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Somalia – Africa’s Afghanistan?

On June 5, 2006 the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a loose coalition of eleven religious leaders led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad, seized Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. After weeks of bloody fighting and 15 years of anarchy in this Horn of Africa nation, fears are being raised that Somalia could fall under the sway of al-Qa’ida. “We won the fight against the enemy of Islam. Mogadishu is under control of its people,” said Ahmad. Most of the leaders of the secular alliance of warlords (Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism – ARPCT – created in February), opposed to the ICU and backed by the United States who is attempting to root out any al-Qa’ida members operating in the Horn of Africa, appear to have fled the city. The battle between the Islamic militia and the secular alliance, the latter of whom includes members of the Somali interim government, has been intensifying in recent months, with more than 300 people killed and 1,700 wounded, many of them civilians caught in the crossfire.1 

Somalia – a Restless Country

As a result of civil war, which broke out in January 1991, Somalia collapsed and today exists only superficially. Somalia’s interim government cannot enforce its authority, the national currency is not in use and other characteristics of national sovereignty are inactive. In fact, authority and power are in the hands of the governments of the unrecognized Somaliland and Puntland establishments and other rival groups at the head of local opposition governments.2

In May 1991 Somaliland declared full independence and began functioning as a sovereign republic with democratic elections, its own currency and institutions located in its capital of Hargeysa. Nevertheless, it has yet to receive official recognition from the United Nations. Somaliland delegations are located in Britain, the United States and in some neighboring countries. Throughout the civil war Hargeysa has sustained attacks by Somali air strikes and as many as 50,000 citizens have been killed. Today, Somaliland is rehabilitated and is represented by a stable regime with a developing agricultural economy. In 2006, the African Union indicated the possibility of recognizing Somaliland, similar to its recognition of Eritrea. Puntland declared “temporary independence” in August 1998 and views its future as an autonomous province inside Somalia.3

All attempts to unify the broken country have failed. After two years of negotiations between the belligerent parties, a meeting was finally held in October 2004 in Nairobi, Kenya. ‘Abdullah Yusuf Ahmad, the former leader of the semi-autonomous Puntland region of Somalia, was chosen as the Transitional Federal President of Somalia and a transitional government with a five-year mandate, known as the Somalia Transitional Federal Institutions (TFIs), was created. Ali Muhammad Ghedi was chosen as the transitional Prime Minister. The transitional government, weak and fractured by internal fighting, has not been able to enter the capital because of the violence and has even failed to assert control outside its base in Baidoa, in southwestern Somalia. President Ahmad does not visit the country often, and his base of support is weak, if at all existent. 4

In March 2005 the Islamic leader Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former army colonel, threatened a holy war if foreign troops entered Somalia again, and pledged to establish an Islamic government. On February 26, 2006 the U.N. backed parliament met for the first time inside Somalia in Baidoa, the interim capital of the transitional government. From March 21, 2006 through March 24, 2006 the secular ARPCT fought against the extremist ICU, leaving 73 people dead in Mogadishu. Aweys accused the United States of financing the ARPCT.5

On June 2, 2006 approximately 5,000 Muslim supporters of the ICU participated in a demonstration held in Mogadishu in which they demanded the United States, who they labeled as “the enemy of Islam”, to end its support of the ARPCT. The demonstrators also demanded the implementation of religious Muslim law (“Shari’a”) in Somalia instead of “the man-made constitution”.6 On June 5, after weeks of bloody fighting, the ICU claimed control over Mogadishu.

For the first time since the government of the dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre collapsed in January 1991 and the warlords took over, dividing Somalia into a patchwork of rival fiefdoms, the city of Mogadishu was unified.7

The United States is afraid of a Taliban model in East Africa

The United States did not delay its response to the recent unrest in Somalia. President Bush has stated that the U.S. will ensure Somalia does not become a safe haven for terrorists. According to President Bush, the United States’ “first concern would be to make sure that Somalia does not become an al-Qa’ida safe haven, doesn’t become a place from which terrorists plot and plan.”8

U.S. officials expressed their fear that Somalia may descend into a situation similar to that of Afghanistan, where the Taliban seized control, established an Islamic state and then gave safe haven to al-Qa’ida.9

