideed had caused so much suffering that his own clan elders along with his chief advisors were often on the verge of repudiating him. But each time the US confronted him directly, clansmen were required by family loyalty to rally. At least in the ensuing melee, there was no confusing who was who. Somalis were woolly haired and dark skinned, while US elite forces were unrelentingly white, perhaps with a touch of boiled-lobster red from the Somali sun. But things did not go completely according to plan. Aideed’s militiamen shot down four US helicopters and killed eighteen Rangers–who evened the score by slaughtering about one thousand Somalis, most of them innocent bystanders and some reputedly hostages murdered by US soldiers in reprisal. The success against the US helicopters would later sustain stories (recounted, for example, by the prosecution during the embassy bombings trial) that Usama himself may have provided the missiles from his stockpile of surplus Afghan Stingers.

Aideed’s warlord career did come to an abrupt end a few years later. But it had nothing to do with the US military. First, Aideed quarrelled with his “financier,” who bolted to the opposition. Then he got into another war with Ali Mahdi over the control of the banana trade. That struggle, along with Aideed’s pretensions to the presidency, was ultimately settled with a single bullet. Unlike when the Rangers tried to do the job, there was no “collateral damage” to innocent bystanders.

For the United States, the abrupt departure of its forces from Muqdisho joined the story of their ignominious flight from Beirut ten years earlier, and perhaps even scenes from the US Embassy in Saigon a decade before that, as incidents best forgotten publicly although not forgiven privately. But after 9/11 came the electrifying discovery of the real cause of the USA’s humiliation, namely that Usama had created in Somalia a vicious gang of protegés.

For a while one Somali faction had stood above the fratricide. The very name of the group, al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya (Islamic Unity), reflected its members’ hopes not to wage global holy war but to unite Somalis (including those in the Ogaden) on the basis of one thing they had in common. Inspired more by the salafi of Saudi Arabia than by the Muslim Brothers of Egypt, much less by radical political Islamists of the bin Laden stripe, originally members of al-Ittihad kept out of politics but earned public trust because they avoided clan feuds and, using contributions from Islamic charities abroad, devoted themselves to relief work. The Somali Salvation Democratic Front, in whose turf they first operated, left them to their own devices. But within a year of Barre’s fall, al-Ittihad rose against clan rule in several towns of the northeast. The SSDF counterattacked, sending the group’s armed wing into exile in isolated areas near the Ethiopian border. In 1996 the group was accused of attempting to assassinate the Ethiopian Minister of Transportation, himself an ethnic Somali who was regarded as a traitor to the cause of reunification. Ethiopia scattered al-Ittihad and effectively ended its military career, but not its political usefulness. Typed as a violent Islamic terrorist group that had participated in the “ambush” of US Rangers in 1993, shared training facilities with al-Qa’idah, helped with the 1998 embassy bombings, and was a lynchpin in the worldwide system bin Laden used to raise, move, and deploy terror-dollars, al-Ittih_d became a propaganda tool in the hands of both the US and Ethiopia. In fact Ethiopia tried to use the tale of al-Ittihad’s Islamic legions to rectify its greatest strategic weakness.

Like Southern Somalia, Eritrea had been an Italian colony. After World War II the victors decided that the way to balance Ethiopia’s need for an outlet to the sea with Eritrea’s demands for independence was to link Eritrea to Ethiopia as an autonomous region. A decade later Ethiopia formally annexed Eritrea. Although much of the population of Eritrea’s Christian highlands is closely related ethnically to that of parts of Ethiopia, a big portion of those living in the coastal area is historically, culturally, and commercially closer to the Middle East–Muslim and often Arabic-speaking. Hence annexation led first to the emergence of the Eritrean Liberation Front, which secured support from both Arab and East Bloc countries. Then a splinter group, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, emerged, with a Christian Marxist leadership. Despite efforts by Gulf-state donors, especially Saudi Arabia, to bolster the ELF in the face of the new challenge, after a brief but bloody civil war, the EPLF triumphed to become de facto the real voice of Eritrean aspirations to independence.

For a time independence looked like a losing proposition. Most Arab states publicly shunned the new movement; and after the 1974 pro-Communist coup in Addis Ababa, Moscow and Eastern Europe swung behind Ethiopia. The EPLF’s principal source of external support became the Sudan, which took the opportunity to repay Ethiopia for its aid to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. But there was also an Eritrean Diaspora whose members were regularly shaken down for contributions; while the Eritrean Relief Association scoured the international scene to collect famine relief aid, some of which was undoubtedly diverted to the struggle. As the rebel movement’s lock on the interior improved, it began to charge its own transit duties on goods moving between Ethiopia and the Eritrean ports. The EPLF also created underground factories to make everything from weapons to medicines to consumer goods, while covert support continued to come in from Syria and Iraq. Ultimately a tactical alliance between the EPLF and rebels inside Ethiopia proper brought down the Communist government and set the stage for Eritrea’s secession.

