The situation in Mogadishu, 2004 -08

To the international community, the situation in Mogadishu at the time of the piracy epidemic clearly showed the Somali state had no authority to control the pirates.  Yet the presence of the Islamic Courts Union as an authority in 2006 caused Somali piracy reports to the IMB-PRC to drop considerably. This showed it was possible for a Somali authority to control the actions of individuals at sea.


The problem was that this authority was not acceptable to the international community. At the same time, the international community's preferred authority was not acceptable to the Somalis.

This conflict created a misperception in the international community that there was no authority at all in Somalia. This assumption delayed efforts to establish land-based solutions to Somali piracy.


The Mogadishu seafront

State-building in 21st century Somalia

For the Somalis, the international community’s failure to protect them from the violence of the Barrè regime, the failure of the 1992 intervention, and the lack of engagement afterwards gave no cause for them to trust in the UN’s authority as a state-building institution. The inability of the Somalis to find and maintain peace and the creation of a profitable war economy based on corruption and aid misappropriation did little to improve their relationship with the UN. Until the piracy began, the UN stayed away.

Other participants of the international community did engage in Somali state-building. Led by the European Union, in 2004 there was cause for hope for the future of a modern, centralised Somali state in Mogadishu. These state-builders had successfully established the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), sworn in Puntland’s former President Abdullahi Yusuf as the new president, and achieved a declaration by all clans and factions represented that they would support President Yusuf and demobilise their militias.

Unfortunately, implementing this unity did not last. By 2005, political divisions were embedded, intermittent fighting continued, and members of the TFG contributed to the insecurity in Mogadishu. Murders of several key people culminated in an assassination attempt on the Somali prime minister in November. The flow of arms from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Yemen increased, despite the former two countries’ direct involvement in the establishment of the TFG. Mogadishu was still no closer to peace. The TFG stayed in Nairobi.

The Islamic Courts Union and Al-Shabaab


By early 2006, the continued absence of the TFG from Mogadishu caused unity through Islam to grow. Somalis traditionally adhered to a moderate, Sufi-inspired Islam. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was a loose alliance of Islamic courts, some more radical in how Somalis traditionally interpreted Quranic law than others, including public floggings and executions.

Nevertheless, for six months, the ICU provided a semblance of order and peace after fifteen years of chaos in Mogadishu. However, a faction of the ICU called Al-Shabaab or ‘the Youth’ advocated for militant Islamic control in Somalia and increasingly conflicted with the moderate elders of the ICU. Local warlords, well connected in the booming illegal arms trade, still maintained their own clan-based personal agendas, while the TFG remained powerless in Nairobi. The struggle for control of Mogadishu deteriorated into armed hostility and the rise of Al-Shabaab fed the international community’s fear of Islamic terrorism.


Undated photograph of Al-Shabaab fighters.

The group is still threatening security in Somalia.


Publicly, the US Government and Congress expressed little concern over the ICU or state-building in Somalia. Despite the War on Terror, the State Department forbade the US military, through the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) based in Djibouti, from operating in Somalia. These actions did not stop unsubstantiated rumours of unofficial, clandestine US engagement in Somalia.

To Somalia’s main neighbour and archenemy, Ethiopia, the ICU directly challenged the legitimacy of the TFG and contained the seeds of an Islamic state that it did not want on its doorstep. Ethiopia suspected its archenemy Eritrea of surreptitiously supporting the ICU as a way to open a second front in their long-running border dispute and overextend Ethiopian military forces.

By December 2006, US and Ethiopian interests aligned. With no UN endorsement, the Americans supported Ethiopian troops moving into Mogadishu to oust the ICU. The move attracted widespread condemnation from international commentators and Somalis. The UN could only meekly confirm the attacks had occurred with the consent of the TFG. Throughout January 2007, the US government continued airstrikes on Somali soil against alleged terror suspects. By the end of the month, the UN acknowledged it was ‘on the sideline’.

The UN re-engages in Somalia


The international intervention occurred in the first month of the appointment of the UN’s new Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. He soon discovered that underlying the UN’s neglect of Somali affairs lay a deep, mutual distrust dating to the 1980s when the UN accused Siyad Barrè of misappropriating food aid intended for Ethiopian refugees and selling it for profit. His subsequent actions showed he intended to prioritise Somali state-building, reassert the UN’s authority, and implement its humanitarian mandate.

Throughout 2007, Ban Ki-moon and his appointed Special Representative to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdullahi, worked to secure peace in Mogadishu. Ban Ki-moon secured UNSC authorisation for the African Union to send Burundian peacekeepers to Somalia (AMISOM) to protect the TFG and SRSG Ould-Abdallah worked towards reconciliation and peace between Somalia’s warring parties. 


In December 2007, he pleaded for a UN peace-keeping force to reinforce AMISOM and his fragile Somali peace deal, the Djibouti Agreement. His request gained broad support in the UNSC, with Burundi, Ghana and Nigeria committed to joining AMISOM. However, some members expressed apprehension about whether Somalis could maintain a sufficient level of peace to risk international peacekeepers, including the United States.


By February 2008, Ban Ki-moon deemed the security situation too precarious and he decided to continue to support AMISOM through the African Union’s forces rather than authorise a UN-backed intervention. The international community entered another stalemate of inaction over Somalia.


SRSG Ahmedou Ould-Abdullahi and Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon

Al-Shabaab rises

Meanwhile, the ICU and the local warlords declined rapidly in the face of the Ethiopian forces.  Unfortunately, within a month, another spate of violence had broken out in Mogadishu, including outrage over the shooting down of a cargo plane and the desecration of bodies of soldiers. Al-Shabaab had commenced its insurgency against Ethiopia’s occupation. 

The renewed conflict caused an unprecedented level of violence, including roadside bombs, assassinations and suicide attacks. Control of Mogadishu fluctuated between the Eritrean-backed Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS), loosely compromised of the ICU representatives opposed to Al-Shabaab, allegedly (at the time) Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Shabaab, a variety of clan-based insurgent groups and the Ethiopian-backed TFG forces. When Al-Shabaab made inroads into localities in the south, the war heralded the ‘worst period of fighting in Somalia’s bloody history.’


Somali TFG President Abdullahi Yusuf leaves Nairobi to visit Mogadishu in January 2007. It was his first visit since taking office in 2004.

As 2008 progressed, occasional international news headlines spoke of the complexity of the conflict and the resulting carnage while a growing disaster of drought and famine loomed. Then in late April 2008, two New York Times journalists offered a new angle on the old Somali story: ‘Strange how an African country can be moving from prolonged chaos to violent collapse and no one in the world notices until a couple of European boats get seized by armed gunmen.’

Next: Naval intervention