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Reporting the Frontline of Conflict in Mogadishu

A lighthouse in Mogadishu destroyed by war. National Geographic.
After monitoring the conflict in Somalia for several years, I can attest to the limited flow of information from the region.  Insufficient information results in insufficient analysis and Somalia is subject to the worst circumstance of all - insufficient concern.  While the conflict rages with global implications, the lack of journalism and knowledge on the region precipitates a disproportionate lack of conviction to intervene and assist. 

Today I found a video briefly covering the frontline of the conflict in Mogadishu.  It is not often that one has the opportunity to watch video footage of the central conflict in Somalia.  It is not possible to embed the flash video from the BBC's website, so it is necessary to use the following link [Somalia].  Given the subject matter, I thought I would share with readers some of the other common media sources on Somalia.

New York Times resource page on Somali [LINK]
The NYT page is frequently updated with AP stories and independent NYT journalism, however the technical references such as their 'Experts' section is strongly outdated.  

IRIN Humanitarian News Somalia Page [LINK]
The IRIN site is a major source for news on the region, and is comprehensively connected to other UN-related organizations such as OCHA, so it tends to have a focus on development and displacement issues.  I do wish more maps were available in addition to technical data, yet I do appreciate the constant updates.

Hiiraan Online [Somalia News Site]
This Somali news source is frequently updated and closest to the source, but also is difficult to navigate and not easy to understand.  Sometimes the journalism is also not of a very high standard, the news is provided at a variety of scale - with pieces focusing on anything between specific urban issues and broader concerns within the Somali Diaspora.  Much of it is written in Soomaali language, but there is enough work in English to maintain its value.

Somalia Report [LINK]
I just recently discovered this site and I absolutely love it.  It only hires local journalists and constantly provides thorough updates on recent events concerning piracy, militant groups, and political leaders.  They also provide an email subscription service.

The Women of Egypt

I have continued to spend most of my time with all attention watching Al Jezeera here.  In the meanwhile, I have been frequently asking the question, where are the images of the women involved in the protest?  In contrast to western portrayals of how women are treated in the Islamic countries, women are a central part of Egypt.  I'll never forget the day I first walked into the Mugamma, the central location of all day-to-day government business, and discovered nearly all the employees were women.  The majority of the time I have had to conduct business at the university, with the government, or at a bank, it has always been with a woman.  While men might often be the most visible presence in the street, I always found that the women actually made the city function.

I've been looking for a collection of images from a variety of sources from facebook (here's a good source), I am reposting those below with some links to other sites as well. If anyone has additional information, hit me up via twitter @msipus or with the comments below.  I'd like to add much more to this collection.

Men and Women Equal in Peaceful Protest Against Mubarak

Women Protesting In Yemen

For those with a deeper interest on the subject, here are some published articles I found online:
El-Mahdi, Rabab."Does Political Islam Impede Gender-Based MobilizationThe Case of Egypt" Totalitarian Movements & Political Religions; Sep-Dec2010, Vol. 11 Issue 3/4, p379-396, 18p

Women and Language v. 26 no. 1 (Spring 2003) p. 73-8

El Guindi, Fadwa "Gendered Resistance, Feminist Veiling, Islamic Feminism.Ahfad Journal; Jun2005, Vol. 22 Issue 1, p53-78, 26p

Confronting Terrorism: Restructuring Somalia's Primary Export

As the actions of Al Shabaab extended beyond the Somali border and into Kampala just a few days ago, leaving over 70 dead from the bombings, I've been thinking a great deal about the role of the AMISOM forces and the prospects for stabilizing this broken nation.   Are the actions taken by UNISOM sufficient to achieve peace and security within Somalia?  What more needs to be done, and more importantly, what actions can be taken based upon the available resources?

