It was mid-morning on September 14, when six American helicopters emerged over the coastline of the Lower Shabelle region in Southern Somalia. The helicopters flew further inland up the Italian-built highway that links Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, to the southern port town of Kismayu.
Villagers, fishermen and pastoralists in Barawe district were not surprised by strange planes flying over the territory, according to Nur Munye Abdi, a resident in Mogadishu who hails from Lower Shabelle region. Still, many thought there was something unusual about six helicopters hovering overhead in pairs.
The villagers in the Robow settlement soon discovered what the helicopters were up to, when they suddenly fired at two vehicles travelling along the Mogadishu-Kismayu highway.
A few minutes later soldiers, who were later identified as US Marines, descended from the helicopters to inspect the targeted vehicles.
Dead or alive
The full details of the American mission emerged when some days later US media reported that Marines carried out an operation in southern Somalia that killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Kenyan with alleged links to Al-Qaeda. Nabhan’s death will have robbed Al-Qaeda of an important leader of its operations in East Africa.
No one could have been more interested in Salah Nabhan, dead or alive, than the Americans, because they believe he was one of the masterminds of the deadly terrorist bombing of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998.
The events at Robow village, about 200 km south of Mogadishu, would ordinarily have altered the political landscape in strife-torn Somalia. But being Somalia, the change might not be what most people hoped for.
The reaction in Somalia has been mixed feelings. It was the first time the US combined sharp shooters and precision missiles inside Somalia in a very long time. Hassan Ali Hamari, a Mogadishu resident, saw in the approach of the US a policy change by the new US president Barack Obama; “It signals the end of the Bush (former US President George W. Bush) era and the begging of a more careful one,” he remarked.
He might well have a point. The fact that the operation singled out a couple vehicles travelling on a largely deserted road was a sharp contrast from what happened on May 1, 2008. Then, a missile was fired from a UN warship and hit a house in Dusamareb district in Central Somalia, killing Aden Hashi Ayro’, an Islamist militia leader of Al-Shabaab, also with alleged links to Al-Qaeda.
The missile, according to residents in Dusamareb town, affected an entire neighbourhood and killed not only Ayro’ and his colleagues but also tens of people in adjacent houses.
The death of Nabhan takes out of play two radical international Jihadists wanted by the US in East Africa. The other one, Abu Taha Al-Sudani was reportedly killed during resistance against pro-government forces in November 2006. That leaves Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a Jihadist from Comoros Island, as the sole survivor among the most wanted people with Al-Qaeda connections in Somalia.
The influx of international Jihadists into Somalia has given many parties, especially in the neighbouring countries, a few sleepless nights.
Indeed Ethiopia invaded Somalia at the end of 2006 and helped oust the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) government that it viewed as being too fundamentalist. The US and UN listed a number of Somali and foreign individuals and organisations, accusing them of having a terrorist agenda that is hostile to the security of the wider East African region, and the world.
In any event, the ouster of the ICU and the incompetence of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) that was cobbled out of negotiations in Nairobi, backfired.
It radicalised the opposition and gave birth to Al-Shabaab, which is thought to be so extreme, it makes the ICU look like kindergarten kids.
Thus in one of the unending ironies of Somalia, early this year ICU leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed was elected by Parliament to be the country’s leader because, compared to the other options, he is a moderate!
Supporters of Al-Shabaab and other radical Islamist groups in Somalia reject the tendency to classify international Jihadists as foreigners.
Seeking to portray an internationalist outlook, Al-Shabaab officials have warned against referring to fellow Muslims who come to Somalia for Jihad (Holy war) as aliens.
Al-Shabaab spokesman, Sheikh Ali Mohamed Raghe has said several times othat his movement openly invited fellow Muslims all over the world to join the local jihad, and argued that true Muslims knew no boundaries, especially where other Muslim communities were in need of help.
“Geographical boundaries between peoples are just artificial fabrications”, said Raghe. “Our ultimate goal is to have the land of Allah (the whole world) ruled by means of strict (Sharia) Islamic laws,” he added. Indeed, Al-Shabaab officials including its spiritual leader, Sheikh Mukhtar Abdirahman Abu-Zubeyr, have never disguised that the movement would not stop its struggle until its fighters establish an Islamic state, including in New York city, “the symbol of American imperialism”.
Al-Shabaab leaders consider Ethiopian troops coming to Somalia under an international mandate to help to bolster the TFG; and the African Union peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi to be no different than American helicopter gunships in Somali skies – they are all unwanted foreigners.
Al-Shabaab militants’ public promises are rosy to the ears of a country ravaged by more than 10 wars of war and mayhem. They use verses from the Holy Quran and other Islamic teaching to make the point that the future will truly be bright under their rule. “Once we attain the full implementation of the Sharia (Islamic) laws, both humans as well as animals will have their rights restored,” said Sheikh Ali Mohamed Hussein, Al-Shabaab’s boss in Mogadishu.
Striking a dissident note, Hassan Sheikh Ahmed, a moderate Islamist and a scholar in Mogadishu, considers Al-Shabaab’s “negative” approach to international relations unfeasible. “We believe that nearly two hundred states and territories that are regulated by international laws and conventions coexist in today’s world”, said Ahmed. “Egyptians and Nigerians, for instance, have rights to rule their countries, independently so is Somalia and France,” he added.
He reflects the shock by many Somalis that Al-Shabaab does not recognise territorial demarcations, national flags and symbols. “The only symbol they recognise is a black banner with Shahadah, the Muslim profession of the oneness of God and the acceptance of Mohamed as God’s final prophet in white colour,” remarked Ahmed. “To Al-Shabaab loyalists, all the multicoloured flags raised everyday to full masks ought to be replaced by their black banner, from Islamabad to Buenos Aires,” he added.
Supporters of the Sheikh Ahmed -TFG lament that the refusal to acknowledge boundaries, puts the very existence of Somalia itself into question.
The joint control
Not surprisingly, they favour engagement with all the peoples of, and cooperation with international like the regional Intergovernmental Agency on Development (IGAD) to the UN.
At the time of his killing, Nabhan was on his way from Kismayu to Marka town, the capital of Lower Shabelle region, 110 km south of Mogadishu, where Al-Shabaab is in full control. His next destination would probably have been Mogadishu where most of the city’s territory is under the joint control of Al-Shabaab and Hizbu Islam.
The fighters of the two Islamist movements have together been staging attacks on TFG forces and on the Africa Union peacekeepers (Amisom). The level of their cooperation across Southern and Central Somalia had been formidable.
In some places like Kismayu, a strategic port town 500 km south of Mogadishu, there had been a near-perfect alliance between Hizbu Islam and Al-Shabaab. However, a week after the killing of Nabhan, Al-Shabaab officials in Kismayu decided to establish a sole control on the town and surrounding areas.
Sheikh Hassan Yakoub Ali, the Information Officer of the coalition, denounced what he said was Al-Shabaab’s “unilateral” decision.
“Fighters in Kismayu have chosen to rule the district under the control of Al-Shabaab,” said Sheikh Yakoub. “We have happily joined the territories ruled by Al-Shabaab,” he added.
The move was also quickly rejected by Sheikh Hassan Abdullahi Hersi alias Sheikh Hassan Yurki, a high powered Islamist leader in Southern Somalia and a close ally of Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the leader of Hizbu Islam. In response to the defiant tone, other Hizbu Islam militia leaders rushed heavily armed militias into Kismayu.
Africa Insight is an initiative of the NationNetwork Project.