Omar Jamal, director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, said that the Islamic militia’s victory in Mogadishu was a turning point in the country’s history. “It is exactly the same thing that happened with the rise to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan,” he said, adding that the extremists are “using the people’s weariness of violence, rape and civil war” to gain support for a government based on Islamic law.10

In contrast, Ted Dagne, Africa analyst at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, expressed doubt that the takeover marked the rise of extremists in the capital. “Somalis are secular Muslims, and the presence of the so-called Islamists is not an introduction of new ideology or religion,” Dagne said.11

African Union Chairman Denis Sassou Nguesso from Congo, on a visit to Washington, has indirectly criticized the United States for its support of the ARPCT: “We told President Bush that it is most important to establish a government that must help the Somali people have a real government.”12

However, the fear that a Taliban model might develop in Somalia is not unfounded. The growth in ICU’s popularity and strength, its expansion and the likelihood that it enjoys external support, unmistakably resembles the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. As of the publication of this article, the ICU controls an area approximately 105 kilometers in radius around Mogadishu and has conquered Jowhar, the town to which the defeated warlords fled.13

Ahmad: The ICU does not want to impose a Taliban-style Islamic state in Somalia
In a press conference held in Mogadishu on June 10th, ICU leader Sheikh Ahmad said that the ICU was ready to enter into talks with any group who was dedicated to peace and stability in war-torn Somalia.14 On June 22 the ICU and the Somali interim government representatives met in Khartoum, capital of Sudan, to sign the “Khartoum agreement.” The agreement deals with mutual recognition, a cease fire and stopping the propaganda against each other. It does not deal with the Somali parliament’s decision to deploy foreign peacekeepers to Somalia, the governing collaboration and the interim government’s return to Mogadishu. Those issues will be discussed when both sides will meet again on July 15 in Khartoum.15

Ahmad urged the international community not to support the warlords, who he accused of being an obstacle in the peace process of the country, and hailed the Kenyan government initiative to ban warlords from seeking refuge in their country. Ahmad declared that the ICU would track down the remaining members of ARPCT in the capital if the current talks with the warlord elders failed.16

Ahmad claimed that the ICU had no political aims beyond “enabling the people to decide their own future.” According to him, the ICU does not want to impose a Taliban-style Islamic state in Somalia17 and does not shelter foreign al-Qa’ida militants.18

Following the Somali parliament’s decision to deploy foreign peacekeepers to Somalia, Ahmad warned that any intervention in Somalia, especially American, would face a disaster similar to the October 1993 operation that left eighteen U.S. servicemen and 300 Somalis dead.19 He protested the Ethiopian intervention in Somalia on June 18th and appealed to Adis Ababa’s government to withdraw its troops from southwestern Somalia.20

In the meantime, senior ICU officials said preparations were being made to bring all of Mogadishu under Islamic law.21 Mogadishu’s most senior Muslim cleric, Sheikh Nur Barud, called on Somalis to crush secular resistance to the imposition of Shari’a (religious law) and reject warlord efforts to garner support by appealing to clan and tribal loyalties. “All Somalis must defend the Islamic courts because this is not inter-clan fighting, but a war with the infidels,” he said in a speech aired by local radio stations.22

Response of Mogadishu residents

Mogadishu residents expressed mixed feelings to the Islamic militia’s advance, but praised the “Khartoum Agreement”:

‘Abd al-Qaadir Bashir, a computer engineer, expressed anxiety from the new situation, saying: “The Somali people are afraid of the Islamists’ new wave of hatred and renewed fighting. The Islamic clerics want to be like the Taliban regime in Afghanistan… this war will not stop in Mogadishu.”23 ‘Asha Idris, a mother of five, told AFP: “What I am afraid of is if they interfere with the education system and bring religion by force to the schools.”24

‘Abd al-Naasir Ahmad, a Somali economist, differed with Bashir and Idris and said: “The victory of the Islamic courts is a major step toward a lasting peace settlement in Mogadishu. We are tired of the deception and rhetoric of the warlords.”25 Similarly, former Information Minister Mahmoud Jama told the BBC’s Network Africa programme that having a single group in control of Mogadishu for the first time since 1991 could make negotiations easier for the transitional government based in Baidoa, 250 kilometers northwest of the capital. Jama also suggested that the ICU might improve the security situation in the capital.26 

