We Should Be Paying More Attention to Somalia

And a certain House freshman could be an important voice calling out the Trump administration's dramatic increase in airstrikes.
March 22, 2019
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File photo of Mogadishu. (Photo by Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)

If you care about Somalia, this isn’t a good time. The local al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabab, remains active and effective, despite or perhaps because of a dramatic spike in U.S. airstrikes ordered by President Trump under loosened rules of engagement in March 2017.

In the first two months of 2019, United States Africa Command killed 225 people in 24 airstrikes targeting al-Shabab, the New York Times reported earlier this month. The air war seems to have substituted for a joined-up approach that might have a chance at stabilizing Somalia.

Stephen Schwartz, United States ambassador to Somalia from 2016 to 2017,  told the New York Times, “It could be there is some well-thought-out strategy behind all of this, but I really doubt it.” Until December, the United States hadn’t had a resident ambassador  in Somalia since 1991; it was simply too dangerous.

The U.S. and other Western powers are trying to help the federal government bring order to the country, but to little effect. In July, the European Parliament noted that “state actors” as well as non-state actors were responsible for human rights abuses in Somalia and that there have been extrajudicial executions, sexual and gender-based violence, arbitrary arrests and detentions and abductions; whereas according to the UN Human Rights Office, the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) of Somalia routinely violates international human rights law; whereas it often operates in an extrajudicial manner and its powers are too broad;

The Parliament also stated, “according to Transparency International, Somalia is the most corrupt country in the world.”

Somalia needs some friends in Congress. Where is someone who can suggest something more creative than airstrikes, someone who can call the Trump administration policy to account?  What about Ilhan Omar, the outspoken freshman representative from Minneapolis who was born in Somalia and elected with the help of Minneapolis’ large Somali population?  (Around 74,000 Somalis have moved to or been resettled in Minnesota in the last couple of decades.) As a new member of the 47-member House Foreign Affairs Committee she might have some influence.

Yet Rep. Omar has tweeted a grand total of one time about Somalia since taking her seat, in the context of the firestorm over her attacks on Israel, claiming she would not hesitate to criticize any government, including Somalia’s or our own.  But Rep Omar has not criticized Somalia’s government that I can find, nor engaged with U.S. policy there. In fact, she’s tweeted about Somalia just 15 times since January 2014 and most of these mentions were very superficial.

Ilhan Omar is ignoring her chance to be a much-needed voice for Somalia, and especially for Somalia’s women, 98 percent of whom experience FGM , according to UNICEF estimates.  Instead, she’s expended much political capital posturing on Israel, which has earned her considerable backlash and led, in a meandering fashion, to a House resolution condeming anti-Semitism and other bigotry.

This is especially odd because a close ally of Donald Trump has  been a major player in Somalia, someone a Democrat should relish attacking; someone many Republicans regard as unhinged, unwise, and remorseless: Erik Prince, brother of Education SecretaryBetsy DeVos and self-proclaimed Trumpworld insider, close associate of Steve Bannon and George Nader, using Chinese and Emirati funds to create companies in Somalia.

In fact, in June 2017, three months after Trump approved looser rules on airstrikes, Prince’s Frontier Services Group (FSG), announced a contract to provide “logistics, aviation and security services” for a development project in a new state in Somalia, the South West State.

Robert Young Pelton – who  conducted Prince’s first major interview in 2004 for his book Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror, points out that Prince is  a Chinese proxy as well as a UAE proxy in the Horn of Africa. A Chinese state entity, CITIC, has a 20 percent stake in Prince’s Frontier Services Group.

In a recent Al Jazeera TV Head to Head interview with a notably hostile Mehdi Hasan, Prince made his extensive involvement in Somalia clear, saying  that he was at the January 2017 Seychelles meeting with UAE and Russian nationals that Special Counsel Mueller is investigating, to talk about “Somalia and some of the other problem areas we’d helped with”. (That happens near the 34-minute mark.) . To an American, the Seychelles may seem like the middle of nowhere, but they are little more than  800 miles from Mogadishu. (My own take on Prince in the Seychelles is here.)