Looking back over the African Union's AMISOM newsletter, The AMISOM Bulletin, I only find evidence that UNISOM forces have pursued merely a conventional and unidimensional approach toward counterinsurgency.  The only evidence to the contrary is a statement from the AMISOM Force Commander, Major General Nathan Mugisha, " There is no military solution to this conflict; only a political solution, that is, dialogue and negotiations can achieve a lasting solution to the conflict in Somalia. Somalis must sit around a table and resolve their differences. The solution will not come from without; it will only come from Somalis themselves." However this is only indicates a recognition of the political forces within the stabilization and reconstruction process, it does not make any reference to the sociocultural, economic, environmental, and global elements that are necessary to end the violence and benefit the lives of the inhabitants.  It is obvious that AMISOM is ill equipped to meet facilitate all of these concerns, yet as the country remains bound by violence, it is difficult for NGO's to fill in the gaps.

Counterinsurgency is a complex process that requires more than just military action.  It requires building relationships and most importantly, the ability to provide the local populations with something they consider valuable.  It requires constructing metrics to determine progress, the development and implementation of a popular narrative for mobilization, and to have a keen understanding of the enemy that goes far beyond intelligence passed down from upper command.

Within Somalia, it is important for counterinsurgent forces to recognize the founding factors of radicalism, terrorism, and militancy.  Terrorism is not merely the product of social processes and economic devastation, but can be understood as an economic commodity.  The socio-economic infrastructure is oriented around a culture of violence as much as it is concerned with other basic commodities such as food or shelter because in contemporary Somalia, survival requires an understanding of violence and its social underpinnings.  As a lone individual, or as a part of a family or community, to survive and have insurance of future survival (security) is to either partake in the socio-economic processes that facilitate conflict or to avoid them.  Either way, each course of action requires the same understanding of these processes.

Sadly, as Somalia has been left to indulge in its own suffering and deterioration by the international community for so long, the internal economic structure has consolidated so that its exports can reflect nothing else.  As there is no longer a sufficient livelihood in animal husbandry or agriculture, yet no infrastructure for technical development to partake in the global marketplace, one of the best options is to either partake in piracy or militancy.   While the Somali people must necessarily seek greater unity and peace, without the sufficient infrastructure to carry out those goals, they lack a means to implement this vision in a durable fashion.  In the end, the only way to negate the exportation of terrorism is to work toward a Somalia based on something more durable, less violent, and more integrated within the global marketplace.

The Price of Aid?

WFP Ration Distribution

It was announced this week that the World Food Program, WFP, has been forced to suspend programming within Somalia. The lives of 1 million people are now at risk, due to the demands of Al Shabaab placed upon WFP to pay a semi-annual $20,000 "security fee" and to dismiss female employees.

Food aid is always a challenging issue, as the provision of aid may undercut existing markets and lead to a struggling reconstruction process. However within Somalia, it is arguable that food aid is essential, as the instability within the region will likewise to continue to undermine the efforts of farmers and shop owners.

Of course one must question, will the payment of $3,300 per month to Al Shabaab lead to greater complications and tragedies than the potential deaths of 1 million people? Is each life only worth 1/3 of a single cent? Or are there bigger issues at hand? Will the provision of $40,000 per year lead to increased militancy, increased terrorism, and later increased demands? Will the present loss of 1 million lives prevent the loss of 5 million lives in the future? How can we weigh these factors?

This problem has always existed within the world of organized crime. Mafias demand a fee for protection, the store owner must pay that fee to be protected. The threat is of course the mafia. Witnessing this process occur within the international domain however is highly disturbing. It highlights the position of power held by Al Shabaab. Clearly attempts to remediate this problem can not be determined in a traditional militaristic fashion, with military tactics utilized to bring down a particular rebel group. The stabilization to this region will require global efforts, engaging Al Shabaab as a political power.

We do have institutions to deal with such issues, such as the International Criminal Courts. The question applies however to the desire of the international community to recognize Al Shabaab as a political actor, on par with a state actor.

But in doing so, we will have to change our language. While a state might sponsor terrorism, a state is not a terrorist. A political faction acknowledged as having the same credibility and responsibility of a state, may not necessarily be a terrorist. It will of course be a matter of targeting.

