Mistaken Entry Into Clan Dispute Led to U.S. Black Eye in Somalia

Islamic militiamen sit on a rifle-mounted pickup truck after taking control of a checkpoint near the Mogadishu weapons market. U.S. backing for secular warlords has increased public support for the militias, Somalis say.
Islamic militiamen sit on a rifle-mounted pickup truck after taking control of a checkpoint near the Mogadishu weapons market. U.S. backing for secular warlords has increased public support for the militias, Somalis say. (By Mohamed Sheikh Nor -- Associated Press)

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By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 2, 2006

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- The land was little more than a patch of scrub outside the city. But this being Somalia -- lawless, fractured and armed to the teeth -- it was a patch of scrub that two of the country's most powerful families were prepared to fight over.

The fighting, which began Jan. 13, quickly took on wider significance because of the presence, at an airstrip just three miles away, of a small team of U.S. intelligence officials, according to Somalis knowledgeable about the events of that day.

The Americans were in Somalia because of concerns about terrorism, not land. But when the gunfire rang out, the sources said, the U.S. officials wrongly concluded that they were under attack by Islamic terrorists and abruptly fled. It was a provocation, U.S. officials later told Somalis, that demanded a muscular response.

In the weeks that followed this little-known incident, which U.S. officials have refused to confirm or deny, the United States expanded its role in Somalia to levels not seen since it abandoned the country in 1994. The Americans helped organize a group of secular warlords into an "anti-terror coalition" and provided them with a large, steady diet of cash.

The warlords, feared and hated by many Somalis, bragged about the money as they armed themselves as never before.

The infusion of cash upset a fragile balance between the two sides -- but not in the direction the Americans had hoped.

By March, the warlords were under siege. By June 6, they had fled. And by June 24, Hassan Dahir Aweys, a militant Islamic leader hostile to Western democracy and reputed to have ties to al-Qaeda, had taken control of Mogadishu. Late last week, Osama bin Laden boasted of successes there in an audiotape that singled out Somalia as a front in his war against Americans.

"Simply, they made a mistake," Ali Iman Sharmarke, a prominent Mogadishu businessman and radio journalist, said of the Americans in an interview in Nairobi. "If their intent was to capture terrorists, they needed a wider approach . . . to help the people of Somalia."

American analysts, though not knowledgeable about the incident at the airstrip, said that by giving cash to the warlords the United States triggered events that quickly moved beyond its control, producing a setback likely to hurt not only Somalis but also the U.S. war on terrorism.

"U.S. support for the warlords hit Mogadishu like a stick in the hornet's nest," said John Prendergast, an Africa analyst with the International Crisis Group, a research organization, speaking recently from Chad, where he was traveling. "It was totally the law of unintended consequences in the extreme."

The accounts in this article are based on interviews with Somali business leaders, politicians, civil society activists and members of one of the families involved in the January fight.

The protagonists in the initial dispute were political and military rivals, both from Mogadishu's elite Abgal sub-clan.


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