Background Briefing on U.S. Assistance to the Somalia Transitional Federal Government
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you all very much for coming this afternoon. I know that many of you are very interested in what is happening in Somalia today, and most particularly interested in the U.S. position with respect to Somalia and why we have, in fact, taken that position.
The U.S. is deeply concerned about developments in Somalia for several different reasons. All of you know that Somalia has been without an effective central government for the past 20 years, but in the recent months and recent years, the situation there has become increasingly unstable. The instability in Somalia today has generated a cancer inside of the country. We see enormous humanitarian problems around all of southern Somalia, where some 60 or 70 percent of the country’s population in the south are in need of some kind of humanitarian and food assistance.
We see widespread unemployment and we see large movements of people out of Mogadishu, which has probably lost over half of its population in the last couple of years – enormous numbers of people displaced.
We have also seen this cancer of instability metastasize to the region. We see enormous refugee flows out of Somalia into Kenya. Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya, built over a decade ago to handle 90,000 people, now has a refugee population in excess of 270,000. Some 6- to 7,000 Somalis leave Somalia every month and cross into Kenya.
QUESTION: What was the – I’m sorry, what was the original – what was it set up for?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Set up for 90,000 people.
QUESTION: Okay, sorry.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Today, a suburb of Nairobi, Eastleigh, probably is if not the largest, certainly one of the largest Somali cities in East Africa, reflecting the movement of large population groups out of Somalia into the safety of Kenya, taxing the services of the Kenyan Government in providing jobs, in providing schooling, in providing infrastructure to handle these large refugee flows. Refugees have also flown and moved into other parts of East Africa.
Another regional manifestation of the problem there is the contribution that it makes in continuing tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea. In some ways, the fighting in the south of Somalia amounts to a bit of a proxy conflict between those two countries who have had longstanding border problems and disagreements.
And we’ve also seen the problem metastasize to the international level as well in the form of piracy. Because Somalia has no central government, has no police force, no court system, and because the economy, both the formal and the informal economy, have completely broken down, we have seen Somalis take to the sea to hijack an increasing number of international ships, including the Alabama Maersk¸ which was hijacked some two months ago, being an American vessel.
But the piracy, like the refugees, are an indication of how the instability, the continued instability in Somalia, has caused a great deal of concern.
The U.S. also is concerned that Somalia has become a safe haven for a small number of individuals who were involved with the destruction of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salam in 1998, August of 1998, and also for the destruction of the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa in November of 2002, and the attempted destruction of an Israeli charter aircraft going into Mombasa.
For all of these reasons, but primarily for the first three, we think that we should do as much as we possibly can to support the African and regional efforts that are underway to help deal with this issue. The U.S. strongly supports the Djibouti process, a process organized and run by IGAD and hosted by Djibouti, which led to reconciliation and the creation of the Transitional Federal Government. We support that Djibouti process. We support the Transitional Federal Government that has come out of it, and we support the current president of that Transitional Federal Government, President Sheikh Sharif, just as we supported the efforts of the previous Transitional Federal Government president, President Yusef.
This is something that the African states in the region, all except one, have endorsed. It is something that the AU has endorsed. The only state in the area that has not supported the Djibouti process, has not supported the efforts of the TFG, is the state of Eritrea. Eritrea has played a spoilers role. They have allowed the – allowed ammunition and supporters of the al-Shabaab, the extremist organization, a terrorist organization, to move supporters and equipment across the border into – the Eritreans have allowed supporters of al-Shabaab to move back and forth across the borders to be resupplied. And we think that is of some concern.
Maybe I should stop right there.
MR. KELLY: Okay.
QUESTION: So what can you tell us about the decision to provide military assistance to Somalis, both materiel and training?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: As I said, we have supported the TFG, the TFG’s leadership, and we have provided the support of arms and munitions and training to the TFG military consistent with the efforts of the regional states. The governments of Uganda and Burundi have troops on the ground in Mogadishu in support of the TFG, and we have provided material assistance to the TFG government in order to help them stabilize the situation in the country and to deal – and to help deal with those regional issues that I described, as well as the international issues that have come out as a result thereof. We thought this was also in our interest because providing support to a more stable Somalia would give it an opportunity to deal with individuals who might also be seeking safe haven there, individuals who’ve been involved in terrorists and terrorist activities.
