December 14, 2006 | World Defense Review

Not Being Had by Al-Itihaad

The news from the Horn of Africa continues to be worrisome. The recent catastrophic floods that swept through the region have not slowed the advance of the radical Islamists, who in June seized control of Mogadishu, Somalia's sometime capital. Continuing its relentless progress, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) is sowing violence where it can, sweeping up strategic towns and regions throughout the territory of the former state and imposing its puritanical interpretation of Islam.

On November 28, Islamists forces tightened their hold on the town of Bandiradley in the central Mudug region — apparently the semi-autonomous Puntland's recent attempt at appeasement by adopting Islamic shari'a law was not deemed sufficient by the radicals. Two days later, on November 30, two car bombs sent by the Islamists and targeted at populated areas in Baidoa, the only significant town still held by the internationally-recognized but powerless Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia, were exploded when the vehicles were stopped at a police checkpoint outside the city, killing twelve people. On December 2, ICU forces took the town of Diinsoor, south of Baidoa, continuing their encirclement of the TFG's last stand.

In response, the parliament of Ethiopia, which has been propping up the TFG, has passed a resolution by a 311-99 vote authorizing the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to take “all necessary steps and legal steps to stave off a declaration of holy war and invasion by the Union of Islamic Courts against the country” and branded the ICU forces a “clear and present danger.” While the current Ethiopian government may not represent the ideal bedfellow for Western liberal democracies, it has to be said that, at least insofar as concerns the Islamists next door, the Ethiopians have entertained no delusions about the threat they face — which is a lot more than can be said for any number of other governments and their analysts.

The Ethiopians, unlike their Western counterparts who have only recently picked up upon the rising Islamist storm in the Horn of Africa, know well the origins of al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (“the Islamic Union”), the predecessor to the ICU which was established in the 1980s and sought the creation of an expansive “Islamic Republic of Greater Somalia” embracing all Somalis, and even perhaps all Muslims, in the Horn of Africa. After the collapse of the last effective government of Somalia in 1991, al-Itihaad tried to seize control of strategic assets like seaports and crossroads. Although it temporarily held the northern port of Bosaaso and the eastern ports of Marka and Kismaayo, the only area where it exercised long-term control was the economically vital intersection of Luuq, in southern Somalia, near the Ethiopian border, where it imposed harsh shari'a-based rule from 1991 until 1996.

From its base in Luuq, the Islamists of al-Itihaad encouraged subversive activities among ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, who carried out a series of terrorist attacks, including the bombing of two hotels and the attempted assassination of a cabinet minister in Addis Ababa. The exasperated Ethiopian regime finally intervened in Somalia in August 1996, wiping out al-Itihaad bases in Luuq and Buulo Haawa and killing hundreds of Somali extremists as well as scores of clearly non-Somali Arabs who had flocked to the Horn under the banner of jihad.

After that defeat a decade ago, al-Itihaad changed tack and, as the longtime scholar of Somali affairs, Professor Iqbal Jhazbhay of the University of South Africa, noted in a recent paper, “rather than prioritize a strategy of developing an independent military base, decided instead on what could be termed a more 'hegemonic' approach whereby it would be working within Somali political and clan structures such as the Islamist Courts.” While the courts — aided by external financial resources in addition to internal organizational capacity — have credited with marked improvements in security in many areas of Somalia, they also represented al-Itihaad's new stealth strategy of achieving a preponderant position in society from which to impose its radical theology and extremist political agenda.

An example of the success of this approach is found in the career of the chairman of the ICU, Sheikh Hassan Dahir 'Aweys.

After his defeat at the hands of the Ethiopians in 1996, 'Aweys, the vice-chairman and military commander of al-Itihaad (and, prior to that, a colonel in the prison service of the Siad Barre regime, an occupation for which it would fair to read “torturer”), settled in Merka where he established the first Islamic court in the lower Shabelle region. He then moved to Mogadishu to preside over the Islamicization of the southern part of the capital. While the name “'Aweys” may not ring a bell with most Americans, it should be recalled that the “sheikh” was prominent enough a figure in the world of terrorism to make the cut onto the list of 189 individuals and organizations singled out by the U.S. government for special mention after the attacks of September 11, 2001 — as well he should for someone whose liaison with al-Qaeda was none other than Muhammad Atef, who was Usama bin Laden's military chief until he was killed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

What is clear to those who have followed the long term fortunes of the Somali Islamists is their extremist Wahhabi ideology. While traditionally Islam in among the Somali peoples was characterized by Sufism and its relatively more relaxed worldview, from its foundation al-Itihaad has sought to establish an Islamic state in Somalia based on the an Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, not unlike that of the Taliban in Afghanistan, with its intolerance for both age-old local usages (witness the ICU's recent ban on the chewing of the stimulant qat) as well as modernity (cinemas showing foreign movies and even soccer matches and radio stations playing music have been closed down areas under ICU control).

