The mid-May 2020 release of the Italian aid worker Silvia Romano, kidnapped and held hostage for nearly two years by the terrorist organization al-Shabaab, aroused great interest and strong emotion in Italy. The reactions occurred, in part, because of the way her release unfolded. We know, for example, that Romano was in Somalia at the time, about 30 kilometres from the capital, Mogadishu. She was freed after an undisclosed ransom was paid, reportedly amounting to millions of euros. We know that at least three intelligence services were involved in the operation: the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (Milli Istihbarat Teşkilatı; MIT), the Italian External Intelligence and Security Agency (Agenzia Informazioni e Sicurezza Esterna, AISE) and the Somali National Intelligence and Security Agency (Hay'ada Sirdoonka iyo Nabadsugida Qaranka, NISA). Beyond these titbits we know very little about the how Romano’s release was secured.
While initial and widespread joy accompanied the news of her release, the leading role played by Turkey after Italy contacted Ankara for help have aroused both media interest and political debate. Indeed, what surprised many — not just in Italy but around the world — was the fact that Turkey was involved at all. The purpose of this article is therefore to provide readers with an overview of the state actors operating in Somalia connected to Romano’s release. This will, in turn, offer some answers regarding why the intelligence service of a third country (Turkey) played a key role in the release of an Italian national held by al-Shabaab.
While we offer little in the way of details about Romano’s release — we simply do not know more about the case than what has been reported — we do offer in-depth knowledge based on years of joint research about the current, dynamic state of politics in Somalia, the substantial involvement of extra-regional state actors in the country’s security sector as well as a primer on developments over the past decade that made Ankara the obvious choice for Rome in terms of gaining Silvia Romano’s release. We begin by offering a brief introduction to the main actors involved in the release. This includes the aforementioned al-Shabaab as well as Turkey. In addition, we provide information on the tangled web of historical ties between radical Islamist groups in Somalia, the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS), the powerful Somali diaspora and the gas-rich Arab Gulf State of Qatar.
Also known as Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahidin, al-Shabaab was established as the armed wing of the Islamic Courts Union (UCI) that, between June and December 2006, acquired control of much of southern Somalia, to include Mogadishu, in opposition to the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Following the Ethiopian military intervention in support of the TFG, the leadership of the UCI fled, with many going to Qatar, and the union fragmented. Among these, al-Shabaab became the most visible and internationally renowned due to its links with the al-Qaeda jihadist network and for its violent struggle for a regional theocracy. Since then, despite billions of dollars, a UN-sanctioned, African Union-led force of soldiers (AMISOM) and the efforts of international stakeholders – including armed drone attacks by the United States – al-Shabaab has continued to operate, staging spectacular and bloody attacks across Somalia and in neighbouring states, particularly Kenya. It maintains loose control over much of southern Somalia, despite occasional losses and a clear reduction in resources. It has been able to do so largely because the group has taken advantage of the lack of a strong state structure in Somalia, all but obliterated in the Somali Civil War beginning in 1991. The presence of the group on both sides of the lengthy, underpopulated and porous Somalia-Kenya border, has allowed al-Shabaab to execute attacks time and again into Kenya. It was responsible for the spectacularly bloody 2013 Westgate Mall attack, the 2019 D2 hotel complex attack (both in Nairobi) as well as the kidnapping of Silvia Romano in southeast Kenya in November 2018 (although the group never claimed responsibility for her abduction).
The role of Turkey
Turkey has been involved in Somalia since 2011, quickly taking a leading political and economic role. Initially operating as part of a larger humanitarian venture to stem starvation, Turkey quickly became enmeshed in the political economy of Somalia. Turkish companies with close ties to the ruling Justice and Development Party (JPD) of then-Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan were in control of the two most lucrative critical transportation infrastructures in the country by 2014: the Port of Mogadishu and the Mogadishu International Airport.
The greater political and security dimensions of Turkey’s engagement in Somalia are evidenced by Ankara's decision to open a large military facility in Mogadishu in 2017 to train the Somali National Army. To stabilize the country, a prerequisite for the Somali state-building process, Turkey has carried out several attempts to mediate many local disputes, in particular between the FGS and the six federal states. The increased influence of Ankara in Mogadishu and the expanding presence on the ground of Turkish humanitarian and development projects has, in turn, provoked al-Shabaab to target Turkish projects and citizens, such as an attack on the opulent and eye-catching waterfront Turkish Embassy in July 2013.
While Turkish policy in Africa and especially in the Horn of Africa is often described as an attempt by the Turkish state to project old imperial ambitions (often referred to as neo-Ottomanism), there are a variety of factors behind the Turkish agenda toward the continent. These include the desire to access Africa's natural resources, open new markets for Turkish entrepreneurs, achieve relative political and economic gains over regional rivals, and strengthen political credibility (internationally) and political support (domestically) for its foreign policy initiatives. Turkey’s political clout has been helped by its direct cash payments to the FGS and the fact that revenues from the port and airport amount to the biggest revenue earners for the FGS, apart from international aid.
While we know that Turkey has become a major political force in Somalia over the past decade, that still does not provide answers about why the Italian government contacted Ankara in late 2019 about Silvia Romano. Perhaps the most burning question is: what role did Turkey’s intelligence service, MIT, play in arranging for Romano’s release from al-Shabaab? The short answer is that MIT likely worked through Somalia’s NISA, very likely leveraging Ankara’s close relationship with Qatar in the process.
