The Most Dangerous Place in the World
Somalia is a state governed only by anarchy. A graveyard of foreign-policy failures, it has known just six months of peace in the past two decades. Now, as the country's endless chaos threatens to engulf an entire region, the world again simply watches it burn.
When you land at Mogadishu's international airport, the first form you fill out asks for name, address, and caliber of weapon. Believe it or not, this disaster of a city, the capital of Somalia, still gets a few commercial flights. Some haven't fared so well. The wreckage of a Russian cargo plane shot down in 2007 still lies crumpled at the end of the runway.
When you land at Mogadishu’s international airport, the first form you fill out asks for name, address, and caliber of weapon. Believe it or not, this disaster of a city, the capital of Somalia, still gets a few commercial flights. Some haven’t fared so well. The wreckage of a Russian cargo plane shot down in 2007 still lies crumpled at the end of the runway.
Beyond the airport is one of the world’s most stunning monuments to conflict: block after block, mile after mile, of scorched, gutted-out buildings. Mogadishu’s Italianate architecture, once a gem along the Indian Ocean, has been reduced to a pile of machine-gun-chewed bricks. Somalia has been ripped apart by violence since the central government imploded in 1991. Eighteen years and 14 failed attempts at a government later, the killing goes on and on and on — suicide bombs, white phosphorus bombs, beheadings, medieval-style stonings, teenage troops high on the local drug called khat blasting away at each other and anything in between. Even U.S. cruise missiles occasionally slam down from the sky. It’s the same violent free-for-all on the seas. Somalia’s pirates are threatening to choke off one of the most strategic waterways in the world, the Gulf of Aden, which 20,000 ships pass through every year. These heavily armed buccaneers hijacked more than 40 vessels in 2008, netting as much as $100 million in ransom. It’s the greatest piracy epidemic of modern times.
In more than a dozen trips to Somalia over the past two and a half years, I’ve come to rewrite my own definition of chaos. I’ve felt the incandescent fury of the Iraqi insurgency raging in Fallujah. I’ve spent freezing-cold, eerily quiet nights in an Afghan cave. But nowhere was I more afraid than in today’s Somalia, where you can get kidnapped or shot in the head faster than you can wipe the sweat off your brow. From the thick, ambush-perfect swamps around Kismayo in the south to the lethal labyrinth of Mogadishu to the pirate den of Boosaaso on the Gulf of Aden, Somalia is quite simply the most dangerous place in the world.
The whole country has become a breeding ground for warlords, pirates, kidnappers, bomb makers, fanatical Islamist insurgents, freelance gunmen, and idle, angry youth with no education and way too many bullets. There is no Green Zone here, by the way — no fortified place of last resort to run to if, God forbid, you get hurt or in trouble. In Somalia, you’re on your own. The local hospitals barely have enough gauze to treat all the wounds.
The mayhem is now spilling across Somalia’s borders, stirring up tensions and violence in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, not to mention Somalia’s pirate-infested seas. The export of trouble may just be beginning. Islamist insurgents with al Qaeda connections are sweeping across the country, turning Somalia into an Afghanistan-like magnet for militant Islam and drawing in hard-core fighters from around the world. These men will eventually go home (if they survive) and spread the killer ethos. Somalia’s transitional government, a U.N.-santioned creation that was deathly ill from the moment it was born four years ago, is about to flatline, perhaps spawning yet another doomed international rescue mission. Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, the old war horse of a president backed by the United States, finally resigned in December after a long, bitter dispute with the prime minister, Nur Hassan Hussein. Ostensibly, their conflict was about a peace deal with the Islamists and a few cabinet posts. In truth, it may be purely academic. By early this year, the government’s zone of control was down to a couple of city blocks. The country is nearly as big as Texas.
Just when things seem as though they can’t get any worse in Somalia, they do. Beyond the political crisis, all the elements for a full-blown famine — war, displacement, drought, skyrocketing food prices, and an exodus of aid workers — are lining up again, just as they did in the early 1990s when hundreds of thousands of Somalis starved to death. Last May, I stood in the doorway of a hut in the bone-dry central part of the country watching a sick little boy curl up next to his dying mother. Her clothes were damp. Her breaths were shallow. She hadn’t eaten for days. "She will most likely die," an elder told me and walked away.
