Unless the U.S. and African Union change their failed strategy, Somalia faces many more deadly bombings like the killing of over 300 in Mogadishu, says Professor Abdi Samatar of the University of Minnesota
(Note: Since this interview was recorded, the Guardian has reported that the bombing may have been carried out in revenge for a U.S.-led operation that killed 10 civilians in August) Aaron Maté: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The death toll from Saturday’s truck bombings in Mogadishu, Somalia, has surpassed 300. It’s the deadliest such attack in decades, but Mogadishu has faced constant violence. An average of two major bombings per month and over 700 people killed so far this year. The main party behind the bombings is the militant group, Al-Shabaab, which at one point controlled most of Somalia territory. The recent intensification of bombings coincides with an increase of U.S. drone strikes that President Trump authorized in June. Professor Abdi Samatar is Chair of the Department of Geography, Environment, and Society, at the University of Minnesota. Welcome professor Samatar. Let’s starts with Al-Shabaab. They have not claimed responsibility for this attack as far as I know. Do you think it’s fair to say that they were behind it? Can you talk about the context in which they would have carried this out? They’ve lost territory to the African Union and Somali troops, but still, their attacks have been intensifying. Abdi Samatar: I have to agree with you, Aaron. Yes, I think there is very little doubt whatsoever that this is Al-Shabaab act. If you look at the geography of the route that the two trucks carried the bombs, transited, they are coming from the West part of Mogadishu area that’s controlled by Al-Shabaab. Just on the outskirts of Mogadishu if you like, and so ISIS doesn’t have any basis there, or the Taliban, or anybody else. So, there is very little doubt in my mind that this is a heinous act on the part of Al-Shabaab. That’s a fact, in my opinion. Second, that yes, the bombings have increased. Shabaab has lost a lot of territory. Mostly, they have lost urban areas, but Shabaab controls the vast majority of the rural environment in that country, particularly in Southern Somalia. Because Shabaab says, “Our tactics is all guerrilla based,” it’s all based on guerrilla tactics, they have been able to outmaneuver and outwit both the Somali Security Forces, and the army forces, the African Union force. That’s why they’re able to hit Mogadishu or any place else around there at any time of their choice. The current tactical strategy of the AMISOM forces as a conventional force, I don’t think will be able to defeat Al-Shabaab, regardless. Even if they controlled all the urban areas of the country. So, there’s a mismatch between the tactics of Shabaab and the tactics or strategy of Al-Shabaab and the strategy of AMISOM, and what the United States has been doing there, not only the last few months, but over the last 15-20 years. Aaron Maté: If this military strategy is futile, as you say, then what do you think is the proper response? Abdi Samatar: Well, if you think of costs first, financial costs, African Union force gets about billion and a half, that’s with a B, from the European Union and the United States, to run its operations. The Somali government security forces get virtually nothing from them. So, if you have a military, conventional military warfare on the part of AMISOM and confronting Al-Shabaab is sort of a highly mobile forces, that are able to hit and move so quickly. Then, the international community needs to carefully rethink their strategy. In order to be able to provide the support and the resources necessary to create a national Somali force that’s mobile in nature, that knows the countryside quite well, and that can go and hit Al-Shabaab where it matters in their rat holes. That may amount to something like 3-400 million dollars a year, a fraction of what AMISOM costs. AMISOM, in my opinion, will become redundant thereafter, but the United States and the European Union and have been unwilling to do that for a variety of reasons that we can talk about if you have time. Aaron Maté: Yes, of course, and this speaks to the reason why we’re having this crisis, ongoing crisis in Somali in the first place. I mean, tempting to go back to the early ’90s when the U.S. got involved in what some criticized essentially as a public relations operation for the humanitarian mission, but I think actually we should start with 2006, because Al-Shabaab is an offshoot of the Islamic Courts who the U.S. helped overthrow. Let’s talk about that context, and then get to the reasons that you’ve just been talking about for why the U.S. has been resistant to changing its strategy. Abdi Samatar: I think it was one of the strategic mistakes that the Bush administration made in 2006. I was in Mogadishu, I met with many of the members and the leaders of the Union of Islamic Courts in Mogadishu. Mogadishu was dominated by warlords and criminals for almost 15 years, prior to 2006. The people got so sick of them that finally they were able to mobilize themselves inspired by Islam and sort of a peace movement in the country that the Union of Islamic Courts, and the public of Mogadishu were able to chase away the warlords within a period of about two months, and liberate the city for the first time that women and children can play and walk around the city day and night. But unfortunately the security services in the United States and the Bush administration thought this was a terrorist organization, that’s Islamic terrorist organization, and gave the greenlight to Ethiopia who had been lusting to invade Somalia for the previous 15-20 years. That destroyed the Union of Islamic Courts, which ultimately led to a resistance movement against the Ethiopians, spearheaded by what we now know as Al-Shabaab. So, the strategic blunder of 2006 is what has brought us to a place where 300 people were killed, murdered two days ago by Al-Shabaab. There’s a connection between what we did in 2006 policy wise, and what’s happening today. If we don’t learn from that, and therefore change the strategy and bring to bear a political strategy that is accountable