Is the civilian population harmed? Aid workers? Are these targets or unwanted causalities? Is Al Shabaab taking responsibility of its actions wherein civilians may be at risk? Could this demand for $20,000 actually be an attempt to assume proper responsibility in lieu of insufficient resources? If agencies began to acknowledge Al Shabaab as a credible holder of state responsibility, could greater stability be placed into the region?

Many Western governments argue that they do not negotiate with terrorists. However, at what point do we recognize a ruling party as something more than terrorists, and instead as a major power holder within a region, en route to state control? The Maoist have overtaken Nepal, the Taliban had Afghanistan, and now Al Shabaab are taking over Somalia. We might not like them, their ideas, or their actions. But when does this dialogue change?

At this time, I fully support WFP's withdrawal from Somalia, because I do not believe that supporting Al Shabaab's demands will lead to a better situation. However, I suspect that in the future, greater dialogue and cooperation will be required, although as we will never know when this time is upon us, we will miss the opportunity.

Somalia: Americans as Militants?

Mansour Al Amriki

One such individual who has risen to a level of high visibility within Somalia is a man named Mansor Al Amriki. This guy is actually from Alabama, and has a large fan base within Somalia.  After  researching him online, he is cited as just being a typical rebel, an anomaly as a white American in Somalia.  However, the rumor is that this guy is actually much more significant.  He periodically releases recorded videos and audio messages  which are of great popularity among many Somalis living within Kenya.

Americans in Somalia are becoming a growing complication.  Most of the time however it is not guys like Al Amriki, but Somali-American youth from major urban areas such as Minneapolis, Phoenix, and Atlanta.  The truth is, that America itself will struggle to gain much progress into reducing this threat until it changes its own recruitment policies within the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security.  I heard today on PRI, that within the CIA, only 18% of employees have second language capability.  Yet even with and increased supply of funding into language instruction, the truth is, that young Somali men living within America are the guys that need to be sought.  Until that day comes around, if it ever does, the majority of Americans found within Somalia won't be the guys helping to make the world a safer place.

What comes first: Stability or Development

There is a frequent debate within the humanitarian field: must one first impose stability upon a location to advance socio-economic development, or must one somehow impose both concepts simultaneously. The answer to this question does not exist within the broad realm of theory, but does exist within application. One must establish a degree of stability wherein participating humanitarian and development actors may affectively do their job. If they are required to function in para-military fashion, the integrity of their actions is compromised and the agency loses the mobility of independence. However, if they are at risk of kidnapping, death, torture, or other needless forms of conflict and suffering, their actions are once again compromised.

Somalia: Land of Lost Opportunity



One of the longest inhabited regions within the world, Somalia is home to a longstanding history of trade and independence.  Never successfully colonized by a European power, yet always a major component within Arab trades systems, Somalia has the geographic proximity and definitive character necessary to become a vital actor within the global economy.  Yet entrenched within a prolonged history of regional and internal conflict, the burden of extreme poverty has forced this failed state into a precarious position.  With a population of over 8 million, the nation contains 1,277,200 displaced individuals, while 561,154 others have fled to other nations for refugee.  Within only the last 4 months, over 300,000 others have had to flee their homes in Mogadishu.  According to the BBC, within the last two years alone, 18,000 people have been killed.  After an extensive web search, I have been unable to locate a single estimate of the death toll within the last 18 years of its civil war.

America briefly involved itself within Somali during the Clinton administration as part of the UNISOM task force, wherein the UN and the US worked side by side to stabilize the nation and push it toward prosperity.  Yet as the lessons of contemporary asymmetrical warfare continue to repeat, the United States was unable to utilize its advanced technologies and formal combat interface against the flexible resistance of criminal war lords and Islamic fighters.  Evacuating with great haste, the US left Somalia in a state of greater despair than prior to its arrival. As America's internal allies were left behind, new targets for violence by local militants.  I have several friends, and have met many others, who were victims of this abandonment, as their American affiliation left them subject to torture and persecution.


