Is the U.S. Government Fueling Civil War in Somalia?

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The Bush administration has been accused of funding warlords in the Somali capital of Mogadishu as part of the “war on terror.” Since May 7th, battles between the warlords and Islamic militants have killed at least 150 people and wounded more than 300. It is the worst fighting the city has seen in 15 years. We speak with the Executive Director of the Somali Justice Center and an Africa specialist at the Congressional Research Service. [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to Somalia where over the past week violence in the capital of Mogadishu has intensified between Islamic militants and an alliance of warlords who say they that the militants are harboring foreign fighters and Muslim extremists, including al-Qaeda. Since May 7th, battles between the two factions have killed at least 150 people and wounded more than 300. It is the worst fighting the city has seen in 15 years. Somalia, a nation of 10-million people in the Horn of Africa, has been without a functioning government since the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 plunged it into anarchy. Since then, warlords have been battling for control of the country.

But new reports reveal that the warlords, who call themselves the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, may be funded by the United States. Last week, UN monitors released a report to the Security Council saying that they were investigating an unnamed country’s violation of an arms embargo through clandestine support for a local warlord group.

It is widely believed among officials of Somalia’s interim government and U.S Africa policy analysts that this country is the United States. On Tuesday, Somali Health Minister Abdel Aziz Sheikh Yussef told the Arab League in Cairo that “The US is behind the latest violence through its financial and military support of warlords and its interference in the country’s internal affairs.” At a White House press briefing yesterday, Press Secretary Tony Snow was asked about U.S involvement in Somalia.

  • White House Press Secretary Tony Snow

For more on the issue we speak with two guests:

  • Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St Paul, Minnestoa.
  • Ted Dagne, Africa Specialist at the Congressional Research Service. The service is the public policy research arm of the U.S Congress.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: At a White House press briefing yesterday, Press Secretary Tony Snow was asked about U.S. involvement in Somalia.

REPORTER: On Somalia, is the United States working with warlords? Does the United States — has the Bush administration considered the Somali government to be responsible for specific genocide against African Christians in Darfur?

TONY SNOW: Okay. I’m going to be very precise about this, and I will give you — because this is one of these things where I want to be careful how I parse it. First, the President has said that his primary responsibility as commander-in-chief is to keep the American people safe. That’s a solemn task. The second thing is you’ve got instability in Somalia right now, and there is concern about the presence of foreign terrorists, particularly al-Qaeda, within Somalia right now. In an environment of instability, as we have seen in the past, al-Qaeda may take root, and we want to make sure that al-Qaeda does not, in fact, establish a beachhead in Somalia.

Now, the problem we’ve seen before in ungoverned regions — these are problems that we’ve seen in other ungoverned regions in the past. The terrorists are going to seek to take advantage of the environment and use that kind of chaos in order to put together camps, and therefore mount operations around the world. The United States, we will continue to work with regional and international partners wherever we can to crack down on terrorism and also to try to prevent its rising.

In the long run, the answer to your concerns is an effective functional government of Somalia, which, obviously, we do not at the moment have. The United States strongly supports the transitional federal institutions in Somalia, because they are trying to re-establish a functioning central government within Somalia that can bring the Somali people out of the period of civil conflict. As I said, I’m going to be very, very careful with the way I say it, and I will say no more.

AMY GOODMAN: White House Press Spokesperson, former FOX reporter, Tony Snow, speaking at the White House press briefing yesterday. We’re joined now from Minneapolis by Omar Jamal, Executive Director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. And we’re joined on the phone from Washington, D.C. by Ted Dagne, Africa Specialist at the Congressional Research Service. The Service is the public policy research arm of the U.S. Congress. We’ll stay in Washington for a minute with Ted Dagne. Can you talk about this latest news, though it has been coming out over the last months? Respond to what Tony Snow said and what U.S. involvement is, if there is, of funding warlords in Somalia.

TED DAGNE: I think it’s important to note that the U.S. does not have presence in Somalia. We haven’t had presence over the past decade-and-a-half. But it’s also important to point out that irrespective of U.S. alleged engagement in Somalia, the instability and infighting within Mogadishu has been there for the past decade-and-a-half. In fact, that there are perhaps, you know, more neighboring countries engaged in internal Somalia affairs than the report suggests that the U.S. has been actively behind this current violence in Somalia.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But if the United States is, in fact, backing some of the warlords in the ongoing fighting, is that contributing to stability in the country or to greater instability?

TED DAGNE: Well, I think it’s important that, you know, what we mean by support. I mean, we’ve seen, you know, press reports that the U.S. is financing, but financing is not good enough. I think without U.S. financing, the warlords and the other factions do have enough weapons and ammunitions, as they have clearly shown over the past decade-and-a-half, that they would fight irrespective of who backs them and who did not. But I think it’s important to note, in my view, that if this report is true, that there is extensive support for certain groups in Mogadishu. That is going not only to create further instability, but also put major obstacle in the establishment of the central government in Mogadishu, which is still waiting in Johar over the past year-and-a-half.

AMY GOODMAN: Omar Jamal in Minnesota of the Somali Justice Center, your response?

OMAR JAMAL: Well, thanks for having me. It’s really a fact that the State Department has said that they are working with responsible individuals in fighting terrorism in Mogadishu City, which means funding criminal warlords. It’s very obvious it’s contributing to the instability of the country. The U.S. government is there by having aircrafts all around in the Indian Ocean and have a base at Djibouti, Horn African task and terrorism task force.

And Mogadishu City hasn’t been at this level of scale of war for almost five to six years. Only now, when the warlords get access to the funding, they were able to buy ammunitions and weapons in order to commit another genocide, by slaughtering the civilians. And just as you heard the spokesperson of the White House said that the primary responsibility of this administration is to prevent terrorism. And what we are shocked is the complete oblivious to the U.S. government in contributing the instability and the continuation of the suffering of the Somali people in that part of the world.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what is the relationship between the U.S. government and the transitional government in Somalia? Why hasn’t Washington recognized the transitional government?

