Death of a Peacemaker

My friend Yahya was asleep at home with his wife when several heavily armed vehicles rolled to a stop outside his house around 2 a.m. last Monday. It was raining in Mogadishu, and the patter of droplets obscured the sounds of the night. A group of roughly 10 assassins, wearing masks or scarves around their faces, used a ladder to scale the back wall of Yahya's compound. To find their way in the dark, they had flashlights tied to the barrels of their Kalashnikovs. Yahya's guards, some of them sleeping, were taken by surprise and handcuffed. The killers entered the house, which apparently was unlocked. Some of the men made their way to a second-floor bedroom and woke Yahya and his wife. They demanded valuables and took Yahya's laptop. Then they led Yahya to a corridor where they executed him. First they shot him several times with an AK-47, then two or three more times to the mouth and head with a pistol.

I first met Abdulkadir Yahya Ali in Mogadishu in 1991 when he gave me a tour of the Somali capital's abandoned and pillaged U.S. Embassy. Yahya had worked for the embassy and was one of many Somali employees left behind when helicopters whisked the American ambassador and other foreigners to safety a few months earlier. We met again several times over the years, most recently in Nairobi in 2004, and sometimes exchanged e-mails. "Whenever you met him, he always said tomorrow will be better than today," says one close friend who asked not to be named. "Everyone was comfortable with Yahya. Even those who didn't like [his ideas] would talk to him."

Yahya was an indefatigable optimist who could have abandoned his country for a well-paying job in a safer place. Instead, he worked until his death at age 50 trying to reconcile the warring clans and militias that have turned Somalia into a failed state and a breeding ground for Islamic militants. "It was a political assassination--the gang was well organized, and they came and killed him very deliberately," says Jabril Ibrahim Abdulle, who together with Yahya ran the Center for Research and Dialogue in Mogadishu. Jabril could not say who was behind the murder and did not want to speculate. Other sources, who are familiar with informal investigations into the killing but don't want to be identified for security reasons, also say they don't know for sure who carried out the murder. But they say that members of a radical Muslim group tied to Al Qaeda are among the suspects.

More than a dozen years after the United States spearheaded Operation Restore Hope, aiming to save Somalia from famine and anarchy, the country continues to be ruled by warlords. A northern area called Somaliland has broken away completely and is relatively stable. But the south is ruled by rival militias. These gangs control different neighborhoods of Mogadishu. Some of those involved in terrorist attacks in Kenya--the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and the 2002 bomb attack on a luxury hotel in Mombasa--are thought to be among a group of radical Islamists who have found safe haven in the city.

U.S. intelligence agents, sometimes working with local warlords, have carried out counterterrorist operations to nab suspects. "Somalia remains the theater for a shadowy confrontation involving local jihadis, foreign Al Qaeda operatives and intelligence services from a number of regional and Western countries," says a recent report by the International Crisis Group. The report says the "dirty war between terrorists and counter-terrorist operatives in Mogadishu appears to have entered a new and more vicious stage that threatens to push the country further towards jihadism and extremist violence unless its root causes are properly addressed."

A small cell led by an Afghan-trained Somali named Aden Hashi Ayro allegedly has been targeting foreigners and Somalis who work with them. According to ICG, Ayro's group emerged in 2003, and since then has been "implicated in the assassinations of four foreign aid workers and at least 10 Somali former military and police officers, as well as the desecration of an Italian cemetery in Mogadishu. The group is also believed to have helped Al Qaeda operatives in Somalia with logistics, jobs, identities and protection and to operate training sites ..." Some analysts believe that Ayro may be modeling himself on Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the leader of jihadist insurgents in Iraq.

Yahya did not work on the ICG report, but he knew the people who did, and some suspect that he was killed because of it. Without a recognized government or a credible state security force or an organized legal system, Somalis are ill-equipped to conduct an impartial inquiry. "There is no official investigation; only a private investigation," says Mohammed Kanyare Afrah, a faction leader who has the title "minister of national security" in Somalia's Transitional Federal Government, which was formed in exile and has no real authority in Somalia. "There is no law and order here. Everybody is armed, and nobody official can investigate." Traditionally, Yahya's clan would exact revenge. But Yahya's friends are arguing against impulsive, bloody reprisals. It's that kind of thinking that has destroyed Somalia, they say--the kind of thinking Yahya spent his life trying to eradicate.