On 28 September 2015 already, David Cameron announced that Britain would deploy troops to Somalia in support of the African Union force.
While the announcement went almost unnoticed, it may result in undesired consequences for the region and for the United Kingdom.
It is also the latest episode in Britain’s undeclared war in Somalia.
CAGE pieced together a mosaic that shows the high level of UK’s involvement in the Horn of Africa. The outcome of which has been war, rape, killing, detention, rendition and torture.
Beyond this, British policies have only contributed to destabilise the region further and perpetuated the cycle of violence, putting the security of Britain at risk.
Britain’s colonial legacy in Somalia
In a noted article, prominent journalist Jamal Osman explained how decisions made by the British colonial rulers have affected Somalis to this day.
“Cameron’s forefathers brought great misery on the Somali people”, he wrote.
In particular, it is the partition of Somalia which, very much like the Sykes-Picot agreement in the Middle East, seems to be the root cause of current issues.
“Somali territories were given away to Ethiopia and Kenya. The north-eastern region of Kenya for example is inhabited by more than 2 million ethnic Somalis. When Britain pulled out, the population voted overwhelmingly to join Somalia, but their wishes were ignored”.
Many, like those stranded in Dadaab, the biggest refugee camp in the world, now live in dreadful conditions.
Likewise, the estimated five million people of Somali descent in the Ethiopian Ogaden region, still suffer the consequences of Britain’s support for what many perceive as an occupation.
In many ways, it appears that the UK’s approach to Somalia since 2006 is in perfect line with its colonial past, supporting foreign neighbours against the will and interests of the people and in disregard of abuses.
UK’s War on Terror: Abduction, rendition and torture
In 2006, the Islamic Union Courts (ICU) put an end to the clan-based conflict which riddled the country for years, reaching what some have called an “uneasy truce”.
Soon after, Ethiopia invaded Somalia. It was supported by the US and the European Union in its efforts to overthrow the ICU.
From day one, Britain got themselves involved in a series of abuses.
In March 2007 CAGE, in cooperation with Reprieve, published the first accounts of mass rendition, incommunicado detention and possible torture of foreign nationals in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia.
Hundreds were arrested at the border between Somalia and Kenya in a joint operation between Ethiopia, the US and the UK.
Soon after, CAGE released further evidence that “Guantánamo-style prisons” had been set up in the Horn of Africa to illegally detain men, women and even children in converted metal shipping containers.
In secret detention, MI5 agents interrogated captives, including Britons who assumed they would receive assistance from the embassy.
“She told me that if I told her what she wanted to hear, I would be on the first plane back to the UK, but if I didn’t’ t come up with the information she wanted, I would stay here forever”, recalls a young British man who was rendered.
Since then, the British security agencies do not seem to have discontinued their presence. In 2014, a Somali official who worked alongside western intelligence blew the whistle.
“The CIA from America are here, MI6 from the UK is here and the French are here”, he told Channel 4.
“When the suspect doesn’t say what they want, they are given electric shocks with a cattle prod. They are tortured and beaten, then brought back with torture all over their faces”, he added.
Profiling, harassment and Disposition matrix
MI5 and MI6 efforts were not restricted to the Horn of Africa itself, but included Londoners back in the United Kingdom. Widely reported accusations emerged that MI5 had waged a “campaign of blackmail and harassment” in the UK in an attempt to recruit young Muslims linked to the region.
“The MI5 agent said, ‘Mohamed, if you do not work for us we will tell any foreign country you try to travel to that you are a suspected terrorist.'”, said a youth worker from north London.
One of them was Mahdi Hashi, a young care taker whose first experience of harassment started at the age of 16.
He told CAGE how he was once threatened by an MI5 agent at a British airport.
“I’m thinking like he’s going to arrest me in Djibouti, and torture me, might want to take me to Morocco like Binyam Mohamed, that story,” he said.
Two years later, he did end up abducted in Djibouti where he witnessed torture in secret detention. Weeks later, he was secretly flown to the US.
Shortly before, he had been stripped of his British citizenship by the Home office. His supporters argued it was done so that Britain could wash its hands of him. Kept in solitary confinement in New York for nearly three years, he ended up pleading guilty to terrorism charges.
Upon sentencing, Judge Gleeson recognised Hashi posed no specific threat to the US. He termed the facts “complicated” accepting in part Hashi’s position that he joined al Shabaab not to engage in violent attacks but because he thought it could restore peace to war-torn Somalia. The prosecution admitted there was no evidence he ever engaged in violence.
