Time to Transform NISA, from Paramilitary to Intelligence

Time to transform NISA from a paramilitary to an intelligence agency. The Somali National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), known in its earlier incarnation as the National Security Service (NSS), has a tumultuous history reflective of Somalia’s broader political instability.

Established in the 1970s during the Cold War, the NSS was heavily influenced and supported by the Soviet Union, which provided immense training and equipment.

The NSS was composed of two existing subbranches, military intelligence and the police special branch, which served as the intelligence agency for more than a decade. Under the leadership of Ahmed Saleman Abdalla Dafle, a prominent figure within the Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC) and the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party (SRSP), Mohamed Jibril Muse served as deputy chief for nearly ten years and later succeeded as head of the service. Following him, Aden Jama Irdaye served as spy chief for the last few months before the Siyad Barre regime collapsed in 1990.

The agency became a formidable and often feared institution, and its reputation for enforcing the socialist regime’s policies with an iron hand earned it notoriety across the nation. The NSS’s dominance waned dramatically in 1990 when the regime of President Mohamed Siyad Barre was overthrown by the United Somali Congress (USC), led by General Mohamed Farah Aideed. This upheaval resulted in the dissolution of the NSS as the country plunged into civil war and chaos. A decade later, efforts to re-establish national governance led to the revival of the intelligence agency.

In 2000, Abdiqasim Salad Hassan, elected President of the Transitional National Government (TNG) of Somalia in Djibouti, reconstituted the agency and appointed General Ahmed Jilao Adow as its head.

This marked the beginning of a series of leadership changes as the political landscape continued to shift. In 2004, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed was elected as President of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Nairobi, Kenya, appointing General Darwish as the head of NISA. Subsequent years saw Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, elected President in 2009, appoint General Mohamed Sheikh Hassan Hamud, followed by Ahmed Moalim Fiqi, as leaders of the agency respectively.

The establishment of the Somali Federal Government in 2012 brought Hassan Sheikh Mohamud to the presidency, during which time he appointed a succession of four spy chiefs: General Bashir Mohamed Jama (Bashir Gobe), Abdullahi Mohamed Ali (Sanbalolshe), General Abdirahman Mohamud Turyare, and General Abdullahi Gafow.

In 2016, President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo took office and continued the trend of appointing multiple intelligence chiefs, namely Abdullahi Sanbalolshe, Osman Hussein Osman (Alolkus), and Fahad Yasin Haji Dahir. The current era, beginning with the re-election of Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud in 2022, saw the appointments of Mahad

Mohamoud Salad and the reinstatement of Abdullahi Mohamed Ali (Sanbalolshe) as the head of NISA. Throughout its history, NISA has mirrored the political turbulence of Somalia, undergoing numerous transformations in leadership and structure. Despite the frequent changes, the agency remains a crucial component of Somalia’s efforts to stabilize and secure the nation amidst ongoing challenges.

The Role of NSS/NISA in the Last 44 Years

Somalia’s intelligence agency has been a pivotal instrument of state power. Over the last 44 years, it has been functional and evolving in response to the political and security priorities of successive presidents. Since its establishment in the 1970s, the Somali National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), formerly known as the National Security Service (NSS), has played a crucial role in both the political arena and national security operations.

Under the rule of the late President Mohamed Siyad Barre, who seized power through a military coup, the NSS became a feared and ruthless entity. The agency was bifurcated into two primary sectors: an internal unit and an external unit. The internal unit was notorious for its efforts to root out dissent and opposition within Somalia, targeting those suspected of disloyalty to the ruling Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party.

Meanwhile, the external unit focused on counter-espionage activities, primarily directed against Ethiopia, a much larger neighboring country perceived as a significant threat. The dissolution of the NSS came in 1990 with the ousting of Barre’s regime. It wasn’t until 2000 that the intelligence agency was revived by President Abdiqasim Salad Hassan, who appointed General Ahmed Jilao Adow.

However, this revival was not immediately effective. In 2004, President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed appointed General Darwish as the intelligence chief. Darwish played a crucial role in transforming the agency into a paramilitary force, deploying the Puntland Security to Mogadishu to combat the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) and Al-Shabab militants alongside the Somali National Armed Force (SNAF) and Ethiopian troops.

Significant changes came in 2011 under President Sheikh Sharif, who appointed Ahmed Moalim Fiqi. Fiqi rebranded the agency as the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA). Since then, NISA has been instrumental in the ongoing battle against Al-Shabaab, particularly in Mogadishu and various federal member states, including Southwest, Hirshabelle, and Galmudug.

