Born into a life of privilege as the son of a provincial governor in Somalia, Hussein Yusuf’s life changed forever in 1991 when insurgents drove his family out of Mogadishu.
His family returned to Somalia several times after, where his father had set up feeding stations for refugees and forbade his son Hussein from joining the army. At the age of 18, Hussein fled to Yemen where he landed a job with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, despite a formal higher education, because of his research skills and fluency in English, Somali, and Arabic. While in Yemen, he interviewed refugees for repatriation, collected security data and coordinated repatriation programs for a caseload of 10,000 refugees.
He eventually ended up in the US where he is currently a master’s of Social Work student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Lets start with 1991 and the overthrow of Somali President Mohamed Siad Barre. How did this impact Somalia and your family?
After the overthrow of Siad Barre, Somalia became fragmented as various tribes fought over the leadership of the government. Despite their attempts, no tribe was able to gain adequate control and anarchy reigned for the next fifteen years.
During this time, my family took refuge in Ethiopia. My father, not wanting to be away from home for long, decided to return to Somalia to start our lives over again after only a few months. All of this was in spite of the present dangers that persisted. Unfortunately, our tribal defense forces were overtaken after our return forcing us to cross the border once again. This happened several times, until finally in 1996, the last time we fled, I moved to Yemen. Eventually I came to the United States in August of 2000. The war was tragic for everyone. My brother was killed, as were several other members of my family. This is the story of every Somali family. So many good people lost loved ones and property.
According to CNN, over 100,000 died during the period 1991-1992 alone. The US, as well as the UN, made several efforts to intervene, both using military force and with humanitarian assistance, to prevent the conflict from exacerbating. Looking back, how are the US and UN interventions during the early 1990s regarded by Somalis?
Many Somalis initially regarded the role of the United States and United Nations favorably because their involvement saved many lives in the first months of the conflict. With a strong securing force, citizens were able to receive food from NGOs who previously were unable to distribute aid due to the armed militias hijacking food.
The situation got out of control, after the US and the UN begun engaging nation building efforts. Many tribes felt threatened because of their potential to lose power. In Mogadishu, General Aideed, a well-known warlord, went as far as to fight against the US forces. This eventually led to the withdrawal of the US and UN forces in 1995 and the subsequent return to a fragmented system of government for Somalia. With every tribe for itself, Puntland and Somaliland regions were free to form their own governing bodies apart from greater Somalia.
There has been considerable discussion about the rise in Islamism in Somalia, including a recently released video by Osama bin Laden extolling the virtues of “jihad against American interests in Somalia.” What do you see as the catalyst for the rise in Islamist extremism in Somalia?
This is an interesting, yet a not too unfamiliar story. Fifteen years of anarchy and war brought about alarming rates of poverty and despair in every corner of Somalia. People were out of jobs, and in the absence of a central government, religious organizations, primarily from Saudi Arabia, began to provide services to the people. The leaders of these agencies and schools then began to organize their own separate militias, none of which had significant power on their own before June of 2006. Instead, most of these courts’ jurisdiction was limited to particular districts of Mogadishu. The rest of the country was in the hands of warlords.
The changed, however, after the US government, with the help of the CIA, armed the warlords in Mogadishu to defeat the courts, who they suspected to be linked to Al-Qaida. Unfortunately, this plan backfired with the courts defeating the warlords, and by July 2006, all of southern Somalia was in the hands of the Islamic courts.
The courts were successful in imposing law and order in the most anarchic zones of the country. Somalis were able to walk anywhere they wanted to go without fear of being robbed or raped by members of the warlord militias.
However, not soon after the UIC started to rule Mogadishu with an iron fist, they imposed a very strict form of Sharia law. For example, public executions and beatings were given to individuals guilty of serious crimes, cinemas were closed, and music was prohibited.
