Chasing Ghosts

Alex de Waal on the rise and fall of militant Islam in the Horn of Africa

Three of the suspects in the attempted bombings in London on 21 July were born in the Horn of Africa. One, Yasin Hassan Omar, was born in Somalia; a second, Osman Hussein, in Ethiopia; and a third, Muktar Said Ibrahim, in Eritrea. Ten years ago, when Osama bin Laden lived in Khartoum, the Horn of Africa could plausibly have been described as both the headquarters and the front line of international jihadism. American analysts have argued that Africa’s porous borders and ineffectual policing make the continent attractive to groups like al-Qaida, and the Pentagon has two major anti-terrorist operations in sub-Saharan Africa: a base in the tiny Red Sea state of Djibouti (sandwiched between Somalia and Eritrea) monitors the movements of suspected terrorists and the Pan Sahel Initiative is intended to hunt down jihadists in the Sahara. But they are chasing ghosts, mopping up the remnants of a jihad that had already failed in the late 1990s. It’s unlikely that the attempted bombings alleged to have been committed by Yasin Hassan Omar, Osman Hussain and Muktar Said Ibrahim can be traced back to Islamism in their respective homelands. It is much more probable that their jihadism belongs to a new militant manifestation nurtured in European cities over the last few years.

The rise and wane of political Islam in the Horn has left deep imprints on the region and on jihadism itself. In 1990, as the anti-Saddam coalition triumphed in Kuwait, Islamists took solace from the collapse of three of the most disliked secular dictatorships in Africa: Hissène Habré in Chad in December 1990, Siad Barre in Somalia in January 1991 and Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia in May 1991 (precipitating Eritrea’s secession). In the networks of the Islamist international, Sudan claimed credit for all this. Khartoum’s new radical Islamist government had thrown open its doors to militants from across the Muslim world. They had counted on Islamist revolutions sweeping the Arab world in 1990, after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait had dramatically shown up the rottenness and dependency of the Gulf monarchies, as they turned to America to save them. When this didn’t happen, the jihadists instead congregated in Khartoum, where Islamists had staged a coup d’état in 1989, and their sheikh – Hassan al-Turabi – had created a Popular Arab and Islamic Congress to rival the conservative Organisation of Islamic States and the moribund Arab League. The PAIC meetings attracted people as disparate as the old leftist Palestinian George Habash, members of Hamas, Algerian jihadists and Iraqi Baathists – not to mention Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Then, in December 1992, President Bush dispatched the US army to Somalia on what he described as a humanitarian mission. The Islamists didn’t believe that for a moment: for them it was another invasion of a Muslim country. But Operation Restore Hope made them realise the importance of the African front in the struggle for a new caliphate. Bin Laden rented a villa in Khartoum, bought up several businesses and opened training camps. And Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, an Egyptian and a senior commander of al-Zawahiri’s Tanzim al-Jihad, was sent to establish an African Muslim army, beginning in Somalia.

Years later, after 11 September, when the litany of al-Qaida terrorist outrages was compiled, the Black Hawk Down episode in Mogadishu in October 1993 was included. It shouldn’t have been. Al-Banshiri’s deputy, Mohammed Atef, was in town, but as a student of the Somali method of urban insurgency, not as a planner or instructor. He cheered on Aidid’s militia, but they didn’t need any help from him. (Atef later became al-Qaida’s military commander in Afghanistan.) Al-Banshiri was said to have been impressed by the bravery and military prowess of the Somalis, but saddened by their factionalisation and unwillingness to acknowledge that Islam offered an alternative future for the country. Only the small outpost in Luuq, set up by Somalia’s Islamist party, al-Itihaad al-Islaamiya (‘The Islamic Union’), showed potential, and there the jihadists made their headquarters.

Luuq sits on a narrow neck of land between two horseshoe bends of the Jubba river. It’s an old trading centre, founded in the Middle Ages by the first Muslim merchants in the Horn. The single gate to the town is flanked by steep riverbanks. The Jubba flows south from the Ethiopian highlands, a ribbon of blue and green in a flat reddish plain. Before Somalia’s collapse in the late 1980s, the floodplains were farmed by the Gabwing, a small clan who had the misfortune to live next to the home district of the president, Siad Barre, whose Marehan clansmen greedily eyed the fertile alluvial land. In 1988, when the country was on the brink of civil war, I asked the chief of the Gabwing in Luuq about the workings of his customary court. Waiting until we were out of earshot of any government functionaries, he explained: ‘No one comes to my court now. It is total war.’ Week by week, his villagers were losing their land at gunpoint to well-connected Marehan merchants and army officers.

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