It’s crunch time for Somalia, but the world is like me, standing in the doorway, looking in at two decades of unbridled anarchy, unsure what to do. Past interventions have been so cursed that no one wants to get burned again. The United States has been among the worst of the meddlers: U.S. forces fought predacious warlords at the wrong time, backed some of the same predacious warlords at the wrong time, and consistently failed to appreciate the twin pulls of clan and religion. As a result, Somalia has become a graveyard of foreign-policy blunders that have radicalized the population, deepened insecurity, and pushed millions to the brink of starvation.
Somalia is a political paradox — unified on the surface, poisonously divided beneath. It is one of the world’s most homogeneous nation-states, with nearly all of its estimated 9 to 10 million people sharing the same language (Somali), the same religion (Sunni Islam), the same culture, and the same ethnicity. But in Somalia, it’s all about clan. Somalis divide themselves into a dizzying number of clans, subclans, sub-subclans, and so on, with shifting allegiances and knotty backstories that have bedeviled outsiders for years.
At the end of the 19th century, the Italians and the British divvied up most of Somalia, but their efforts to impose Western laws never really worked. Disputes tended to be resolved by clan elders. Deterrence was key: "Kill me and you will suffer the wrath of my entire clan." The places where the local ways were disturbed the least, such as British-ruled Somaliland, seem to have done better in the long run than those where the Italian colonial administration supplanted the role of clan elders, as in Mogadishu.
Somalia won independence in 1960, but it quickly became a Cold War pawn, prized for its strategic location in the Horn of Africa, where Africa and Asia nearly touch. First it was the Soviets who pumped in weapons, then the United States. A poor, mostly illiterate, mainly nomadic country became a towering ammunition dump primed to explode. The central government was hardly able to hold the place together. Even in the 1980s, Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, the capricious dictator who ruled from 1969 to 1991, was derisively referred to as "the mayor of Mogadishu" because so much of the country had already spun out of his control.
When clan warlords finally ousted him in 1991, it wasn’t much of a surprise what happened next. The warlords unleashed all that military-grade weaponry on each other, and every port, airstrip, fishing pier, telephone pole — anything that could turn a profit — was fought over. People were killed for a few pennies. Women were raped with impunity. The chaos gave rise to a new class of parasitic war profiteers — gunrunners, drug smugglers, importers of expired (and often sickening) baby formula — people with a vested interest in the chaos continuing. Somalia became the modern world’s closest approximation of Hobbes’s state of nature, where life was indeed nasty, brutish, and short. To call it even a failed state was generous. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a failed state. So is Zimbabwe. But those places at least have national armies and national bureaucracies, however corrupt. Since 1991, Somalia has not been a state so much as a lawless, ungoverned space on the map between its neighbors and the sea.
In 1992, U.S. President George H.W. Bush tried to help, sending in thousands of Marines to protect shipments of food. It was the beginning of the post-Cold War "new world order," when many believed that the United States, without a rival superpower, could steer world events in a new and morally righteous way. Somalia proved to be a very bad start. President Bush and his advisors misread the clan landscape and didn’t understand how fiercely loyal Somalis could be to their clan leaders. Somali society often divides and subdivides when faced with internal disputes, but it quickly bands together when confronted by an external enemy. The United States learned this the hard way when its forces tried to apprehend the warlord of the day, Mohammed Farah Aidid. The result was the infamous "Black Hawk Down" episode in October 1993. Thousands of Somali militiamen poured into the streets, carrying rocket-propelled grenades and wearing flip-flops. They shot down two American Black Hawk helicopters, killing 18 U.S. soldiers and dragging the corpses triumphantly through the streets. This would be Strike One for the United States in Somalia.
