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A Focus on Somalia's Issues with Terrorism and a Humanitarian Crisis

Aired September 29, 2009 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, Somalia, a new breeding ground for global jihad, a new sanctuary for Al Qaida?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to our new program.

Tonight, we focus on a country which could be the next crucible of terror, Somalia. We know it as a failed state where pirates patrol the high seas, where the U.S. first intervened to end a terrible famine back in 1992.

We covered that 17 years ago and the terrible fiasco when America's humanitarian mission turned into a hunt for warlords that ended in disaster. A U.S. Black Hawk helicopter was shot down, 18 soldiers were killed in that battle, and America turned off foreign intervention for the better part of a decade.

So why does all this matter? Because this nation of about 9 million in East Africa could be turning into a safe haven for Al Qaida. The danger there makes it difficult for anyone to travel, including journalists, but we have this exclusive report now by Sudanese journalist Nima Elbagir on the most powerful radical Islamist group in Somalia, Al-Shabaab, and its ally, Hizbul Islam.


NIMA ELBAGIR, CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Late morning in Mogadishu. A Hizbul Islam militiaman crouches at one of the dozens of makeshift barricades that carve up the city. It's the last Friday in Ramadan, but the Islamic holy month has brought no respite from the daily fighting in the Somali capital.

Hizbul Islam and their allies, Al-Shabaab, whose name in Arabic means "The Youth," are radical Somali Islamist groups. They say they're fighting to establish the true application of Islamic law in Somalia. Western intelligence agencies say they have links with Al Qaida.

Between them, Hizbul Islam and Al-Shabaab control two-thirds of Mogadishu, and they're tightening the noose on the government.

(on-screen): There's been continual fighting for the last 24 hours. You can hear the gunfire behind me. And even by the standards of Mogadishu, it's been incredibly intense. We're only half a kilometer from the presidential palace, but just behind me, across that valley where you can see the smoke, that's where the insurgents are. They're trying to inch closer to the seat of power.

(voice-over): There's been no government in full control of Somalia since 1991. The divisions here, based on clan and interpretations of Islam, have bred anarchy. The current president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, is seen by the West as a moderate Islamist. He used to be an ally of the groups now trying to oust him and kill members of his government.

Neither side in the fight for Somalia's capital has shown its people much mercy. The young Al-Shabaab fighters are happy to show off their firepower, but their faces remain covered. They worry that if they're recognized they might not be able to carry out suicide operations, a tactic they've adopted from the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, insurgencies offering not just inspiration, but experienced fighters.

Mohammed Uzman Aruz (ph) is a Hizbul Islam commander. In his stronghold in the north of Mogadishu, he tells us foreigners have been filling out his ranks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We do not view other Muslims as foreigners and anyone who is a Muslim can come to Somalia. We welcome any Muslim who is ready to help us kill non-Muslims and wants to join us in jihad.

ELBAGIR: AMISOM, the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, it was dispatched in early 2007 in an effort by the international community to check Somalia's downward spiral. It's mainly made up of Ugandan and Burundian troops and numbers under 5,000 soldiers.

But its presence has become a rallying call and a target for foreign Mujahideen flooding into the country. This Al-Shabaab training video was distributed by the insurgents in Mogadishu in March of this year. They say it's a present to the Somali people. A message from Osama bin Laden can be heard over the images of jihad preparation.

Bin Laden, calling on Al-Shabaab by name, telling them to fight on and fight harder. The commentary says that among Al-Shabaab there are both white and Arab Mujahideen, and it says this fighter is an American citizen of Somali origin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I sincerely advise my beloved brothers and sisters to make hidra (ph) and come join us and defend the religion of Allah.

ELBAGIR: Intelligence sources in the region tell CNN there are an estimated 500 foreign fighters in Somalia. They bring tactics and training learned in other wars, like making improvised explosive devices, which have proved so devastating in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid tells me they're making Somalia even more dangerous.

OMAR ABDIRASHID ALI SHARMARKE, PRIME MINISTER OF SOMALIA: All indications are that most of the people who have fled Afghanistan and Iraq are on their way to Somalia. In the last few months, we had foreign fighters, jihadists coming to the country. And I think we -- I think that's why the situations here have got worse and, I think, added new kind of element into Somalia's situation.

ELBAGIR: The government is desperate for international support.

SHARMARKE: I think any support delayed might be support denied and that the international community really must act now. I think Somalia should be prevented to become another Afghanistan or another Iraq.

ELBAGIR: The government's hold is slipping, in part because of this man. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys was one of the most powerful men in the Islamic Courts Union when it briefly ruled Mogadishu three years ago. Now he's fighting the government as the head of Hizbul Islam. He's listed by both the U.S. and United Nations as a supporter of terrorism and has a $5 million price on his head.

