Britain plans to deepen its involvement in Somalia – a land that has become a byword for instability and violence – in the new year.
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David Cameron describes Somalia as “a failed state that directly threatens British interests” and will convene a summit in London in February to bring together the countries currently active in the Horn of Africa state. A number of key decisions are expected to be made there, ranging from humanitarian aid to military missions.
The Prime Minister’s decision to tackle the Somalia quagmire is seen by some as being fuelled by the success of the Libyan venture.
Mr Cameron is concerned about tourists and aid workers from the UK being attacked and kidnapped, the rise of piracy and the potential for the East African country to become a place of extremist indoctrination for increasing numbers of young Muslims from the UK.
The last point, in particular, is an acute security concern, with MI5 head Jonathan Evans warning that Somalia has become the next destination after Pakistan for terrorist training due to the presence of al-Shabaab, an extremist group with links to al-Qa’ida. The would-be jihadists are not just of Somali background, but include those from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Yemen and north Africa, resident in Britain. There is a real risk, Mr Evans has stressed, that returnees from Somalia could carry out bomb attacks in British cities.
The UK has also been linked to the piracy in the Indian Ocean, with claims that members of the Somali diaspora are involved, with financial connections through Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates with the highly lucrative hijacking of vessels bringing in an estimated $12bn (£7.6bn) a year.
Critics claim that rather than looking at Britain’s recent involvement in Libya for inspiration, a closer analogy is provided by Helmand. The Afghan province was described by Tony Blair’s government as “ungoverned space which is a source of threats to Britain” through terrorism and narcotics.
Helmand provided 25 per cent of Afghanistan’s total opium crop and around 80 per cent of heroin on British streets came from Helmand. Three years after UK military deployment, the province was producing 49 per cent of the national opium. The military mission, scheduled to last two years, will continue until 2014.
Robert Emerson, a security analyst specialising in African conflict zones, said: “David Cameron has acquired a taste for foreign adventures. It is true that what goes on in Somalia is of interest and we must be wary of the terrorist threat. But how far does one get involved?
“Of course there are no British boots on the ground, but the British and the Americans are funding Amisom [the African Union force in Somalia] and are thus seen by some Somalis as the enemy.
“People are going to be wary of any form of mission creep.”
Whitehall officials point out that African Union forces, augmented by troops from Kenya and Ethiopia, have recaptured 95 per cent of Mogadishu from al-Shabaab, which also suffered a significant blow when Fazul Abdullah Mohammed – said to be their contact man with al-Qa’ida and the organiser of the 1998 bombings of US embassies in East Africa – was killed last summer.
British officials maintain that with the militants on the back foot, this is the time to help Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
A number of other countries are already active in Somalia, led by Turkey, whose Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently visited Mogadishu, Qatar and the UAE. Mr Erdogan’s visit is seen in diplomatic circles as another example of his mission to recreate the influence of the Ottoman Empire following trips to north Africa and the Middle East. The Qatari intervention is the latest in a series into states in conflict after supplying arms to the rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and backing the Syrian uprising.
The London conference will be attended by the TFG, countries in the region and neighbouring states including Kenya and Uganda as well as aid agencies. However Eritrea, which has been accused of supplying arms to al-Shabaab, has not been invited and it is unclear at what level Somaliland would be represented.
The US is a major contributor to the AU force in Somalia. A senior US diplomat said: “We are fully behind the London conference. Yes, you could say that everyone will have their agenda, including the British. Our own Somali diaspora have links with both the good and bad guys in Somalia, the British much more so, so it’s natural they want to be involved.
“Where does it all lead to after London? We’ll see.”