Humiliated, the Americans pulled out and Somalia was left to its own dystopian devices. For the next decade, the Western world mostly stayed away. But Arab organizations, many from Saudi Arabia and followers of the strict Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, quietly stepped in. They built mosques, Koranic schools, and social service organizations, encouraging an Islamic revival. By the early 2000s, Mogadishu’s clan elders set up a loose network of neighborhood-based courts to deliver a modicum of order in a city desperate for it. They rounded up thieves and killers, put them in iron cages, and held trials. Islamic law, or sharia, was the one set of principles that different clans could agree on; the Somali elders called their network the Islamic Courts Union.
Mogadishu’s business community spotted an opportunity. In Mogadishu, there are warlords and moneylords. While the warlords were ripping the country apart, the moneylords, Somalia’s big-business owners, were holding the place together, delivering many of the same services — for a tidy profit, of course — that a government usually provides, such as healthcare, schools, power plants, and even privatized mail. The moneylords went as far as helping to regulate Somalia’s monetary policy, and the Somali shilling was more stable in the 1990s — without a functioning central bank — than in the 1980s when there was a government. But with their profits came very high risks, such as chronic insecurity and extortion. The Islamists were a solution. They provided security without taxes, administration without a government. The moneylords began buying them guns.
By 2005, the CIA saw what was happening, and again misread the cues. This ended up being Strike Two.
In a post-September 11 world, Somalia had become a major terrorism worry. The fear was that Somalia could blossom into a jihad factory like Afghanistan, where al Qaeda in the 1990s plotted its global war on the West. It didn’t seem to matter that at this point there was scant evidence to justify this fear. Some Western military analysts told policymakers that Somalia was too chaotic for even al Qaeda, because it was impossible for anyone — including terrorists — to know whom to trust. Nonetheless, the administration of George W. Bush devised a strategy to stamp out the Islamists on the cheap. CIA agents deputized the warlords, the same thugs who had been preying upon Somalia’s population for years, to fight the Islamists. According to one Somali warlord I spoke with in March 2008, an American agent named James and another one named David showed up in Mogadishu with briefcases stuffed with cash. Use this to buy guns, the agents said. Drop us an e-mail if you have any questions. The warlord showed me the address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The plan backfired. Somalis like to talk; the country, ironically, has some of the best and cheapest cellular phone service in Africa. Word quickly spread that the same warlords no one liked anymore were now doing the Americans’ bidding, which just made the Islamists even more popular. By June 2006, the Islamists had run the last warlords out of Mogadishu. Then something unbelievable happened: The Islamists seemed to tame the place.
I saw it with my own eyes. I flew into Mogadishu in September 2006 and saw work crews picking up trash and kids swimming at the beach. For the first time in years, no gunshots rang out at night. Under the banner of Islam, the Islamists had united rival clans and disarmed much of the populace, with clan support of course. They even cracked down on piracy by using their clan connections to dissuade coastal towns from supporting the pirates. When that didn’t work, the Islamists stormed hijacked ships. According to the International Maritime Bureau in London, there were 10 pirate attacks off Somalia’s coast in 2006, which is tied for the lowest number of attacks this decade.
The Islamists’ brief reign of peace was to be the only six months of calm Somalia has tasted since 1991. But it was one thing to rally together to overthrow the warlords and another to decide what to do next. A rift quickly opened between the moderate Islamists and the extremists, who were bent on waging jihad. One of the most radical factions has been the Shabab, a multiclan military wing with a strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. The Shabab drove around Mogadishu in big, black pickup trucks and beat women whose ankles were showing. Even the other Islamist gunmen were scared of them. By December 2006, some of the population began to chafe against the Shabab for taking away their beloved khat, the mildly stimulating leaf that Somalis chew like bubble gum. Shabab leaders were widely rumored to be working with foreign jihadists, including wanted al Qaeda terrorists, and the U.S. State Department later designated the Shabab a terrorist organization. American officials have said that the Shabab are sheltering men who masterminded the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
Somalia may indeed have sheltered a few unsavory characters, but the country was far from the terrorist hotbed many worry it has now become. In 2006, there was a narrow window of opportunity to peel off the moderate Islamists from the likes of the Shabab, and some U.S. officials, such as Democratic Rep. Donald M. Payne, the chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa, were trying to do exactly that. Payne and others met with the moderate Islamists and encouraged them to negotiate a power-sharing deal with the transitional government.
