By James M. Dorsey
World Politics Review
U.S. and European efforts to stabilize Yemen and Somalia are boomeranging. Rather than weakening militants in both countries, Western counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies are fueling radicalism and turning wide swathes of the population against the West.
With little real effort to economically and politically stabilize the two countries, U.S. military and security support for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the embattled head of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, exacerbates local fault lines and strengthens deep-seated anti-Americanism.
The backfiring of Western policies is compounded by a one-size-fits-all approach and a failure to address local grievances. To be sure, the Saleh and Ahmed governments are as much a part of the problem as they are part of the solution. This, and differences between the goals of Western nations and those of their regional allies, complicates efforts to embed security and military policy within initiatives to improve the population's economic lot and enhance good governance. Nonetheless, the incentive to get the policy right is compelling: Together Yemen and Somalia control key oil-export routes through the Gulf of Aden; mounting instability in both countries threatens regional stability in the oil-rich gulf and surrounding resource-rich African nations.
Western policy assumes that ungoverned spaces fuel instability and provide oxygen to al-Qaida's Yemeni affiliate, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and to al-Shabab in Somalia, rather than viewing both countries as territories with alternative power structures that, if properly engaged, could potentially further Western interests and undermine support for the militants. A recent Chatham House report (.pdf) concludes that "no amount of international support can compensate for the TFG's lack of internal legitimacy," a shortcoming clearly illustrated by the desertion of TFG military recruits to al-Shabab. By contrast, the emergence of stable forms of local government in Somalia based on reconciliation among clans calls into question assumptions that a lack of central-government control in Yemen must necessarily result in tribal safe havens for AQAP.
Western policy assumptions also fail to adequately distinguish between AQAP's global ambitions, which were demonstrated by the failed Christmas 2009 bombing of a U.S.-bound airliner, with al-Shabab's continued focus on regional, rather than Western targets. For instance, al-Shabab's twin attacks in June on soccer fans in Kampala, which killed 74 people, were aimed to persuade Uganda to withdraw its troops from the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia. Western policymakers also see Somali refugees as potential jihadist recruits, ignoring the fact that most of those who have fled the country did so to escape the Islamists.
The Obama administration earlier this year took a step toward expanding its regional focus beyond piracy to address the emergence of lucrative networks engaged in human trafficking as well as the smuggling of arms, drugs and fuel. To move against these networks, which often operate with the connivance of government and security officials, the administration imposed sanctions on Yemeni and Somali arms merchants with close government ties, coupled with increased efforts to strengthen the coast-guard capabilities of Yemen and Somaliland, a self-declared republic in northwest Somalia. Yet, such actions are likely to have limited effect as long as they fail to similarly align the interests of the Yemeni navy, controlled by the Defense Ministry, and the coast guard, reporting to the interior minister. They must also guarantee that these forces are complemented by an effective customs service and ensure that Somaliland anti-piracy efforts move beyond targeting only those activities that threaten the interests of government ministers.
The threat posed by misguided Western policy extends beyond the borders of Yemen and Somalia into their extensive diaspora communities. Yemenis and Somalis increasingly see the U.S. and Europe as aggressors seeking to exclude domestic actors, rather than enhancing their ability to resolve local issues and build a system that provides greater accountability. The Somali community in the United States is proving to be a fertile al-Shabab recruiting ground, while Somali-Americans constitute the largest contingent of U.S. nationals suspected of joining al-Qaida affiliates. Britain's MI5 Director-General Jonathan Evans warned last year that terrorist plots hatched in Somalia and Yemen pose an increasing threat to U.K. security.
Increasingly, Yemen and Somalia demonstrate the need for finding and supporting creative measures that involve the private sector and civic groups in efforts to deradicalize individuals and groups. Such measures do exist. One campaign backed by FIFA, soccer's world body, and local Somali businessmen has shown success at luring child soldiers away from the jihadists with a program whose slogan is "Put down the gun, pick up the ball."
Another key to a successful policy is to align Western interests and those of regional allies. In Yemen, a division of labor between the U.S. and the U.K. has emerged, whereby Washington focuses on security and London on economic issues. However, Saudi Arabia, Yemen's single largest donor, has no clear Yemen policy and simply wants to keep the country afloat. In their new book, "Yemen On the Brink," the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Marina Ottaway and Christopher Boucek caution, "Without strong pressure to address the systemic challenges facing the country, it is extremely doubtful that the Yemeni government will make any serious efforts to curb corruption, improve governance or address political grievances, which are directed against the government itself. As long as donors remain divided, there can be no such pressure on the government of Yemen."
International donors have already begun to use badly needed foreign assistance as leverage to force the Yemeni government to address the issues fueling radicalism. At a meeting earlier this year, they demanded that Yemen clearly explain how aid will be managed before monies are transferred. But such aid must also be coherently designed and integrated if it is to provide a perspective of change to significant chunks of the population and, with it, an alternative to militant Islam.