In December of 2006, the courts attacked Baidoa, which prompted Ethiopia to become involved in helping the Somali government. In the last ten days, things in Somalia have changed drastically with the courts being defeated by the transitional government of Somalia, with the assistance of the Ethiopian troops. The courts now hold no part of Somalia; more than 3,000 of their fighters have been killed by Ethiopian jets and helicopters.
Unfortunately, the courts overstepped the sensibility of the Somali people who are traditionally very secular. The closure of cinemas and the stripping away of freedoms caused anxiety to spread within the Somali people. Another mistake of the UIC was their refusal to negotiate with the Somali government. It was like they became intoxicated with their newfound power. Attacking the seat of the Somali government (Baidoa) was the only thing between them and their rule over all of Somalia, or so they thought.
So, I would have to say the catalyst of for the rise of the UIC was the involvement of aid agencies from Saudi Arabia, who were responsible for mobilizing powerful courts in the hope of forming an Islamic state.
In October 2004, there appeared to be a truce between Somalia warlords and civilians leaders in Nairobi, Kenya with the selection of Colonel Abdullahi Yusuf as president. Was there optimism then among Somalias that perhaps a solution had finally been brokered?
Yes. People were optimistic then and still remain optimistic today. The strength of the current government is that it is representative of the people, consisting of all Somali tribes. It took two years to build this institution. Now what the Somalis need to do is to sit together and decide to support the government. This, in my mind, is the closest that Somalia has ever come to having a central government since 1991.
Islamic leader Hassan Dahir Aweyz alleges that the US is covertly working in Somalia to drive out the Islamists. What is your assessment of this?
Hassan, a former Colonel, is primarily interested in power. This is evident in the actions he has taken in the last eight months, in terms of capturing other regions, in the attempt to create an Islamic Somali state. However, I’m not so sure that he is a committed terrorist or that he is interested in an agenda similar to that of Osama Bin Laden. However, Hassan is right. The US is directly involved in both driving out Islamist and arresting suspected terrorists in Somalia. The US has worked closely with the warlords to defeat the Islamists and is currently involved in training Ethiopian troops and supporting the transitional Somali government.
On September 18, the first suicide bombing in Somali history occurred, targeting President Abdullahi Yusuf. What is the significance – if any – of this event?
This is a very serious concern to Somalis because, from what I know of my people, it is not our nature to blow ourselves up, for any reason. The UIC movement, allowed Islamists to attract a large number of Middle-Easterners, who came to support what they saw as the spread of Islam in Somalia.
The September suicide bombing shook many Somalis and caused them to become weary and suspicious of the Islamists presence in Somalia. They came to teach a different kind of Islam, almost alien to the Somalis understanding of Islam. An alarming contempt for the expression of Sufism, the Qadiriya, Salihiya or Shia faiths was a common practice of this movement. It worried many of us, and I think a lot of people are happy to see them gone.
Somalis, by nature, are very suspicious of foreign powers, especially those with a theological bent on ruling the country. Even though groups in Saudi Arabia were successful in funding and arming most of this movement, they really did not succeed in convincing the Somali people to join their movement. As soon as they were defeated, music blasted in every radio station in Mogadishu and women again wore their traditional Somali dresses.
I think the movement had the potential to pose a serious threat, primarily to the Somali people and also to the surrounding region. The UIC calling for a jihad against Ethiopia stands as a testament of this.
What are the origins of the Council of Islamic Courts? What was their motive in declaring war against Ethiopia on October 9, 2006?
I think their motive to declare a jihad against Ethiopia was to force Ethiopia to withdraw its help from the Somali government. In addition, Ethiopia rules a region primarily populated by Somalis, and it was over this region that the two countries fought. Somali went to war with Ethiopia in 1977 and I think the UIC used this visceral pretext to mobilize people.
What is your forecast for Somalia? What can be done to curb the conflict?
I am very hopeful. As long as we, as Somalis, attempt to control our tribal instincts, this government has a good chance of succeeding. This is my prayer and hope.
Zahir Janmohamed is the co-founder of The Qunoot Foundation and associate editor of altmuslim.com.