Another young Londoner, Bilal el-Berjawi, also seems to have gone through the same pattern of harassment with US/UK complicity for at least five years. This ultimately resulted in the revocation of his British citizenship and shortly after his assassination by an American drone near Mogadishu.
As the ground breaking story of his life and death pieced together by The Intercept shows, his case raises “questions about the British government’s role in the targeted assassination of its own citizens”.
These cases point towards the British support of US covert operations in the Horn of Africa, which by essence is secret. However, the British training of security forces in neighbouring countries is public and well-documented.
Somalia surrounded: British-trained “death squads”
While the United Kingdom is not officially at war in Somalia, its heavy involvement in training and providing equipment to forces involved in the country leads us to think otherwise.
These British-supported forces have all been involved in the worst abuses. Yet, British backing has not only remained, but has often increased.
The “peacekeepers” of the African Union force (AMISOM), now supported by British troops, have been documented by Human Rights Watch as having raped Somali women who had been seeking aid and medicine.
In fact, according to the same organisation, rape in Mogadishu was so endemic that it became “normal”.
The report found that armed assailants, including members of state security forces, operating with complete impunity, sexually assault, rape, beat, shot, and stab women and girls inside camps for the displaced and as they walk to market, tend to their fields, or forage for firewood.
In September 2015, Britain also extended its cooperation with Kenyan security forces. This, despite the Kenyan police having “unleashed ten weeks of hell” on Somali refugees in Nairobi, raping, torturing, illegally detaining and extorting money from vulnerable men, women and children.
Likewise, according to Kenyan officers, the U.K. provided training, equipment and intelligence to the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit on how to “eliminate” suspects in a campaign of extrajudicial assassinations.
In Ethiopia, the UK spent millions of pounds of its aid budget to fund Ogaden “special police”, an Ethiopian paramilitary security force that stands accused of numerous abuses and summary executions.
In Somaliland, members of the Parliament accused the UK of providing training and support to the Rapid Reaction Unit (RRU), a Somaliland paramilitary counter-terror squad responsible for unlawful killings and political intimidation.
Hence, Somalia is kept on lock, surrounded from all sides by British-backed forces.
Such efforts are often justified by the strategic value of the region from a security perspective. But recent discoveries also show that British has a vested economic interest in the Horn of Africa.
British interest: the O word
While the region is known for poverty, droughts and famines, it now appears that it has a large quantity of natural resources.
In August 2013, Soma Oil, a British company chaired by former conservative leader Michael Howard, signed an agreement with the Somali government to develop the oil and gas industry in the country. In 2015, the company became the subject of a criminal investigation in relation to allegations of fraud in Somalia.
In October 2015, an Ethiopian official announced his country will begin exporting natural gas in three to five years following the discovery of huge reserves in the country’s Somali region.
Actually, the UN warned that 7.5 million were going hungry in Ethiopia, with the southern Somali regions among the hardest-hit areas. It added that if no action was taken”15 million people will require food assistance” by next year, more than inside war-torn Syria.
Such practices and disparities can only create the impression that the resources of the region are being plundered for the benefits of outsiders, while the locals live in dire poverty, feeding the “anti-colonialist” sentiment.
Perpetuating the cycle of violence
The British policy in East Africa is not only problematic from an ethical point of view. It is also a key factor in the destabilisation of Somalia, perpetuating the cycle of violence by reinforcing the narrative pushed by Al Shabab.
“They (the British) are colonising us and running our country (…). They are supporting the mercenaries, the Kenyans. In our country, after America, the British are the biggest problem” said Shiekh Ali Dhere, spokesman for Al Shabab to Channel 4.
The British stance is also risky for the national security of the United Kingdom itself, since it serves as a justification for Al Shabab to issue direct threats against Britain.
In the same interview, Mr Dhere explained that due to their support of the African forces, the British were “part of the war” and had become “legitimate targets”.
“Your peace depends upon us being left alone,” he said. “If you do not let us live in peace, you will not enjoy peace either.”
In a way, Britain’s fears have become a self-fulfilling prophecy: the policies set to prevent Somalia from becoming a threat to the region and the UK have caused the threat to emerge.
The logical and mature response should be to reconsider and abandon those policies, not to insist on continuing them, let alone aggravate them.
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)