In the heart of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, a secret initiative is being carried out by the UAE and Egypt to recruit and train nearly 3,000 young Somali men, multiple sources have told Middle East Eye.
In an exercise that began months ago, the recruits, aged between 18 and 28, have been promised well-paid jobs, with many of them already sent to Egypt for military training, paid for by the UAE.
The initiative is likely to be perceived with suspicion in neighbouring Ethiopia, locked in an ongoing spat with Cairo over its Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project, as well as in Turkey and Qatar, who have both enjoyed influence in Somalia in recent years.
Among those housed at Mogadishu’s Damanyo barracks is the younger brother of Mustafa Abdullahi.
Abdullahi is anxious for his younger brother, who he asked not to name, a former rickshaw driver aged 28.
Addullahi told MEE he was angry at authorities for convincing his younger brother to join up, which he believes he did in order to provide for his young daughter.
“As his elder brother who raised him, he had not notified me when he was leaving, and we are worried about him,” said Abdullahi.
“We have now been told that he is suffering in a camp in Mogadishu and is expected to be taken to Egypt for military training.
“I also learnt that he was promised a salary of about $500 a month,” Abdullahi, who lives in Baidoa, a city in southern Somalia, told MEE.
Unlike Mustafa’s brother, another recruit named Mohamed, who asked for his real name to be withheld, was able to escape from the camp in the early hours of Saturday.
Mohamed, who was held with Mustafa’s brother and who had his smartphone seized on arrival, said he could not bear the gruelling conditions at the camp, including a lack of adequate food and medical facilities.
Deaths inside camps
He said conditions were so bad that five of the recruits died in mid-October.
“Nearly 120 of us were recruited from Baidoa around mid-September, and we were informed that we would be taken to Egypt for training,” Mohamed told MEE.
“I opted to join since I was told it’s money-making. We were around 2,000 recruits at the camp,”
He added that a senior Somali security official had notified them that UAE was reviving its security presence in Somalia and they would soon be travelling to Egypt for training.
The recruits, most of whom are from destitute families, underwent thorough medical and security background checks before they were enlisted, signing up to provide for their loved ones in a country where nearly seven out of 10 people live in poverty.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, senior Somali government officials who are privy to the matter, told MEE that individuals secretly carry out recruitment at the office of the president, in collaboration with security personnel from the UAE and Egypt.
“I have recruited more than 50 of them from my clan, and they have been flown to the capital to go through the process,” a senior Somali political leader said.
“Many of the clans are not involved, and I understand that this is a joint project where the United Arab Emirates will fully fund the process while Egypt will carry out the training exercise.”
A combination of top security officials, current and former regional leaders, along with other experts, all confirmed the recruitment exercise involving the UAE and Egypt to MEE.
“It’s true that the UAE and Egypt are recruiting security forces, and they are being driven from the clans in the rural areas, the police and military units,” a senior Somali security officer involved in the recruitment process told MEE.
The officer, who wished to remain anonymous, said the training exercises were carried out both in Egypt and within Somalia, especially the port city of Bosaso where the UAE has a training facility and where it has previously trained Puntland state marines force.
The sources said a large number of the recruits had already travelled to Egypt.
Images obtained by MEE show young recruits wearing blue tracksuits and with their heads shaven at a former sweet factory, now a military camp, before they were transferred to Mogadishu’s Damanyo barracks.
Around 10 of the new recruits were killed early last month when members of the armed group Al Shabaab targeted them in a suicide bombing.
Compared to the government military payroll, where recruits are paid about $200 a month, the UAE-trained forces are believed to earn at least $400 a month, a strong incentive for those deciding to sign up.
MEE reached out to the authorities in Abu Dhabi and Cairo for comment on the initiative but did not receive a response.
Unlike forces in Somalia who have been openly trained by Turkey, the recruitment by the UAE and Egypt has been kept confidential.
Those involved have been warned not to share information about the recruitment drive with anyone else, despite the fact that such clandestine recruitment is not new to Somalia.
Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, also known as Farmaajo, who was president from 2017 until May of this year, was criticised for covertly sending youths to Eritrea for military training last year.
Those who criticised him included his successor, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, a close ally of UAE and Egypt under whom the current recruitment is taking place.
“Youths whose parents have heavily invested in them have been informed that they will be enlisted in the army so they can get a job, and they have been sent to Eritrea,” said Mohamud at the time.
“No one has information about their whereabouts. It was hidden from the public, they have been literally sold.”
