Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat-Somali Information Minister Tahir Mahmud Gelle has exposed the dangers that Al-Qaeda’s presence poses to Somalia and Yemen as a prelude to future meddling in other countries by fomenting sedition and wars and planting instability and insecurity. He called for Arab, African, and international support to contain terrorism and build the Somali state. In an interview with the Asharq Al-Awsat on the sidelines of his participation of the Arab information ministers meeting in Cairo, Gelle denied reports that the Al-Shabab Movement was in control of the capital, Mogadishu. He added, however, that this movement was present in other areas and controlled some of the resources of the state. Gelle accused Eritrea of continuing to arm, train, and finance the armed groups in Somalia. The Somali minister affirmed that his country was coordinating with Yemen regarding the displaced Somalis in Yemen. He also affirmed that the two countries were coordinating on the threats being made by the Al-Shabab Mujahidin Movement to send armed men to Yemen to fight alongside Al-Qaeda against the Yemeni authorities.
Following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who is behind the ongoing war in Somalia and the violation of the national reconciliation agreements?
[Gelle] The Somali problem changes from stage to stage. In the past, the warlords were the cause as well as the forces that did not believe that the reconciliation agreement served their special agenda. All these stages were reinforced by one factor; namely, the collapse of the state institutions. We need to exert gigantic efforts to build the state and strengthen its control. We also have to admit that the agendas of the warlords that prevailed in the past have disappeared completely. At this stage, however, the Djibouti conference helped in bolstering stability to a large degree, leading to the formation of a national unity government. The situation is now different as we are part of a world agenda now. The new fact that we now share with many international parties is the issue of world jihad or Al-Qaeda organization that is fighting against everyone. It is perhaps ironic that the region that is targeted before anything else is the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen is being used as the gateway. Of course, we do not approve any of this. We have rejected and condemned it in the past. We are cooperating with the countries concerned, particularly Yemen, our brethren in the Arabian Peninsula, and other countries. We are now suffering from the same problem that many other countries are suffering regardless of whether they are waging a battle against Al-Qaeda at present or will do so in the future.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are the reports that Somalis have joined the fight alongside the Huthists in Yemen true?
[Gelle] I am talking about facts and confessions. We are confronting the biggest problem the Somali government is facing and that is undermining its efforts up to this very moment. This is the Al-Shabab Movement that is known to be associated with the foreign quarters. This movement is claiming day and night that world jihad is not targeting Somalia alone, but that Somalia is also the springboard. The goal of the Al-Shabab Movement is to foment jihad in Yemen. They said that we were telling Yemen that we were coming and would cooperate with mujahidin in Yemen as a prelude to the liberation of the Arabian Peninsula. What I am saying is that the Al-Shabab Movement in Somalia admitted exchanging forces with the fighters in Yemen. This is the most dangerous part of the issue.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who finances and supports the Al-Shabab Movement in Somalia?
[Gelle] The Al-Shabab Movement is a network of fighting bands inside the Arab and Muslim countries. It continues to proclaim its allegiance to Al-Qaeda. There are tapes that say “We are at your disposal, O Osama,” meaning Osama Bin Laden is the leader of Al-Qaeda organization. As for financing sources, they currently control some ports inside Somalia and some airports. They levy taxes that they call zakat. They also force merchants to pay protection money. However, I can affirm that the battles that the movement is waging inside Somalia cannot be financed only from inside the country in view of their size and quality.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there any coordination with the Yemeni Government on the large numbers of Somalis that have sought refuge in Yemen so that these refugees would not turn into fuel for Al-Qaeda or join its ranks, as has happened when Somalis were captured in battles fighting alongside the Huthists?
[Gelle] Yemen is our close Arab neighbor. Yemen has embraced large numbers since the war and we are in constant touch with it. As for the participation on these in the fighting, we do not think so for a simple reason: Yemen has received them well, gave them education opportunities, and many other things. It did not set conditions or obstacles to welcome the displaced Somalis. Sanaa does not return anyone to Somalia who reaches the shores of Yemen. On our part, we have shown our concern for them so that they do not become a prey for Al-Qaeda or the Al-Shabab Movement inside Somalia that are trying to lure and recruit any citizen suffering from hard times due to the wars. No Somali has returned from Yemen to join the ranks of the Al-Shabab Movement fighters inside Somalia. This is a truthful testimony in favor of Yemen.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But these groups went to fight with the Huthists in Yemen.
[Gelle] The problem of the Huthists is different from the sect of the Al-Shabab Movement in Somalia [sentence as published].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you not think that they have agreed on an alleged common denominator, that is, the struggle against the United States and Israel?
[Gelle] We as a government do not want any Somali citizen inside Yemen to be a source of concern for Yemeni security but a factor that complements Yemeni security, particularly since this country has been generous to the Somalis who sought shelter there. But the thinking of the Al-Shabab Movement is totally different from the thinking of any Somali citizen who is committed to the interests of his country.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has Somalia begun joint coordination with Yemen to control the issue of refugees and displacement so that the base of Al-Qaeda would not expand inside Yemen and Somalia?
[Gelle] Coordination is ongoing at all levels. President Ali Abdullah Saleh and President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed are in constant contact.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The African Union has issued a decision imposing sanctions on Eritrea because of its intervention in Somali affairs. Has this decision helped in curtailing such intervention?