QUESTION: How recent was this decision, and how recently have they been supplied arms, ammunition, and has the training already started?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, we have been supporting the efforts of the Ugandan and Burundian forces since they went into Somalia nearly two years ago. And we have been providing support to the TFG more recently as their situation has become more --
QUESTION: How recently?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- become much more --
QUESTION: How recently?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Within the last year.
QUESTION: But it’s the last couple months, the arms, right? The arms --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes. Yes, the arms are --
QUESTION: -- for the last couple of weeks?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The arms are very new, but we’ve been providing support for some time.
QUESTION: Is this --
QUESTION: What kind of weapons are they, just to be simple? What kind of weaponry is it? What kind of ammunitions?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’re talking about – we’re talking about small arms. And we’re --
QUESTION: And are these --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- small arms and limited munitions. This is not artillery pieces or armored vehicles or tanks. These are small arms.
QUESTION: And these are --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: These are weapons that would be used in an urban environment, fighting a counter-guerilla insurgency.
QUESTION: Is this --
QUESTION: I’m sorry; can I just finish up with this? Are they American weapons, or are you essentially providing the funds and then they’re purchased elsewhere?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’re essentially doing two things: We have provided funds for the purchase of weapons; and we have also asked the two units that are there, particularly the Ugandans, to provide weapons to the TFG, and we have backfilled the Ugandans for what they have provided to the TFG government.
QUESTION: And then, last one for me on this, if I may. You’ve talked about how Somalia can be seen as a sort of --
QUESTION: Yeah – as, you know, as a proxy conflict or a proxy war between the Eritreans and the Ethiopians. Can you shed any light on your efforts to persuade the Eritreans to cease their support for the insurgents? And I know you’ve said publicly that you have interest in perhaps going to Eritrea. Is there any – have they displayed any interest in seeing you there or anywhere else to talk about this?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I have indeed sought to engage the Eritreans so that we could talk about the issue of Somalia. I have said to them that it would be extremely useful for us to try to improve our relationship and bring it back to normal, but the basis on which that would be possible is for them to act in a responsible manner in the Horn of Africa, and to cease and desist their support for al-Shabaab. I have reached out to the Eritreans, and their responses have been slow in coming back.
QUESTION: Can I clarify something about the arms? You said you’re providing the funds for purchase of weapons. That’s going directly to the TFG? Is that what you’re saying when you say you’re backfilling the Ugandans?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s right.
QUESTION: Is that with money or is that with American arms?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: What we have sought to do is to do – as I said, to provide the TFG with resources to buy munitions and arms. And we have – and to pay for some of their training needs. And we have gone to the Ugandans when the TFG has run short of weapons and ammunition and have told the Ugandans to provide what the TFG needs. When the Ugandans provide those weapons, they give us a bill and an accounting for what they have turned over, and we then give them the money to replace the stores and the arms that they have –that they’ve (inaudible).
QUESTION: Can you quantify that at all?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, I do not want to quantify at this point.
QUESTION: Can you give us a sense of the magnitude of it, the scope of this?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’ve shipped probably in the neighborhood of 40 tons worth of arms and munitions into Somalia in support of the TFG.
QUESTION: And is it ongoing? I mean, is this – this is going to continue, I mean, right? But so far --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes. Yes.
QUESTION: And that’s since when?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: This has been within the last two months.
QUESTION: I have a couple.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And let me just say, I will say within the last six weeks – certainly within – to be more precise, because the al-Shabaab started a major assault on the TFG around the 7th of May, and our assistance has substantially increased as a result of the (inaudible.)
QUESTION: And it was a direct result of that that prompted your decision to --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We felt that it was important to respond to the TFG request and the calls for support that were coming from the region and the concerns that the region had.
