Somalia is worrisome, but over-glorified as a terror haven

When one thinks of Somalia, standard pictures come to mind. An utter black hole where a government, albeit a predatory one, used to be. Chaos, clan warfare and the massacre of international peacekeepers. People who live in a state of extreme poverty, poor health and low living standards. A place where porous borders, easily recruited gunmen and piracy reign.

With all this, it is no surprise that such a place might be a haven for al-Qaida and other radical groups. Somalia was the first case study brought before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after Sept. 11, 2001, and singled out as a threat on a very threatening continent. The lawlessness of the country (if one can call it that, because it is at best a geographical expression) has been exploited to others advantage, which for terrorist operatives is a transshipment point for money and weapons and a transit haven for fugitives.

A detailed U.N. report of the arms flow into Somalia, delivered to the U.N. sanctions committee early last month, reports that the terrorists who attacked an Israeli resort and an airliner along the Kenyan coast last November posed as lobstermen while they smuggled missiles and other weapons from Somalia aboard a wooden boat. The SA-7B missiles used in the attack came from Yemen or Eritrea, which had made an arms shipment to one of the major Somali warlords in 1998 in violation of an arms embargo the U.N. Security Council imposed in 1992. The panel also determined that it is relatively easy to obtain not only small arms but also man-portable air defense systems, light anti-tank weapons, explosives and surface-to-air missiles in Somalia.

However, no major terrorist installations have ever been discovered there. Somalia has not produced any Taliban-style radical administrations, nor shown a trend of being heavily infiltrated by al-Qaida. By all measures, it should be a much more active terror base than it is. The reasons it is not are twofold.

First, since Sept. 11, 2001, no organization has been able to put down any sort of physical institution. These types of permanent structures are exactly what can be tracked and destroyed by coalition forces, so any terror cells there must remain small or largely made up of indigenous members to blend in. Second, and possibly most importantly, collapsed states might not be so attractive to terrorist organizations after all.

Somalia provides the same inhospitable environment and challenges for terrorists as it did for peacekeepers and nongovernmental organization relief operations. There is no infrastructure, and terrorists themselves would be vulnerable to threats, extortion and kidnappings. Whatever resources they brought along with them would ensnare them in clan battles, and alliances would not be easy or cost-beneficial to create. Their movement would be visible to Somalis as outsiders, and the terrorists would face serious disadvantages from having to operate in such an exposed environment. The very absence of a recognized government would make it all the easier for U.S. special forces to swoop in and snatch whomever they please.

So is Somalia a concern for the national security of the United States? Definitely. The lack of a more formal terrorist presence doesn’t mean Somalia is immune. Many wanted terrorists are reported to be concealed in Mogadishu, Somalia and other port towns. However, planners should turn a more careful eye on weak and compromised states as well as those that are totally collapsed.

Countries that feature large central governments and serious deficiencies because of corruption, poor economic viability or ethnic tensions are practically inviting groups such as Hezbollah and al-Qaida to set up shop. Similarly, one can easily see from the increasing terrorist attacks within Muslim states directed at their own government and people, such as the recent al-Qaida attacks, that relatively strong states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan, which are constrained from taking action against Islamic terror or radicals for political reasons, should be of more concern as terror staging grounds.

Jennifer Shupe is a student at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Send comments to [email protected]