The role of Qatar
What could Qatar possibly have to do with Romano’s release? The truth is that the small, incredibly wealthy state has played a powerful role in Somalia’s politics for over a decade. Since 2006, Qatar has had arguably some of the greatest leverage in terms of who sits in Villa Mogadishu, the home of Somalia’s president, thanks to a series of networks structured over the years via Doha’s support of political Islam. Doha’s clout came out of the brief experience of the UCI and its subsequent atomization when Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006. Qatar, which had supported the Somali Islamists, offered asylum to various UCI leaders and their coteries. Leaders affiliated with the movement, such as Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, found refuge first in Eritrea and then in Doha. Their presence in Qatar, along with a powerful and established Somali diaspora, presented Doha’s ruling sheikhs with the means to gain influence in Somalia’s byzantine world of politics by exploiting personal and religious networks through its ample cash reserves. Sheikh Sharif, for example, was elected president in 2009, reportedly with the help of substantial funding from Qatar. He subsequently refused to toe Doha’s line and Qatar jettisoned him for a little-known academic, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in 2012. He was elected president with the assistance of Qatari cash and a strong network of Somali interlocutors, foremost among them Fahad Yasin Haji Dahir. When Hassan Sheikh proved too egregiously corrupt for re-election in 2017, Qatar brought Mohamed Abdullahi, aka Farmajo, out of relative obscurity to win the presidency via $10 million reportedly delivered in cash by Fahad Yasin to electors willing to be swayed by direct cash payments.
The role of Somalia’s NISA & Fahad Yasin
Fahad Yasin, the Qatari bagman, has been one of the most critical links between Doha and Somalia in recent years. He is also the current director general of Somalia’s intelligence agency, NISA. An enigma to many – reportedly carrying both Kenyan and Somali passports – he is undoubtedly one of the most powerful men in Somalia. He was previously a member of Al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, a group with strong links to the UCI and when Ethiopia invaded Somalia, Fahad Yasin was duly hired by the Doha-based Al-Jazeera news network. Having spent quite a bit of time in Qatar, Fahad Yasin at some point became Doha’s trusted man in Somalia. As alluded to above, there is some evidence that money delivered by Fahad Yasin to the coterie of influential Somali elite voters decided, in part, the election of Somalia’s presidents in 2009, 2012 and 2017. After his 2017 election, Farmajo rewarded Fahad Yasin with the post of Chief of Staff of the President of Somalia, the gatekeeper to the president. However, Fahad Yasin quickly fell out with some in Farmajo’s clique, particularly Hassan Ali Khaire, a Somali-Norwegian activist, politician and the current Prime Minister of Somalia. Quickly accruing power to himself and his clan, Fahad Yasin organized his own base of power and engineered his own appointment as Deputy Director and then Director General of NISA as of August 2019. Since his appointment to NISA, the US-funded intelligence agency has been led by someone whom many still consider an outright al-Shabaab sympathizer, a radical Islamist and a Qatari stooge. Fahad Yasin and his role at NISA, however, leads us conveniently back to Silvia Romano and her release from close to two years of imprisonment.
Silvia Romano’s release
Since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, there has been an increased alignment in the regional policies of Turkey and Qatar. The two share a common interest in promoting and supporting political Islamist movements in the region, including in the Horn of Africa. The relationship gained added momentum in 2017, following the very public rift in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) pitting the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia against Qatar and their imposition of a land, sea and air embargo on Doha. Turkey (along with Iran) came to Qatar’s aid by flying in food and medical supplies. Ankara also reinforced its token military force stationed in Qatar as a stark warning to both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. Therefore, when reporting surfaced that Qatar may also have been involved in the release of Silvia Romano in Somalia it became possible to reconstruct a plausible trail of breadcrumbs as to what happened. First, Italy’s AISE likely has weak or non-existent relations with both Doha and Somali NISA. Rome simply does not need them from a strategic or political perspective. However, it is safe to assume that AISE does have a relationship with Turkish MIT, given their strategic relationship in in the Mediterranean. With the understanding that Turkey plays a significant role and maintains significant interests in Somalia, it is likely that AISE contacted their counterparts in Ankara who then likely turned to their counterparts in both Doha and Mogadishu. MIT would have done so in order to have them attempt to establish contact with al-Shabaab. This would have been for two reasons. First, to ascertain that Silvia Romano was alive and, second, to negotiate the ransom price and release logistics.
While it may strike many as surprising that Turkey is so heavily involved in Somalia, the connections it has established over the years gave Ankara the leverage and capabilities required to offer a helping hand in gaining Romano’s release. Her release, while perhaps far from straightforward, was possible because the interests of all actors involved were largely congruent. In other words, Romano’s release was win-win for everyone involved. Al-Shabaab received much-needed funding and the international notoriety it craves; Turkey received accolades for being a responsible international actor with clout and leverage in a highly unpredictable and violent place; Somalia’s intelligence service similarly received acknowledgement for its role in the breathtaking release of a young woman held in captivity for close to two years; and Italy’s government was able to deliver good news, at least initially, after months of Covid-19-related quarantines, economic malaise and deaths.