JEFFREY BROWN: This was the scene recently when a suicide bomber blew himself up at a medical school graduation in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. Twenty-two people were killed, including three government ministers.
Somalia has been plagued by civil war, piracy off its shores, and massive violence for several decades. Just in the last three years, 19,000 civilians have been killed and a million-and-half displaced. The group believed to be behind the most recent attack, Al-Shabab, meaning “youth” in Arabic, controls the southern part of the country and most of the capital.
It also has ties to al-Qaida. And that has raised new alarms.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Where al-Qaida and its allies attempt to establish a foothold, whether in Somalia or Yemen or elsewhere, they must be confronted by growing pressure and strong partnerships.
JEFFREY BROWN: Amid the lawlessness and threat of kidnapping, few foreigners travel to Somalia. One who has is Jon Lee Anderson, who wrote about his experience in The New Yorker magazine.
You describe Somalia as the world’s ultimate failed state. Now, fill in that picture. What does that mean?
JON LEE ANDERSON, The New Yorker: This is a country that has been ignored, neglected by the outside world for the past 20 years — nearly 20 years. In that time, the state, such as it existed, it had already crumbled and devolved into feuding militias, clan-based militias. And, in essence, that’s carried on in the same way, in the same fashion.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, what do you see when you go to a failed state?
JON LEE ANDERSON: Let’s put it this way. I flew in with the president of Somalia. We landed on an airstrip where there was a crashed jet, and just scrub. You could see the ocean nearby, the Indian Ocean, very, very low buildings, all sun-bleached and covered with dust.
There were armored personnel carriers and troops awaiting us on the airstrip. They — they belonged to the African Union. They were Ugandans. I was immediately hustled into one of those APCs. It had two machine gunners on turrets on top. And we, within a few minutes, had assembled a long convoy with armored cars.
JEFFREY BROWN: This is the president.
JON LEE ANDERSON: This is his arrival home. There wasn’t a street left unguarded.
We then went through a series of anti-suicide bomber barriers, past more sentries, and into the gates of Villa Somalia, which is the presidential palace. That is the only turf he controls.
JEFFREY BROWN: The president who Anderson accompanied is Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, who was himself once allied with the Shabab. Since his split with the group, the U.S. has lent financial and military support to his government.
This summer, in Kenya, Secretary of State Clinton became the most senior U.S. official to meet the Somali leader.
President Sharif, not that long ago, was considered a bad guy, right? And now a lot seems to have been invested in the possibility of what he could do for Somalia, the good Islamist.
JON LEE ANDERSON: The good Islamist. He’s a man who has shown a certain amount of pragmatism.
The idea is this. There are some uncomfortable moments in the past, there were positions he took, there were friends he had that nobody really wants to go back there and talk about anymore. I discussed this at length with him and with the Americans. And it makes for an interesting story.
He’s something new in perhaps the Muslim world, emerging as a man who comes from a position of militant Islam, and has now rescinded his ties with those who look upon al-Qaida with kind eyes. The United States is now sending arms to Sheikh Sharif. And they are providing a kind of aerial security, if you will, for his regime.
And it looks like the partnership is here to stay, assuming he can survive in office. He now says — he never says he was in favor of al-Qaida, but he now can see that some of his former allies were extremists, and he could do nothing about it.
JEFFREY BROWN: And how strong are those former allies? And what are their ties to al-Qaida or their potential ties to al-Qaida?
JON LEE ANDERSON: Osama bin Laden has — you know, has appeared in a video lauding them and urging fellow Muslims to support them. To that extent, they have received the kind eye of — you know, of Osama bin Laden.
Structural links are more difficult to know about. There are certainly some foreign terrorists who have taken sanctuary there. They are now doing jihadi videos like much as we have seen in Pakistan and Afghanistan and did at one point in Iraq, where they are — where people are being beheaded.
There are now jihadi suicide bombers. This was unknown before 2007. They now are adopting the tactics that we have seen with the most virulent form of extreme Islam elsewhere, al-Qaida. They — if they’re not al-Qaida, they certainly want to be.
What you have is a society where you have two generations of youth who are unemployed, largely untaught in many cases, and who, in the collapse of the traditional structures of the Somali state, now seem to be dangerously susceptible to the kind of siren call of the idea of global jihad.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, Somalia as a potential haven for al-Qaida?
JON LEE ANDERSON: Somalia is very much a potential haven. To what degree it is at the moment is still an open question.
What there certainly is there is an insurgent force, which is — which has, both in rhetoric and action, called upon al-Qaida as a mentor force, as the standard that it would seek to follow. And it’s got a lot of people worried.
JEFFREY BROWN: When I asked Anderson whether he returned from Somalia with hope or fear, he cited the recent suicide bombing, as well as his own experience in Mogadishu.
The setting was a private university established only recently to train doctors amid the chaos. And the three government ministers killed, he said, were diaspora Somalis, who had once fled their homes and the violence, but later returned to help their country.
JON LEE ANDERSON: So, I came away with a strong feeling of hope on the one hand because I saw diaspora Somalis, Somalis that had lived our comfortable lives in the West, but had returned, because they’re patriotic, because they want to do something in their lives, other than make money somewhere, and yet, you know, worried and anxious because of the ability of the Shabab to strike so close to the very heart of this very fragile state — so, very mixed feelings.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Jon Lee Anderson, thanks for talking to us.
JON LEE ANDERSON: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: The United Nations Security Council today took steps to curb the arms shipments to the Islamist insurgents in Somalia, voting to impose sanctions on neighboring Eritrea. The resolution demanded Eritrea stop arming, training and equipping Al-Shabab and other groups, a charge Eritrea denies.