This week, the world is learning what Somalis already knew: the jihadist group al-Shabab might have been ejected from the country's major cities last year, but they are just as violent and ambitious as ever.
Al-Shabab attacked Turkey's embassy shortly before I arrived in Mogadishu a few weeks ago. In June, no fewer than seven would-be suicide bombers stormed a U.N. complex barely a kilometer from the Mogadishu airport. During an attack on the Somali Supreme Court in April, al-Shabab terrorists wore police uniforms that had been distributed just two days earlier. This past Ramadan, there were days with over 20 distinct al-Shabab attacks in Mogadishu alone.
Yet it's important for the world to understand -- especially right now -- that there is far more to Somalia these days than al-Shabab. For all its problems, Somalia is experiencing the exact opposite of brain drain: human and financial capital is pouring into Mogadishu, where new offices and hotels sit a misleadingly short distance away from displaced persons camps and still-ruined government ministries. Downtown streets are bristling with ads for banking and cell phone services; every block seems to have a travel agency, marked with paintings of airplanes pointed hopefully skyward. There are regular flights to Dubai and, yes, Nairobi.
Judging Somalia's young and barely-functional government by its ability to solve national-level problems can lead to a badly skewed sense of the country's actual situation. Westgate doesn't change a reality that few western policymakers have grasped: Somalia is a country where progress isn't synonymous with state-building. The success or failure of the post-conflict period might actually have little to do with the government's ability to establish strong state institutions -- or even with its ability to militarily defeat al-Shabab.
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Instead, the defining issue of the country's post-conflict period is whether the Somali government and its partners can unleash the country's potential. Somalia is sitting on substantial gas wealth -- although Kenya claims that much of it sits inside its own maritime borders. The Somali company Dahabshiil is Africa's largest money transfer firm -- but it's headquartered in Somaliland, a self-declared independent republic where the Mogadishu government has no reach. Diaspora money has fueled a building glut in Mogadishu; while exact numbers are hard to come by, one Somali investor interviewed by the Guardian claimed that the rental value of one of his buildings had increased tenfold since 2009. Yet the government, whose revenues are limited to harbor and airport customs duties, lacks the ability to profit from the boom.
There's another anecdotal indicator that reveals some surprising sources of health for Somalia. In Mogadishu these days, it's impossible to go too long without meeting someone who has given up a secure and high-paying job in Europe or the United States to live and work in a city that many outsiders regard as synonymous with chaos and violence. Among those I met was a British economist who had been in town visiting family a month earlier and felt a strong sense of obligation to stay; a former U.S. Army Language School instructor who's now working for the prime minister's office; and the young Central Bank employee who answered my questions in clear, unaccented American English.
The possibility for success is there, but it isn't in the places that Western policymakers typically look. And viewing Somalia through the lens of Westgate threatens to distort a national-level picture that is in fact more complicated -- and arguably more hopeful -- than recent troubles, and the struggles of Somalia's nascent Federal Government, would suggest.
Yet those struggles shouldn't be downplayed. In Somalia, the United States and international partners have invested over 20 years of diplomacy in the creation of a Mogadishu-based government to replace the state of anarchy that seized the country after the overthrow of military dictator Siad Barre in 1991-- a goal that was finally realized earlier this year, at least on paper. Yet in meetings with officials, I grew increasingly doubtful of the government's ability or even willingness to tackle the country's problems. I asked one government advisor to explain how he thought Mogadishu could impose a federal system on a polity whose sense of citizenship had eroded over 20 years of civil war. His answer was brief and disappointing: "Federalism is the law," he said. "As of today, it's the law."