Yemen and Somalia are separated geographically by the Gulf of Aden, which at its narrowest point, is just 100 miles across – about the same distance as Miami is from Cuba. The ethnic, cultural, and linguistic gap between the two nations is much wider.
Still, both are poor, internally riven nations battling Islamist insurgencies.
In the wake of the Christmas Day Northwest airlines bombing attempt, some observers are wondering if the Al Qaeda branch in Yemen might be connected to the Al Qaeda sympathizers in Somalia.
Regional exerts say there is little if any concrete evidence of a broad, coordinated terrorist campaign in both countries. But it could happen.
"The linkage is that you have elements in both countries with the same jihadist and extremist ideology,” says Ted Dagne, a Horn of Africa expert and senior researcher at the Congressional Research Service in Washington. “The geographic proximity allows these extremists to sustain themselves and coordinate their efforts.”
The potential for linkage may shape the way the Obama administration moves to beef up support for the Yemeni government’s efforts to rein in radical Islamists. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced yesterday that US efforts would focus as much on development as on military support. But experts say it’s clear that solutions in Yemen and Somalia will largely have to come from greater leadership and vision within those countries.
“The similarity between Yemen and Somalia is that they are tribal societies, they have conservative social norms, and they have both had weak states unable to provide services to the people,” says one Horn of Africa expert, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Al Qaeda embeds itself into conflict societies. They build ties with tribal elders. They build schools. They provide social services, like Hamas [the Palestinian militant group] does. They buy loyalty, they get legitimacy, and once clans make friends with someone like this, you don’t give them up. Getting them out will be like finding a needle in a haystack.”
Somalia's Al Qaeda connection
As in Yemen, Al Qaeda fighters have begun arriving in Somalia to carry out a war against a state that is seen by Islamists to be imposed on that society by the West. Security experts say some 200 foreign jihadists have arrived from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, India, and even the US, who serve as military trainers and experts in explosives. Many Islamists flocked to Somalia to help fight the Ethiopian Army, which invaded Somalia in Dec. 2006 to oust the Islamic Courts Union government.
Now these foreign jihadis are staying on to transform the narrow nationalist fight into a global jihad, and their harder ideology is seen in a rash of recent suicide bomb attacks on African Union peacekeepers and even a university graduation ceremony on Dec. 3 in Mogadishu. Experts say this is a sign that foreign jihadis have taken over leadership of Somalia’s largest Islamist militia, Al Shabab.
Both Somalia and Yemen have suffered punishing civil wars, and Somalia has gone nearly a generation without a functioning government. Decades of infighting by clan leaders and warlords have created a burgeoning arms trade, smuggled to and from Yemen. Yemen now has the largest number of Somali refugees in the region, many of them young, battle-hardened men looking for jobs abroad. Feeling duped by clan elders, many Somalis turn toward religious leaders preaching unity through the one institution – Islam – that all Somalis share in common.
Yet despite all these common factors, the conflicts in Somalia and Yemen seem to be largely separate, and there is little evidence that they are coordinated by some larger Al Qaeda entity.
“Shabab has only recently turned to Al Qaeda, and then it was only from the East Africa cell of Al Qaeda, not from Yemen,” says another expert on Somalia, who also spoke on background.
An Al Shabab connection?
While there is the potential for these two conflicts to become “increasingly intertwined,” as Shabab senior commander Muqtar Robow claimed recently Somali Shabab fighters were leaving to help Islamists fight the government in Yemen, this expert says that this may be simply rhetoric.
“Shabab has its own major conflict looming with Somalia's Transitional Federal Government," as the current Western-backed Somali government in Mogadishu is called, he says.
Thousands of Somali Army soldiers have now completed training in Kenya, Djibouti, and Ethiopia, and will be returning over the next month to Mogadishu. There are rumors that the government will put these soldiers to immediate use, and attempt to expel Al Shabab from portions of its territory across the south.
“This is one of the preconditions for extending the mandate of the transitional government,” says the expert. “They need to demonstrate that they can protect themselves and protect the Somali people.”
Yet as successive US administrations sending troops to Afghanistan have concluded, military might is only part of the solution. People living in neglected regions turn to those who offer support and keep their promises, and if Al Qaeda or its allied Islamist militias can show that they will bring development and security to the regions under their control, Somali or Yemeni citizens will be reluctant to kick them out.
The likely solution, experts say, is for Al Qaeda extremists to wear out their welcome, after carrying out one too many suicide bombings and killing too many innocent Somali bystanders. Until then, the West needs to be more flexible in choosing its friends, and be willing to work with those Islamists it once feared, but who share a revulsion to the destructive ideology of Al Qaeda.
"There is the perception or assumption that just because people come from Muslim countries, they are extremists,” says Mr. Dagne. “Islam is not the enemy. The ideology of extremism is the enemy. Those Somali leaders wrongly labeled as extremist and Jihadists are the ones fighting the real terrorists."