The calm before the next storm
Islamic militants have seized Mogadishu The U.S. is watching.
MICHAEL PETROU | Jul 05, 2006
In the seven years since Ahmed Abdisalam Adan left his home in Ottawa and moved back to the country of his birth, Somalia, to work as a radio journalist, he has been shot at, had bombs thrown at him, seen his radio station stormed by gunmen, and lived through the murders of several colleagues. "These are all ups and downs," the director of programs for HornAfrik Media says with genuine nonchalance. It's what happens when you live in Mogadishu, one of the most chaotic and dangerous cities in the world -- the capital of a country with no effective government and virtually no order beyond warlords and local strongmen.
This month, however, a sense of calm has returned to the city for the first time in years. Islamic militias loyal to a coalition calling itself the Islamic Courts Union seized Mogadishu in a fierce battle three weeks ago. They have since taken over much of southern Somalia. In areas under their control, the courts have banished gun-toting militiamen loyal to various warlords. But some of the courts are also imposing a strict interpretation of Islam on the populace. Women are pressured to wear veils, and at least one makeshift cinema showing World Cup soccer matches was forced to close.
Adan has mixed feelings about the changes. In the chaos that was Mogadishu, the courts established a power base over the last two years before the city was finally taken over. Adan had problems with them. Islamic gunmen jailed one of his journalists because they objected to his coverage, and the courts once issued a fatwa to close his radio station because it had interviewed people upset about Islamists shutting down cinemas showing Western movies. "They were angry that we were not working with them to purify the city," Adan says. But he also appreciates the relative peace, and says the courts have a lot of support among Somalis -- not necessarily because of their Islamic agenda, but because they have been able to bring security to places where anarchy reigned. "There has been a long conflict here. People have suffered tremendously from lawlessness and lack of infrastructure. And in many cases, the Islamic courts have offered the only viable local security in some parts of the city."
But this may be the lull before a much bigger storm. The United States has long feared that Somalia is becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda and similar terror groups. It believes that some of these were instrumental in the 1998 terrorist attacks against U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and the 2002 attacks against Israeli targets in Kenya. It believes three of these men are now in Somalia. Other extremist networks are also active in the country. Foremost among these is one led by a young Mogadishu man named Aden Hashi Ayro, who was reportedly in Afghanistan during the U.S. invasion. His network has been implicated in the assassinations of foreign aid workers and Somali police. Last year, his militia occupied an old Italian cemetery, dug up the bodies and dumped their bones at the airport. The cemetery is now a heavily fortified compound, and Somalis have said they have seen men from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan directing military training inside, although Adan's journalists haven't found any foreign fighters in the city's hospitals.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was sufficiently worried about terrorist networks in Somalia that he instructed commanders to draw up plans for military action there after Sept. 11. But the U.S. has thus far avoided direct intervention. In 1993, 18 American troops were killed in a Mogadishu battle, and the U.S. has been reluctant to return in force. Instead, it established a base next door in Djibouti. Now, U.S. agents are active in the region, and residents of Mogadishu report unidentified surveillance flights over their city. According to a July 2005 report by the International Crisis Group, a dirty war is underway: "[I]n the ruined capital, al-Qaeda operatives, jihadi extremists, Ethiopian security services and Western-backed counterterrorism networks are engaged in a shadowy and complex contest waged by intimidation, abduction and assassination."
The U.S. has so far had some success with these methods. But fighting an unconventional war depends on local allies, and these appear to be drying up. The warlords driven out of Mogadishu are widely believed to have been funded by the United States. The Islamic courts are not a monolithic body and contain moderate elements who have sought to reassure the United States, but they are unlikely to be co-operative in its war on terror. The U.S. has asked the courts to turn over the three al-Qaeda men it says were involved in the 1998 attacks. But the courts deny they are sheltering foreign terrorists.
This leaves Washington with few options. According to Thomas Dempsey, the director of African studies at the U.S. Army War College, military strikes in failed states are risky because of the lack of co-operation that an invading force can expect from locals immersed in criminal violence and social disintegration. The best outcome for the U.S. would be a functional Somali government that agreed to crack down on terror networks in the country. The weak interim government and the Islamic Courts Union are in the midst of peace talks, so there is a possibility that some semblance of order might return. But the situation is perilous, and there is no guarantee that peace will hold.
"We really are at a crucial junction," says Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College in North Carolina. He was in Somalia in May, and notes that the Islamists have pushed toward the border of Ethiopia, knowing that such a move will antagonize a neighbour that views Somali extremists as a threat to its own security. Should hostilities in Somalia resume, Menkhaus says, there is a real possibility that Ethiopian forces might get involved -- as they have in the past.
If this happens, "the jihadis will get their jihad, and we're going to have a very, very nasty, potentially catastrophic situation in Somalia," Menkhaus says. "That would radicalize the Islamist movement, embolden the hardliners and marginalize the moderates. Now you have what was initially just a local power struggle turning into an international one."
To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org