October 26, 2006 | World Defense Review

Update: Islamist Radicals Still on the March in Somalia

While recent crises in other parts of the world have pushed them even farther from the headlines, the Islamist radicals who took control of the sometime Somali capital of Mogadishu in early June – far from being content with consolidating their holdings – continue to advance across the country. This is just as I warned they would in my Congressional testimony earlier this year.

Emboldened by their success, they are increasingly open about their extremist agenda to turn the geopolitically strategic country into a Taliban-like emirate centered on the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) led by the radical self-proclaimed Sheikh Hassan Dahir 'Aweys, chairman of the “Supreme Council of Islamic Courts” who figures on both United States and United Nations terror lists and whom I have previously profiled in this column.

Throughout the summer, the ICU forces swept virtually unimpeded across the country. In late September, they took the key port of Kismayo, near the Kenyan border, driving out the forces of Barre Hiraale, defense minister in the internationally-recognized but utterly ineffective “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) of Somalia (see my exposé of this farce in the July 13, 2006, column).

With the capture of Kismayo, the third largest city in Somalia, the Islamists control over 70 percent of Somalia, as 'Aweys boasted in a September 30 interview with the Egyptian newspaper Asharq Alawsat. The conquest of Kismayo also left the TFG in control of a single town, Baidoa – at that only by the grace of the Ethiopian troops protecting it.

At the same time that TFG president Abdullahi Yusuf barely managed to survive a suicide bombing of his motor convoy that has been linked to the Islamists, dozens of the remaining members of the TFG legislative body have deserted and gone over to the ICU as it continues advancing rapidly.

Just this Monday, ICU forces took the town of Bur Hakaba in central Somalia, the last major obstacle on the road to Baidoa, after TFG forces, reportedly backed by Ethiopian troops, withdrew.

Many of the recent advances have been attributed to the increasingly strength and proficiency of the most radical elements in the ICU. As I reported in this column last month, Adan Hashi 'Ayro, a kinsman and protégé of 'Aweys with al-Qaeda links, now leads a distinct armed force within the ICU, Al-Shabaab (“The Youth”), which consists of young men, aged between 20 and 30 years, who spearhead the military operations of the Islamists. As the Associated Press has reported last week, not only did the generally reclusive 'Ayro entered Kismayo publicly, but he also openly acknowledged that his forces included foreign fighters. In fact, the heavily armed and well-financed Al-Shabaab faction is apparently becoming more ascendant within the ICU and its hardline influence is beginning to be noticed.

After an initially light-handed approach, the ICU has also begun imposing its strict totalitarian rule on the areas it controls. Shortly after taking Kismayo, ICU forces closed down the local substation of the privately owned Horn Afrik Radio.

According to the Sheikh Abdirahman Mudey, minister of information and Da'wa (“Islamic call”) in the ICU's governing council, the broadcaster was seized because it aired the voice of a woman who claimed she was raped by Islamist militia members as well as another news story that reported the breakdown of talks between ICU envoys and local elders. According to the sheikh, the reports were “unfounded” and hence the station had to be shut down. In early October, according to Reporters Without Borders, the ICU issued a list of thirteen “rules of conduct” for reporters, severely curtailing their freedom. According to the Paris-based nongovernmental organization, “The result of this draconian charter which Mogadishu's new masters want to impose on Somalia's journalists would be a gagged, obedient press, one constrained by threats to sing the praises of the Islamic courts and their vision of the world and Somalia.”

A few days after the press gag order, on October 12, the United Nations announced that it was “temporarily” pulling its international staff out of parts of Somalia controlled by the ICU in response to “direct written threats,” the nature of which the international organization did not elaborate on. The withdrawal, while understandable from the security perspective, has the unfortunate effect of imperiling an estimated 3.6 million Somalis who will depend on outside assistance to stave off famine if the rains fail to come soon.

Nor are the ambitions of the radicals limited to taking control of the ruins of the former Somali state. Increasingly, the democratic and secular Republic of Somaliland – which resumed its independent sovereignty upon the dissolution of Somali Democratic Republic in 1991 – has been targeted by the ICU.

In early October, moderate clerics like Sheikh Adan Haji Hirow of Hargeisa, Somaliland's capital, began received letters warning them to desist from their criticisms of the radicals or face the consequences. Similar threats were sent to the independent newspaper Haatuf, which has been outspoken in denouncing the ICU. On October 13, militants associated with 'Ayro's al-Shabaab appeared after Friday prayers in the Somaliland town of Buroa and publicly burned copies of the publication in ominous warning of what might come if they return in strength. The militants have also begun training dissident Somalilanders for a possible assault on their own country, a fact confirmed late last week with the publication of a fatwa signed by Sheikh 'Aweys and dated on the 6th day of Ramadan 1427 (September 28, 2006) which declared that the ICU had “decided to send thirty young martyrs to carry out explosions and killing of Jewish and American collaborators in the northern regions,” including Somaliland President Dahir Riyale Kahin, Foreign Minister Abdillahi Mohammed Duale, and other senior officials.

And while the ICU's foreign minister, Ibrahim Addou – who, incredibly enough, is a naturalized American citizen – has dismissed charges that the radicals harbor larger territorial ambitions, this reassurance contradicts statements made by other ICU leaders, including the man portrayed in media as the “moderate” leader of the Islamists, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

Appearing in fatigues and brandishing an AK-47 at an October 9 press conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Ahmed declared: “It is the duty of every Somali to participate in a jihad against the infidel Ethiopian forces.” (While Ethiopia officially denies the presence of more than a few “advisors” with the TFG in Baidoa, it is completely understandable why Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, wanting to prevent the total collapse of the weak titular government of Somalia which would bring the Islamists directly to his borders where many of them fought in the 1990s under the banner of the al-Qaeda-linked al-Itihaad al-Islamiyya, would be sending hundreds of troops into Somalia, as a number of news sources have reported.)

Earlier this month, according to local military sources, ICU forces from Afmadow, south of Kismayo, also probed the Kenyan border village of Liboi with fifteen “technicals” (pickup trucks with mounted automatic weapons) before retreating back to their base after Kenyan authorities dispatched helicopters to the area.

Since the incident, the alert status of Kenyan forces near the border area has been heightened with authorities concerned that the Islamists may seek to spread their reach to the Somali refugee communities in northern Kenya – an objective not denied by the senior ICU leader in Kismayo, Sheikh Hassan Abdullah Hersi al-Turki, a one-time colonel known as the “Butcher of Hargeisa” for his role in the genocide of the northern clans of Somaliland during the Siad Barre dictatorship. (Turki's links to al-Qaeda earned him a special terrorist designation in June 2004 by then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell who also added him to the consolidated list maintained by the UN 1267 Sanctions Committee.)

The situation in the Horn of Africa grows bleaker with each passing day as the shadow of radical Islamism looms larger over Mogadishu. Yet many in Washington seem desperate to avoid for as long as they can having to acknowledge the growing reality of terrorist Islamist state arising out of the ashes of Somalia. In the long run, however, this procrastination runs counter to our interests. The U.S. must soon make a choice: either we deal now with the ICU alongside allies willing to do their part – including Somaliland, Ethiopia, and Kenya – or we allow the radicals to pick these potential partners off one by one, leaving us to then face the Islamists by ourselves. Either way, there will be no avoiding the confrontation.

– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.