[Gelle] Eritrea is the only country among the member states that does not recognize the provisional Somali Government, although all the countries in the world, including Arab, Islamic, and African countries, have done so. Our problem with Eritrea is not confined only to the issue of recognition of the Somali Government. Eritrea seeks to fight this government by supporting the armed groups, such as the Al-Shabab Movement and the Islamic Party, with arms, funds, and training. Nevertheless, we gave Eritrea a chance by accepting the mediation of some countries between us so that the Eritrean stand would be in harmony with the international stand. Eritrea, however, persisted in its stand and announced that it does not recognize the Somali Government and went on supporting the armed men to this date.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What does Eritrea gain from its negative intervention in Somalia? Is it a case of fighting Ethiopia in Somalia?
[Gelle] Had we known what Eritrea wanted, we would have come to an understanding with it, but it is concealing something that it does not wish to divulge. It may be settling scores with Ethiopia on the land of Somalia. However, all problems can be resolved through understanding. The ideal approach is to have negotiations between Ethiopia and Eritrea regarding the relations between them and relations with Somalia. It is regrettable that Eritrea has been a source of worry in the region through its presence in Somalia, support for the armed movements, the wars with Ethiopia, the problems with Djibouti, and the past conflict with Yemen.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Arab League and the African Unity have issued resolutions calling for an end to the Ethiopian and Eritrean intervention. How can this be implemented?
[Gelle] Ethiopia left Somalia a year ago and Eritrea does not control any areas through its forces. But the problem related to Eritrea’s intervention is that it supports the armed groups with funds, training, and arms.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The international community imposed sanctions on Eritrea for refusing to recognize the Somali Government, but what has it done to bolster stability in Somalia?
[Gelle] The international community imposed sanctions on Eritrea for interfering by training, funding, and arming the saboteur elements. We considered this decision as a step in the right direction and that Eritrea will stop interfering in Somali affairs. As for the international community, its assistance to Somali came late and has not reached a stage whereby it can help Somalia emerge from its crisis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So what is required from the international community?
[Gelle] What is required is support for the Somali Government in the field of security. It is true that there is training and some weapons, but for these forces to be able to impose control and restore security and stability, they should be financed, armed, and trained. We lack all these things. The Somali forces lack salaries, logistic means, and everything that a national force needs to restore stability.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the role of the Arab countries in helping Somalia imposing its sovereignty on its soil? What has the Arab League offered so far?
[Gelle] As for the Arab countries, there is a negative legacy that they have inherited due to past experiences, particularly when agreements that were concluded to bring about Somali reconciliation were not implemented. This legacy continues to exist, resulting in lack of seriousness in dealing with Somalia’s problems. But at the current stage, the Somali Government has demonstrated its ability to commit and has succeeded in keeping the Ethiopian forces in their barracks and doing training tasks only. The Arab world has been tardy in responding to the new state of affairs in Somalia. Thus the Arab League is called upon to respond more quickly and effectively and up to the required level with the new facts on the Somali arena.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the nature of the support from the Arab countries that Somalia needs?
[Gelle] Diverse support related to establishing security. For instance, the African countries are providing support by training the Somali forces. They have peacekeeping forces and they provide financial support. I should point out that Rwanda — that has recently emerged from its wars — provided support up to $400,000 while the Arab countries have not given anything. As for the support that is required from the Arab countries, the Somali Government drew up a full plan to emerge from the crisis and start the reconstruction and presented it to the Arab summit that met in Qatar last year. We expect the response of the Arab countries in support of this plan would be faster.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the most prominent features of this plan? Do you intend to present it again to the next Arab summit?
[Gelle] We have one month or more and we hope that there would be an Arab response during this period. The plan talks about frank support for the Somali security forces support for the Somali Parliament and civil institutions, and relief aid to the needy, because conditions are very tragic in some regions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the Arab League has an office for coordination and support in Mogadishu and has given the government direct aid amounting to up to $1 million.
[Gelle] It is true that the Arab League gave the Somali Government $1 million when the government was first formed, but the Somali society does not need $1 million, but $1 billion.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is Somalia presenting at the meeting of Arab information ministers?
[Gelle] My participation in the meeting of the Arab information ministers is the first of its kind. It is an opportunity to brief them on the Somali situation, not only on the information sphere, but also on the political, economic, and social spheres. This is a valuable opportunity for me to brief the Arab information ministers on what is happening in Somalia. We also seek actual Arab support for the Somali media because they have been suffering from problems for years. We have recently managed to help the media play their role again. We know that the media are the true key to deal with some deviant and extremist notions that are behind the situation we are in at present.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your position on the proposal to establish an Arab information commission?
[Gelle] We support Arab consensus in this regard. Somalia is interested in everything that was discussed at the meetings of Arab information ministers.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the required media support for the media establishments in Somalia?
[Gelle] We seek to strengthen the present media institutions, like the radio station and also the press. We wish to start a new Somali television station and that is not easy. We know that the Arab information ministers appreciate how much Somalia needs that. We also need to rebuild the national printing house.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you prefer to establish the Somali television station in Mogadishu or in a neighboring country?
[Gelle] We should establish it inside Mogadishu. The radio station and the information ministry are also in Mogadishu.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you not worried that these establishments may be bombed since they are part of the sovereignty that the armed groups are targeting?
[Gelle] The lives of civilians are in danger as well as the lives of officials. Some have been the victims of aggression, but this will not deter us from striving and working.