Jesus Plus Nothing, Minus Somalia

I’m temporarily hijacking to talk about a religious movement called the Family, or the Fellowship, while there’s an audience for the story. That audience is largely the result of Senator John Ensign’s libido and Governor Mark Sanford’s love letters. The two politicians, linked through their affiliation with the Family, have sparked the kind of interest in the Family that news of their connections to Central American death squads, as reported by the L.A. Times, or their support for African and Asian dictators, as detailed in my book, The Family, failed to do. That’s fine — the media folks I’ve been dealing with, from NPR to MSNBC to a host of local programs around the country are making the turn from the personal to the political, from Ensign’s and Sanford’s affairs to the foreign affairs of the organization that provided them with cover. So I want to keep following up where I can, and today’s NYTimes report on Somalia as a new staging ground for militant Islam, by the brilliant reporter Andrea Elliott, brings to mind the Family’s Somalia connection. Everybody knows it’s been a long time since Somalia has been a functioning nation; less understood is the role the United States played in Somalia’s destruction — and the Family’s part in tearing a people down by propping up their dictator. Following is a short excerpt about Somalia from The Family:

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Here’s one last Family story love forgot, from a country so blighted by misfortune and misrule that it’s not really a country anymore. Somalia—one of the last cases I found in the Family’s archives before they began closing them—is, in the correspondence I retrieved, nothing more than a web of “facts” that I’m hard-pressed to make sense of. What they add up to is too bleak, too broken. The dead who haunt the name of Siad Barre, the dictator Coe called “brother,” seem uncountable. All I can be sure about is the answer to the question one Family “brother” asked me when I told him about Coe’s support for another dictator guilty of murder: before or during? That was always the question, Before, during, after. I will relate the facts as briefly as I can.

Somalia, shaped like an upside-down musical note, wraps around the Horn of Africa, across from the Arabian Peninsula. Granted independence in 1960, it should have been a success story; its people were linguistically unified and, while poor, were heirs to a tradition of pastoral democracy that had survived colonialism roughly intact. Then General Siad Barre seized power in 1969, and the Soviet Union poured money into Siad’s regime to make it a counterweight to Ethiopia, which under Emperor Selassie was the major beneficiary of American military aid in Africa. When a Marxist coup overthrew the Ethiopian emperor, Siad saw a chance to distract his own discontented people by seizing part of Ethiopia in its moment of weakness, using his Soviet-armed military. But the Soviets backed now-communist Ethiopia, deeming its new regime more useful than duplicitous Siad, who announced that he was in the market for a new patron. After the Iranian Revolution overthrew the Shah, the U.S. puppet just across the water from Somalia, the United States put its money on Siad and his ports, which would become essential if Ayatollah Khomeini cut off the oil supply. By late 1980, the United States and the USSR had switched proxies: once-red Somalia had become an American outpost, while Ethiopia had turned into a Soviet satellite.

It would have been absurd if it hadn’t been so bloody. Siad, freed from even his veneer of socialism, devolved from an autocrat into the worst thing that had ever happened to Somalia. His heroes, he declared, were Kim Jong Il and the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. He decided to allow American-style democracy, then killed his opposition as well as those he suspected of opposing him, and those who might grow up to be opponents. His secret police developed techniques to spy even on nomads. He sent his troops to machine-gun their herds. He poisoned their wells. For his urban enemies, he developed torture chambers he considered world-class, and his men concluded that rape proved especially productive of useful information.

To his neighbors, he preached the virtues of the United States, but his creed was “Koranic Marxism,” illustrated by a triptych of portraits hung throughout the nation depicting Marx, Lenin, and Siad as the new Muhammad. His official portrait shows him as a young general in a khaki uniform and a mustache he seems to have copied from Hitler. He bombed more civilians than rebels, reduced an entire city to rubble, and directed his air force to strafe refugees. He turned his country into a garden of land mines that continue to blossom to this day.

Before Coe found Siad through a West German Bundestag member, Siad waged war on Ethiopia. After they met, he waged war on his own nation. For the past seventeen years, there has been no nation, only war. If Coe ever said a word about the killings, it was not recorded in the documents I found. “I don’t wish to embarrass people,” Coe said of his relationships with dictators in 2007. “I don’t take positions. The only thing I do is bring people together.”

In 1981, Family members made contact with Siad on behalf of his then-enemy, Kenyan dictator Daniel arap Moi—a brutal American ally—whom Siad agreed to meet. The Family took this news to General David Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and a Family member), who in thanks invited Siad to the Pentagon, a visit that resulted in a special breakfast in America for the dictator, with General Jones, members of congress, and Department of Defense officials. In 1983, Coe arranged for the dictator his own international prayer cell, which included the Bundestag member, Rudolf Decker; a defense contractor, William K. Brehm; and the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A year later Coe strengthened Siad’s hand by proposing Mogadishu as the site for a “fellowship meeting” with two other anti-Soviet dictators, arap Moi and Gaafar Nimeiry of Sudan.

From America, Coe sent Siad Senator Chuck Grassley, ultraright Iowa Republican (still serving as of 2008). But Coe was distracted; his twenty-seven-year-old son, Jonathan, was fighting lymphoma. He rallied, though—Doug, that is—when he put Christ’s social order before his father, his mother, his brother, his siste r– as he advised his political disciples to do — and even his own grief to use what must have been one of the saddest days of his life to reach out to the general: “You are much in my thoughts today,” wrote Coe. “Jonathan my son to whom you were so kind died this morning. You influenced his life for God and he never forgot you.”

“I did not have the occasion to meet him,” Siad wrote by way of condolences.

A document titled “Siad Barre’s Somalia and the USA,” prepared for the Family and marked “Very Confidential,” is one of the rare Family documents to move beyond what Elgin Groseclose called “the facade of brotherhood.” It is undated but appears to have been written near the beginning of the relationship. Siad, it begins, is the only head of state to have expelled the Soviets, and the only regional leader to offer “full military, air, and naval bases.” He pledges, too, to provide for a pro-American successor, and to purge his government of all officials linked to Somalia’s former patron, excepting himself, presumably. Then he notes that he has already supplied the Pentagon with a list of armaments he needed to fight the Cubans. Received.

In 1983, Somalia’s minister of defense went to Washington at Coe’s invitation to meet with the new chairman of the joint chiefs, General John J. Vessey. The United States nearly doubled military aid to the regime, pouring guns into a country that before the decade was out would achieve a moment of unity it has not seen since, when nearly everyone—politicians, warlords, children—united in opposition to Siad. He fled in 1991, taking refuge in Kenya with arap Moi. One of his last acts as Somalia’s key man was to scorch as much of his enemy’s land as he could, a biblical punishment for a nation that had resisted God’s appointed authority. Three hundred thousand died in the famine that followed. It’s considered Siad’s legacy. It was also the Family’s gift to Somalia.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).