Today, NISA operates as a powerful paramilitary entity, often overshadowing the national police force. Its influence is most pronounced in Mogadishu and the Hawiye-majority federal member states of Hirshabelle and Galmudug. While it maintains some level of cooperation with the Jubbaland and Southwest states, NISA’s authority in these regions is limited, and it lacks an official presence in Puntland.

NISA’s evolution from a traditional intelligence agency into a robust paramilitary force underscores its critical role in Somalia’s efforts to stabilize and secure the nation amidst persistent threats from insurgent groups.

Despite the challenges, NISA remains a key player in the country’s security apparatus, reflecting the enduring complexities of Somali politics and security dynamics.

The importance of transforming the Agency

It is time for the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) to transition from a paramilitary organization to a proper intelligence agency for several reasons. This change will save money for the government and allow the agency to focus on its primary role, which is intelligence gathering. As mentioned earlier, NISA has been highly effective in providing fundamental security for the Somali federal government, particularly in Mogadishu. However, this effectiveness also has negative consequences.

NISA’s responsibilities often overlap with those of the police and the military, resulting in a waste of resources. They end up duplicating tasks and sometimes even competing, which hinders collaboration. NISA should concentrate exclusively on intelligence, as this is the area that is currently lacking.

The fight against terrorism requires more intelligence work rather than relying solely on physical military and security personnel, as terrorists can easily blend in with ordinary individuals and civilians. Without electronic surveillance and human agents, countering them becomes extremely difficult. Currently, NISA focuses more on countering terrorism through military capabilities rather than intelligence. It is undeniable that it has done a wonderful job and played a tremendous role in the fight against Al-Shabab, but the time has come for the agency to transform.

Somalia has a dispute with its powerful neighbouring country, Ethiopia, which has a strong presence in the region with a more organized structure and better resources. Additionally, Somaliland may become more aggressive towards the Somali Federal Government due to its memorandum of understanding with Ethiopia and other factors. NISA, with an estimated 3,000 staff and around 120 vehicles mounted with automatic machine guns, has about 80% of its personnel in uniform as NISA-branded paramilitary.

Most of these visible security personnel should be integrated into the military and police. NISA’s tight budget makes it impossible for the agency to operate effectively, highlighting the need for the government to understand two crucial points: the importance of intelligence services and the necessity of funding these services domestically rather than relying on foreign aid. Transforming service into a dedicated intelligence agency will better position Somalia to handle regional complexities and enhance its overall security strategy, ensuring a more efficient and effective use of resources.
Conclusion

It is crucial for Somalia’s leadership to grasp the significance of intelligence in the modern world. Intelligence plays a vital role in combating terrorism, counterespionage, and addressing a wide array of security threats. Somalia has entered into undisclosed maritime security agreements with Turkey, as well as security arrangements with the United Kingdom and the United States. Additionally, it maintains close relationships with the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Egypt, all of which have distinct and sometimes competing interests in the region.

The recent announcement by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud that Somalia will commence oil exploration in early 2025 underscores the impending influx of foreign interests, raising questions about the country’s preparedness to navigate these challenges.

Unfortunately, many Somali leaders have limited understanding of security in general, let alone the nuances of modern intelligence functions. Since its inception, NISA has served under seven presidents, each with differing perspectives and priorities regarding security. For instance, the late President Siyad Barre recognized the value of the intelligence service but misused it out of fear of being overthrown, using it as a tool to maintain his regime. Other presidents have struggled to distinguish between the roles of intelligence agencies and those of custodians, police officers, or military personnel.

Intelligence agents have an irreplaceable task and operate beyond borders, serving national interests in various capacities, including within diplomatic missions. To ensure country survival and prosperity in a complex and often hostile global environment, Somali leaders must reconsider their approaches to the appointment and recruitment of intelligence personnel. It is imperative to eliminate nepotism and clannism from these processes, as these practices undermine the effectiveness and integrity of the intelligence service.

By fostering a merit-based system and recognizing the critical importance of a competent and professional intelligence agency, Somalia can better navigate the multifaceted challenges it faces and protect its national interests on the international stage. Furthermore, it’s essential to mention that an intelligence organisation is not a tool for brutality or for terrorizing citizens. On the contrary, it exists to serve and protect the interests of the people, not to further the agendas of regimes, political parties, or politicians.

 

Mr Abdisalam Guled, a former deputy director of the Somali National
Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), founder and CEO at Eagle Ranges Services. Email: aguled@eagleranges.com, aguled.gs@gmail.com Twitter: @Abdisalamguled

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