Somalia’s ICU and its Roots in al-Ittihad al-Islami

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 15

As the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) continues to spread its influence throughout southern Somalia, the international community has reacted with concern since there are accusations that the ICU has ties to international terrorists. These accusations stem from the fact that many of the key leaders of the ICU are former members of al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI), a radical Islamist organization that once sought to establish an Islamic state in East Africa and was accused of having ties to al-Qaeda.

Originally, after the initial ICU victories in Mogadishu, the international community reacted with some optimism since the chairman of the ICU was a moderate named Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad. Ahmad had spoken in favor of dialogue with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), based in Baidoa, and with the international community. Analysts said that Ahmad exhibited Qutbism, an Islamic ideology that supports political or free interpretation of the Holy Quran. The ideology originated from Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian Islamic thinker executed in 1966. It attempts to reconcile Islam and modernity. Apart from agreeing to engage his adversaries diplomatically, Ahmad was quick to dispel fears of a Taliban-like government forming in Somalia. Unfortunately, a popular wave seems to have sidelined Ahmad, despite the Somali people’s respect for his leadership. Instead, former members of AIAI and other hard-line elements have taken the reins of leadership in Somalia’s ICU.

History of AIAI

The Somali organization AIAI came into prominence in 1991 with the objective of overthrowing Somali President Siad Barre. According to, AIAI was formed in a meeting in 1984 in Burao in northern Somalia following the merger of two other organizations: al-Jamma al-Islamiya (Islamic Association) led by Sheikh Mohammed Eissa and based in the south, and Wahdat al-Shabab al-Islam (Unity of Islamic Youth) led by Sheikh Ali Warsame. Al-Jamma al-Islamiya was formed around 1967 as a reaction to unwanted Western cultural influences; it was then led by Islamic religious leaders in northern Somalia and comprised of several Islamic organizations in the region. The Wahdat al-Shabab al-Islam was formed in the late 1960s by Islamic religious leaders. It was similarly a reaction against Western values, and the organization mainly attracted Muslim youth.

The main goal of AIAI was to form a strong Islamic state in the African Horn countries (Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia). Sheikh Ali Warsame assumed the leadership of the organization. Warsame is said to be the person who recruited Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys into AIAI near the time of Siad Barre’s fall from power. Warsame was charismatic and spearheaded the growth of AIAI in Somalia. According to, he appeared to be opposed to war even as a leader of AIAI. He is described as a reclusive, ideologue of Islamic fundamentalism, and the brainchild behind AIAI. AIAI had its own army, as well as social and political services. After Barre was ousted from power in 1991, AIAI enlarged its scope to launching cross-border attacks into Ethiopia. At the time of these cross-border attacks, Aweys was the leader of AIAI’s military wing.

In the mid-1990s, AIAI initiated attacks on Ethiopian forces (Terrorism Monitor, February 10, 2005). The main goal behind the attacks was to gain control of the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, which borders Somalia. This is a region predominantly occupied by Somali speaking people, but is part of Ethiopia. In 1977, Somalia attacked Ethiopia across the Ogaden Desert taking temporary control of the territory, only to be pushed back out of the region the following year (Terrorism Monitor, February 10, 2005). While the attacks by AIAI against Ethiopia were generally small in scale, the terrorist organization did manage to execute operations as far as the Ethiopian capital.

ICU Blends in AIAI Ideology

The ICU and the AIAI are different entities, yet the former appears to have grown out of the latter, bequeathing some of its characteristics in the new body. Ideologically, the ICU and AIAI share many similarities. While the ICU wants an Islamic state in Somalia in the short term governed by Sharia law, media reports allege that the Islamic courts are eyeing a bigger Islamic state in the long term carved out of East Africa, similar to the old goals of AIAI, which wanted to create an Islamic state out of Somalia and Ethiopia. The ICU is also radical in approach, sustains a charity wing and has militias just as AIAI once did.

The most prominent figure in the ICU is Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who was a former leader in AIAI. The BBC Monitoring Unit reports that Aweys is the genius behind the brilliant military campaigns of the courts in Mogadishu. For instance, he organized the ICU fighters to attack the warlords at the most unexpected times such as early in the morning and at night. According to Adan Mohammed, a conflict analyst in the Horn of Africa based in Nairobi, Aweys also has been able to ensure that all the ICU fighters are inspired and ready to fight for the ICU cause.

