By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 2, 2006; A22
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.
Abukar Omar Adan was a devoutly Islamic and heavily armed clan elder with ties to the strict neighborhood religious courts that had brought a semblance of order to a city without a government.
His rival, Bashir Raghe, was a brash, younger man who had been a waste contractor with the U.S. military forces in Mogadishu before the United States pulled out.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Raghe became one of America's foremost allies in Somalia, receiving payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars for capturing and turning over terrorism suspects to U.S. officials, Somalis say.
Raghe strode through Mogadishu wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses on his head and a pistol strapped to each hip. And in the months leading up to the fighting in Mogadishu, he was seen using crisp, new $100 bills to buy machine guns and heavily armed pickup trucks.
In addition to his alliance with the Americans, Raghe had other strategic assets: He controlled Esaly Airport, a seaside strip of packed sand north of Mogadishu, and, at least nominally, the road leading there from the city.
The trouble began late last year when Adan paid $30,000 for land that straddled the airport road, intending to build a development including homes and warehouses.
Fearing the loss of control over lucrative airport traffic, Raghe objected, according to Adan's brother and son. After several verbal confrontations, the two sides began fighting in the open Jan. 13, moments after the U.S. intelligence officials -- most accounts put the number at four -- had landed at Esaly.
A few miles away, fleets of trucks mounted with machine guns exchanged fire. By the end of a battle lasting nearly six hours, Raghe's forces had killed seven of Adan's men and captured the land and four of his gun trucks -- a source of enduring frustration to Adan in a city where clout was measured mainly in terms of firepower.
Adan's son, Abdulkadir Abukar, 30, a key adviser to his father, said by phone that his family had no idea that Americans were nearby during the battle. But through the Abgal sub-clan's system of rapidly shared information, it soon became known.
Fearing a reaction by the Americans, Abukar and his uncle traveled to Nairobi, the region's business and diplomatic hub, to reassure U.S. officials that the gunfight was only about land. Abukar and his uncle also requested that their four captured gun trucks be returned.
But over the next several weeks, in numerous discussions in person and on the phone, U.S. officials accused Abukar and his family of being terrorists, he said. "They said, 'You were ready to kill us.' . . . They said, 'Your file will be put in Washington, and you will be recorded as a terrorist group.' "
Two other Somalis with direct knowledge of the meetings gave similar accounts. A third Somali, speaking on condition of anonymity, recounted a separate but similar conversation with a U.S. intelligence official who said of the officers at the airstrip on Jan. 13: "They were ambushed. This was a terrorist who was trying to kill American officers."
Back in Mogadishu, the fight was seen differently -- as a sign of growing belligerence by the United States and the warlords it backed.
In the months leading up to the battle, Somalis say, officials of the Islamic courts had grown increasingly nervous as they watched Raghe and other suddenly flush warlords add men, guns and trucks to their arsenal. Surging demand caused the price of AK-47 assault rifles at Mogadishu's main market to more than quadruple, from $120 to $580. The price of gunmen went from $70 a month to $300, Somalis say.
"All of a sudden they were buying weapons," said Khadija O. Ali, founder of a Mogadishu women's group and a graduate student at George Mason University, speaking in Nairobi. "All of the sudden there were planes coming and the Americans were meeting only with" the warlords.
Anti-Americanism, stoked by the war in Iraq, intensified as supporters of the Islamic courts spread word that the United States was backing the warlords, whom many residents of Mogadishu say operated with impunity as their gunmen terrorized the lawless city, raping, robbing and killing as they pleased.
Public opinion gradually coalesced in favor of the Islamic courts and their militias, Somalis say. Prominent businessmen contributed men, trucks and guns to the cause of driving out the warlords. And so on Feb. 18, when Raghe and several other warlords announced the formation of an "anti-terrorism coalition" -- featuring the backing of even more American money -- the reaction was swift. Battles broke out the same day in a struggle now seen as being between homegrown Islamic militias and a hated U.S. proxy force.
A month later, on the morning of March 22, Adan's forces -- backed now by the Islamic militias -- attacked Raghe's position at the disputed land. This time, despite the enhanced support of the U.S. government for the warlords, Raghe was routed in fighting that left dozens of his men dead.
The battles between Adan and Raghe were viewed in Mogadishu as the crucial first fights between Islamic militias and secular, U.S.-backed warlords.
By the time the fighting ended in early June, more than 300 Somalis had been killed. Aweys, long a target of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, now heads the Islamic militias that rule Mogadishu.
The U.S. effort failed, Somalis said, because it focused only on seizing terrorism suspects, not attempting to improve living conditions in one of the world's poorest countries.
"It will radicalize the people," said Ali, a naturalized U.S. citizen. "Unless I am also safe, you are not going to be safe. That's the message the Americans must learn. They cannot fight this alone."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.