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Attack on Terror Target Sheds Light on Somalia’s Instability

May 1, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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The U.S. military led airstrikes against terrorism suspects in Somalia Thursday, killing a suspected al-Qaida leader. A panel of experts offer perspective on what the strike may mean for security in the region, the Somali people and the U.S. war on terror.

MARGARET WARNER: Somalia is a country long plagued by violence and a desperate life for many civilians. Just yesterday, ITN correspondent Jonathan Miller prepared this report on the country’s latest agonies.

JONATHAN MILLER, ITV News Correspondent: In a land forever on the brink of the abyss, a small boy lies whimpering on a hospital bed. He’s calling for his mother. We don’t know his name or how old he is, but the tank shell which wounded him killed his father.

And this is his older brother. His name’s Hassan.

“My father and I were walking out of the front door of the house when it hit us,” he said. Hassan is clearly in agony from the wound the shrapnel inflicted. He couldn’t manage to say anymore.

This is Mogadishu’s Madina Hospital. It’s the only place to go if you’re shot, and it’s full of people who have been.

In the latest round of fighting, more than 200 civilians reportedly wounded, the last count, at least 120 killed, many women and children among them.

Even those who’ve survived 17 years of civil war here say it’s never been this bad.

This woman says three shells landed on her house as her family tried to evacuate. Her husband was killed on the spot. “For all the years I’ve lived in Mogadishu,” she says, “all I’ve ever seen is civilians being murdered.”

This is where many of the recent killings took place. Our Somali cameraman was shown a nursery school, where mortars or tank shells had slammed into roofs. People were dragged out and shot here.

Among this pile of empty bullet casings, a mentally ill woman was reportedly raped.

Outside, the damaged homes of Hassan and his little brother and all those who’d made it to Madina Hospital last week, Mogadishu looking ever more like a ghost town.

Local people say Ethiopian and Somali troops rampaged through this residential neighborhood looking for Islamist insurgents following an attack on their base. They left death and destruction in their wake.

This woman has a small shop, or had a small shop. It was looted, and she lost everything.

SOMALI CITIZEN (through translator): A man was shot just over there, right in front of me. And another was shot across the road by the Internet cafe. I was hiding.

One of the men was dragged out into the street before they cut his arms and legs off and then shot him. The other was taken around the corner and shot.

JONATHAN MILLER: Ethiopia invaded Somalia with America’s blessing at the end of 2006 to oust a short-lived Islamist government. Since then, the country’s descended further into madness.

The Islamists are now the insurgents. This is one of their propaganda videos, which we downloaded off the Web.

The Somali Mujahideen, proud to have been designated a terrorist organization by the United States of America, they’re now an official franchise of al-Qaida central. Al-Shabab, as they’re known, are battling what they call the “infidel Christian occupier, Ethiopia,” and what they brand its puppet regime.

Somalia has become a magnet for global jihadis. In 15 months, 750,000 of Mogadishu’s residents have fled. If this had happened anywhere else, one U.N. head of mission says, it would have triggered international outrage. Instead, all it’s triggered is the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe.

This is Afgoye, where the capital’s residents have fled to. It’s distinguished by the density of displaced people, the highest in the world. Highest malnutrition rates in the world, too.

Significance of terror suspect

Ahmed Samatar
Macalester College
There are others who are leaders of that resistance movement, but there's no question that, among the militants, he was a very ferocious individual.

MARGARET WARNER: And what will today's assassination of a terrorist figure mean for Somalia and for its suffering people?

For that, we turn to Ahmed Samatar, dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Born in Somalia, he's now a U.S. citizen.

And Andre Le Sage, an assistant professor of terrorism and counterterrorism at the National Defense University, he's been an adviser to peace negotiations in Somalia and elsewhere in Africa.

Welcome to you both.

Professor Le Sage, first of all, just a little bit more about Ayro. What can you add to what Jeff Gettleman said, in terms of where he fits into the structure of the Islamist insurgency in Somalia?

ANDRE LE SAGE, National Defense University: Aden Hashi Ayro is a senior militia commander with the al-Shabab militia.

This is an Islamic militia faction that really came to prominence since 2006, when the Union of Islamic Courts, an amalgamation of Islamic courts that were primarily based in Mogadishu, came together and took over much of southern and central Somalia.

MARGARET WARNER: They're the ones that -- they seized power in 2006, but it wasn't for long.

ANDRE LE SAGE: It wasn't for long. In 2007, Ethiopian forces entered into Somalia and basically ousted the Islamic Courts.

Since that point in time, a transitional federal government has been based in Mogadishu with Ethiopian support, but also with support from the international community and an African Union peacekeeping mission.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor Samatar, how significant a figure would you say Ayro was?

AHMED SAMATAR, Macalester College: Not really that significant. I think the identity and where his location is in the structure of what one will call the national resistance movement to the invasion of Ethiopian troops and the American support for that invasion is overblown.

I mean, there are others who are leaders of that resistance movement, but there's no question that, among the militants, he was a very ferocious individual. And the way that your correspondent in Nairobi has described it, to a certain extent, is accurate.

Complex and diverse insurgency

Andre Le Sage
National Defense University
I think we need to recognize the importance of this. Al-Shabab on its own is a major threat in the Somali context. It becomes an international threat . . .by providing succor to al-Qaida's East Africa cell.

MARGARET WARNER: So the big question here, Andre Le Sage, is what impact will this one assassination have on the chaotic situation there, both in terms of security terms and in terms of the incredible human suffering that we just saw in that piece?

ANDRE LE SAGE: Professor Samatar is very correct to say that Aden Hashi Ayro and the Shabab movement have been one part of a much larger insurgency and opposition to a transitional federal government that really is still trying to impose governance and bring peace to Somalia.