QUESTION: Can I just – on the arms, just as a ballpark figure, are we talking about a couple of million dollars or are we talking about under a million dollars? Are we talking about upwards of –
QUESTION: Are we talking about tens of millions of dollars?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, we’re talking in the terms of the low millions. We’re not talking –
QUESTION: Single digits?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’re going to get – start parsing this. We’re not talking about $100 million, we’re not talking about $75 million, we’re not talking about $50 million, and we’re not talking about $25 million. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: No, I just don’t understand what the reluctance is if you’re talking about – you know, if you’re acknowledging sending in arms, you know, whether it’s –
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I mean, at this point, it’s certainly under $10 million.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: A couple of things. I mean, the fact that you –
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s under $10 million.
QUESTION: The fact that you sent it in the last few weeks seems like you’re worried that al-Shabaab was on the verge of taking over the government. And I mean, can you relate that to your fears that – about al Qaida becoming a safe haven in the region?
Also, can you talk about the training piece, what the U.S. is doing in terms of training?
And then thirdly, I understand the head of the Puntland Government is here. What are your discussions with them? Do you see them as having any role whatsoever?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Go backwards. Third question: I believe that the president of Puntland is here. He is here at the request of Congressman Payne to participate in a set of congressional meetings – I don’t know if they would be called hearings – that occurred, I think, several days ago.
I have not met with the president of Puntland, and we have not been involved in any of his activities since his arrival.
QUESTION: So it doesn’t sound like you think – I mean, the Bush Administration used to talk to them quite often, so it doesn’t seem like you think they’re real players.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, that’s – I didn’t say that.
QUESTION: Well --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I just said that we had not spoken to them. They have come here at the request of Congressman Payne. And it may be that while they’re here we may see them, but we have not – we have not seen them. Puntland has exhibited a degree of stability that is to be encouraged and supported. And so it is not a – that we have a low opinion of them, but we haven’t seen them.
The second question --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Training. We have set aside money to help train the TFG. The Ugandans have done some training. The Burundians have done some training of TFG elements. And the Kenyans are also prepared to provide training. And we have and will assist in the payment for that training when it can be done in places that are close by or when they can be done inside of the country.
QUESTION: Are you providing logistical support?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We are not providing any logistical support to the TFG, but we have, in fact, provided logistical support to move the Burundians and the Ugandans in and outside of Mogadishu. And we have assisted them from the very beginning in their efforts to provide support to the TFG.
QUESTION: And then just lastly on the issue of the kind of timing, I mean, how concerned were you – are you or were you that al-Shabaab was on the verge of completely taking over Mogadishu and about fears that – I mean, I think Panetta made some comments this week that about fears that al-Qaida could be the next safe haven, that it could be the next safe haven for al-Qaida.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I haven’t seen Director Panetta’s statement, but let me say that we remain concerned about the prospects of an al-Shabaab victory, and we want to do as much as we can to help the TFG, the AMISOM forces, and the countries in the region to deal with a threat that impacts Somalia, the region, and the international community. We think that it’s important that the TFG be given an opportunity to establish stability and peace in the south and be able to deliver services to the people there.
A government run by al-Shabaab would be a government that would likely generate greater instability in the country, carrying out more of the atrocities and human rights violations, and would probably contribute to the continued instability and concerns that we have about providing a safe haven for global terrorists like Fazul Harun and Ali Nabhan, who were responsible for the 2002 bombings.
I draw your attention to what a Shabaab government would mean for Somalia by noting that the press carries today the draconian judicial – if one can call it judicial – procedures that they’re prepared to employ. For robbers, they will cut off the hand and the foot of those who violate their strict Sharia law. Somalia has always been a Muslim country, but it has practiced a moderate form of Sufi Islam. The kind of Sharia, the kind of Islam that al-Shabaab would practice is generally anathema to most Somalis.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) if I could.
QUESTION: I’m sorry, go ahead.
QUESTION: The first is who decided to provide the arms and training? Was that Secretary Clinton or the President?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It was a national decision.
QUESTION: We had in our story it was made at the highest level, so I would assume that means the President.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, the – it was a national decision.
