The notorious Somali paramilitary warlord who goes by the nom de guerre Indha Adde, or White Eyes, walks alongside trenches on the outskirts of Mogadishu's Bakara Market once occupied by fighters from the Shabab, the Islamic militant group that has pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda. In one of the trenches, the foot of a corpse pokes out from a makeshift grave consisting of some sand dumped loosely over the body. One of Indha Adde's militiamen says the body is that of a foreigner who fought alongside the Shabab. "We bury their dead, and we also capture them alive," says Indha Adde in a low, raspy voice. "We take care of them if they are Somali, but if we capture a foreigner we execute them so that others will see we have no mercy."
Despite such thug talk, Indha Adde is not simply a warlord, at least not officially, anymore. Nowadays, he is addressed as Gen. Yusuf Mohamed Siad, and he wears a Somali military uniform, complete with red beret and three stars on his shoulder. His weapons and his newfound legitimacy were bestowed upon him by the US-sponsored African Union force, known as AMISOM, that currently occupies large swaths of Mogadishu.
It is quite a turnabout. Five years ago, Indha Adde was one of Al Qaeda and the Shabab's key paramilitary allies and a commander of one of the most powerful Islamic factions in Somalia fighting against foreign forces and the US-backed Somali government. He openly admits to having sheltered some of the most notorious Al Qaeda figures — including Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 1998 bombings of the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania — and to deceiving the CIA in order to protect the men. (Fazul was killed in June in Mogadishu.)
"The CIA failed to convince me to work with them," Indha Adde recalls of his meetings in Somalia, Kenya and Dubai with agency operatives beginning in 2004, when, he says, he met the CIA's East Africa chief in the Emirates. "They offered me money, they offered funding for the region I was controlling, they offered me influence and power in Somalia through US cooperation, but I refused all those offers." At the time, Indha Adde — like many Muslims around the globe — viewed the United States as "arrogant" and on a crusade against Islam. "Personally, I thought of even Osama [bin Laden] himself as a good man who only wanted the implementation of Islamic law," he tells me at one of his homes in Mogadishu.
Yusuf Mohamed Siad was not always known just as Indha Adde. As one of the main warlords who divided and destroyed Somalia during the civil war that raged through the 1990s, he brutally took control of the Lower Shabelle region, which was overwhelmingly populated by a rival clan, earning him the moniker "The Butcher." There are allegations that he ran drug and weapons trafficking operations from the Merca port. Then, as the religious and political winds began to shift in Somalia after 9/11, he remade himself into an Islamic sheik of sorts in the mid-2000s and vowed to fight foreign invaders, including rival warlords funded and directed by the CIA.
Perhaps more than any other figure, Indha Adde embodies the mind-boggling constellation of allegiances and double-crosses that has marked Somalia since its last stable government fell in 1991. And his current role encapsulates the contradictions of the country's present: he is a warlord who believes in Sharia law, is friendly with the CIA, and takes money and weapons from AMISOM. There are large parts of Mogadishu that are not accessible without his permission, and he controls one of the largest militias and possesses more technicals (truck-mounted heavy automatic weapons) in the city than any other warlord.
While the United States and other Western powers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on arms, training and equipment for the Ugandan and Burundian militaries under the auspices of AMISOM, the Somali military remains underfunded and under-armed. Its soldiers are poorly paid, highly undisciplined and, at the end of the day, more loyal to their clans than to the central government. That's where Indha Adde's rent-a-militia comes in.
Over the past year, the Somali government and AMISOM have turned to some unsavory characters in a dual effort to build something resembling a national army and, as the United States attempted to do with its Awakening Councils in the Sunni areas of Iraq in 2006, to purchase strategic loyalty from former allies of the current enemy — in this case, the Shabab. Some warlords, like Indha Adde, have been given government ministries or military rank in return for allocating their forces to the fight against the Shabab. Several are former allies of Al Qaeda or the Shabab, and many fought against the US-sponsored Ethiopian invasion in 2006 or against the US-led mission in Somalia in the early 1990s that culminated in the infamous "Black Hawk Down" incident.
Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed claims that Indha Adde and other warlords have sworn allegiance to the government, but it is abundantly clear from traveling extensively through Mogadishu with Indha Adde that his men are loyal to him above all else. President Sharif seemed almost detached from this reality when I met him at his offices in Mogadishu. "As more territory is gained, it will be easier to unite [the various militias] under one umbrella," he says.
Not everyone in the Somali government sees it that way. "These people are not supposed to have any role in this government," says Ahmed Nur Mohamed, the mayor of Mogadishu. "They are not supporting the government, but they are waiting. It's a time bomb: they are waiting, they want to weaken the government, and they are waiting any time that the government falls, so that each one will grab an area."
Mohamed Afrah Qanyare, an infamous warlord who for years was backed by the CIA, concurs with that assessment. Interviewed over coffee at one of his homes in Mogadishu, Qanyare expresses his displeasure that the CIA has stopped pursuing a relationship with him, and he refuses to believe that I am not in the agency. "You guys are usually Irish-American," he tells me as he laughs and slaps the knee of a member of the Somali Parliament who has come to pay his respects to Qanyare. He continues, "In any case, you are making a huge mistake" in backing the former Shabab- and Al Qaeda–allied warlords like Indha Adde. "There is a difference between conflict of ideology and conflict of interest," he declares. "The warlords being backed by you [America] have only a conflict of interest with the Shabab, not of ideology. That's why [arming and supporting them] is a dangerous game."
After the 9/11 attacks and President Bush's "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists" declaration, Somalia was quick to pledge its support for the United States. At the time, the Somali government had virtually no control over the country, which had been ruled by warlords since the early '90s. Nonetheless, its foreign minister, Ismail Mahmoud "Buubaa" Hurre, swiftly penned a letter to the US secretary of state. "We are with you, and we are as much concerned with the possibility of Al Qaeda moving into [Somalia] as you are," Buubaa recalls writing. "But the response was lukewarm." He says it took Washington "a long time" to "decide to move in," and when it did, Buubaa says, it "backfired." Spectacularly.
As the "global war on terror" kicked off, the United States established a Combined Joint Task Force for the Horn of Africa. In 2002 some 900 military and intelligence personnel were deployed to the former French military outpost, Camp Lemonier, in the African nation of Djibouti. The secretive base would soon serve as a command center for covert US action in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and as the launch pad for operations by the CIA and the elite Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to strike Al Qaeda targets outside the declared battlefield of Afghanistan, as part of the Bush administration's borderless war strategy.
While there were rumblings early on that the United States intended to hit in Somalia, seasoned US experts on the region spoke out against it. "There's no need to be rushing into Somalia," former US ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn said. "If you think about military targets, I doubt they exist." Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia scholar at Davidson College and a former political adviser to the United Nations in Somalia, has written several papers on the absence of a radical political Islamic tradition in Somalia. In early 2002 he estimated the number of Somali nationals with "significant links" to Al Qaeda at ten to twelve people, along with a few foreign fighters. Because of a dearth of intelligence — Shinn referred to it as "abysmal" — "snatch and grab"–type tactics were ill advised at the time.