When fighters from the radical Islamic Courts Union (ICU) seized the Somali capital of Mogadishu on June 5, analysts were immediately concerned that the country could become a haven for terrorists. Since then, the ICU's hold on the country has tightened. More alarming, the militia has come to more closely resemble al Qaeda's previous sponsor, the Taliban, with each gain it makes.
After wresting control of Mogadishu from Somalia's interim government, the ICU's militias seized a number of towns. These gains have resulted in the Islamic militia controlling cities that stretch all the way to Somalia's border with Ethiopia. More important, these gains have been strategic in nature. The ICU now enjoys great flexibility in moving its militias and supplies, and is on the verge of controlling the majority of Somalia. In contrast, the interim government is holed up in the south-central Somali city of Baidoa, and appears increasingly vulnerable.
On August 9, fighting broke out in Beletuein between Islamic militiamen and forces loyal to Yusuf Ahmed Hagar, whom the transitional government had nominated as governor of the Hiran region. After the fighting began, Hagar reportedly "escaped with two pick up trucks mounted with heavy machineguns heading to the border of Ethiopia." The city now appears calm, and firmly in the ICU's hands. The capture of Beletuein allows for increased supply movement from south to north. Beletuein is also close to Baidoa, further isolating the government there from the rest of the country.
Since then, the ICU has made three strategic gains that give it access to the Indian Ocean. In mid-August, it captured the port cities of Harardhere and Eldher, coastal towns known as a haven for pirates. And although ICU leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys denies it, eyewitnesses reported that his forces captured the port town of Hobyo on Somalia's central coastline. (The ICU pledged to stamp out piracy after capturing these towns, but this claim cannot be taken at face value: the militia has every incentive to portray itself as a force for stability in order to prevent outside governments from undermining its hold on power.)
Not only does the ICU effectively control the area surrounding the land-locked interim government in Baidoa, but its fighters talk of further advances that would give the ICU control over the most of the country. ICU fighters say they would like to spread the militia's influence to Galkayo, a town 350 miles northwest of Mogadishu. Although militiamen in Somalia's semiautonomous Puntland region have vowed to fight the ICU if it makes such an advance, their prospects for success are far from certain.
Americans and other westerners frequently have trouble comprehending why they should care about events occurring half a world away in Africa. One reason we should care is that the ICU's expansion may escalate into interstate warfare.
Ethiopia views the Islamic militia's rise as a matter of great concern, and has expressed its solidarity with Somalia's transitional government. Ethiopian information minister Berhan Hailu has said, "We will use all means at our disposal to crush the Islamist group if they attempt to attack Baidoa."
Ethiopian troops have reportedly been in Somalia since late July. Just as the Ethiopian government has threatened to use military force against the ICU, the ICU has vowed to attack Ethiopian soldiers in Somali territory. Thus far there haven't been any clashes, but both sides are clearly ready to fight. Each seems to be waiting for the other to strike first.
And there is an even more pressing reason why Westerners should care about the ICU's rise: the striking similarity between its ascendance in Somalia and that of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
One similarity is that as the ICU has gained power, Somalis have welcomed its rule because it is seen as a force for stability. Rival warlords have ruled Somalia since the fall of president Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. According to a Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder, "[t]he warlords' militias were notorious for indiscriminate violence: Women and girls were often raped and locals could not move about the city without fear of being killed. Since the ICU took control, experts say there are noticeably fewer guns on the streets, and people move freely throughout the city without fear of attack."
This mirrors the Afghan population's reaction to the Taliban. As Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid wrote in his best-selling book Taliban:
"The Taliban had won over the unruly Pashtun south because the exhausted, war-weary population saw them as saviors and peacemakers, if not as a potential force to revive Pashtun power which had been humiliated by the Tajiks and Uzbeks. . . . In the areas under their rule, they disarmed the population, enforced law and order, imposed strict Sharia law and opened the roads to traffic which resulted in an immediate drop in food prices. These measures were all extremely welcome to the long-suffering population."
This passage touches on the most visible similarity between the ICU and the Taliban: both imposed a harsh version of sharia (Islamic law) in the areas that they seized. Under the Taliban, women had no rights. Homosexuality, conversion from Islam, and preaching of non-Islamic faiths were capital crimes. And the list of restrictions went on. CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen noted in his book Holy War, Inc., "Soccer, kite-flying, music, television, and the presence of females in schools and offices were all banned. Some of the decrees had a Monty Python-esque quality, like the rule banning the use of paper bags on the remote chance the paper might include recycled pages of the Koran."
The ICU has implemented a similarly harsh version of sharia wherever it has gained power. Regulations governing truly trivial matters, as described by Bergen, are often the most telling signs of the sharia law that a group has implemented--and the ICU has taken aim at the trivial. In addition to shooting two people who demanded to watch the World Cup semifinal, the ICU has also arrested sixty people for watching videos and cracked down on a wedding with live music.
Like the Taliban, the ICU has begun to ban weapons ownership by Somalis who aren't ICU-affiliated. While this is ostensibly intended to instill order, it clearly also diminishes the ability of citizens to resist the Islamic militia.
But the similarity between the ICU and Taliban that should be of greatest concern is the group's cozy relationship with al Qaeda. The Taliban served as al Qaeda's sponsor up until the 9/11 attacks. Likewise, there appear to be a number of ties between al Qaeda and the ICU.
In his book Through Our Enemies' Eyes, the former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit, Michael Scheuer, documented that bin Laden "expended sizeable amounts of time, money, and manpower to expand" into Somalia after leaving Sudan for Afghanistan. And as counterterrorism consultant Dan Darling has written, an examination of the ICU's leadership provides reason to believe that these links extend to the militia. It leader, Sheikh Aweys, has been involved with al Qaeda affiliate Al-Ittihaad Al-Islamiya since its inception. And his protégé, Aden Hashi 'Ayro, "traveled to Afghanistan to receive terrorist training there on the eve of Operation Enduring Freedom."
This concern is compounded by a confidential report released in 2002 that indicates the existence of seventeen operational terrorist training camps in Somalia. Bill Roggio has written:
"The environment in Somalia is said to compare to that of Afghanistan during the heyday of the Taliban. Terrorists from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chechnya, Iraq and the Arabian peninsula are said to be flocking into Somalia to staff the camps or enter training. Camps are said to be training recruits to employ improvised explosive devices (roadside bombs or IEDs) to counter the expected Ethiopian armor."
Moreover, on August 23, the ICU opened a new militia training camp that featured foreign trainers from Eritrea, Afghanistan, and Pakistan--further indication of the international backing that the ICU has received.
It wasn't until 9/11 that the world woke up to the threat that the Taliban posed. It's unlikely that other countries will take that long to notice this time around. And in the next few weeks, Ethiopia may be the first to take action.