QUESTION: Why can’t you say --
QUESTION: It was not the President?
QUESTION: Why can’t you say who that is, it’s expenditure of American taxpayer funds? It’s not a covert act.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, no, the – no, no, it’s not. And it’s – and the Secretary and the NSC agreed to this, yes.
QUESTION: And she has the authority; it doesn't have to be presidential authority; the authority has been delegated to her to --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, and we have been – as I said, we have been supporting the Djibouti process. We have supported for the last nearly two years the Ugandans and the Burundians as they have been on the ground defending the TFG leadership, defending the parliament, defending the presidential palace, defending the main port, and defending of the main airport. And the extension of funding directly to the TFG is consistent with our efforts and support to help the TFG as much as possible to gain stability in the region.
QUESTION: And if I could just clarify – it’s a simple question. The training is not being done by U.S. --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, there’s – let me just --
QUESTION: -- police or contractors or military or anything?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me be clear. There are no U.S. active duty or reserve military forces in Somalia, operating in Somalia, or acting on behalf of this.
QUESTION: Are they doing it in neighboring – are they doing it in neighboring countries?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, no.
QUESTION: And does Djibouti have a role in training?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, they have assisted from time to time, but we --
QUESTION: In what respect?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: But I can’t – I don’t know the details, precisely what they’ve been doing, but no – this is not been regular U.S. military forces engaged and involved in this.
QUESTION: How much money has been set aside? You’ve said some money has been set aside to train the TFG.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s right.
QUESTION: Again, I’ll be the money guy and ask.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, we’re looking at a – at figures including arms and ammunition and training of less than $10 million.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) the training and the ammunition (inaudible).
QUESTION: Oh, it’s all included, the training and the munitions --
MR. KELLY: Libby, you have the last question.
QUESTION: Yeah, just to follow up on Elise’s question about al-Qaida, what can you tell us about – you mentioned there’s a, you know, a small number of individuals that have safe haven in Somalia. But how concerned are you about al-Qaida having a footprint there and their setting their sights on Somalia, especially if the U.S. forces in Afghanistan do have more success driving them out?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, don’t question it. It remains an important concern of the U.S. Government. The most important concern, however, is to be able to capture the individuals who were involved in terrorist acts in 2002 and in 1998. We do not want to see Somalia become a safe haven for foreign terrorists, and we believe that one of the best ways to prevent that is to help the TFG establish itself as a strong, legitimate government capable of enforcing its laws, protecting its borders, and arresting individuals who are working against them as well as against us and others in the international community.
The best way to do that is to help create a more viable Somali state which is not a threat to its people and not a threat to its neighbors, not a threat to international shipping, and not a threat to us in terms of harboring terrorists.
QUESTION: Would you say that --
QUESTION: Are they really moving over from Afghanistan and Pakistan?
MR. KELLY: I think that Mr. Senior Administration Official is just about --
QUESTION: But are they already (inaudible) over?
QUESTION: Well, this actually – I mean, this is an important point. I mean, do you – there
was some – during the Bush Administration, there was talk about –an effort to kind of engage the Islamicists. I mean, is that over? Have you completely given up on talking to al-Shabaab and trying to form some kind of accommodation? I mean, even though you’re giving these guys ammo and you’ve been doing – you’ve been supporting them for two years, they don’t seem to be able to kind of consolidate their power. So I mean, is there any kind of accommodation to be made?
QUESTION: Is there any hope for a reconciliation there?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, we continue to encourage the government of Sheikh Sharif to reach out to all moderate Islamic and Muslim forces in the area to establish an inclusive government that involves the clans and various regional leaders; all of those who are not intent upon carrying out extremist acts or terrorist attacks --
QUESTION: But not al-Shabaab?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We have – if there are individuals in Shabaab who are not committed to extremism and are prepared to accept an inclusive and moderate government, then we would say – speak to them. But to those Shabaab elements who are extremists, the answer would be no.
MR. KELLY: Okay. Thank you.
QUESTION: It sounds a plan to talk to Hamas.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, no, no.
MR. KELLY: Thank you very much.