However, we do have to recognize that al-Shabab has really become the hard-line faction, targeting international aid workers, preventing humanitarian assistance from arriving in Somalia, targeting international journalists that have been there, and also targeting peacemakers, Somali peacemakers that are trying to broaden the base of the transitional federal government.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you think his removal from the scene will affect, will improve the chaotic situation? Or is he just going to be replaced by someone else?

ANDRE LE SAGE: Al-Shabab is a very diverse movement, and I don't think we can talk about it as a single, hierarchical organization.

Since the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, al-Shabab and the insurgency itself has splintered. And it really covers much of southern Somalia at this point. It operates in various pockets where it's able to find support and it's able to find refuge. And it is providing protection for the al-Qaida East Africa cell.

I think we need to recognize the importance of this. Al-Shabab on its own is a major threat in the Somali context. It becomes an international threat, a threat to international peace and neighboring countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, by providing succor to al-Qaida's East Africa cell.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Samatar, back to the situation -- oh, go ahead, you wanted to comment.

AHMED SAMATAR: Well, Margaret, I think I want to get in here and disagree to a certain extent. I think the issue in Somalia, really, in the fundamental sense, is not about al-Shabab or a particular militant group. That's really the top soil.

Deep underneath, the real question is the reclamation of Somali national identity, and history, and institutions. There's a national resistance movement going on in Somalia. And the focus of that national resistance movement is that Somali transitional federal government, which was created by the Ethiopian government, that really has no legitimacy, nor does it have any competence, and then, of course, the Ethiopian invasion.

Invasion by itself is a very violent business, and the Somali people are responding to that in a variety of ways, and al-Shabab are one of those responses.

Potential for increased extremism

Ahmed Samatar
Macalester College
The consequences of that is to make people who are now in the middle and who really are peaceful people and who are not interested in violence to be increasingly pushed to become more militant.

MARGARET WARNER: But are you saying that his removal from the scene then will have no impact, that all this -- the resistance will go on, and the chaotic situation we saw will go on?

AHMED SAMATAR: Right. In fact, worse. My argument is that -- and I think this is what you can hear from the Somali people around both inside and outside of the country.

And that is target assassinations, in the final analysis, might be successful in taking out the individual or the individuals that one is hunting for, but the consequences of that is to make people who are now in the middle and who really are peaceful people and who are not interested in violence to be increasingly pushed to become more militant and, therefore, dare to take violence as an instrument to liberate their country from the invasion of the Ethiopians and this transitional government, which the Ethiopians have imposed on the Somali people.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Le Sage?

ANDRE LE SAGE: Definitely, there is a political issue at the heart of the Somali conflict. And short-term counterterrorism security measures, while they might improve the situation for immediate security in the Horn of Africa and in Somalia, neighboring countries such as Kenya or Tanzania, where the al-Qaida East Africa cell has struck and in 1998 targeted the U.S. embassies in both of those countries, came back and targeted Western tourists and an Israeli jet liner in 2002, short-term security could be improved by some of these targeted counterterrorism actions.

At the same time, we definitely need a much longer-term peace effort to get the transitional federal government to reach out to opposition elements, not necessarily the hard-line Islamists.

Desperate humanitarian situation

Andre Le Sage
National Defense University
Definitely the humanitarian situation in Somalia is serious and dire. We have a recurring humanitarian crisis there with a combination of internal displacement, as Professor Samatar mentioned, as well as the ongoing conflict.

MARGARET WARNER: I'm sorry, but, Professor Samatar, I want to save a couple minutes here for the desperate humanitarian situation. Give us a picture of how bad it is on the ground. Is aid able to get in at all? Are people getting fed? What is that situation?

AHMED SAMATAR: I will do so, but just quickly, Margaret, I think the policy of trying to use violence to destroy Somali national resistance movement is a folly and it's an inept American foreign policy that in the end is going to trigger more danger for all of us.

But the humanitarian question is a serious one. Nearly 10,000 people now are dead. Many, many more thousands and thousands, tens of thousands are injured. And, of course, more than a million, maybe even 1.5 million are now huddled together in variety of refugee camps inside the country.

And, therefore, the international aid cannot come in, in a context in which violence is everywhere. And the people responsible for this violence are the Ethiopian military troops, who have invaded the country, and the transitional federal government, that doesn't have any credibility and therefore any legitimacy in the country.

MARGARET WARNER: What's your assessment of the humanitarian situation? I know you've been involved in aid efforts yourself.

ANDRE LE SAGE: Definitely the humanitarian situation in Somalia is serious and dire. We have a recurring humanitarian crisis there with a combination of internal displacement, as Professor Samatar mentioned, as well as the ongoing conflict, which prevents international assistance from arriving.

And until we have a transitional government that is able to reach out to its political opposition, establish a functioning civil service and ministries that can deliver health care, education and other essential services, we're going to continue to have problems when conflict is combined with food shortages, with droughts, with flooding.

And then we have a situation where only relief agencies can help to pick up the pieces.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor Samatar, we also now have a global food crisis, or certainly one of price. Is that affecting Somalia?

AHMED SAMATAR: Well, yes. When you do this archaeology of this problem, I think the most immediate one now you can see, of course, is the fact that the prices of basic commodities, like maize and rice and oil and things like that, milk, really are increasingly becoming very expensive.

So when you have a national decomposition, where the institution is no more, a foreign invasion, and an inept so-called transitional federal government, then it compounds the immediate problems of the cost of prices for immediate food and other things that people need. That becomes even a major problem.

But underneath that, I want to underscore, is really a national Somali resistance movement that wants to reclaim its history, its national identity, and therefore its national institutions.

Somalis love their country like everybody loves their country, and they want to liberate it. That's the basic story here.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Samatar, Professor Le Sage, thank you both.