Thirteen years ago this week, a pitched battle erupted in Mogadishu that led to the deaths of 18 American servicemen. They had been attempting to bring a measure of stability to war-torn Somalia. The determination demonstrated by those soldiers, however, was not matched by politicians in Washington. In the face of public confusion about and congressional outrage over a mission that resulted in American bodies being dragged through the streets of a far-off capital, the Clinton administration decided within days of the battle’s end to withdraw all U.S. forces from the country.
In the ensuing years, the consequences of that ignominious retreat have revealed themselves in spades. Some have simply been ignored, like the enduring humanitarian catastrophe levied on the Somali populace. Others have been disputed, such as the impression left with international terrorists that the United States would run if bloodied — a belief that undoubtedly offered some motivation for the attacks of September 11.
Unavoidable and indisputable progress, however, has been made in only the past few months by Islamic extremists, organized under the banner of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), toward the consolidation of power in Somalia. Both the ICU’s ideology and the manner in which it is seizing control are eerily reminiscent of the Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan. Should the United States and its regional allies fail to act quickly, a reincarnation of that Islamofascist regime will soon entrench itself in the Horn of Africa.
The first Islamic courts emerged at the neighborhood level throughout the country — though administratively and ideologically independent of one another — in the vacuum resulting from the collapse of Siad Barre’s dictatorship in 1991. Confronted by the anarchic warlordism that followed, many Somalis freely submitted to the judicial authority of the courts and took advantage of their ability to offer basic social services. By bringing a degree of order to the lawless country, the courts’ popularity increased over the years.
In the late-1990s, a movement aimed at unifying the disparate courts in order to gain leverage in the nascent national political process began to develop under the leadership of Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. This coalition would eventually become the ICU.
Though unknown to most Western observers, Aweys had notoriously served as military commander of al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI) — an extremist Islamic organization that seeks to impose a strict version of sharia law on ethnic Somalis, and in parts of Ethiopia and Kenya. Among its terrorist credentials, AIAI has carried out regular attacks against Ethiopia and is linked to al Qaeda’s bombing of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998 (it is believed that elements of the ICU continue to provide shelter to the terrorists responsible for those and other attacks against Western targets).
By the early part of 2006, the level of cooperation attained by the ICU made it appear threatening enough to convince competing Mogadishu warlords — brutal enough in their own right — to partner with one another in The Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT). This anti-Islamist coalition, however, badly miscalculated the competence of ICU militias that fought not for money but for ideology, and whose strength was buttressed by Arab jihadis. By late summer, the ARPCT was thoroughly defeated, and the ICU has since determinedly marched from town to town, tightening its hold on the southern part of the country by acquiring the loyalty of militias in those locales — increasingly without having to fire a shot.
In areas that the ICU has come to control, it has hardly attempted to disguise its vision for greater Somalia. In a Taliban-like manner, the ICU has closed cinemas and prohibited music and mixed-gender parties. It has banned civic organizations, and it has even begun to execute criminals publicly.
Following the ARPCT’s defeat, commentators heaped opprobrium on the United States for its tacit — and probably material — support of the warlords, with whom U.S. intelligence agencies had worked in the past to capture individual terrorists residing in Somalia. This line of thinking held that such posturing fueled Islamist rage and forced closer cooperation among the Islamic courts. That criticism, however, was badly misplaced.
While U.S. policy certainly bears its share of responsibility for the ascendance of the ICU, its failure lies in an unwillingness to offer greater support to anti-Islamist constituencies. In Somalia, as in many other places around the world, policymakers treated Islamofascism’s advance on the political, cultural, and social order as insignificant and/or as an internal matter not to be meddled with. As such, measures aimed at creating conditions that might have made the broader Somali population — which has historically practiced a moderate form of Islam — more antagonistic toward the ICU’s program were neglected.
Some have expressed hope that there is still time to facilitate negotiations between the ICU and the displaced Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The TFG is holding out — backed by Ethiopian troops — in the city of Baidoa, and some suggest that these two forces could be persuaded to form a unity government. The TFG, however, enjoys almost no support among Somali citizens and is propped up only by assistance from the international community. From its relative position of power, the ICU is unlikely to accept any settlement other than one that achieves its final objective, which was reiterated last June by Sheikh Aweys: “Any government we agree on would be based on the holy Koran and the teachings of our Prophet Muhammad.”
It seems, then, that only a decisive blow will uproot the ICU. With pressing commitments elsewhere, the United States cannot afford to participate militarily; it is nevertheless able to make a vital contribution. By all indications, Ethiopia — not keen on Islamofascists setting up shop next door — is preparing to move against the ICU, with or without international collaboration. Therefore, the United States should work to facilitate Ethiopia’s strike and prevent the coming clash from expanding into a region-wide war.
This will involve, at least, mustering diplomatic acquiescence for Ethiopia’s battle against the ICU to ensure the campaign is not prematurely ended in the face of international pressure. More importantly, the United States must put the diplomatic handcuffs on Eritrea, the ICU’s largest patron, which might use Addis Ababa’s decision to attack the ICU as a pretext for resolving unfinished business from its border war with Ethiopia that lasted from 1998-2000 and nearly erupted again earlier this year. To complicate matters further, this conflict could embroil other East African nations, including Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda. In addition to disrupting America’s counter-terrorism activities from its 1,800-strong base in Djibouti, a regional war would likely jeopardize safe passage through the strategically important Bab el Mandeb Strait, which is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
A mess would undoubtedly be left in the wake of the forceful destruction of the ICU, requiring a vigorous effort to rebuild Somalia that would best be led by the United States in partnership with other East African states. But these costs are acceptable in comparison to the consequences that would flow from the establishment of an African Taliban.
– David McCormack is senior associate at the Center for Security Policy, where he directs the African Security Project.