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Friday, 4 December 2009

4 December 2009

I want you to think of a country where the government has little or no control over vast areas of territory.

It’s a country that has known decades of endless conflict; where most people feel a greater loyalty to their tribe or clan than to their national leaders. A country of poverty and violence, with little infrastructure and where jihadi insurgents are a constant threat.

It’s also a country whose neighbours have used its land as a proxy battleground for their own wars; a country where chronic instability risks engulfing the region and causing deep concern in capitals many thousands of miles away.

Are you thinking of Afghanistan? I’m not. I’m thinking of Somalia. And of course, once we’ve run through the long list of similarities between the two countries, we come to the one big difference. There will soon be 100,000 US combat troops in Afghanistan – and there are none (well, maybe a handful of undercover special forces) in Somalia.

Why is that, do you think? If Osama bin Laden had been based in Somalia back in 2001, would the US have led an invasion of that country? Probably it would. But if the US had lost 18 of its soldiers in the most humiliating of circumstances in Afghanistan rather than in Somalia, would it have vowed never to return, as it did in Somalia?

Here’s the point: Somalia is much more of a mess even than Afghanistan – and quite possibly more of a security threat to countries like the US. The al-Shabaab jihadi fighters control more of Somalia than do the Taliban in Afghanistan, and are facing far less opposition. They also espouse much of the same philosophy as al-Qaeda.

In his speech on future military deployments in Afghanistan last Tuesday, President Obama specifically referred to Somalia: “Where al-Qaida and its allies attempt to establish a foothold — whether in Somalia or Yemen or elsewhere – they must be confronted by growing pressure and strong partnerships.”

Which brings us to the suicide bomb attack in the capital, Mogadishu, yesterday morning. It was a graduation ceremony for medical students, young doctors who have been trained to take the places of the thousands who have either fled or been killed during 18 years of civil war. Three government ministers were among the more than 20 people killed when a bomber detonated his explosives vest towards the end of the ceremony.

Last night, Time magazine quoted a senior al-Shabaab official in Mogadishu as saying they had targeted the ceremony as part of their war against the internationally-backed transitional government. “We did not target the students – our target was the government … Our goal is to target the enemy of Allah.” On the other hand, this morning another al-Shabaab spokesman was quoted as saying they had nothing to do with the attack.

This is where it gets even more complicated. Some Islamist groups now back the government and have joined it in coalition. Last March, it was announced that Islamic sharia law would be adopted as the country’s official judicial system. Al-Shabaab is made up of some of the groups who broke away from the main Islamist movement, the Islamic Courts Union, and carried on fighting.

And of course, we mustn’t forget the pirates. They prey on commercial shipping – up to and including some of the world’s biggest oil tankers – seize them and then hold them and their crew to ransom. In a country with no functioning economy, it’s one of the very few ways available to make any money.

So why don’t we hear more about Somalia? One simple reason: it’s just too dangerous. Nearly five years ago my BBC colleague Kate Peyton was shot dead outside her hotel in Mogadishu; there are very few journalists who dare to report from there. After all, how many people reported from Aghanistan before September 11, 2001?

The BBC is lucky: we have a Somali service with a remarkable local correspondent, Mohamed Olad Hassan, based in Mogadishu. If you heard last night’s programme, you’ll have heard him describe how he was just feet away from the bomber when he detonated his explosives. Mohammed is lucky to be alive, and we’re lucky to be able to call on his services.

So we’ll continue to report from Somalia as and when we can.