A New Terrorist Haven
By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Bill Roggio
The Weekly Standard
Oct. 30, 2006
The frightening advance of Islamists in Somalia.
WHEN FIGHTERS from the radical Islamic Courts Union (ICU) seized Mogadishu, capital of Somalia, in early June, the Western world briefly noticed. Analysts and talking heads were concerned that the country could become a terrorist haven. Then the media largely lost interest, though the situation remains dire. The ICU is on the verge of winning an even bigger strategic victory, and its links to international terrorism have become impossible to deny.
After Mogadishu fell, Somalia’s beleaguered transitional government holed up in the south-central city of Baidoa and watched as the ICU won a rapid series of strategic gains. It took control of critical port cities–most recently, Kismayo, captured on September 25–that give it access to the Indian Ocean. The ICU’s advances have met with little resistance, as typified by the capture of the town of Beletuein on August 9. The governor, escorted by a couple of “technicals”–pickup trucks mounted with machine guns–fled to Ethiopia shortly after fighting broke out between his forces and ICU militiamen.
Now, in late October, the ICU controls most of the country’s key strategic points. It can move supplies from south to north, and ICU troops effectively encircle Baidoa. In the past month, the ICU has begun to make overt moves against the transitional federal government. The most dramatic came on September 18, when the presidential convoy faced a multi-pronged suicide car bombing attack just minutes after President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed delivered a speech to the transitional parliament. Six government officials died in what was the first suicide strike in Somalia’s history. There were further casualties in an ensuing gun battle, but President Ahmed escaped unscathed.
That attack occurred against the backdrop of ICU-inspired protests in Baidoa. The ICU used local supporters to organize demonstrations against the transitional government, forcing government police to disperse a crowd with gunfire.
The bottom line is that Baidoa is a city under siege, as evidenced by a stream of defections from the transitional government’s military to the more powerful ICU. Over 100 government fighters stationed near Baidoa have defected. All that prevents the transitional government’s destruction is the presence of some Ethiopian soldiers. Early this month, witnesses saw at least thirty Ethiopian armored vehicles pass through Baidoa en route to military barracks about twenty kilometers east of the city, and these troops have set up roadblocks in an effort to protect the transitional government.
Intelligence sources, however, doubt the Ethiopian forces can prevent Baidoa from falling. Some believe that the main reason the ICU hasn’t yet mounted a full assault is a desire to prevent the transitional government from escaping to Ethiopia or another sympathetic country and becoming a permanent thorn in the ICU’s side: The radicals would like to see all major figures in the transitional government killed or captured.
The primary reason Westerners should care about these developments is the ICU’s increasingly clear support for international terrorism. Longtime al Qaeda ally Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys has been appointed head of the ICU’s consultative shura council. The United States named Aweys a specially designated global terrorist in November 2001. He is one of three individuals believed responsible for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania who are currently sheltered by the ICU. Aweys’s protégé, Aden Hashi ‘Ayro, reportedly received terrorist training in Afghanistan as the United States was preparing to attack the Taliban in 2001.
These men have seized power in a country that contains 17 operational terrorist training camps, as described in a confidential report prepared by the nongovernmental group Partners International Foundation in 2002. The claim in this report has been confirmed by a military intelligence source. Today, hundreds of terrorists from Afghan istan, Chechnya, Iraq, Pakistan, and the Arabian peninsula are said to be flocking to Somalia to train in or staff these camps. According to a military intelligence source, the camps provide training in the use of improvised explosive devices to counter Ethiopian vehicles.
According to press accounts, the ICU has received funding from the Arabian peninsula that allows it to arm its fighters with new weapons. Sheikh Aweys told a group of 600 fighters at the Hilweyne training camp, “This is the beginning, but thousands of other gunmen will be trained. You are the ones who will disarm civilians, restore law and order, and help enforce sharia law.”
But the presence of foreign fighters in Somalia suggests that Sheikh Aweys and the ICU have ambitions beyond Somalia. Some ICU leaders, such as Sheikh Yusuf Indohaadde, have denied the presence of foreign fighters in the country in order to distance themselves publicly from al Qaeda. In a late June press conference, Sheikh Indohaadde said, “We want to say in a loud voice that we have no enemies, we have not enmity toward anyone. There are no foreign terrorists here.” Within a few weeks of this unequivocal statement, how ever, the Associated Press obtained a copy of an ICU recruiting videotape directed at both Somali and Arab audiences (with Arabic subtitles) that showed Sheikh Indohaadde in the desert alongside fighters from Arab Gulf states.
Another senior ICU leader, Sheikh Hassan “Turki” Abdullah Hersi, openly admitted foreign involvement in Somalia during a speech to supporters after the seizure of Kismayo. “Brothers in Islam, we came from Mogadishu and we have thousands of fighters, some are Somalis and others are from the Muslim world,” he said. “If Christian-led America brought its infidels, we now call to our Muslim holy fighters to come join us.”
Nor is the ICU’s support for international jihad lost on the movement’s highest leaders. In an audiotape released in late June, Osama bin Laden stated, “We will continue, God willing, to fight you and your allies everywhere, in Iraq and Afghanistan and in Somalia and Sudan, until we waste all your money and kill your men and you will return to your country in defeat as we defeated you before in Somalia”–a clear nod to the rise of the Islamic courts. In July, bin Laden issued an even stronger statement: “We warn all the countries in the world from accepting a U.S. proposal to send international forces to Somalia. We swear to God that we will fight their soldiers in Somalia and we reserve our right to punish them on their lands and every accessible place at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner.”
