Somalia: The West's role in violence and terror

Protest against al-Shabaab on October 15.
October 21, 2017

Three things stand out about the October 14 truck bomb attack in the Somali capital Mogadishu.

First is the huge number of casualties. The detonation of a large truck packed with explosives created an apocalyptic scene of carnage. It levelled nearby buildings, killing at least 327 people and injuring more than 400 others.

Many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, 160 being buried without even an attempt at identification being made.

Second is the underwhelming international response. US and British troops are in active combat in Somalia, and the West financially underwrites long-term Ethiopian and Kenyan military interventions and African Union (AU) “peacekeeping” operations. But support after the massacre has been minimal. 

European Union ambassador to Somalia, Veronique Lorenzo finally visited the bombing site on October 19 and pledged €100,000 for humanitarian aid and reconstruction. Meanwhile, local people were repairing the road by hand, donations were being sent by Somali diaspora communities and people from neighbouring countries were donating blood.

Global response

Some in the media and social media users have asked why there was not the same outpouring as took place that happened after recent terrorist attacks in the West — whose combined body-count was less than that of the October 14 bombing in Mogadishu. 

The answer is depressingly obvious: in the racist worldview promoted by the rulers of the world through the mainstream media, the lives of the Third World are simply not that important. Moreover, that the victims of the terror attack were largely Muslim contradicts the mainstream narrative of Muslim aggressors and Western victims.

The third notable feature of the attack was that no-one claimed responsibility. Circumstantial evidence points to the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab movement. They have been named as the likely culprits by foreign governments, what passes for a government in Somalia and protesting Mogadishu residents. 

Al-Shabaab have claimed responsibility for attacks against civilians in the past, including the 2010 massacre of 74 people in a bomb attack on a bar in the Ugandan capital, Kampala; the 2013 massacre of 61 hostages at the upmarket Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya; and the 2015 massacre of 142 students at Garissa University in northern Kenya.

The group’s denial of responsibility for the October 14 atrocity likely reflects that while Somali lives may not matter to Western politicians or media, they do matter to Somalis. On October 18, thousands of protesters denouncing al-Shabaab marched to the site of the bombing, despite police attempts to disperse them with live fire, injuring two.

It appears that the October 14 attack was botched. Having sped through a checkpoint, the truck was chased by soldiers, who shot out its rear-wheel tires, before it crashed into other vehicles and detonating at a busy intersection. At the same time, a smaller vehicle-borne bomb, in a minivan, was detonated after it was stopped by soldiers. This second explosion caused no casualties and the minivan's driver is in custody.

Both vehicles were heading toward the airport, which is the location of foreign embassies and the AU forces’ base. Voice of America reported on October 19 that Somali intelligence officers said the intended target was a new Turkish military base that was opened on September 30. The Turkish military mission aimed to train a new Somali army to replace the AU forces.

Al-Shabaab

Al-Shabaab is a terrorist group that frequently targets civilians. In areas it controls, it imposes a violent and repressively puritan Salafi version of Islamic law. It is misogynist and intolerant of the non-Salafi Islam traditionally practiced in Somalia.

However, it differs from more nihilistic groups such as ISIS that seek to rule by fear alone and whose political vision is purely religious-messianic and global. 

As well as Islamic fundamentalists, al-Shabaab is a nationalist group. It seeks to gain support from Somalis as an alternative to almost three decades of foreign intervention and foreign-created civil war.

Massacres targeting Kenyans in response to Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia, or bombing Ugandans in response to Uganda’s participation in the AU “peacekeeping” force serves its agenda. Indiscriminate slaughter of Somali civilians does not.

The October 17 Guardian reported that the detained driver of the minivan was from the al-Shabaab-held town of Bariire, which in August was the target of an attack by US forces and their Somali allies. The US attack killed 10 civilians, including three children, and the October 14 al-Shabaab attack was likely planned in revenge.

US role

The October 15 Guardian reported that the US may step up its military involvement in Somalia in response to the attack. Far from reducing violence in the country, this will do the opposite.