Prince’s influence in Somalia stems from his UAE backing; when Blackwater came under legal pressure in the years following its 2007 massacre of Iraqi civilians, Prince re-located to the UAE, where he still maintains a home. And the UAE has exerted its influence in what it perceives as its backyard.

One Somali-American expert says, “UAE training of elements of the Somalia National Army  – including units trained by Prince – has been counterproductive because these units have been perceived as loyal to the foreign backers who finance them.  They have been a magnet for attacks not only by al Shabab but by clan militia. These units have different uniforms and have better equipment. Sometimes they have gotten into exchanges of fire with regular units and civilian casualties have resulted.”

Pelton also noted Prince’s failed projects in Somalia: “When he left the U.S. in 2010, Prince attempted to set up a still-born presidential guard in Mogadishu and a failed anti piracy police force in Puntland.” Puntland is a semi-autonomous state that has tried unsuccessfully to win recognition as an autonomous state.

The New York Times published a scathing account of the Puntland effort in October 2012. Prince’s shell company, Sterling Corporate Services was criticized by the United Nations as a “brazen, large-scale and protracted violation” of the UN arms embargo on Somalia. After incidents involving beatings of trainees and a death, Sterling pulled out suddenly when one of its trainers was shot dead by a trainee:

with the antipiracy army now abandoned by its sponsors, the hundreds of half-trained and well-armed members of the Puntland Maritime Police Force have been left to fend for themselves at a desert camp carved out of the sand, perhaps to join up with the pirates or Qaeda-linked militants or to sell themselves to the highest bidder in Somalia’s clan wars — yet another dangerous element in the Somali mix.

So why isn’t Rep. Omar trying to do something to help Somalia? Why her silence on Prince?

Perhaps Rep. Omar is biding her time, planning on using her perch in the Foreign Affairs Committee to contribute to the dialogue on Somalia once she has more seniority (but Omar’s tweets on Israel don’t suggest that she is the patient type.) It should be noted that Omar hasn’t ignored the Horn of Africa completely; she was part of a recent House delegation to Eritrea, a nasty pariah state that has lately made peace with Ethiopia. Omar’s office declined to comment for this article.

What is Omar’s family’s history and how does it fit in the complex fabric of Somalia politics? On her father’s side, she is a member of the large, powerful Majerteen clan, which has a power base in Puntland.  However, being Majerteen need not mean much given that Omar grew up in Mogadishu and left Somalia at the age of 8.

But there are hints of Omar’s loyalties. In March 2013, as a private citizen, Omar supported the creation of Jubbaland, a new state in Somalia bordering Kenya:

Kismayo (the capital of Jubbaland) offered refuge for me as a child running from war in the capital Mogadishu, and it has since been a place of unimagined violence. I was excited to celebrate its liberation and look forward to one day returning there as peace prevails. To my relatives still residing in Kismayo, I would like to congratulate them and urge them to not lose sight of this amazing opportunity to secure peace and prosperity.

Others take a less benign view of Jubbaland, pointing out that it is a Kenyan puppet state set up to control the port of Kismayo, where Kenyan smugglers operate. With this in mind, consider what Omar told Minneapolis Citypages in 2016 about her family’s fleeing Somalia in 1991: “My family chose to go to Kenya because my grandfather had contacts there.”Citypages reported,“Omar’s paternal grandfather Somalia’s National Marine Transport director. Abukar oversaw the string of lighthouses along the Arabian Sea coastline.

So, by her own account Omar’s family had some pull in Kenya, and she might well feel grateful to Kenya and its satellite state, Jubbaland, for taking in her family as refugees.

Perhaps Omar doesn’t want to raise the specter of her own potential dual allegiances, given that she has made so much noise about AIPAC and Jewish American politicians. But given her general lack of reticence to speak up despite her newcomer status, and given that she could be advocating for policies that would benefit both the United States and her home country, her silence is curious.

Ann Marlowe

Ann Marlowe is a writer and businesswoman in New York. She tweets at @annmarlowe.