Somalia’s Regional Proxy War and its Internal Dynamics

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 13

The scramble for power in Somalia’s violent and contorted clan-based politics is occurring at every new stage of development, opening up fresh possibilities and opportunities as well as new risks and dangers. The stunning victory of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) over CIA-backed warlords left more than 300 people dead and more than 1,700 injured in what was by far the deadliest fighting Somalia has seen since the ousting of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. It also took the United States, Ethiopia and all the other players in Somalia’s convoluted affairs by surprise and opened a new chapter in the country’s troubled political history. Basking in their stunning victory, the ICU has the possibility of becoming a more effective force that transcends clan politics. This will not happen, however, until the movement confronts many of the difficult questions and muddled issues it now faces. Clearly, the ICU is not a homogenous organization and does not possess well-defined political and social principles on the issues of primary concern to its diverse constituency.

There are palpable differences within the different Islamic courts—made up of many interests—about the movement’s internal identity and its possible future challenges. The struggle to clarify some of the driving issues within the organization regarding its relation to politics and the social and political alternatives it advances threaten to sharpen the divide between moderate sheikhs led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and hard-line radical Islamists headed by former army colonel Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, 71, and Afghanistan-trained militia commander Adan Hashi Ayro, who would like to take Somalia down the Taliban road. The recent promotion of Aweys to lead the ICU governing council has raised fears of the growing dominance of the radicals and their determination to impose Taliban-style rule in Somalia. As head of the legislative council, Aweys has been entrusted with making the main decisions, leaving to Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed the task of implementing them in his capacity as head of the executive committee. The courts’ critics saw this promotion as a harbinger of incoming Taliban-style legislation. As proof, they cited the recent incident in which the ICU planned to stone to death five rapists, which was recently postponed.

The similarities between the ICU’s rapid ascent to power and the Taliban’s rise to leadership in Afghanistan are troubling. Both movements came to power under the banner of religion and gained public support across the religious spectrum as a result of their promises of order and security. Both groups claim that their victory proves that Islam is the solution to their societies’ problems and is the only way out of the anarchy and bloodshed that the defeated regimes had brought upon their peoples. Mohamed Ali Aden, 19, an associate of Adan Hashi Ayro, insists that the courts would accept nothing less than the establishment of a true Islamic state. “We’ve neglected God’s verses for so long,” said Aden to reporters. “We want our women veiled and we want them at home. We men have to grow our beards.” Sheikh Sharif is also said to have pledged that the ICU struggle will end only with the construction of an Islamic state. Aden’s conception of an Islamic state, however, differs significantly from the moderates’ conception.

The transformation of Somalia into a new version of Afghanistan under the Taliban is highly unlikely even under the nightmarish scenario in which the ICU radical wing manages to tighten its grip on the courts at the expense of the moderates. Many Somalis are secular in outlook. Equally important, moderate Islamists make up the majority of the Union’s supporters. With the exception of a few renegade courts, the ICU practices a moderate Sufi form of Islam that can act as a counterweight to the radical militancy of Ifka Halane and Shirkoola courts. Much, however, will depend on whether the moderates can capitalize on their numerical superiority by cementing the Union’s internal cohesiveness and initiating negotiations with other competing political tendencies on the formation of a national unity government.

Regional powers are watching restlessly as unwelcome events unfold on their doorsteps. Most support a fast deployment of peacekeepers. Ethiopia, troubled by the promotion of Aweys and what it claims is the preponderant dominance of al-Itihaad al-Islamiya members within the ICU, is pressing hard for some sort of AU intervention to prevent the emergence of an Islamist state in nearby Somalia. Such a move, which would most likely be a cover for Ethiopian intervention, would surely alienate the courts, kill all hope for peaceful negotiation between the government and the courts and further contribute to the emergence of Somali nationalism. It is the revelations of Washington’s support for the warlords and Ethiopia’s complicity that have angered many Somalis to the benefit of the ICU, which judiciously exploited this nationalist fervor. Somalis are naturally suspicious of any outside intervention. Most regional players had backed various Somali factions and can hardly claim that they have Somalis’ best interests in mind. Somalia had been a theater for a proxy war between Eritrea and Ethiopia for well over a decade. Asmara supports the Islamic courts while Addis Ababa backs Washington and its policy of siding with any party that promises to cooperate in the war on terrorism. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a seven-country regional development organization in Eastern Africa, which includes Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda, had its reputation tainted due to its members’ competing geopolitical interests. As such, IGAD is ill equipped to play an honest power broker between the Transitional Federal Government and the Islamic Courts Union.