Al-Shabaab’s existence is a response to US and US-backed military aggression. It is also only responsible for a fraction of the violence that has beset Somalia since 1991, of which US and Western intervention is implicated.

Impoverished by a century of colonial exploitation by Britain and Italy, Somalia was ruled by military dictator Siad Barre during the Cold War. Under Barre’s rule, the state was little more than a mercenary army for hire to superpowers, serving first the Soviet Union, then the US.

With the end of the Cold War, the US had no reason to continue propping up the Barre regime, which was overthrown by a military rebellion in January 1991. International aid agencies also withdrew at this time.

The generals who had overthrown Barre fell out over dividing up power. For many Somalis, access to arms became the most effective way of securing access to dwindling food stocks. Somalia’s descent into permanent civil war, with the traditional units of Somali society — clans and sub-clans — became mutually antagonistic armed entities.

Humanitarian intervention

Somalia then became the prototype for “humanitarian intervention” — the post-Cold War justification for Western military adventures. Emergency relief and development aid could have saved Somalia from disintegration, but the West preferred using images of heavily armed, half-starved teenagers raiding food convoys to justify intervention.

Between 1992 and 1995, a US-led, UN-mandated multinational force tried to occupy Somalia. This “humanitarian intervention” killed tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Somalis.

Allegations of torture and sexual abuse of prisoners and civilians surfaced against soldiers from France, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium and Australia. No one was ever convicted.

The largest scale killing was through the US deployment of helicopter gunships against densely populated urban areas. On October 3, 1993, more than 1000 Somalis were killed by US helicopter assaults in one afternoon. However, the shooting down of two US Blackhawk helicopter gunships and the killing of 18 marines in these clashes led to the withdrawal of the US and UN troops.

In the years that followed, the US used proxies and drones for its aggression against Somalia. The West has recognised a series of governments that have been unable to assert real authority. These Western-created governments were either based outside Somalia or in small areas of Mogadishu secured by foreign troops.

Divisions on clan lines became more entrenched as the clan militias provide security in conditions of permanent war and a lack of state authority.

The West’s interventions have been consistently opposed to the organic emergence of a Somali state independent of Western control.

In 2005, a movement emerged that united most of the clans and created the basis of a state with nationwide legitimacy. This movement, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), was led by Islamic clerics from different clans.

The US responded in December 2006 by sponsoring a violent and unpopular Ethiopian invasion. Al-Shabaab emerged as the strongest militia resisting Ethiopian occupation. 

Since 2009, Kenya has replaced Ethiopia as the main proxy for Western interests in Somalia. In 2011, Kenyan and AU forces, and their Somali allies took Mogadishu from al-Shabaab. Since then, the Western-created Somali governments have had some semblance of rule in the capital. In the rest of the country, however, clan militias, al Shabaab, other Islamist groups and de facto independent local administrations still held sway.

Despite increasing US drone attacks, al-Shabaab remained capable of carrying out regular devastating attacks on AU forces as well as terrorist attacks in Kenya. AU members with troops in Somalia have become war-weary, leading to the plan to create the new Turkish-trained Somali army. 

The impending withdrawal of the AU forces, and the belligerence of US President Donald Trump, also led to US ground troops returning to Somalia this year. In May, the US military suffered its first casualty in Somalia since 1993.

Al-Shabaab’s draconian rule and disrespect for traditional forms of Islam has meant it has never been particularly popular except as an alternative to more violent foreign rule. Its mass killing of random Somali civilians on October 14 has increased popular antagonism toward them, but renewed US intervention would only undercut this and improve its fortunes. 

Famine

Meanwhile, climate change, lack of infrastructure and permanent war have combined to create famine. In 2011, a quarter of a million people died from starvation.

This year, the drought has been equally severe although the number of deaths is unknown. The number of deaths from cholera, which has become endemic, is also unknown.

The April 20 Guardian reported: “Aid authorities also admit that an official UN figure of about 550 deaths as a result of cholera and similar diseases in Somalia since the beginning of the year is ‘grossly underreported’.

“The true figure could be 10 times as many, or more.”

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