Cut off from the Red Sea, Ethiopia tried to compensate through ports in Djibouti. But originally they were too small and too poorly equipped to handle the volume of traffic. Hence Ethiopia began to dream of its own outlet to the sea. The most tempting target was Puntland, the northeast corner of Somalia wedged between the warring South and the seceded North. Under a breakaway faction of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front, Puntland had declared autonomy. But to seize a piece of Somalia, Ethiopia needed both a plausible pretext and Washington’s permission. According to Ethiopian military intelligence, behind the Puntland secessionists could be found the plots of al-Ittihad, and behind them could be found the guiding hand of Usama bin Laden. Puntland, it seemed, was destined to be the new Afghanistan and, with its well-known global communications and transportation infrastructure, the staging point for terror attacks worldwide. In the final analysis, probably the only thing that saved Puntland from forcible annexation to Ethiopia was an internal coup in 2002 that led to it renouncing its autonomous status and rejoining Somalia proper. By then, however, al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya had earned a special place on the US post-9/11 hit list of forbidden organizations whose assets were to be frozen and contributors prosecuted.

It was an odd choice for inclusion on the list. For one thing, al-Ittihad was hardly the only “fundamentalist” movement in Somalia. The Muslim Brotherhood had a local affiliate, al-Harakat al-Islah (the Reform Movement), not to be confused with al-Islah al-Islamiyya (Islamic Reform) or al-Harakat al-Islamiyya (Islamic Movement), which were also busy in Somalia. In the realm of politics there was also the Hizb al-Islami (Islamic Party) of Somalia. On the other hand, Gama’at al-Tabligh al-Isl_mi (Community to Deliver the Message of Islam) shunned politics but did campaign to persuade women to don the veil and men to shun qat. Add to them the Abi al-Sunna wa al-Gama’a (Community of Sunni Believers, more or less), the Somali Hizbullah (Party of God), the Tahaluf al-Qaba’il al-Islamiyah al-Muwahada (United Alliance of Islamic Tribes), and several more. Some were of considerably greater consequence than al-Ittihad, especially after its military debacle.

For another, apart from the Ogaden question, al-Ittihad had never shown any interest in events outside Somalia. Nor had it ever numbered more than a few hundred militants, as distinct from people who broadly supported its social program. (This paucity of numbers did not prevent the US from claiming that the group had two to four thousand members armed, while some reports in the Western press credited it with up to seventy thousand.) Furthermore, the sudden discovery that al-Ittihad had helped al-Qa’idah with the Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam bombings must have been a surprise to the US prosecutors who had certainly not been shy about casting the accusatory net as widely as they could. There were also claims that al-Ittihad, acting as Usama’s local auxiliary, had aided Aideed in his confrontation with US forces in Muqdisho. Yet Aideed was vehemently anti-Islamist. Reputedly, when a business representative of bin Laden’s arrived in Somalia (probably looking to sell sesame and sorghum), that agent had to flee for his life on a qat plane heading back to Kenya. As to the alleged terrorist training camps jointly operated by the al-Ittihad and al-Qa’idah (which, in the run-up to Gulf War II, Saddam Hussein, naturally, was helping to finance), they seemed to have vanished into thin desert air.

Ultimately the US claim of “links” between al-Ittihad and al-Qa’idah was based on three pieces of evidence. One was that, while Usama was reclaiming land and building roads in Northern Sudan, Khartoum was (briefly) giving support to al-Ittihad in its (rather ineffective) quarrel with Ethiopia, which in turn was aiding the (considerably more serious) scorched-earth campaign of John Garang’s SPLA. In short, al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya was guilty not by association (with al-Qa’idah) but by association with a country formerly associated with the alleged boss of another association, a remarkable new concept in law and diplomacy.

The second foundation stone for the claim that the two groups were in cahoots was that, during the Battle of Muqdisho, the United States intercepted communications in Arabic. Aside from the fact that Usama and his followers are hardly the only native speakers of that tongue, hearing Arabic on the radio would not be exactly unexpected in Somalia: over the years the country had sent hundreds of thousands of guest workers to the Gulf states; its youth (when the schools operate) start to study the Qur’an in Arabic at age five; the coastal elites often speak Arabic as a second language, a reflection of both their trade ties to the Middle East and the frequency with which they were educated in universities there; a knowledge of the language became even more desirable after Somalia, in a bid for aid money, defied ethnology and joined the Arab League; and, not least, Somalia’s soldiers were routinely trained in Iraq, Syria, Libya, or Egypt.

In any case, Somalis hardly needed bin Laden to show them the arts of war. Nor, after the slaughter of Aideed’s clansmen and the kidnapping of Osman Ali Hassan, did they need al-Qa’idah to teach them to hate the US military. And how a tall, pale (to Somalis) Saudi was supposed to impose his authority on a society inhabited by people who are loyal first to family, then to subgroup, then to clan (in that order), who are traditionally suspicious of strangers, and who refuse to take orders from any outsider or, for that matter, frequently from an insider, was not immediately self-evident.

Still the story was too useful to die. In 2002 Hassan Aideed, son and heir of the late Mohammed Farah Aideed, offered to the US military bases in Somalia and promised to put his forces at US disposal to deal with all of the nasty al-Qa’idah/al-Ittihad joint activities he claimed to know all about, in parts of the country still outside his own control.

There was also another third factor keeping al-Ittihad al-Islamiya locked firmly in US sights: namely its supposed role on behalf of al-Qa’idah in moving terror-dollars through phony charities and underground banking systems. Thus did al-Ittihad, or, more specifically, a set of international banking institutions “linked” to it, become the most important target during the opening salvos of the financial War on Terror.

R.T. Naylor is the author of highly original and radical work on Money, Myth and Misinformation, now assembled in Satanic Purses, being published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, from which this essay has been excerpted. Naylor is professor of Economics at McGill. He can be reached at