The New York Times (NYT) obtained an audio recording of a phone call between the Qatari ambassador to Somalia and a businessman who is close to Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, that discloses Doha’s complicity in terrorist bombings in the African country.
According to NYT, the businessman, Khalifa Kayed al-Muhanadi, told Qatari Ambassador Hassan bin Hamza Hashem that the militants had carried out the bombing in the port city of Bosaso in northern Somalia’s region of Puntland to advance Qatar’s interests by driving out its arch-rival, the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The car bomb went off in front of regional government building in Bosaso in May.
For the last seven years, Qatar has been trying to exert its political control for Somalia through its soft power, and buying political leaders and elections but now it seems its influence behind the scenes is extending even to the security apparatus.
Mogadishu has become a frontline in the power struggle that Qatar is waging against the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
The latest revelations of the Bossaso bombings and killings are this time captured in phone calls between key officials in the country.
“We know who are behind them,” al-Muhanadi, said in the call on May 18, exactly a week after the bombings. The violence was “intended to make Dubai people run away from there,” he said.
“Let them kick out the Emiratis, so they don’t renew the contracts with them and I will bring the contract here to Doha.”
“Our friends were behind the last bombings,” he remarked.
“So that’s why they are having attacks there, to make them run away,” Hashem replied.
Al-Muhanadi is known to be close to the Emir of Qatar. There are photographs of the two together and, according to news reports and text messages provided by the intelligence agency, Al-Muhanadi frequently travels with the Emir.
In a brief telephone interview with The Times, the Ambassador denied knowing Al-Muhanadi and quickly hung up. In a separate telephone interview, Al-Muhanadi said he was only a “school friend” of the Ambassador’s.
“I am a retired man and a trader,” he said. “I do not represent any government,” The Times reports. Asked why he had described the Bosaso attackers as “friends,” Al-Muhanadi said, “All Somalis are my friends.”
Analysts are arguing that if the Bosaso bombing was intended to drive away the Emiratis, it was not the first attack there or any other town in Somalia directed at them. In recent years, Qatar’s approach has relied heavily on the consolidation of its ties with the federal government in Somalia, which is seeking its political support. It has also viewed Somalia as a sphere of influence to minimise the impact of Abu Dhabi’s blockade.
Years after Qatar was accused of sponsoring terrorism abroad – and isolated by many Gulf States and their African counterparts – here comes the news that Qatar may well be coordinating attacks in Somalia.
The Qatar strategy in Somalia shows how a small and very ambitious nation is projecting its power beyond its borders.
Under the belligerent Amir, Qatar has embraced a much more pushy foreign policy than soft power practiced in previous years— a move intended to establish partners in every region in order to counter Gulf rifts.
In Somalia, it is very clear Qatar has three central missions that seem dangerous to the country and the Horn of Africa region: First, crush any opponents of President Farmajo; Second, control the strategically valuable Red Sea coastline—across a narrow strait from the Horn of Africa, where the UAE has already established military bases in Somaliland, Djibouti and Eritrea; and third, develop and strengthen its own special forces, who train and oversee Somalia.
Interestingly, Qatar’s role in Somalia, given its role as kingmaker for the past two presidents, remains largely invisible beyond money and key Somali allies.
Its operatives succeeded to buy presidential election for President Hassan Sheikh in 2012 and President Mohamed Abdulahi Farmajo in 2016 and since then Qatar decides the destiny of Somali people.
For years now, Somalia has been the arena in which different powers jockeying for influence through proxies have been playing though with limited success by most accounts except Ethiopia, the US and Qatar.
In 2008 and 2012, Ethiopia and the US accused Qatar of supporting Al-Shabaab via Eritrea and several UN reports were also mentioned.
From this perspective, Gulf actors can be interpreted as considerable spoilers to the international community’s state building efforts, which Kenya is part of.
After three decades of civil war, Somalia has remained fragmented along regional, sectarian, and clan lines, and no group there could yet authoritatively claim to represent the national interests. The country has been politically divided into major and smaller groups with each having sought economic and political support from foreign sources.
Kenya’s noticeable absence in its closest neighbour has been an enigma, given the strength of its historical ties to the country and people.
While all major and middle-ranking Arab powers and other African countries in the neighbourhood and beyond– from Turkey, Eritrea, and even UK – expanded economic, political and cultural partnership with Somalia and established their specific niches, Kenya stayed disengaged, distant though deferential.
Kenya-Somalia relations remained the best before the rent-seeking foreign interference politics instigated as it hosted most of its politicians and millions of refugees.
The country’s historical linkages and increasingly dynamic engagement with Somalia will be instrumental in coordinating, through IGAD, despite its disagreement over Somalia. Its close relations with political and business elites gives it an upper hand than any other country in the region. It is understood that a critical step towards creating an environment conducive to Somalia’s reconstruction involves the reduction of divergence and competition in regional strategies.
Yet, most believe that the wider forms of regional cooperation that is in principle desirable to foster stability and development in Somalia will in practice be unattainable.
Although competing national interests cannot be easily reconciled, it is certainly possible for incremental efforts to consolidate those interests that do overlap.
Kenya is well placed to encourage such a process despite the deviating interests of other key players in the region – the Gulf, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, US, EU, etc.
The author is senior researcher on regional economic and security issues. [email protected]