[caption id="attachment_13" align="aligncenter" width="523" caption="Woman walking across Somali desert"]Woman walking through Somali desert[/caption]


Today the most popular headlines pointing toward Somalia are concerned with the fleeting acts of piracy on its coastline.  Sexy and adventurous, America and Europe have embraced the romantic notion of piracy as a subject of pegged legs and black flags rather than a tragic externality of poverty.  Piracy has been approached as problem to be solved with coast guards, naval fleets, and armed escorts.  I suppose that at least some degree of international interest has been directed towards Somalia and the struggling efforts of its president, Sherif Sheik Ahmed, to bring stability to this nation.  Thus far, this approach has been severely misguided, as piracy is not the problem, it is simply a consequence of greater issues.

A brief review of the CIA World Fact Book should illuminate many of the complications facing this struggling state.

[caption id="attachment_16" align="alignright" width="151" caption="Woman at Water Tap"]Somali woman at water tap[/caption]

• Population median age: 17.5           (U.S. 36.7 years)

• Life expectancy at birth: 49.3         (U.S. 78.11)

• Total population literacy: 37.8        (U.S. 99%)

• GDP per capita: $600                    (U.S. $49, 900)

• Exports: $300 million                    (U.S. $1.291 trillion)

• Telephone Landlines: 100,000        (U.S. 163 million)

• Mobile phones: 600,000                 (U.S. 255 million)

• Internet host: 1                              (U.S. 316 million)

• Airports with paved runway: 7        (U.S. 5,146)

• Roadways: 22,100 km                    (U.S. 6,465,799 km)

• Paved roads: 2,608 km                    (U.S. 4,209,835 km)

• Merchant marine: 1                         (U.S. 422)

• No national military

• 1.1 million internally displaced people

• Exchange rate of 1438.3 Somali Schillings (SOS) per 1 US Dollar


Such strong indicators of poverty do not stand in isolation, but operate in conjunction with an array of human rights, public health, and social complications including: gender based violence, ongoing conflict, absence of codified law, and humanitarian accessibility.  Furthermore, in recent years, aid workers have become targets within conflict, reducing the capability for aid delivery.  Today, Somalia has become the worlds greatest humanitarian struggle, with the highest concentration of famine.

I understand that successful nations see little reason to address these problems.  Western States wrongly perceive international development as a zero-sum game, while not recognizing the advantages of equitably distributed wealth.  The location of Somalia however places it directly within the heart of all oceanic shipping and traffic, making it a primary point for penetrating the underdeveloped markets of Africa from either Europe, Asia, or the Middle East.  Its globally distributed population provides immediate financial and economic linkages for the transfer of wealth, ideas, and education.  With investment within its agriculture and animal husbandry resources, North African and the Middle East can access a new food source, as their own water supplies continue to deplete.

If nations want safer waters, the last thing they need to do is approach the problem by means of military solutions.  The problems are better solved by engineers.  With only 2, 608 km of paved roads, governments could easily facilitate the growth of supply chains and resource networks by means of simply pouring more concrete.  With only one merchant marine vessel, governments could create a "rent-to-own" or large scale government micro-finance industry to prompt the growth of regional sea trade.  There is no need to invest in speed boats to further piracy, but instead to supply large shipping vessels that will ignite and industry for the current "pirates" who have no income, no resources, and no opportunities for self advancement.  Expanding the mobile phone networks will further distribute a form of flexible infrastructure for trade and business creation.

Nonetheless, at the root of all these ideas remains the demand for security.  How does that happen?  Although the answer will continue to be explored herein, one thing is certain.  The solution is not found within isolation, by ignoring the problem, and by only treating symptoms.  Remedies can only be achieved through direct engagement, communication, and an active approach to problem solving.  Until then, Somalia will always remain in chaos.