The rise to power of the ICU is reminiscent of the Taliban’s rise in the 1990s. Both radical groups are allied with al Qaeda and other foreign terrorists. And like the Taliban, the ICU is now instituting an extremely strict version of sharia.
In Somalia, as in Afghanistan in the 1990s, the implementation of sharia is facilitated by lawlessness and desperate poverty. The Taliban im posed its harsh rule on what Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid called an “exhausted, war-weary population,” many of whom saw the movement “as saviors and peacemakers.” Likewise, Somalia, since the toppling of President Muhammad Siad Barre in 1991, has been at the mercy of rival warlord factions known for indiscriminate violence. Rapes and other crimes have been commonplace. It is thus unsurprising that many Somalis view the ICU as a force that can deliver the stability they crave.
In both countries, however, many citizens were unable to accept the radicals’ draconian regime. By the time the Taliban was ousted from power in 2001, few Afghans were sad to see them go. Likewise, the influx of tens of thousands of Somali refugees into Kenya shows that not all of the ICU’s subjects are happy with their rule.
Where it has taken power, the ICU attempts to regulate virtually every facet of Somali citizens’ lives, even barring them from watching soccer matches. ICU forces shot at least two people who demanded to watch a World Cup semifinal this summer. And in mid-September, in the course of raiding a Mogadishu hall where a crowd was watching an English Premier League soccer match, they shot and killed a 13-year-old boy. The ICU has also conducted mass arrests of citizens watching videos, cracked down on live music at weddings, and arrested a karate instructor and his female students because the lessons constituted mixing of the sexes.
Beyond the religious basis for these laws, there is clearly a desire to cement the ICU’s control. This can also be seen in the ICU’s crackdowns on the media. The Islamic courts have closed several radio stations to stifle dissent. On October 8, they gave the press in Mogadishu 13 rules of conduct that the press freedom advocacy group Reporters sans Frontières describes as a “draconian charter.” It prohibits publishing information “contrary to the Muslim religion,” information “likely to create conflicts between the population and the Council of Islamic Courts,” and the use of “the terms which infidels use to refer to Muslims such as ‘terrorists,’ ‘extremists,’ etc.” A Reporters sans Frontières press release contends that this charter would result in “a gagged, obedient press, one constrained by threats to sing the praises of the Islamic courts and their vision of the world and Somalia.”
The ICU is also moving to disarm the population. In mid-October, the Islamic courts announced the door-to-door collection of weapons owned by Somali citizens and organizations. Only ICU-affiliated Somalis would be allowed to retain their firearms. This move, ostensibly designed to instill order, clearly diminishes citizens’ ability to resist the Islamic militia.
Although the situation in Somalia looks grave, the United States has more options for dealing with the ICU than it has in some other areas where terrorist factions have made gains lately, such as the Waziristan region of Pakistan.
Ethiopia’s military presence–still relatively light, and meant principally to help the transitional government escape once Baidoa falls–creates an initial opportunity for the United States. Back in the mid-1990s, Ethiopia intervened in Somalia to destroy the predecessor of the ICU, the al Qaeda-backed al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, which was sponsoring Islamic separatist groups in the Ethiopian border province of Ogaden. The Islamic courts are unlikely to be friendlier to Ethiopia than their predecessor. Sharif Ahmed, the head of the ICU’s executive council, has openly called for a jihad against Ethiopian soldiers in the country. ICU military commanders have made similar calls.
Nor is Ethiopia the only neighbor concerned about the ICU’s rise. On October 5, the ICU moved 15 of its technicals to the village of Liboi, in southern Somalia near the border with Kenya. While an ICU spokes man claimed that this was intended to “check the security in the area,” the Kenyans viewed the move as provocative. Concern about the ICU’s intentions had already prompted senior Kenyan officials to undergo anti terrorist and counterinsurgency training; when the ICU advanced to Liboi, Kenyan military helicopters responded with a show of force. Kenyan defense minister Njenga Karume later announced that “anybody who might touch Kenya will face the full force of our military.”
Since then, Kenya has deployed forces along its border with Somalia. Moreover, the governments of the semiautonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland are hostile to the Islamic courts.
The United States has significant assets at Camp Lemonier in neighboring Djibouti, where the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa is made up of Marines, Special Operations forces, civil affairs teams, and a U.S. and international naval task force. The Combined Joint Task Force’s primary missions have been patrolling the East African coast and the straits of the Bab el Mandeb oil choke point, training regional militaries to fight the spread of Islamic terror groups, performing goodwill missions designed to improve the lives of Africans, and undertaking covert intelligence and hunter-killer missions. A Predator drone said to be operating from Djibouti killed Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, al Qaeda’s chief operative in Yemen, in November 2002.
All is not lost in Somalia. While the transitional government has no power base to rely on, there is enough concern in the region about the ICU’s rise that the United States has potential partners with whom it could fashion an appropriate response if it wanted to. The critical question is whether we can muster the will–or for that matter even the awareness–to address the problem.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior consultant for the Gerard Group International and author of the forthcoming book My Year Inside Radical Islam (Tarcher/Penguin). Bill Roggio is an independent military blogger who served in the Army from 1991 to 1995.
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