Foreign Islamist militants are shielded in Somalia

The United States believes that a handful of foreign militants linked to al-Qa’ida are being sheltered by Mogadishu’s Islamist leaders and are capable of spreading its violent ideology to other East African and Horn of Africa nations.27 Other American officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, recently said that three al-Qa’ida leaders indicted in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania are being sheltered by Islamic leaders in Mogadishu. The same al-Qa’ida cell is believed to be responsible for the 2002 suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya that killed 15 people and a simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner.28

Hussein Gutale Ragheh, a spokesman for the ARPCT, said that foreign militants were fighting alongside ICU insurgents, some of whom have already been killed. According to Ragheh, among the dead were Arabs and others who looked like Pakistanis, Sudanese and Oromo militants from neighboring Ethiopia. While the ARPCT accuses the ICU of having links to al-Qa’ida and of being reinforced by militants from the Middle East, Pakistan and elsewhere, the ICU, who labeled the ARPCT “the alliance for evil and Satan”, accuses its rival of working for the CIA.29

Summary and Conclusions

The future of Somalia depends vastly on the success of Khartoum talks between the ICU and the interim government. If both sides will not manage to agree on principal issues such as the deploying of foreign peacekeepers to Somalia, the governing collaboration and the interim government’s return to Mogadishu, we expect the fight to be continued.

In that case, there are three essential conditions which might help the ICU take over Somalia and turn it into an Islamic state: the first condition is whether Sheikh Ahmad succeeds in keeping the ICU united as done by Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad ‘Umar. The second condition is the ICU’s ability to conquer more territories inside Somalia before a massive international intervention. The third condition is the Somali people’s support of the ICU. The Somali people are determined to end the bloody civil war that has been taking place for fifteen years as a result of an unstable and weak regime that allowed warlords to take over Somalia and carve it up into a patchwork of rival fiefdoms. The ICU promises to show the light at the end of the tunnel, to change the anarchist reality caused by the civil war and to rehabilitate Somalia, just as the Taliban promised to end the civil war between the Islamic factions which ruled Afghanistan after the removal of the Communist regime and to rehabilitate the war-torn country.

Despite all this, there are some factors which might prevent the ICU from turning Somalia into Africa’s Afghanistan. In contrast to the Taliban, which grew as a united party from the religious schools (“Madaaris”) in Pakistan, the ICU is composed of eleven Islamic Courts with differing goals that were united chiefly because of an opportunity to topple the secular warlords. For example, while some Courts are motivated by political-religious goals of establishing an Islamic state in Somalia without any foreign influence, other Courts are driven by tribal and economic goals and hold no allegiance to a radical brand of Islam. This makes this union a fragile and unstable one. Secondly, unlike the Taliban which was supported by the Pakistani Intelligence Service (ISI), there is no evidence that the ICU is supported by any governmental body. In fact, Ethiopia and Kenya, the strong bordering countries with American ties, are worried that the widening of Islamic movements in Somalia might spread into their territories and are opposed to the notion of the establishment of a radical Islamic state alongside their borders, especially Kenya which has already suffered from al-Qa’ida terrorist attacks. Thirdly, the ICU has faced international resistance from the beginning, primarily from the United States, while the Taliban made their way to power without any international resistance. Finally, the ICU will have to deal with strong resistance from the transitional government and the secular ARPCT which are fearful of a Taliban-style Somalia and with local tribes who refuse to accept the ICU’s expansion into their lands. The Taliban succeeded in its rise to power, the ICU still has a long way to go.

Will Somalia become Africa’s Afghanistan? Only time will tell.


1 “Tahaaluf Zu’ama’ al-harb al-Sumaliyyin” (“The alliance of Somalian warlords”), al-Jazeera, (May 11, 2006); Mohammad Olad, Hassan, “Islamic Militia Says Mogadishu Captured”, AP, (June 5, 2006); Mohammad Olad, Hassan, “Islamic Militia Seizes Somalian Capital”, AP, (June 6, 2006). The ICU is backed by business leaders who are eager to end the arbitrary rule of the warlords as well as freelance gunmen willing to work for anyone who pays them.

2 “Somalia”, CIA Website, (June 7, 2006).

3 “Somalia”, CIA Website, (June 7, 2006).