(on-screen): We've been told that Sheikh Hassan has agreed to meet with us, so they've asked us to drive up to the border between the territory that they hold and the territory that the government holds, where his car will be waiting to pick us up.

(voice-over): As we cross to the insurgent side, we're ordered to switch off the camera. We're allowed to start filming again only in the darkened corridor that leads into the meeting room.

Inside his safe house, Sheikh Hassan claims he has no organizational ties with Al Qaida, but says his allies in Al-Shabaab do.

SHEIKH HASSAN DAHIR AWEYS (through translator): Al Qaida has been treated unjustly. The Taliban have been treated unjustly and have been occupied and pursued across their land. What is the crime committed by he who has a relationship with Al Qaida? This is why we fight, so that we can have the freedom to have the relationships we want.

ELBAGIR: And Sheikh Hassan has this warning for the United States.

AWEYS (through translator): They have interfered in Afghanistan. What have they gained? They interfered in Iraq. What have they gained? Add to that list any interference in Somalia. By the grace of God, the whole world will be in flames.

ELBAGIR: Mogadishu and most of Somalia is already in flames. Tens of thousands of people have fled the capital in the last two months as rival militia have fought over its ruins. The teenage fighters tearing up the streets know no other reality, but the echoes of that reality now threaten to reverberate far beyond Mogadishu and far beyond Somalia.

Nima Elbagir, CNN, Mogadishu.


AMANPOUR: And joining me now, someone with firsthand experience of Somalia, Ken Menkhaus. He was political adviser for the U.N. operation there in the early 1990s, and he gave testimony to the United States Senate in March on how to respond to the threat of radical Islamist terror in Somalia.

So welcome, Mr. Menkhaus, to the program. You heard right there in that report, Sheikh Ahmed of Hizbul Islam basically threatening the United States, saying it had failed in Afghanistan and Iran -- Iraq, rather. If it intervened in Somalia, the whole world would be in flames. What is the strength and the capability of those groups and Al Qaida right now in Somalia?

KEN MENKHAUS, FORMER U.S. ADVISER IN SOMALIA Well, they have the -- the ability to disrupt. There's no question about that. But they're actually surprisingly weak. These groups are very internally divided, both Hizbul Islamiya and Shabaab. Pretty much everyone on the playing field is very weak, as is the transitional federal government. Their ability to -- to disrupt any U.S. operations in the country, particularly support to the TFG, is real, but -- but I wouldn't exaggerate their capacities.

AMANPOUR: So I just want to put up a map for our viewers. We're talking about the Horn of Africa. Already, Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is saying that he is concerned that, for instance, from the Horn of Africa across there to Yemen there could be sanctuaries for Al Qaida. Is this spreading? I mean, you call it weak, but is there nonetheless a link there?

MENKHAUS: Well, the question of "Could Al Qaida use Somalia?" is somewhat different from how strong or weak Shabaab and Hizbul are. It is certainly the case that Al Qaida operates in Somalia and in the entire Horn of Africa. To date, they've mainly been dabbling in Somalia. It's a very low-cost, high-yield irritant against the United States, the West, and -- and regional states like Ethiopia.

I personally think it would be very risky for them to use Somalia as a base. I think they'd be very exposed. It's a non-permissive environment for everyone, for relief agencies, for terrorists. I'd be surprised if they made a significant move there, and I think they would face a lot of Somali resistance to a large foreign radical presence there.

AMANPOUR: They're now talking about a foreign presence. They're talking about anywhere up to -- from 100 to 500. And the United States is already taking some action. The U.S. government has already basically acknowledged that it sent some 40 tons of military equipment to the transitional federal government, the TFG, and that more may be on the way.

What is the U.S. doing? And what can it do, getting involved now there again?

MENKHAUS: The shipment of arms to the transitional federal government was meant as a symbolic gesture to demonstrate that we back the TFG, that the TFG is the only solution. We're not going to let it fail.

And there are good reasons for doing that. Many of the actual arms found their way into the open market in Mogadishu. And so from a -- from a military point of view, it was not successful, but from a political point of view, sent the message that we're not going to leave the TFG high and dry.

Having said that, the TFG is so week and -- and -- and some of its members don't even appear particularly interested in winning this war, that it's left both the U.S. and the U.N. at a bit of a loss as to what to do.

AMANPOUR: So what we're talking about is a fairly moderate transitional government that the U.N. and the U.S. supports, we're talking about these radical groups, Hizbul Islam and Al-Shabaab, and we're talking about Al Qaida. Is Al Qaida the biggest threat there? Does -- do -- do -- do the U.S. not really care about the internal groups, then?

