The Taleban of Eastern AfricaThe Islamic Courts Union won the fight over Mogadishu – is Somalia finally becoming a safe-haven for Al-Qaeda?

Posted in Terrorism , Africa | 08-Aug-06 | Author: Dustin Dehéz

Dustin Dehéz, Research Fellow at the Düsseldorf Institute for Foreign- and Security Policy (DIAS).

Mogadishu under Islamist Control – The Federal Government finally broken down

Mogadishu, the war torn capital of Somalia is now nearly entirely under the control of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), following heavy fightings between the Islamists and the so called Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT). The recent fighting claimed some 400 fatalities, an unknown number of Somalis were wounded. Hostilities began in January this year and mounted in a deadly battle in March when the Courts were able to achieve a stunning victory. Now, in August 2006 they have finally established control over Mogadishu and are said to have advanced to Baidoa, where the internationally recognised Transitional Federal Government (TFG) took its seat after its relocation to Somalia from Nairobi. The Transitional Government is nearly entirely made up of warlords and some of them were involved in the battle over Mogadishu.

Following the fighting TFG’s Prime Minister Ali Muhammad Gedi announced the sacking of four warlords from his cabinet that were linked to the Anti-terror alliance, a step that reflects popular sentiment, but does not improve the standing of the TFG among ordinary Somalis. Shortly after its relocation to Somalia did the transitional government split over the question whether the government should take seat in Mogadishu or in a town nearby until security in the capital would be restored. The split itself brought the warlords on the brink of war, but international mediation set in to bring the government back together, an attempt that mounted in the Aden-declaration of last year when the president of the TFG, Abdullah Yusuf, and the leader of the pro-Mogadishu faction met in Yemen looking for a way out of the diplomatic impasse. In early August 2006 eighteen ministers and parliamentarians of the Transitional Federal Government finally stepped down, arguing that the TFG did not manage to foster national reconciliation. The TFG has been in Somalia for nearly a year now, but never been able to extend administration beyond Jowhar, its first seat, or Baidoa, its present seat.

The Transitional Government has always been highly unpopular in Mogadishu and was regarded by many as an Ethiopian puppet regime. When in November 2005 the Prime Minister led a delegation to Mogadishu to hold a council of ministers, his convoy came under attack and nine people were killed. Its seat in Jowhar is not uncontested, it remains on the goodwill of the local warlord and rumours about a split between him and the TFG are quite common. The governments president Abdullah Yusuf is said to be seriously ill and seems to need medical treatment in Britain. Yusuf is himself a former warlord from the semi-autonomous north-eastern region of Puntland, an area that is mainly inhabited by members of the Darood-clan, while the population of Mogadishu is mainly made up of Hawiye-clan members. With the Islamists gaining control of the capital and larger parts of the country’s South, the legacy of the TFG has finally come to an end.

Some Somalis noted that the complete victory of the Islamists in Mogadishu might in fact lead to an improved security situation there, as the port is to be reopened and food aid should come in more easily (additionally it will become a major source of revenues for the Islamists) and some sort of law and order is to be restored. Some of the road check points were already dismantled and a couple of new sharia courts were established following the defeat of the warlords. Eleven courts were active in Mogadishu prior to latest round of hostilities, three have been established afterwards. The warlords in the anti-terror alliance were allegedly backed by the United States and the bitter fighting that ensued after the warlords and Islamists clashed in Mogadishu has led to yet another round of anti-Americanism in the capital. However, it is important to notice that Islamists have had a major influence for quite a while in Mogadishu. When Al-Ittihad Al-Islamiyya (AIAI) was formed in the early 1980s it nearly immediately won support in the country’s capital. Radical elements of AIAI are said to be again active since 2003 in the capital and were aiming to destabilise the breakaway de facto republic of Somaliland.

The Islamic Courts Union (ICU) is led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed who has a moderate record, but his deputies Adan Hashi Ayro and especially Hassan Dahir Aweys are both linked to the new AIAI cell that is held responsible for the attack on aid workers in Somaliland. They are also believed to have links to Al-Qaeda. Recent reports said that Dahir Aweys was appointed as leader of the newly established governing council of the ICU.

However, the presence of the ICU is no longer limited to the capital, they do command support in the South of the country as well, where new training camps for jihadis were established. Meanwhile, Islamists are expanding their role in daily life in Mogadishu by closing cinemas and adopting a Taleban-inspired legislation. Watching the recent World Cup was forbidden and when disbanding a group of fans watching the games two people were killed.

Foreign actors to intervene?

