- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2006


The success of Islamic extremists fighting for control of Somalia’s capital is an important setback in the U.S. war on terrorism, with the defeat of a counterterrorism alliance providing hope for militants elsewhere in the region.

Somalia’s location on the Horn of Africa and its role as a cultural bridge with the Middle East gives the country strategic importance, so much so that the United States has posted troops in neighboring Djibouti to try to prevent terrorist groups from taking hold in the Horn of Africa.

Islamic radicals seized control of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, on Monday, defeating U.S.-backed warlords in weeks of fighting that left more than 330 people dead.

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, U.S. officials have expressed concerns that Somalia could become a haven for terrorists, a concern State Department spokesman Sean McCormack repeated Monday.

“We do have real concerns about the presence of foreign terrorists in Somalia, and that informs an important aspect of our policy with regard to Somalia,” Mr. McCormack said in Washington.

A U.S. official told the Associated Press recently that Islamic leaders in Mogadishu were sheltering three al Qaeda leaders indicted in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. The same al Qaeda cell is thought to be responsible for the 2002 suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya that killed 15 persons.

Now, men willing to shelter al Qaeda suspects have established their authority, if limited, in Mogadishu.

The U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, confirmed that the United States was cooperating with the secular warlords to capture the men. But the warlords took that narrow goal and turned it into an attempt to defeat the Islamic leaders who within two years had developed the most powerful militia in Somalia.

The Islamic extremists — some of whom had contacts with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the 1990s — had co-opted an Islamic court system that provided the only means of justice since Somalia’s last effective central government collapsed in 1991.

The Islamic Courts Union portrayed itself to a war-weary public as a neutral, religious organization capable of bringing peace and prosperity. The union’s leaders condemned the warlords for being responsible for 16 years of chaos and anarchy and rejected a United Nations-backed government formed in Kenya as being too secular and not authentically Somali.

When the warlords formed the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism, the Islamic leaders immediately dismissed it as the work of U.S. agents, who were often seen visiting the alliance’s leaders.

Appealing to Somali nationalism, while exploiting public hatred for the warlords and anti-American sentiment common among Muslims across East Africa, the Islamic leaders garnered widespread support.

Sheik Sharif Ahmed, chairman of the Islamic Courts Union, told supporters Tuesday that his group would continue fighting until all of Somalia falls under the union’s authority. The courts have already made alliances with rebels from outside of Somalia to accomplish their goal.

Residents of Mogadishu, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, have reported seeing hundreds of non-Somali militia — including non-Africans — fighting alongside the Islamic forces. At least 600 Ethiopian rebels from the predominantly Muslim Oromo National Liberation Front have been seen manning checkpoints in Mogadishu.

The Oromo “share the Muslim faith with Somalis, and if someone convinced them that this revolution in Somalia will eventually become an Islamic state across the whole region, including the Oromo region of Ethiopia, they will think it is worth fighting for,” said Omar Jamal, director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, Minn., a hub of expatriate Somalis.

There are Islamic extremist elements in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Eritrea, all watching the situation in Somalia and how the United States reacts.

“We won the fight against the enemy of Islam. Mogadishu is under control of its people,” Sheik Ahmed said in a radio broadcast Monday in a veiled reference to the United States and its proxies.

Mr. McCormack has said the United States will back the United Nations-sponsored Somali government, now residing in Baidoa, 140 miles northwest of Mogadishu.

Whether that government can defeat or co-opt Islamic radicalism in Somalia is the key question.

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