WASHINGTON – To many Americans, Somalia represents an African nation in the pre-Sept. 11, 2001, world — the scene of a failed 1993 invasion that left 18 U.S servicemen dead and a politically-embarrassing scar on the United States.
But in recent months, an estimated 300 people have been killed and 1,700 injured in violence between Islamic militants and militias connected to warlords who are allegedly being covertly backed by the U.S government.
The relationship, say analysts tracking events on the ground, led to anti-American protests last week in the capital city of Mogadishu, where 13 years before, rebels connected to warlords dragged the body of an American serviceman through the streets in an incident now immortalized by the film "Black Hawk Down."
On Monday, Islamic groups seized the capital, raising fears that an Al Qaeda-linked faction could impose anti-Western rule.
Local witnesses say Somalis were reacting, in part, to reports printed in Newsweek, The Washington Post and foreign newspapers that claim the United States is funneling money through the CIA or U.S. military's Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa to a group of three major warlords who operate under the name Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism.
The U.S. government has not confirmed or denied the reports, but White House and State Department officials have said repeatedly they are concerned that Al Qaeda and other foreign terrorists may be using the growing presence of Islamic courts and militias to gain a stronghold in Somalia, which has not had a functioning central government since 1991.
"We're very interested in seeing that the Somali people start to build up institutions that are responsive to the Somali people, that at some point have the hope of being democratic institutions that respect the rights of all individuals there. At the same time, we don't want to see Somalia turn into a safe haven for foreign terrorists. We do have very real concerns about that," McCormack said Monday, noting that the United States has no official embassy presence in Mogadishu.
"Everybody in the world wants to see a more peaceful, better situation for the Somali people. We, of course, are trying to do our part in that regard, but ultimately it's going to have to be the Somali people who work together to solve the issues of the violence that is really now endemic in Somalia," McCormack added, without refuting the basis of the question posed to him on whether the War on Terror would be hurt if the "U.S.-backed warlord alliance loses its grip" on the capital.
The warlords supposedly backed by the Americans have been called thuggish, corrupt and counterproductive to the fledgling United Nations-supported central government, which really has no control and can't meet inside Mogadishu because it's too dangerous, say foreign policy experts watching the latest turn of events.
"When you back the warlords, you aren't backing any good guys," said Princeton Lyman, a former U.S. ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria during the Clinton administration.
Analysts warn that supporting bad actors and risking the alienation of the Somali people is the wrong approach for the United States in its post Sept. 11 mission to fight terrorism and create stability in the volatile region. They also suggest the problems in Somalia are not rooted so much in any influx of anti-Western terrorism as they are in power struggles among the warlords and Islamic clerics, who have provided some semblance of order and social services — albeit through the strict Sharia law courts.
"I think the real policy the U.S. should be pursuing is one that seeks to actually install a functioning, stable government there that will more effectively address our effort against terrorists — instead of giving money to people who are essentially criminals," said Eben Kaplan, a research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations.
"The people who were shooting at U.S. soldiers in the streets of Mogadishu in April 1993 are probably still in the country and who knows what side they are on," Kaplan said.
The War on Terror has led the United States to so-called terrorist strongholds all over the world, and not all the partners willing to help the fight have been ideal, said Brett Schaefer, Sub-Saharan Africa expert for the Heritage Foundation.
"In the post-9/11 era, we are trying to focus on failed states … they provide terrorists opportunities," Schaefer said. "You have to deal with some pretty unsavory characters — terrorists don't tend to run in the church group circles.
"But there is a difference between trying to address this issue (of terrorism) and trying to play kingmaker," Schaefer added, saying he thinks the United States is doing what it can to gather intelligence and fend off foreign terror elements. "I don’t get the feeling they're trying to play kingmakers."
Others say Somalia is not a "failed state," but until the recent troubles, instead had been establishing a strong civil society, including an independent media and even an active business community. The focus now should be on working with the United Nations, humanitarian groups and neighboring African countries to support the central government and to assist economic and human development there, so the Somalis won't have to depend on more extreme Islamic factions for order and assistance.
"There are lot of good things going on in Somalia," said Dave Peterson, director of the Africa program at the National Endowment for Democracy, who specified that his opinions are his own and not those of the Washington-based organization. He has traveled to Mogadishu several times over the last few years and said members of many groups are risking their lives to rebuild the country.
"These are the kinds of people who should be getting much more support," he said. "But trying to play this game with the warlords is very dangerous and very destructive."
Funding fighters like the warlord militias may only result in a situation akin to what happened with the Taliban in Afghanistan, Lyman said. During the 1980s, the U.S. government supported Afghan rebels against the Soviet invasion. Remnants of those fighters later became the Taliban, a militant Islamic movement that took over most of Afghanistan and housed Al Qaeda, which was behind the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. Al Qaeda is also the root for a host of other terrorist operations across the globe today, including those inside Iraq.
Helping warlords "could result in more chaos and drive moderate Muslims to the more extreme end," he said.
Indicted suspects from an Al Qaeda cell responsible in part for the November 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombassa, Kenya, as well as an unsuccessful attempt to shoot down an Israeli passenger jet at a nearby airport, are among the terrorists already in Somalia, notes one expert familiar with the situation.
"As we continue to be successful in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in rooting out the militant infrastructure … the Horn of Africa is really an ideal place for those types of individuals to go," said Anya Harshey, terrorism analyst for Strategic Forecasting Inc., a private intelligence consulting agency.
"There are no other alternatives than working with the people who can provide us leverage," Harshey said. "Unfortunately, those people are thugs."
Critics of this view say not all Islamist factions in Somalia are tied to terrorism, and warlords working with the Americans may be exaggerating the terrorist presence just to get resources to fight for authority among the other factions.
"They are very cynical, they will say anything you want to hear to get your support," offered Peterson. "They (warlords) are playing a game with us — that's my sense of it. ... As always the civilians and the innocent people in between are getting killed."