With the relocation of the TFG to Somalia in July 2005, the regional organisation at the Horn of Africa, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) originally planned for a peace-keeping mission (IGASOM) to be deployed to the southern region of the country to support the government. However, due to capacity and financial constraints no forces arrived until today. Furthermore such a force would be highly unpopular in Somalia and some elements in Mogadishu have already indicated that such a mission would be a cause for a jihad, especially if troops were to come from Ethiopia, the unpopular neighbour with which the country fought a bloody war in 1977/78 over the Ethiopian province of Ogaden. IGAD repeatedly urged the United Nations (UN) to lift its arms-embargo on Somalia to provide the peacekeeping mission with the necessary weapons, but the UN-Security Council thus far rejected to do so. However, the embargo remained a mirage since it was imposed; arms are regularly smuggled from Yemen, despite a maritime allied presence at the Horn of Africa.

Throughout the 1990s and even prior to 9/11 did the United States realise the role Islamists could potentially play in Somalia and tried to counter that challenge by intervening militarily through its proxy Ethiopia. Attacks on Al-Ittihad Al-Islamiyya (AIAI) in the Ethiopian-Somalia border region have reportedly involved US reconnaissance. The Ethiopian air force attacked the stronghold of Al-Ittihad Al-Islamiyya in Luuq twice in 1996 and 1997 and finally crushed it. Following 9/11 the United States considered a re-engagement in Somalia but feared that such a mission would cause heavy casualties and dismissed such plans at an early stage. Instead it focused on containing the problem by establishing the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa (CJTF-HoA) based in neighbouring Djibouti, by subsidising non-Islamic warlords, and by starting the East-African Counterterrorism Initiative (EACTI) to enable neighbouring countries to fight Al-Qaeda and prevent potential spill-overs from the conflict in Somalia. With the Islamists gaining control over Mogadishu and parts of Southern Somalia, this strategy has failed.

On June 22nd this year ICU leaders and members of the TFG met in Khartoum to end hostilities and reached a cease-fire and principles for further talks including mutual recognition. This compromise, however, was short-lived. Ethiopia has reportedly sent some 2.500 troops to Baidoa to support the TFG, a move that in turn led Hassan Dahir Aweys to proclaim jihad against the foreign troops. It should be noted, that an earlier peace process, the 2002 Arta process held in neighbouring Djibouti failed, because Islamists were part of the then agreed Transitional National Government (TNG) which led Ethiopia to spoil the efforts and bringing the TNG to an early end.

So far, however, the TFG has not managed integration of the new power holders in Mogadishu and as the Islamists getting stronger each day, the TFG has finally come to an end. Its practical irrelevance is also a major setback for the international community. The United Nations, the regional organisation IGAD and many western states regarded it as the only legitimate political force in Somalia, despite the fact that it never controlled any larger territory. Now the African Union (AU) is hastily trying to organise a peace-keeping mission, but so far such efforts did not materialise on the ground.

Somaliland: Finally International Recognition?

Despite the newly erupted violence, the fighting might have implications for the state of the republic of Somaliland that declared its independence in May 1991. Somaliland – that was in contrast to the rest of Somalia a British protectorate during the period of colonialism and not an Italian colony – has since managed an impressive transition towards democracy. Last fightings in the break-away republic were resolved in 1997 and the country has since conducted several elections. It passed a constitution in 2001 and has since established a bicameral-system with a House of Representatives and an upper chamber in which clan-elders assemble. Parliamentary elections were held in September 2005 that were considered being “reasonably free and fair” by international election observers. Since then parliament is not controlled by the government, a unique case on the African continent. As a Muslim state with a female foreign minister and two women elected to parliament it’s furthermore an inspiring case for other countries in the Arab world.

Meanwhile Somaliland has established good relations with its neighbours, especially Ethiopia and Yemen, strengthened by the recent visit of Somaliland president Dahir Riyale Kahin to Yemen. Political progress comes along with economic success. Ethiopian Airlines is flying to Somaliland’s capital Hargeysa regularly, as is the Somali carrier Daallo. The port of Berbera is open for business and Ethiopia already uses it for its own in- and exports as an alternative to the Eritrean ports, as the relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia remain tense because of an unresolved border conflict that led to a devastating war from 1998 to 2000.

Somaliland has recently applied for membership at the African Union (AU) and an AU fact finding mission is said to be impressed by the situation in the country. Although not officially on the agenda at the last African Union summit in the Gambia due to pressure from some Arab-African countries such as Egypt, some governments expressed their support for the country. As Somaliland has made considerable progress in state formation international recognition is becoming more likely. Should the African Union accept Hargeysa’s bid for membership, international recognition is likely to follow suit. The Washington based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) stated in its last influential report on US-African policy (Rising U.S. Stakes in Africa) that Hargeysa is a key location in the war on terror and criticised the lack of US presence there. Should the ICU be able to hold its influence over parts of Somalia the United States and the United Kingdom will certainly also consider recognition of Somaliland to contain the Islamists influence and to support democratic transition in the country.

Dustin Dehéz
Research Fellow at the Düsseldorf Institute for Foreign- and Security Policy (DIAS)
Member of the Standing Group on Foreign Policy of the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation (KAS)
Comments are welcome, the author can be contacted at dustin.dehez [at]