4 Hassan, “Islamic Militia Says Mogadishu Captured”; “Somalia”, CIA Website, (June 7, 2006).

5 “Key Events in Somali History”, Huron Daily Tribune, (June 5, 2006).

6 “Somali Islamic militia seize town outside capital”, Turkish Press, (June 4, 2006); Mohammad Olad, Hassan, “Muslims Denounce U.S. at Rally in Somalia”, AP, (June 2, 2006).

7 Hassan, “Islamic Militia Seizes Somalian Capital”.

8 “Somali Islamic state ‘ruled out'”, BBCNews, (June 7, 2006); Recall that the United States hasn’t been directly involved in Somali affairs since October 3, 1993, when American special forces, as part of a UN peacekeeping force, were involved in a bloody battle with local militants after their Blackhawk helicopter was downed in Mogadishu. The bodies of the 18 American soldiers were dragged throughout the city’s streets. Although no direct evidence pointed to Usama bin Ladin’s involvement in the incident, bin Ladin did admit several years later that it was his men who initiated the attack and were sent to Somalia merely a few months before the American arrival in order to train General Muhammad Farah ‘Aideed’s fighters, who opposed the foreign presence in Somalia, and in order to prepare themselves for the confrontation. After the incident, bin Ladin stated that “the American soldiers are paper tigers”, see, Usama, Bin Ladin, “Usama bin Ladin: American Soldiers Are Paper Tigers”, Middle East Quarterly, Vol. V, No. 4, (December 1998), p. 77.

9 Marc, Lacey, “Islamists seize capital of Somalia”, Denver Post, (June 6, 2006).

10 Hassan, “Islamic Militia Seizes Somalian Capital”.

11 Lacey, “Islamists seize capital of Somalia”.

12 “US ‘worried by’ Somali Islamists”, BBCNews, (June 6, 2006).

13 Mohamed Ali, Bile, “Islamists seize strategic town of Jowhar”, Reuters, (June 14, 2006).

14 Mohamed Abdi, Farah, “Somalia: Islamic courts welcome US initiatives on Somalia”, SomaliNet, (June 10, 2006).

15 “Mahaakim al-Sumaal tatahimu mu’adin lil-salaam bi-qatl al-sahafi al-Swidi” (“ICU blames peace opponents in killing the Swedish journalist”), al-Jazeera, (June 24, 2006).

16 Mohamed Abdi, Farah, “Somalia: Islamic courts welcome US initiatives on Somalia”, SomaliNet, (June 10, 2006).

17 “Somali Islamic state ‘ruled out'”, Ibid.

18 “Somali Islamic state ‘ruled out'”, Ibid.

19 Mohamed Abdi, Farah, “Somalia MPs put off voting for foreign troops”, SomaliNet, (June 12, 2006); Osman, Zainab, “Somalia: Parliament Approves Peacekeepers into Somalia”, SomaliNet, (June 15, 2006); “Somali Islamists declare war on ‘infidels’, warlords set for battle”, Turkish Press, (June 7, 2006).

20 Mohamed Abdi, Farah, “Ethiopian troops base in Somalia Baidoa town”, SomaliNet, (June 18, 2006); Mohamed Abdi, Farah, “ICU leader appeals Addis govt. to withdraw its troops from Somalia”, SomaliNet, (June 18, 2006).

21 Ali Musa, Abdi, “Somali Islamists claim control of Mogadishu”, iol, (June 6, 2006).

22 “Somali Islamists declare war on ‘infidels’, warlords set for battle”, Ibid.

23 Hassan, “Islamic Militia Says Mogadishu Captured”.

24 “US ‘worried by’ Somali Islamists”, Ibid.

25 Hassan, “Islamic Militia Seizes Somalian Capital”.

26 “US ‘worried by’ Somali Islamists”, Ibid.

27 Marc, Lacey, “Islamists seize capital of Somalia”, Denver Post, (June 6, 2006); Jonathan S., Landay, “Apparent victory by Islamists in Somalia poses questions for U.S.”, Seattle Times, (June 6, 2006).

28 Hassan, “Islamic Militia Says Mogadishu Captured”.

29 Lacey, “Islamists seize capital of Somalia”; Hassan, “Islamic Militia Says Mogadishu Captured”.