On Monday, September 18, explosions ripped through Baidoa, the seat of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). One of the blasts occurred outside a building where TFG President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed spoke only 10 minutes earlier, and the blast destroyed vehicles part of the presidential convoy (al-Jazeera, September 18). The attack underscores the tension in Somalia between the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and the TFG. The blasts follow the killing of a Catholic nun, Sister Leonella Sgorbati, in Mogadishu in what is being seen as the courts’ inability to rein in gunmen. Although there have been arrests in the killing of Sgorbati, some observers say it is likely that the suspects will be set free.
The ICU remains under the leadership of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who observers say is a moderate Islamist responsible for steering the courts in a convincing political direction and establishing a sense of law and order in Mogadishu and the southern parts of the country. Yet within this period, one of his moderate deputies, Sheikh Abdulkadir Ali Omar, has appeared to bloom, speaking frequently and outlining ICU policy on issues including the training of its militia, peace talks and sometimes defending the courts when they make unpopular or extremist decisions.
With the courts enjoying success after wrestling Somalia’s formal capital from a faction of warlords, Sheikh Omar defended the courts against accusations that the Islamists were harboring wanted terrorists in Mogadishu. Sheikh Omar, who is one of the vice chairmen of the executive council of the ICU, had on behalf of the courts said that such claims were not true. “If you can find a terrorist, let us know,” he told journalists in June. “If we find one we are very much prepared to hand him over. There are no foreign terrorists in Mogadishu” (Islam-Online.net, June 18).
It was Omar who also spoke after the courts announced a crackdown on secular entertainment spots, saying that the militias would crack down on halls that defy the order to show Western films and videos, including the 2006 Soccer World Cup. He said, “this was the courts’ war against all people who show films that promote pornography, drug dealing and all forms of evil…We shall not even allow the showing of the World Cup because they corrupt the morals of our children whom we endeavor to teach the Islamic way” (The News [Pakistan], September 18). Again, when the courts on August 23 banned the export of rare animals and charcoal, Omar told the press that the decision was reached after the committee was briefed on the dangers posed by the indiscriminate cutting of the country’s trees. He further told the journalists that the directive had been sent to all involved in the charcoal trade and would be enforced in all areas under ICU control.
Yet it was during a tussle between the Islamists themselves on whether they would hold talks with the fledgling TFG that Sheikh Omar appeared to come to the fore. With one side, led by hardliners like Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys opposing talks with the TFG, and the moderates led by Sheikh Sharif, Omar spoke of the courts’ interest in the peace talks. The “ICU will have a strong delegation in Khartoum. We expect positive results from the talks, if the other side is genuine” (IRIN, August 29). Omar is another rising star of the ICU, who in a matter of time will gain prominence as Islamist influence increases.