to the Somali people, and a military strategy that is empowered to Somali security forces, helping them rebuild their country, and then chase Al-Shabaab out into the sea, then we will be revisiting this strategy many times over in the coming years, unfortunately. Aaron Maté: And you know, during this period since 2006, I’m reminded of the fact that we’ve had famine, serious famine in Somali that has killed many people. The U.S. role there has also been profound. I mean, for one, you’ve had the U.S. going after … I remember the U.S. going after a main charity inside Somalia called Al-Barakat, if I recall right, which had an impact. Also, under Obama, didn’t it become criminal for charities to provide aid to famine ravaged areas of Somalia if that aid ended up in the hands of Al-Shabaab, which effectively deterred many charities from providing aid? Abdi Samatar: There are two issues here. One is Al-Barakat, the money wiring service which was put under the gun by the Bush administration, immediately after 9/11. They were not associated with the famine or food deliveries or what not. That had consequences, but the famine you are talking about, that is the famine of 2010-11, where 250,000 men and women, and mostly children perished. Largely because our government at that point in time, under the Obama administration, had something called a rule which said that nobody can do any business with Al-Shabaab, and the areas which they control. That meant charities could not deliver food to those places that were controlled by Al-Shabaab. It’s the consequences of that led to the 250,000 deaths, so yes, the Obama administration was implicated in that project, and unfortunately we had a repeat of something of that ilk the last year or so. Although, the famine was not as grievous as the previous one of 2010 and ’11. Aaron Maté: Thanks for correcting me there about Al-Barakat. I guess my point there is only that in cracking down on this charity, the U.S. has made it harder for Somalis to even help themselves. Abdi Samatar: Al-Barakat was a business. It wasn’t a charity. The charity you are talking about was called SACIID, S-a-c-i-i-d, which was a humanitarian agency that distributed rations and ran public kitchens. But Barakat, when it was banned from operating, it meant that Somalis from the diaspora who were the lifeline to their families, and to many others who were needy, they were cut off. That had the consequences that you just noted. Aaron Maté: Right, okay. So, you mentioned earlier the U.S. being resistant to changes, the U.S. and Europe, being resistant to changes in strategy. Can you talk about that more and the reasons behind their resistance? Abdi Samatar: I think I don’t necessarily question the spirit of what we want to accomplish in that part of the world. I think the Somalis will agree with us that terrorism has to go, but there are multiple terror groups, states that are terroristic in the neighborhood in the Horn of Africa, and then there are the international terrorists who roam around, and then there are locals who have connected with that. I think everybody’s interested in making sure that ordinary people are going about their lives normally in peace. I think that will be something that’s of interest to us, and of interest to the Somalis. I think the tragedy of the American foreign policy and the European foreign policy is that it is so ignorant of the circumstances in which they are dealing with, that those who are on the ground informing the authorities in Brussels and Washington are feeding them junk, in my opinion. That junk produces bad policy and bad policy like bad medicine kills people. So, if the Obama administration and now the Trump administration is interested in creating peace in that part of the world, and making sure that the Somalis take care of those Al-Shabaab terrorists, then what they would do is quite different from what they have been doing, and that’s to create a fund to reestablish the Somali security forces in the order of about 10 to 20,000 who are highly mobile, who can engage with Al-Shabaab on their own terms, rather than sit like sitting ducks in camps as a real conventional military force. Those 20,000 men and women who will be the mobile force will be able to devote themselves, and in my opinion, within a year they will be able to liberate the vast majority of the country which will be a win for us, and it will cost a fraction of some costs. Aaron Maté: Right, okay. So given that, if that’s true then what are the interests both in and outside of Somalia that are preventing that from happening? Who are the people that are feeding the West bad information, as you say? Abdi Samatar: Well, our own agents on the ground are providing the bad information, but also our allies. Ethiopia is our ally, Kenya is our ally, and they have a stake in what happens in Somalia. They have a conflict of interest, of what happens in Somalia. Neither of those two countries, regardless of the rhetoric that they pronounce, are interested in Somalia coming back as a unitary state that’s at peace with its people, and that can challenge them in enterprises that Somalis are capable of competing with the Kenyans and the Ugandans and the Ethiopians. Not the Ugandans. So, our allies in Ethiopia, and our allies in Kenya who have our ear and who have the ears of the European Union are feeding junk information. Then, more important than even Ethiopia and Somalia is the Somali political class who’s a territory class, in my opinion, who are not interested in the wellbeing of their people, who are playing games with the Americans and the Europeans and telling them the stories that they want, because that will enable that political class to remain in power. So, it’s a combination of both local political class, our friends in Ethiopia, and our friends in Kenya. That is conspiring against the Somali people coming back, as a dignified people who can compete on a legitimate basis with everybody else. Aaron Maté: We’ll leave it there. Professor Abdi Samatar at the Department of Geography, Environment, and Society at the University of Minnesota. Professor, thank you. Abdi Samatar: Thank you. Aaron Maté: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.