But the Bush administration again reached for the gunpowder. The United States would not do much of the fighting itself, since sending large numbers of ground troops into Somalia with Iraq and Afghanistan raging would have been deemed insane. Instead, the United States anointed a proxy: the Ethiopian Army. This move would be Strike Three.
Ethiopia is one of the United States’ best friends in Africa, its government having carefully cultivated an image as a Christian bulwark in a region seething with Islamist extremism. The Ethiopian leadership savvily told the Bush administration what it wanted to hear: The Islamists were terrorists and, unchecked, they would threaten the entire region and maybe even attack American safari-goers in Kenya next door.
Of course, the Ethiopians had their own agenda. Ethiopia is a country with a mostly Christian leadership but a population that is nearly half Muslim. It seems only a matter of time before there is an Islamic awakening in Ethiopia. On top of that, the Ethiopian government is fighting several rebel groups, including a powerful one that is ethnically Somali. The government feared that an Islamist Somalia could become a rebel beachhead next door. The Ethiopians were also scared that Somalia’s Islamists would team up with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s archenemy, which is exactly what ended up happening.
Not everyone in Washington swallowed the Ethiopian line. The country has a horrendous human rights record, and the Ethiopian military (which receives aid for human rights training from the United States) is widely accused of brutalizing its own people. But in December 2006, the Bush administration shared prized intelligence with the Ethiopians and gave them the green light to invade Somalia. Thousands of Ethiopian troops rolled across the border (many had secretly been in the country for months), and they routed the Islamist troops within a week. There were even some U.S. Special Forces with the Ethiopian units. The United States also launched several airstrikes in an attempt to take out Islamist leaders, and it continued with intermittent cruise missiles targeting suspected terrorists. Most have failed, killing civilians and adding to the boiling anti-American sentiment.
The Islamists went underground, and the transitional government arrived in Mogadishu. There was some cheering, a lot of jeering, and the insurgency revved up within days. The transitional government was widely reviled as a coterie of ex-warlords, which it mostly was. It was the 14th attempt since 1991 to stand up a central government. None of the previous attempts had worked. True, some detractors have simply been war profiteers hell-bent on derailing any government. But a lot of blame falls on what this transitional government has done — or not done. From the start, leaders seemed much more interested in who got what post than living up to the corresponding job descriptions. The government quickly lost the support of key clans in Mogadishu by its harsh (and unsuccessful) tactics in trying to wipe out the insurgents, and by its reliance on Ethiopian troops. Ethiopia and Somalia have fought several wars against each other over the contested Ogaden region that Ethiopia now claims. That region is mostly ethnically Somali, so teaming up with Ethiopia was seen as tantamount to treason.
The Islamists tapped into this sentiment, positioning themselves as the true Somali nationalists, and gaining widespread support again. The results were intense street battles between Islamist insurgents and Ethiopian troops in which thousands of civilians have been killed. Ethiopian forces have indiscriminately shelled entire neighborhoods (which precipitated a European Union investigation into war crimes), and have even used white phosphorous bombs that literally melt people, according to the United Nations. Hundreds of thousands of people have emptied out of Mogadishu and settled in camps that have become breeding grounds for disease and resentment. Death comes more frequently and randomly than ever before. I met one man in Mogadishu who was chatting with his wife on her cellphone when she was cut in half by a stray mortar shell. Another man I spoke to went out for a walk, got shot in the leg during a crossfire, and had to spend seven days eating grass before the fighting ended and he could crawl away.
It’s incredibly dangerous for us journalists, too. Few foreign journalists travel to Somalia anymore. Kidnapping is the threat du jour. Friends of mine who work for the United Nations in Kenya told me I had about a 100 percent chance of being stuffed into the back of a Toyota or shot (or both) if I didn’t hire a private militia. Nowadays, as soon as I land, I take 10 gunmen under my employ.