MENKHAUS: That's a great question, and it depends who you ask. For the United States, it's Al Qaida first that is a threat, because they will act in the region to attack Western interests and targets. For neighboring Ethiopia, which is very important in all of this, arguably they are more concerned about Shabaab and Hizbul Islamiya, because they -- they -- they promise to establish an Islamic state in all Somalia inhabited portions of the Eastern Horn, which includes a chunk of Ethiopia. So our ally, Ethiopia, and the U.S. are actually fighting two somewhat different wars in the region.

AMANPOUR: Let me just again point to this map, just to make sure we all know where we are. The U.S., in fact, in September of this year made one of its most brazen sort of forays, really, into -- into Somalia, when it went after Nabhan, someone who they suspected was part of an Al Qaida attack in Mombasa, Kenya, several years ago, in 2002.

So, I mean, they're really targeting that area. Are they -- can we expect more of these kinds of interventions?

MENKHAUS: I think they're going to be very selective. The fact is, there were only a small number of what the U.S. government called high- value East Africa Al Qaida targets moving in and out of Somalia, three to five people, of whom Nabhan was one.

A couple are dead now. And the fact that they were able to hit Nabhan, I think, was important. It didn't elicit the same kind of very negative Somali reaction you might have expected, because he's a foreigner. And what many Somalis are saying is that they're -- they're -- they're tied and angry of foreigners, whether it's the West or Al Qaida, bringing still more misery and fighting.

AMANPOUR: And yet, just to be clear, you say they're weak, but they control almost all of -- of that -- of that area, right, all of Somalia?

MENKHAUS: They have loose control over it, but they are internally very divided. There are real tensions within the group over Kismayo, for instance. Available evidence suggests that were they to succeed in pushing the transitional federal government out of -- of Mogadishu entirely, there would be another war, and it would be between the Islamists themselves.

AMANPOUR: All right. Mr. Menkhaus, we'll have to continue this conversation another time. Thank you so much for joining us.

MENKHAUS: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: In addition, Somalia is facing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. What can be done about it? It does strengthen the militants, and we'll have some answers next.


AMANPOUR: In East Africa, 23 million people are facing severe hunger. Somalia is being hit hard by drought and crop failure, by its worst humanitarian crisis in 10 years. And then, of course, there's the war we've been talking about. All of this strengthens the hand of the militants.

More now from Nima Elbagir in Mogadishu.


ELBAGIR (voice-over): A mortar strike in the south of Mogadishu. Aisha (ph) and her son were in their home. The ambulance had to wait while insurgents brought them out of the danger zone, but Aisha (ph) died on the way to the hospital.

Sadiya (ph) is 12 years old. She was helping her mother make dinner when she was hit by a stray bullet, lodging into her spine. There had been a street skirmish between government forces and insurgents just outside her home. She's now paralyzed from the neck down.

Daha (ph) is 13 years old. He's been in a coma for the last eight hours after being hit by shrapnel. No one knows if he'll ever regain consciousness.

Medina Hospital in Mogadishu is funded by the International Red Cross. For most of the civilians left in the Somali capital, this is the hospital. Through nearly two decades of civil war, the staff here have been witness to the worst ravages of the conflict.

DR. MOHAMMED YUSSIF HASSAN, HOSPITAL DIRECTOR: When there is war, there is no protection, there's nothing. Around hundred people come in around this hospital daily. From May until now, we had almost 1,500 wounded people.

ELBAGIR: It's hard to put a number on the civilians killed here.

HASSAN: And the suffering of the people is getting -- is getting even worse.

ELBAGIR: It's not just the bullets and the bombs. Cholera is endemic, and chronic malnutrition leaves both children and adults susceptible to disease.

HASSAN: Even the state on the condition of the diseased people are getting worse in this last three years we are having. I think that was the worst in the history of this country.

ELBAGIR: Down by the ancient port, pock-mocked buildings surround a deserted checkpoint. Unbelievably, this was once Mogadishu's commercial hub and was briefly reopened when the Islamic Courts controlled the city three years ago.

Now the only sign of life is sporadic sniper fire, as radical Islamic groups baffle the government.

(on-screen): You can see that this area is completely deserted. About a third of the residents of Mogadishu have left the capital.

(voice-over): In the last two months, tens of thousands of people have taken the road north to Mogadishu. Colorful signs along the roadside announce the names of camps that have sprung up either side. Aid agencies say this stretch of road has the highest concentration of displaced people on the planet.

This is Al-Shabaab territory, and their militant brand of Islam doesn't tolerate the presence of foreign aid workers. International aid agencies have been doing what they can, working through Somali staff, but it's not enough.

Safidahi (ph) is 70 years old. She and her eight-month-pregnant daughter Banadir (ph) came here a month ago. They still haven't received any aid.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): We just live a horrible life. I don't have any food, and I can't work.

ELBAGIR: They've been living off donations from their equally hungry neighbors.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): We escaped the war, but now we need help and peace.