Even a Sudanese and Ugandan peacekeeping force would not escape Ethiopian influence, whose prime minister, Meles Zenawi, has signaled at numerous occasions his determination not to see an Islamic state established on his borders. The prime minister is reportedly anxious of the potential creeping influence of Somali Islamists on Ethiopia’s 40 percent Muslim population. The ICU and many Somalis are suspicious that interim Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf and his Ethiopian allies, in complicity with the United States, have designs on their land and would use the peacekeeping mission to take control of the country (The New Vision, June 21). The transitional government—the 14th attempt at central rule since the collapse of the central government in 1991—is supported by the African Union, the United Nations and IGAD. Yemen is also known to back Somalia’s transitional government; a number of reports have emerged recently detailing how Yemeni planes have been arriving in Baidoa, bringing arms and ammunition. The Islamic courts, however, are funded by influential local business communities. Nevertheless, it is still unclear how and where the Islamic courts received their weaponry and substantial financing in spite of the embargo on Somalia. The courts’ detractors claim that they have the financial backing of rich individuals in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

Eritrea is also known to support the courts through the provision of arms and ammunition, although this is strongly denied by the Eritrean authorities. A United Nations report directly accused Asmara of arming the Islamic courts. The same report pointed fingers at Djibouti, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen for their competing efforts to supply military equipment to the Somali warring groups during the later part of 2005 and the first quarter of 2006. “Arms, military materiel and financial support continue to flow like a river to these various actors,” the report said. “On 28 March 2006, 10 metric tons of arms, including mortars, PKM machine guns, AK-47 assault rifles and RPGs (anti-tank weapons), arrived in Jowhar from Ethiopia…” Sources in the region reported that Ethiopia had supplied the Somalia Anti-Terror Alliance when they were in Jowhar with trucks loaded with military supplies brought from Feerfeer on the Ethiopia-Somalia frontier (Shabelle Media Network, May 24). Djibouti, where the United States has built a military base at the abandoned French Foreign Legion camp, is said to have supplied the TFG with military uniforms and vehicles (Puntland Post, May 12).

The United States and other Western powers, however, are still leery of placing all their bets on the Transitional Federal Government. They are also still reluctant to acknowledge the obvious fact that the success or failure of any initiative to stabilize Somalia is dependent upon the cooperation and inclusion of Somalia’s Islamists (Eritrea Daily, June 22). After all, the ICU is the only political force that has proven its capacity to provide security, justice and social services. Its dramatic rise as a national military and political force offers the best chance for the construction of a credible and legitimate representative government in Somalia (Daily Trust-Abuja, June 22). Washington and its regional allies have tried hard to prevent the emergence of such a scenario on the grounds that the Islamists are associated with local jihadists, who are linked to a string of assassinations, and foreign al-Qaeda militants, implicated in attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam simultaneously in 1998 and an Israeli-owned hotel near Mombasa in 2002.

Washington’s narrow focus on the capture of these foreign al-Qaeda operatives, who are accused of launching a number of deadly attacks throughout East Africa, backfired and ended up empowering the very same group it sought to undermine (Shabelle Media Network, June 2). Without any strategic framework, the Bush administration followed a counter-productive strategy that turned Somalia into a proxy war in its campaign against Islamists. According to Africa expert John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group, the United States had channeled about US$100,000 per month to the warlords (Reuters South Africa, June 14). This operation, conducted from the CIA’s station in Nairobi, failed miserably because of the Bush administration’s underestimation of Somali nationalism and its lack of understanding about the complex politics of the country and its shifting allegiances. State Department counter-terrorism coordinator Henry Crampton acknowledged that the Bush administration failed to correctly assess the heterogeneity of the ICU, their power and the popular support they enjoy.

Rather than promote stability and reconciliation, any foreign intervention could trigger an action-reaction cycle that could only spiral out of control. Anti-Ethiopian feelings resonate very deeply in Somalia and it would be very difficult to assemble a coalition of peacekeepers that would be acceptable to Somalis. The deployment of foreign troops would certainly anger the newly dominant Islamic courts movement and their supporters, who have everything to lose by foreign intervention (Hiiraan Online, June 19). If the United States and other regional powers continue to discount this resurgence of Somali nationalism, witnessed strongly in the last few months, it could once again backfire. The best move that the United States and the international community can take to ensure that Somalia does not slide once again into anarchy is to increase its aid to the Somali people and facilitate a diplomatic solution between the ICU and the transitional government. The U.S. initiative to form a group of stakeholders and potential donors is an encouraging start. Also, the fact that the State Department seems to be taking the lead on dealing with Somalia is another promising sign that Washington is finally recognizing the importance of pushing the political process forward.