While some observers, mainly in the West, continue to insist that the older traditions and the strength of the Somali clan system will check radical tendencies among the Islamists, they ignore the corrosive effect of the more than two decades of Siad Barre's dictatorship followed by more than a decade of anarchy and violence. They also ignore the influence of the Somalis who worked in Arabia in the 1970s and 1980s and who now constitute the country's elite as well as the role played by Saudi and other Arab “charities” which have channeled millions of dollars to the Somali Wahhabists who gave birth to al-Itihaad and who now, although possibly still small in absolute numbers, are the best-organized and best-financed component of the ICU.

As the ICU consolidates its hold on Somali territory, it can even be argued that the ICU has shown that rather than being the law-and-order movement under whose guise it began its ascent, it is little more than al-Itihaad rebranded. Certainly in areas under ICU control there have been increasing tensions between the Islamists and adherents of the traditional Sufi orders which the radicals have labeled corrupted and out of touch with “true” Islam.

And unlike Somalia's traditional Islamic scholars who were mainly concerned with questions of their faith's fundamental obligations (i.e., profession of faith, prayer, fasting, charity, and pilgrimage) and the socially more significant aspects of religious law (e.g., marriage, family, and commerce), the ICU has preoccupied itself with intrusive impositions of behavioral control on everything from women's dress to television watching.

And, as the Ethiopians have noted, the Islamists have also made it clear with their repeated calls for “holy war” that their overriding objective is the establishment, through the barrel of the gun, of a radical Islamic state that takes in all the ethnic Somali peoples of the Horn of Africa, including those in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya, as well as Somaliland. (The existence of the latter republic is particularly odious to the Islamists since it proves the possibility of a vibrant secular democracy among the Somali.)

In response to this growing crisis, the United Nations Security Council last week unanimously adopted a U.S.-sponsored resolution authorizing the subregional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to send an 8,000-strong peacekeeping force into Somalia (to be dubbed “IGADSOM”). However, Resolution 1725, like many UN documents, raises more questions than it “resolves,” including:

First, the resolution does not address the question of funding for IGADSOM, a not-insignificant omission.

Second, the entire plan is predicated on the extraordinarily dubious presupposition that the TFG offers “the only route to achieving peace and stability in Somalia.” As this column has repeatedly shown, in the over two years since it was created, this opera buffa government with its dozens of ministers has yet to show that it represents anything other than the personal interests of its members who profit handsomely from their international recognition without having to ever exercise real responsibility for actual governance.

Third, by explicitly excluding states bordering Somalia from participation, the resolution leaves only three IGAD members “eligible”: Eritrea, Sudan, and Uganda. However, Eritrea, in violation of a longstanding UN arms embargo, is not only the ICU's chief arms supplier (primarily to spite the Ethiopians), but may already have troops inside Somali supporting the Islamists). One does not need to rehearse the bloody history of Sudan's Islamist regime, both with respect to South Sudan and to Darfur. As for Uganda, while President Yoweri Museveni may be willing, he has his hands full consolidating a shaky peace in his own country and, in any event, it is highly questionable whether he has the actual capacity to field 8,000 peacekeepers.

Fourth, given both the tragedy of the U.S.-led intervention a decade ago as well as the vociferous opposition of the Islamists to any outside peacekeepers — to say nothing of the eagerness of foreign jihadis, including al-Qaeda, to open in Africa a new front in their global fight (as I have previously documented in this column) — other countries will be hesitant to contribute to the IGADSOM mission.

In the end, the only way to confront the Islamist storm that is gathering strength over Somalia is with a healthy dose of realism. And that means both recognizing the ICU for what it is and supporting those effective forces — especially Ethiopia's and Somaliland's — actually in a position to oppose the Islamists, rather than pretending the radicals are anything other than what they are and pursuing fanciful (and dangerous) schemes which will do nothing to stop them.