By late January, the only territory the transitional government controlled was a shrinking federal enclave in Mogadishu guarded by a small contingent of African Union peacekeepers. As soon as the Ethiopians pulled out of the capital, vicious fighting broke out between the various Islamist factions scrambling to fill the power gap. It took only days for the Islamists to recapture the third-largest town, Baidoa, from the government and install sharia law. The Shabab are not wildly popular, but they are formidable; for the time being they have a motivated, disciplined militia with hundreds of hard-core fighters and probably thousands of gunmen allied with them. The violence has shown no signs of halting, even with the election of a new, moderate Islamist president — one who had, ironically, been a leader of the Islamic Courts Union in 2006.
If the Shabab do seize control of the country, they might not stop there. They could send their battle-hardened fighters in battered four-wheel-drive pickup trucks into Ethiopia, Kenya, and maybe even Djibouti to try to snatch back the Somali-speaking parts of those countries. This scenario has long been part of an ethereal pan-Somali dream. Pursuit of that goal would internationalize the conflict and surely drag in neighboring countries and their allies.
The Shabab could also wage an asymmetric war, unleashing terrorists on Somalia’s secular neighbors and their secular backers — most prominently, the United States. This would upend an already combustible dynamic in the Horn of Africa, catalyzing other conflicts. For instance, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a nasty border war in the late 1990s, which killed as many as 100,000 people, and both countries are still heavily militarized along the border. If the Shabab, which boasts Eritrean support, took over Somalia, we might indeed see round two of Ethiopia versus Eritrea. The worst-case scenario could mean millions of people displaced across the entire region, crippled food production, and violence-induced breaches in the aid pipeline. In short, a famine in one of the most perennially needy parts of the world — again.
The hardest challenge of all might be simply preventing the worst-case scenario. Among the best suggestions I’ve heard is to play to Somalia’s strengths as a fluid, decentralized society with local mechanisms to resolve conflicts. The foundation of order would be clan-based governments in villages, towns, and neighborhoods. These tiny fiefdoms could stack together to form district and regional governments. The last step would be uniting the regional governments in a loose national federation that coordinated, say, currency issues or antipiracy efforts, but did not sideline local leaders.
Western powers should do whatever they can to bring moderate Islamists into the transitional government while the transitional government still exists. Whether people like it or not, many Somalis see Islamic law as the answer. Maybe they’re not fond of the harsh form imposed by the Shabab, who have, on at least one occasion, stoned to death a teenage girl who had been raped (an Islamic court found her guilty of adultery). Still, there is an appetite for a certain degree of Islamic governance. That desire should not be confused with support for terrorism.
A more radical idea is to have the United Nations take over the government and administer Somalia with an East Timor-style mandate. Because Somalia has already been an independent country, this option might be too much for Somalis to stomach. To make it work, the United Nations would need to delegate authority to clan leaders who have measurable clout on the ground. Either way, the diplomats should be working with the moneylords more and the warlords less.
But the problem with Somalia is that after 18 years of chaos, with so many people killed, with so many gun-toting men rising up and then getting cut down, it is exceedingly difficult to identify who the country’s real leaders are, if they exist at all. It’s not just Mogadishu’s wasteland of blown-up buildings that must be reconstructed; it’s the entire national psyche. The whole country is suffering from an acute case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Somalis will have to move beyond the narrow interests of clans, where they have withdrawn for protection, and embrace the idea of a Somali nation.
If that happens, the work will just be beginning. Nearly an entire generation of Somalis has absolutely no idea what a government is or how it functions. I’ve seen this glassy-eyed generation all across the country, lounging on bullet-pocked street corners and spaced out in the back of pickup trucks, Kalashnikovs in their hands and nowhere to go. To them, law and order are thoroughly abstract concepts. To them, the only law in the land is the business end of a machine gun.
More from Foreign Policy
America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose
Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.
The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy
The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.
Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now
In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.
Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet
As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.