[caption id="attachment_14" align="aligncenter" width="480" caption="Somali Child in Market Place"]Somali Child in Market Place[/caption]

Afghanistan: Development & Communication Technology

[caption id="attachment_41" align="alignleft" width="280" caption="Afghanistan"]Afghanistan[/caption]

Earlier today I was reading a blog entry by Peter Bergan, the CNN Security Analyst, about the improvements Afghanistan has experienced within the last couple years.  He highlighted various improvements in security, mine clearance, education, economic development, and refugee repatriation. There was also a great deal of applause for the construction of a large, modern airport.

Reading this column initially made me cringe, as it brought to mind a story I once heard from my grandfather about an experience he had in Vietnam in the early 60's.  In short, the Americans had constructed a massive modern airport while the Russians provided instruction to the local population about better ways to fatten and breed chickens.  It doesn't take much thought to recognize why the general public, who could never see themselves ever riding in airplane, were more receptive to the Soviets.

However one additional point mentioned by Bergan was that "One in six Afghans now have a cell phone. Under the Taliban there was no phone system."  With a population of over 32 million people, this means that nearly 5.5 million people have access to cellular communication within this generally rural province.  While its likely that most Afghans remain uninterested in the new airport, with 5.5 million users in about 5 years, mobile phones are clearly a winner.

Certainly the expansion of cellular networks posits significant social benefits for the Afghan population. Prior to 2003, it was common for many villagers to have never once used a telephone. Now it is possible for this family-centric culture to maintain ties over greater distances. In addition, this cellular network may be a key component with the ongoing stabilization and development of the nation.

Cell phones and Security
One of the major benefits to arise from the establishment of mobile technology within Afghanistan was the capability for armed forced to locate Taliban insurgents by tracking phone signals within the countryside.  And lately, as mobile phones became more prominent throughout the public, individuals have been more willing to provide authorities with information regarding insurgent activity because this information can be provided anonymously.  Although Taliban fighters have made efforts to destroy cell towers, the general public has been frustrated as such destruction now interferes with their own lives.

Lessons from Grameen Phone
Established in 1996 by Iqbal Quadir, the founder and Director of the Lagatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT, and Nobel Laureate Mohamed Yunus, the Grameen Phone company has served as the primary cellular phone provider within Bangledesh for the last 13 years.  In addition to standard phone services, Grameen Phone was further created with the intention of utilizing mobile technology as a tool for economic development.  Most notably, Grammeen established the program Village Phone,  assisting interested entrepreneurs in rural villages to sell telephone services to villagers.  Additionally, phones had been made available by means of micro-finance projects, while internet access could be acquired by means of community information centers.  With enhanced connectivity, individuals could better operate their own businesses, such as by determining the going market price in advance of goods delivery, or by knowing the upcoming weather conditions.  Individuals may also start businesses selling phone credit, mobile phones, or providing battery charging services

Capitalizing on Remittances
Nearly all migratory populations are dependent upon, or in some way participate within, the ongoing international flow of financial remittances.  As displaced families, unable to obtain sustainable incomes, remain dependent upon relatives and friends for financial assistance, it is obvious that cellular communications serve an important role within the stabilization of the Afghan economy.  With over 3.3 million displaced individuals within and outside of Afghanistan, the ability for these individuals to access  cellular technology now provides financial services well beyond the use of traditional money wiring services.

In the near future Afghans could utilize this technology to buy goods, pay bills, and move cash in the same manner found throughout the African continent.   By establishing bank accounts via mobile providers, Afghans will have the ability to secure their finances and easily transfer funds for the purpose of remittances by uploading purchased phone credit, transferring it to another account, and then exchanging that credit for cash or goods.

Although increased cellular connectivity strengthens family ties, improves security, and could provide a means for future economic development, there are nonetheless major obstacles.  The prominence of low incomes and illiteracy greatly undermines the distribution and use of cell phones, yet with innovative programming by international agencies these problems may be mitigated.  Through the distribution of cell phones via micro-finance and entrepreneurial services, and in coordination with the further development of the nationwide education system - which has been noted as improving - the role of mobile communications may continue to serve an important role within the reconstruction of Afghanistan.