Somalia: Africa’s Horn of Anarchy

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 1

Fourteen years after the ouster of authoritarian President Siad Barre in 1991 and the subsequent descent of the country into chaos, Somalia remains a lawless patchwork of warring fiefdoms. Terrorist networks have flourished in Somalia and neighboring countries, contributing to the deadly synchronized bomb attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 2002 tourist hotel bombing in Mombasa that was planned to coincide with the (failed) shooting down of an Israeli passenger jet with a surface-to-air missile. In the absence of a functioning government, Somalia risks becoming a hub of al-Qaeda’s East African network.

Somalia’s descent into terror came with the emergence in 2003 of an elusive independent jihadi network with loose links to al-Qaeda’s East African franchise headed by Tariq Abdullah (a.k.a. abu-Talha al-Sudani). These local jihadists are engaged in low-intensity warfare characterized by massacres, intimidation and assassinations. The most visible aspect of their reign of terror came with the murder of the Italian nun Annalcna Tonelli in Boroma in the Somaliland region and the desecration of an Italian cemetery in the capital, Mogadishu. Despite their small numbers, these local jihadists unleashed a new wave of terror in Mogadishu and other frontier towns like Mandera.

The New Jihadist Network

The apparent commander of this terrorist network is Aden Hashi ‘Ayro, a protégé of Sheikh Hassan Aweys, the once notorious leader of al-Itihaad military wing [1]. Ayro is a graduate of Afghan terrorist camps. It is believed that is where he acquired mastery of low-tech and low-cost weapons. His followers are growing adept at the use of explosives, shoulder-launched missiles and anti-tank systems.

The involvement of former al-Itihaad combat veterans in the new jihadi network, however, has led to the mistaken belief that this network represents a resurrection of the revolutionary movement of al-Itihaad al-Islaami, which was most active in Somalia during the first half of the 1990s. It is this false assumption that led to the group being labeled “al-Itihaad.”

The new jihadi network headed by Ayro differs significantly from al-Itihaad in a number of ways. Whereas al-Itihaad had a clear hierarchy and direction and was motivated by political ideology, the new jihadists are organized in decentralized and compartmentalized networks that each contribute in a small way to urban terrorism operations. The vague hierarchy and direction of the movement coupled with the multi-layered cellular nature of its operations make it difficult to infiltrate this network or identify its sympathizers. Another major characteristic that sets this movement apart from al-Itihaad is its undeclared political and ideological goals. The network’s known leaders also lack the religious authority that distinguished al-Itihaad’s leadership [2].

Al-Itihaad first rose to prominence in the early 1990’s when it successfully capitalized on the demise of the Siad Barre regime and the subsequent descent of Somalia into deepening chaos and misery. Islamic charities, especially those sponsored by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states, were of key importance to the group. Al-Itihaad used money raised by charitable networks to establish military training camps, cement its ties with other Islamic terrorist organizations and fund terrorist operations against Ethiopia to force the secession of the Ogaden region, which al-Itihaad claimed as Somali land. The group was intent on reclaiming what they perceive as Somali territory from Ethiopia and establishing a Wahhabi emirate in Somalia.

Ethiopian retaliatory military operations and pinpoint raids against al-Itihaad’s Somali bases in early 1997 destroyed the movement’s political and military infrastructure and damaged its operational capabilities. This eventually led to the group’s disbandment [3]. The heavy losses that it suffered in its confrontation with Ethiopian forces in the mid-1990s set the stage for a gradual change in jihadi discourse. Since al-Itihaad’s disbandment, many former jihadists and sheikhs renounced the use of violence and jihad, instead promoting a nativist Islamic ideology that, on the one hand shuns terrorism while on the other emphasizes even greater adherence to shariah law. A small faction of al-Itihaad veterans, however, still provides logistical support and serves as a communications linchpin for al-Qaeda operatives in Somalia and neighboring countries. Yet disruptions in the flow of cash from Islamic charities in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf have severely curtailed their activities.

Al-Qaeda in Somalia

Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, an expert document forger and bomb builder, tops the list of the most dangerous and most wanted terrorists in Somalia. Counter-terrorism officials have been stymied for years by this deadly and elusive Comoros islander, a conspirator in the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 231 people. He is also believed to have played a role in the Mombasa attacks (Crisis Group Africa Briefing Nº 95).

Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan and Abu-Talha al-Sudani are another two of the most-wanted al-Qaeda suspects. Nabhan is believed to have owned the vehicle used in the attack that destroyed an Israeli-owned hotel near the Kenyan resort of Mombasa. He has been able to remain at large in part because he has support from some well-armed friends in Mogadishu. He is also related by marriage to a warlord in Baidoa. Al-Sudani is also believed to be in Mogadishu where he married a Somali woman. Other al-Qaeda suspects include Ali Swedhan, Issa Osman Issa, Samir Said Salim Ba’amir and Mohamed Mwakuuuza Kuza. The foreign jihadi contingent is suspected to benefit from the support and protection of the Ayro network (Ibid.).

The detection and capture of these well-protected foreign members of al-Qaeda and their local collaborators constitute the prime challenge for Western, Ethiopian and Kenyan intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies. The United States has stepped up its counter-terrorism efforts in the region by establishing a new command center in the neighboring country of Djibouti to oversee regional counter-terrorist operations. The Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) conducts surveillance flights and works with regional and local counter-terrorism officials to deny safe havens and material support to al-Qaeda and its local affiliates.

The complex effects of the U.S. war on terrorism in Somalia and its unintended results are not all positive. The United States and its allies have scored major victories by detaining key jihadists, but widespread allegations of arbitrary arrests, prolonged detentions and abductions of terrorist suspects (who later turned out to be innocent) continue to undermine counter-terrorism operations. The kidnapping and prolonged detention of innocent people has alienated many Somalis who are already mistrustful of the U.S. war on terrorism. The U.S. alliance with a number of Somali warlords adds to these feelings of mistrust and anger (Ibid.). Confronted by a vicious cycle of chaos and anarchy, the U.S. needs warlords’ cooperation and man-power to maximize its chances of hunting down fugitive jihadists (VOA News, February 23, 2004). Yet there is a real danger that by empowering warlords like Mohammed Qanyare Affra, Osman Ali Atto, Muse Sudi Yalahow, and others, the U.S. might end up empowering the true source of Somalia’s problems [5].

Some warlords are motivated by criminality and lucrative deals promised by association with U.S.-led counter-terrorism initiatives in the region. Faction leaders arbitrarily round-up innocent Somalis and Arab foreigners in the hope of linking them to terrorist groups.

The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) for Somalia, established in October 2004, has been actively seeking to exploit the international “war on terrorism” to discredit its opponents and critics [6]. At numerous occasions, the TFG blamed terrorist attacks on its Islamist adversaries when the evidence pointed to the contrary. Disturbing evidence has emerged that incriminates TFG supporters in the murders of BBC producer Kate Peyton, a Somali woman working for an international NGO and two Somali footballers (Crisis Group Africa Briefing Nº 95). The evidence of seeming cooperation between the assassins and members of the TFG reveals new details on the “dirty war” raging in Somalia between jihadists and counter-jihadist organizations. Death squads, disappearances and torture raise the risk of exacerbating chaos and empowering Islamic militancy in Somalia.


1. Yet there is growing speculation that Ayro, who is believed to be between 28 and 30 years old, may be not be the leader of this new jihadi movement. There are multiple reports that identify Ahmed Abdi Godane, alias Ibrahim al-Afghani, a former al-Itihaad leader, Afghan veteran and al-Qaeda associate as the actual leader of the group. See Crisis Group Africa Briefing Nº 100, “Somalia’s Islamists,” December 12, 2005.

2. According to International Crisis Group, this new jihadi network, believed to be headed by Ayro, has no known name, its membership is largely clandestine and its aims are undeclared. Crisis Group Africa Briefing Nº 95, “Counter-Terrorism in Somalia: Losing Hearts and Minds?” July 11, 2005.

3. See Medhane Tadesse, Al-Itihaad: Political Islam and Black Economy in Somalia (Addis Ababa, 2002) pp. 90-93.

4. Alisha Ryu, “Rebuilding Somalia Could Aid War on Terror, say Residents,” VOA News, February 23, 2004.

5. Crisis Group interview, Sheikh Ahmed Nur Jimaale, Mogadishu, April 13, 2004.

6. Matt Bryden, “No quick fixes: Coming to terms with terrorism, Islam and statelessness in Somalia”, The Journal of Conflict Studies (vol. XXIII, no.2), Fall 2003.