By allowing the recruitment process, critics of Mohamud have accused him of involving Somalia in the ongoing regional crisis over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which has strained relations between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan.
“Nile water is a potential crisis in the Horn of Africa region, and any training of Somali forces involving Egypt will place Somalia in the middle of the crisis, since Ethiopian forces control a large part of our country,” said Abdullahi Kulane, a Somali MP and the country’s former intelligence chief of staff.
“Having close ties with Cairo and losing Ethiopia is of no value to us. We also understand that the Muslim world is somewhat divided, and if Somalia is perceived as taking a side, then it would have an unnecessary impact on our country.”
Until Mohamud came to power earlier this year, relations between Somalia and the UAE had been frosty after Mogadishu refused to cut ties with Qatar following the long dispute between Doha and its Gulf neighbours which ended in January of last year.
“Unfortunately, the UAE and Egypt’s involvement in our security system is not in the best interest of our country since their aim is to have a significant influence within Somalia’s security architecture in the event of regime change,” a senior Somali security officer told Middle East Eye.
“More so, Cairo’s hand in the process would infuriate Addis Ababa for sure since there is a diplomatic rift between the two rival Nile powers.
The security officer added: “We share a lot with Ethiopia, including the presence of its forces in our country, the longest border of about 1,600km, and also within regional and continental forums like the African Union and IGAD,” the official said, referring to the eight-country African trade bloc.
Having previously enjoyed good ties, relations between the UAE and Somalia nosedived after Mogadishu refused to support the Saudi-led coalition against Qatar, and instead opted for neutrality.
In April 2018, Somalia’s government seized several bags of money carrying almost $10m from a plane that arrived at Mogadishu airport from Abu Dhabi.
The government described it as “dirty money” aimed at creating political instability in the country.
In the same month, Somalia’s Ministry of Defence announced it would cut all military ties with the UAE, with the Somali government taking over the duties of training, funding, and redistributing the forces that were under the UAE’s payroll.
The move prompted the UAE to withdraw its military trainers and equipment from Mogadishu. The UAE then sought stronger ties with Somaliland and Puntland, Somalia’s autonomous regions.
Since October 2018, DP World, the Emirati global port operator, has invested at least $442m in developing a port in Somaliland’s Berbera.
Abu Dhabi sees such a presence in the Horn of Africa as a way for it to help control trade flows through the strategic Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a key global channel for maritime shipping.
Instead, contact for setting up the new training of Somali recruits is likely to have come through Egypt which has strong relations with powerful members of Mohamud’s inner circle, including the new intelligence chief, Mahad Salaat, who studied in Cairo.
It is likely that Ethiopia, which has reservations about the government in Cairo, could see the training of Somali forces as a threat to its national security.
“Ethiopia will consider Egypt’s involvement in this process as an immediate national security threat given their diplomatic rift and how Somalia was Addis Ababa’s backyard, but it’s upon Somalia to accommodate both and maintain the conflicting interest of both parties,” Abdisalam Guled, a security consultant at risk management firm Eagle Ranges Services, and former Somalia deputy intelligence chief, told Middle East Eye.
“In a way, the involvement [of the UAE and Egypt ] is good for the country in maintaining the discipline, welfare and overseeing the quality and the administration of the forces, unlike forces led by Somali commanders which end up going rogue or even disperse.
“But also the question remains on how these forces will be used since Egypt and the UAE don’t presently carry out any counterterrorism operation in Somalia.”
Somalia, which maintains a diverse range of forces trained by various countries, in particular Turkey, has for years struggled to bring the various components together to strengthen its fight against Al-Shabaab militants.
Ankara, which has trained thousands of forces over the last decade, and has the biggest overseas military base in Mogadishu, is widely seen as having won the hearts and minds of Somalis.
As a result, Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, a researcher at the Institute for Horn of Africa Strategic Studies, sees the recruitment drive by the UAE and Egypt as aimed at countering Turkey and Qatar’s growing influence in Somalia.
Abdisamad also believes the UAE could use the newly trained recruits to advance their interest in Somalia, especially in helping to manage the DP World-operated ports in Berbera and Bosaso.
Ultimately, Abdisamad said he did not see the initiative as a positive for Somalia.
“Any security arrangement in Somalia involving Cairo would create tension and proxies, which can undermine Somalia’s stability,” Abdisamad told MEE.
“I don’t see any noble idea of Egypt’s involvement in Mogadishu’s security structure, since the duo [Egypt and Ethiopia] disagree on the Nile water and it could create tension in the region.”