- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

MOGADISHU, Somalia

On a sandy parade ground here, a ragtag army’s battle cry, “Allahu akbar,” is ringing alarm bells around the globe. As a senior drill officer for Somalia’s new Islamic army, Col. Abukar Sheik Mohamed is proud to have recruited some of the unholiest warriors ever to grace a parade ground.

Marching over the sandy strip in front of him in mid-July were former members of Mogadishu’s notorious warlord militias, the drug-crazed freelance killers, robbers and rapists who have brought anarchy to the capital for the past 16 years.

Now, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a new religious movement that drove out the warlords three months ago, is “rehabilitating” these men to defend the land they destroyed.

Unlikely army

“Discipline is the first priority,” said the colonel, as 50 pairs of rubber flip-flops slapped past him in unsteady goose steps. “These men worked for the warlords — some were alcoholics, others chewed or smoked drugs all day. But, now we have taught them the Islamic religion, they cry about their past sins, and obey only the word of God. They do not even smoke cigarettes.”

Their murderous backgrounds aside, the ragtag army at the Hilwenye training camp outside Mogadishu does not look like much of a fighting machine. Some are elderly, others in their teens; some have limps, and several are minus hands or ears. One of their drill sergeants sports a bandage where his nose was blown off by a bullet.

But on their final march across the parade ground, a chant goes up that has rung alarm bells, not only among Somalia’s neighbors, but also across the globe. It is “Allahu akbar” — “God is great” — the Islamic call adopted as a battle cry by warriors all over the Muslim world.

Thirteen years after the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident, in which 18 American troops died at the hands of a Mogadishu mob, Somalia is once again the stuff of U.S. nightmares as a potential home for fundamentalist Islam in Africa.

Critics in London and Washington see the ICU as little short of an African Taliban — an alliance of judges from Shariah, or Islamic law, courts whom they accuse of wanting to turn Somalia into a theocratic state.

But on the wrecked streets of Mogadishu, residents seem willing to give the rule of God a try — if only for the reason that, in living memory, no mortal has come anywhere close to doing the job properly.

Fragile calm

After more than 20 years under the Marxist dictator Siad Barre, during which Somalia became first a Soviet and then a Western client state, a fierce territorial battle with Ethiopia saw the country disintegrate into civil war and famine by 1992. A subsequent peacekeeping and relief mission — backed by the U.S. and United Nations, and involving 30,000 troops and $4 billion in aid — was abandoned two years later, leaving a power vacuum, which the warlords quickly filled.

Now the ICU has garnered unprecedented support for managing to do what none of its predecessors could achieve: pacifying the most lawless city in the world.

The courts first emerged as an informal source of law and order in the mid-1990s, gaining respect by the imposition of ruthless Shariah punishments such as amputations and earning a reputation for fairness. Influential local businessmen, sick of militia extortion rackets, paid for men and arms to enforce the courts’ writs.

That culminated in a series of spectacular battles early this year, in which the courts, supported by many of the capital’s 1 million citizens, cleared out the warlords, district by district. Since June a tangible, if fragile, calm has reigned, as shown by the casualty sheets at Mogadishu’s Medina hospital. The number of gunshot wound admissions is down to fewer than 30 a month, compared with a high of 179 in February.

“In the last month, a new sense of life has come to the business,” said Abdullah Noor, 22, an accountant for a Mogadishu-based retailer. “We even feel safe enough to open at night. There may be Islamists who are extremists, yes, but the majority are OK. One hand controlling things is better than many.”

Secularist concerns

Other aspects of the new regime are less welcome.

As traditionally secular Muslims, many Somalis have been worried about the courts trying to shut down cafes showing films from India and football matches, stop radio stations from playing love songs and encourage women to wear veils.

They also wonder what else goes on at training camps such as Hilwenye, where several hours are devoted daily to Koranic studies. Although the ICU says it is simply creating a new national defense force, others see a potential jihadi breeding ground.

Whatever its ultimate agenda, the ICU’s popularity has been shored up by strong suspicions that the United States, which said the courts were a Trojan horse for the terrorist group al Qaeda, backed the warlords to prevent the Islamists from seizing power.

In neighboring Djibouti is the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force — Horn of Africa, a 2,000-member force created after the September 11 attacks to prevent Islamic fundamentalism leeching into the continent’s failed or nearly failed Muslim states. Although Washington has never admitted it publicly, the CIA is widely acknowledged to have helped the warlords with cash to buy weapons, fearing the ICU would turn Somalia into what President Bush has called a “safe haven for al Qaeda.”

U.S. ties to warlords

Ahmed Abdisalam Adan, director of broadcasting at Horn Afrik Media, a popular Mogadishu radio station, thinks the reports he broadcast from the city’s then-thriving weapons shopping district were more than just rumors.

“All of a sudden, in 2005, loads of cash flooded into the weapons market, thousands of new dollar bills all in sequence. The warlords were buying guns from the Yemen, Ethiopia and elsewhere. Somalis are very open about this kind of thing, and the warlords quite happily told people where their money was coming from.”

With Washington declining to comment, the damage already has been done in a country where perception counts as much as anything else. U.S. interests in Somalia are now indelibly associated with the warlords, who were widely loathed for their criminality, while the triumph of an Islamist movement is associated with the arrival of a much-longed-for peace.

This also has allowed the ICU to trump the credibility of Somalia’s transitional federal government, a 275-member body backed by the United Nations and elected by clan elders in 2004. Although it enjoys international legitimacy, its members have never felt it safe enough to take up their seats in Mogadishu. Instead, they languish in Baidoa, a provincial town. The ICU accuses them of plotting to get Ethiopian or foreign peacekeeping troops to put them in power.


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