I wish it weren’t always necessary to lay out the recent history of Somalia every time it comes up. But it seems with every current event — like US bombings and piracy — Americans are starting with a fresh mental slate. And so it is with the recent cases of Minnesota-raised Somali youths taking up the cause of “jihad” in Somalia. Ever since Western-backed dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991, the Somali people have been victimized by foreign intervention.
First the events that led to “Black Hawk Down” — again, Americans only know about it because other Americans were killed invading Mogadishu. Once the US withdrew, and the UN’s staff was reduced to minimal aid duties, an equilibrium of power began to emerge, in which armed groups splintered and one rarely had more power than the other. Eventually the Somali economy, once at the brink of nonexistence, roared with innovation, delivering power, water, telecommunications, trash pickup, health care, shipping, and even Coca-Cola to the masses.
But US influence wasn’t absent: warlord (and former US Marine) Hussein Farrah Aidid and certain other of his colleagues began receiving millions in cash payments to “fight al-Qaeda.” Naturally this simply inflated their power so that they could once again muscle out their militia competitors. The situation worsened until the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) militias joined forces to rid the country of these American-financed warlords — who subsequently fled to Nairobi together with former apparatchiks of the Barre regime to make up the “Transitional Federal Government,” (TFG) the 14th such attempt by the international community to foist a central government upon the Somalis.
The West considered the ICU a terrorist organization affiliated with al-Qaeda, though it was run by some rather moderate elements who simply looked to impose order; strict as they may have been, Somalis considered them better than the US-financed warlords. Their ascendancy ended a liberal period in Somali life, but it was a reaction to foreign intervention. Not being known as good losers, the Bush Administration made an agreement with Ethiopia that it would invade its traditional enemy neighbor and install the TFG to power. As the ICU melted away to become an insurgency — shades of Iraq and Afghanistan; this is the new way of war — the militant splinter Islamist group al-Shabab flourished in the environment of all-out war.
The TFG now controls only a few blocks of Mogadishu and the road to the airport, after al-Shabab took even the government’s erstwhile base of support in Baidoa. Islamists of various shades control many other swathes of the country. Clan-based militias have re-arisen to take up local power vacuums. The economy is once again destroyed after years of war and, where it does exercise power, a hideously corrupt and confiscatory government. This gave rise to fisherman dabbling in piracy to feed their again-impoverished communities. And it also provoked outrage among the Somali diaspora, leading some of the more impressionable elements into holy war against the Ethiopian occupation — into the ranks of “al-Qaeda-linked” al-Shabab.
And now we have the government using the loaded term “terrorists” to describe these Minnesotan Somalis, who never lifted a finger against the United States, the West, or anyone but those occupying their homeland. And the New York Times parrots this use in the headline, and to literally describe the government’s charges. Credit where it’s due, sort of: the article contains the terms “insurgency” and even “occupation,” and the invasion is described correctly as US-backed and the Somali disapora’s outrage is noted as a reaction (as opposed to the natural inclinations of ungrateful freedom-hating Islamonuts).
How are we ever supposed to know who truly threatens us if the government is keen to toss the “terrorist” label at anything, anywhere in the world, that shoots? A Somali-American interviewed says that the undue attention on this small group with absolutely no relation to US national security is making “an underdog out of al-Shabab, which is aiding recruitment. ‘They are reinforcing it.'”