As an Ethiopian-backed military force retakes Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, Islamist militants from the Council of Islamic Courts are retreating to the southern region of the country. The challenge of restoring order and political governance in Somalia — preventing it from becoming a shelter in which Islamist terrorists can operate with ease and stabilizing a country that also has strategically important access to the Middle East — remains complex. Somalia has been without an effective political governing body since 1991, when the longtime dictator, Mohammed Siad Barre, was deposed. Subsequent attempts to restore political order failed, as did U.N. humanitarian efforts. The U.N.-backed transitional Somali government, formed in 2004, lacked sufficient power to govern outside of the city of Baidoa, much less in the capital of Mogadishu.
From 1991 until the rise of the Council of Islamic Courts, an Islamist militia, this summer, Somalia was controlled by warlords, who, in exchange for cooperation in tracking down al Qaeda operatives, received some funding from Washington through a CIA program. But the warlords proved unable to prevent the Islamist militia from seizing control of much of the country, including Mogadishu, six months ago. Indeed, consider what has happened over six months’ time: In June, Osama bin Laden released a tape that called on Muslims to support the Islamic Courts and to open a third front against the United States in Somalia; in September, Somalia’s first-ever suicide bombing targeted President Abdullahi Yusuf; the Islamic Courts declared holy war on Ethiopia in October; earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council authorized a regional peacekeeping force for Somalia, but just days later direct fighting between the Islamic Courts and troops from the Somali government and Ethiopia began. This week, Islamist fighters threatened suicide attacks and a “new phase” in the war.
Ethiopia shares U.S. concerns about the rise of a government in Somalia with members friendly to Islamist extremism and terrorism. Ethiopia’s direct military intervention came only after the Islamist militia appeared to be positioned to overrun the city of Baidoa, home to the weak transitional Somali government. The Islamic Courts’ leadership deliberately provoked Ethiopia with irredentist rhetoric and an alliance with Eritrea, a country in conflict with Ethiopia.
War may just as easily have galvanized public support for the Islamic Courts. In a paper presented at the American Enterprise Institute in October, George Washington University professor David Shinn argued that “any Ethiopian military presence inside Somalia, either unilaterally or under the guise of a regional peacekeeping mission, significantly inflames Somali nationalism and antagonism toward Ethiopia. The leadership of the Islamic Courts, especially the more extremist members, has used this argument effectively in recent months to mobilize Somali support for its agenda.”
Anti-Ethiopian sentiment is indeed strong in Somalia, and the conflict may make it possible for the Islamic Courts to harness that sentiment to return to power. Rallying jihadists and recruiting fighters from inside and outside of Somalia has become easier for the Islamist militia now that it is engaged in a war with the only officially Christian nation in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia’s support of the weak transitional government also adds to the perception in Somalia that that government is a puppet. But at the same time, should Ethiopia withdraw and permit an Islamist regime to seize control of Somalia, it could be a geopolitical disaster for the international war against Islamofascism and a huge victory for al Qaeda.
If the Islamist militias keep fighting, then such a withdrawal is problematic; if, as some evidence suggests, Ethiopian forces have inflicted irreparable damages to the Islamist militia, then the transitional government still faces the formidable challenge of preventing a return to the chaos of the past decade. The challenge for U.S. policy-makers is to find a formula for the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces while ensuring that al Qaeda allies do not overrun the entire country.