ELBAGIR: What is striking here is how few men there are. The war seems to have absorbed most of the husbands, brothers and fathers. Many are fighters, but many more are victims.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): My husband was killed as we were trying to escape. I fled from Mogadishu with my four children, and we've had no one to help us. We thought we'd find help here, but we've received nothing. Behind us in Mogadishu, there is war. And here, there is hunger.

ELBAGIR: Halima Malim (ph) is 50. She says there have been many months without aid. Now, she said, when it does arrive, she sells her share in the hope of saving money to be able to buy her family food when there are no distributions.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): The newcomers have money to spend, but when there aren't enough buyers, I have to borrow from other people and end up in debt, so sometimes I eat, and sometimes I don't.

ELBAGIR (on-screen): Nearly half the Somali population -- that's almost 4 million people -- are completely reliant on food aid. And 1 in every 5 Somali children is acutely malnourished. And as the fighting continues in Mogadishu, continues to increase in severity, more and more people are fleeing to the camps on the outskirts of the capital.

(voice-over): Back at Medina Hospital, we find more dead and injured after another burst of fighting. Thirty people have been killed. As the battle for Mogadishu identifies, the choice for its people has become an impossible one: stay and risk death by bombs, bullets and disease or move to the camps, where the drip feed of aid is slowly drying up.

After nearly 20 years of conflict, the almost inconceivable is happening: Life for Somalis is getting worse.

Nima Elbagir, CNN, Mogadishu.


AMANPOUR: And that's a really rare look inside Somalia and a look at how the people there are faring. Joining me to talk about some answers on this worsening crisis is Nicole Widdersheim, director of Oxfam International's U.N. office.

Thank you for coming in. You heard that woman there say basically they're caught between the bullets and the barrenness. How can you get to these people? How can you relieve their humanitarian suffering?

NICOLE WIDDERSHEIM, DIRECTOR, OXFAM U.N. OFFICE: Well, it's extremely difficult for all the aid workers inside Somalia right now. Last year, 2008, 40 aid workers were killed trying to do just that, trying to deliver life-saving assistance. Right now, over half of the population relies on food and emergency assistance inside Somalia.

AMANPOUR: Let's go to a map and show just exactly the swath of dire - - dire need there. The population is how big?

WIDDERSHEIM: It's about -- a little bit over 7 million.

AMANPOUR: And the number of -- of people dependent, you said, is something like...

WIDDERSHEIM: About 3.8 million.

AMANPOUR: Which is huge.

WIDDERSHEIM: Yes, half the population.

AMANPOUR: So all of here in the middle is humanitarian emergency. Unless one should think it's any better outside, the rest is acute likelihood of -- of crisis there.

WIDDERSHEIM: That's true. That's true. We have estimates now that 1 in 6 children are malnourished in Somalia.

AMANPOUR: Is this approaching 1992 proportions...

WIDDERSHEIM: Absolutely.

AMANPOUR: ... when then-President Bush intervened?

WIDDERSHEIM: It's -- it's there. The Somalis that we talked to and our Somali staff say that they hadn't seen it worse until that last time, in 1992. And it's having a regional effect, as well.

AMANPOUR: And is -- is there a lot of funding? Is there a lot of food and humanitarian supplies going in?

WIDDERSHEIM: The international community has tried to keep Somalia on life support for the last 20 years, and that's just what it is, life support. It's a Band-Aid. They need to find a solution, a comprehensive solution that ends the conflict, but this has been going on for 20 years. And so we do need more assistance now. We do need more aid to come in now. We need it to go in coordinated and be more effective.

AMANPOUR: How does it precisely affect the region, in terms of countries, neighboring countries?

WIDDERSHEIM: Well, Ethiopia and Kenya are on Somalia's borders. There's about 8,000 Somalis trying to cross into Kenya on a monthly basis, about 1,000 going into Ethiopia on a monthly basis. The camps that are in northern Kenya have been there years ago. They were established to receive a certain amount of people. In the 1990s, one camp, Dadaab camp, was built for 90,000 people. It now has 300,000 people.

AMANPOUR: And how much do the militants complicate -- in other words, using potential humanitarian aid to control the people?

WIDDERSHEIM: Well, what I can speak to on that -- that issue is that, with the violence continuing, so many players involved, so many parties to the conflict, it makes delivery of assistance very difficult. There's been a lot of concern over aid being diverted, and that just makes it more and more difficult. We need to get the aid to the people.

But that is not an excuse to stop assistance going into Somalia just because it's difficult. The people need it now more than ever.

AMANPOUR: We've been there before. We're obviously going to continue to watch this.

Nicole, thank you so much for coming in.

And that is it for us now. Thank you for watching. We'll be back tomorrow with a look at a scathing U.S. report accusing Israel and Palestinian groups of war crimes in the Gaza war earlier this year. For all of us here, goodbye now from New York.