Yet, with the defeat of AIAI by Ethiopian forces, Aweys retreated to his home region in Galguduud Province and later to Mogadishu and embarked on self education and spiritual reflection, which is thought to have finally led him to puritanical Salafi ideology since much of his learning came from Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi school of thought. Sustaining this ideology within the courts with Aweys is Sheikh Hassan al-Turki and a young fighter known as Sheikh Adan Hashi Ayro, who heads the youth league (Terrorism Focus, July 11). Since Aweys heads the Supreme Council of Islamic Courts, which is the courts’ parliament, this ideology appears to emerge as he openly declares that the agenda of the ICU is to turn Somalia into an Islamic state and to introduce Sharia law.

The consequence of the Salafi hard-line stand has been the banning of songs during weddings and a clampdown on entertainment facilities, including cinemas. This policy led to the ban on viewing the World Cup Soccer games that the cinemas were showing live from Germany. The AIAI pursued similar policies, according to Soon after coming to the fore after the fall of Barre, it banned the chewing of Qat in some areas like the Gedo region, reduced the stature of the traditional Islamic leaders and built special mosques that served as communal centers.

At the moment, analysts agree the demarcation between the two is thin. According to Ato Medhane Tadesse who works for Center for Policy Research and Dialogue, a local Ethiopian think-tank, the first courts were established by AIAI and multiplied as the organization loosened control. Tadesse told the Addis Ababa Reporter on July 15 that the Somali people supported the courts because they brought peace and stability. “They were better than warlords,” he said. According to the analyst, former AIAI leaders oriented the courts in an Islamic way, controlled them and gave them ideological direction and brought in military mobilization. The courts, like AIAI, have a social wing known as al-Islah, and is largely viewed as reformist. It provides clinics, schools, roads and support for children.

In light of these similarities, many East African countries consider the ICU takeover of Somalia a threat. The East African, a regional weekly based in Nairobi, reported that the ICU, having seized control of southern Somalia, plans to use local elements to destabilize Kenya. The weekly quoted Somaliland Representative Saad Noor, who was in Washington on July 11, and warned the U.S. Congress that the ICU wanted to first conquer all of Somalia and then declare it an Islamic state. The next step would be to topple and control Somaliland, a territory in northwestern Somalia that declared its independence from larger Somalia when the country descended into chaos following the collapse of Barre’s dictatorship. The next step, according to this representative, would be to topple Kenya and Ethiopia, two other secular states who are Somalia’s neighbors.

The same publication quoted David Shinn, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, now a specialist in East African affairs, on July 11 telling a U.S. subcommittee that some leaders of the ICU militias wanted to re-energize the greater Somalia concept by incorporating into Somalia Somali-inhabited areas in Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. As Shinn explained, this would happen if the Islamists come to be dominated by extremist elements and succeeded in consolidating power throughout Somalia. “It will be only a matter of time before Kenya becomes subject to Somali irredentism,” Shinn said. Evidence of this consolidation came on July 20, when ICU fighters advanced toward Baidoa, the seat of the TFG. The TFG, an authority created for Somalia two years ago through the efforts of Kenya and the United Nations, failed to be accepted at the grassroots level in Somalia. By the ICU’s advance toward Baidoa, it is clear that the ICU wants to consolidate their rule throughout Somalia.

East African countries cannot throw caution into the wind if recent events associated with Islamic fundamentalism are something to go by. Although radical AIAI activities have generally been recorded in Ethiopia, the group is blamed for the 1993 deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers killed in Mogadishu. Furthermore, it is alleged that the al-Qaeda terrorists who destroyed the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam used Somalia as a staging area.

A showdown now looms between TFG President Abdullahi Yusuf and Sheikh Aweys, two former colonels of the defunct Somali army. TFG President Yusuf is banking on international support since Aweys has a history of being connected to AIAI and al-Qaeda. Yet, Aweys claims that Yusuf is unpopular in Mogadishu and is seen as an Ethiopian puppet; Ethiopia remains Somalia’s traditional rival. The situation remains very unstable. Before the ICU is able to pursue some of the AIAI’s former goals, such as attempting to take the Ogaden region from Ethiopia, it must successfully consolidate control in Somalia, which will be difficult in light of Ethiopia’s threats to move across the border and to unseat the ICU.