OMAR JAMAL: We are really very much confused. There has been regularly a statement, press release from the State Department, saying that they support the ongoing reconciliation peace process initiated by EGAT countries, East African regional countries, and at the same time undermining this process by funding warlords. This is a complete contradictory policy, U.S. government toward Somalia, so actually, as it is right now, everybody is very much confused where the U.S. government stands, because in one breath they say that they support the peace process and they support the international government in Somalia, and at the same time you have all this illegal kidnapping going on, by taking people from Mogadishu City to the Djibouti base for interrogations. You have this funding. You have all of these things going on at the same time, which is complete undermining this process of peace reconciliation in that country.

AMY GOODMAN: Omar Jamal, the State Department spokesman Sean McCormick said that the U.S. is working with responsible individuals in fighting terror. Are there foreign terrorists in the Islamic militant groups?

OMAR JAMAL: That speculation rumors has been floating around since 9/11, since 2001. And we haven’t had any strong confirmation of that. However, if even that might be the case, we really very much are opposed to current policy of U.S. government to approach or solve that crisis. There is an interim government, constitutionally elected in this peace process. And we urge them in order to even fight against terrorism, we have to do it in a legal process. There’s international law. The country is still a sovereign country. And we want this administration at least to abide by the international law. Even that, for argument’s sake, that there is some elements in Mogadishu City, but the way they’re doing right now is simply out of the frame of international law and continuing suffering and killing of the Somali people there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Ted Dagne, the U.S. has an embargo against Somalia. What’s been the impact of that embargo? What’s the aim of the embargo, and is it having any impact on the ability of the country to stabilize itself?

TED DAGNE: Well, the embargo is actually a United Nations arms embargo that’s been in place for several years. If you’re asking whether the embargo really had a serious effect in terms of prevention, to a certain extent, yes, it has, in large part because you will have all this renegade business people or neighboring countries or others who would be funneling or selling arms to the Somali factions or Somali warlords. Have they stopped that completely? No. But I think they’ve not done it in daylight. And I think to a certain extent it gives, I think, a sense of confidence that if a government is caught doing this, they would consider the consequences behind that.

But at the same time also, I think it’s important to note that the fact that you don’t have an African Union-led peacekeeping mission in Mogadishu is due in part to the United Nations Security Council’s refusal to remove the arms embargo selectively in order to allow those forces to go in to provide protection for the transitional government. And as such, you have a situation where the so-called warlords were being allegedly supported by the U.S. and other governments in the region and also some of whom members of this transitional government, including, perhaps, ministers and speakers of parliament.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to switch to a slightly different issue with Omar Jamal, Executive Director of the Somali Justice Center. As you speak out on issues like this in Somalia, you also are tangling with the U.S. government around the issue of immigration. You’ve been detained by the U.S. government. They say that their detention of you has to do with violation of immigration laws, not your outspoken criticism of the government. Your response and where you stand in your process now?

OMAR JAMAL: Well, first of all, I think everything is going well right now. There is an appeal process pending at the Essex Court of Appeal in Cincinnati, and the immigration issue is in front of an immigration judge in Minneapolis. And it was very clear that this was the reaction of my being outspoken of issues relating to the erosion of basic civil rights and liberties of the huge number of immigrants, particularly Somalis, in this country after 9/11.

There’s been huge detention, deportation, and closure of [inaudible] and seizure of money unconstitutionally. And when our office took the stand on that issues, the government responded by detaining me and digging my files, saying that in 1997 when I come in Memphis in this country, I answered three questions wrong. I checked the wrong box by answering three questions. Therefore, on that basis they detained me. And I think I leave these issues to be determined in the court of law. I would never expect this should be decided in the public opinion. But I strongly believe that this was simply because of my job and my outspoken of issues relating to the rights and constitutional rights for the immigrants in this state.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Omar Jamal, I’d like to get back to the situation in Somalia, this UN embargo, and also the American people have been hearing of strife in Somalia now for years and years. Your sense of why it is that it’s been so difficult to have a stable government that’s in charge of the country there?

OMAR JAMAL: Well, the major problem was that when the last regime was overthrown by militias, invaded major cities, and they kicked the regime out of the office, they didn’t have a clear plan to install a government there. And then, right after that, they had internal vicious war for power. Angry. So it was very difficult for them to pull something together in order to bring back the rule of law. And in continuation of that, it led to an internal clannish and tribal warfare. We have 1992, where a Restored Hope mission went there, led by the United States government to restore peace and governance back. However, it was miserably failed. It was successful, in a way, of saving millions of lives. However, that led to the movie called Black Hawk Down. And up until now, there’s been a couple of attempted reconciliation process that failed.

But one point about the embargo on Somalia, the embargo issue — arms embargo — has been very helpful. But now, since this new government, there’s been a suggestion to the UN to do a partial lift, for the government to create armies to disarm the militia. And the current funding for the U.S. government to the warlords is considered a clear violation of this arms embargo, because if you give someone money, they can go and buy arms, and that’s exactly what the warlord did. When they got funded from the U.S. government, what they did is they went and bought arms to commit suicide and to commit crimes against humanity. So in that sense, we believe that this funding to the warlords is a clear violation of the UN embargo on Somalia.

AMY GOODMAN: We will have to leave it there. I want to thank you very much for being with us, Omar Jamal, Executive Director of the Somali Justice Center, advocacy group in St. Paul, Minnesota; and Ted Dagne, joining us from Washington, D.C., the Africa Specialist at the Congressional Research Service.

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