The cheerleading is building up for regime change in Somalia, even though no regime exists there yet to change. The Union of Islamic Courts has been extending its influence over coastal Somalia, made a foray towards Baidoa (where the U.S. favored transitional government is stationed) and has been trying to stamp out illegal poaching and deforestation. Yet even before it has intimated its future plans for government, hacks in American based think tanks and blogs are salivating over its demise.

I guess that takes the doctrine of pre-emptive war to an even wackier conclusion.

A case in point is the deeply neo-conservative Weekly Standard, which carries a piece by Daveed Gartenstein Ross and one Kyle Dabruzzi entitled “The New Taliban.” Their argument (which is very tenuous) is that the Islamic Courts mirror the rise of the Taliban.

The technique is familiar. Demonizing a little understood and alien political phenomenon is simple. Produce a stock example of a repellent (and universally condemned) regime, trace several elements of that regime that made it repellent and them map them onto the current object of villification. Then repeat as necessary.

Their interest is not in the human rights of Somalis, however, but in the existential threat to American interests that the IUC poses. According to them,

The similarity between the IUC and Taliban that should be of greatest concern is the group’s cozy relationship with al Qaeda. The Taliban served as al Qaeda’s sponsor up until the 9/11 attacks. Likewise, there appear to be a number of ties between al Qaeda and the ICU.

The actual links are implausible, almost laughable. You can tell when hacks are struggling to make a killer point when they quote other hacks to buttress their point, and these quoted hacks then make a vague reference to “alleged ties” or something similar.

“As counterterrorism consultant Dan Darling has written,” they relate, “an examination of the ICU’s leadership provides reason to believe that these links extend to the militia. It leader, Sheikh Aweys, has been involved with al Qaeda affiliate Al-Ittihaad Al-Islamiya since its inception. And his protégé, Aden Hashi ‘Ayro, “traveled to Afghanistan to receive terrorist training there on the eve of Operation Enduring Freedom.”

But what Dan Darling actually wrote back in March 2006 was more nuanced. He related – as Gartenstein Ross and Dabruzzi do not, that:

A more comforting analysis of the situation comes from the respected International Crisis Group (ICG). The ICG describes jihadism as an “unpopular, minority trend among Somali Islamists” and argues that the military wing of Al-Itihaad Al-Islamiya (AIAI), the primary al Qaeda associate group in Somalia, has been “largely dismantled” as a result of Ethiopian military intervention during the mid-1990s.

Darling’s piece was, as befitting a Weekly Standard classic, a hit-piece on Sheikh Aweys, the Islamist “leader.” It’s been swallowed by Gartenstein Ross and Dabruzzi with even less attention to detail and evidence than it came with initially. What Darling actually said about the globetrotting Aden Hashi ‘Ayro was that:

The commander of one of the ICU militias, ‘Ayro is reputed to have inherited his mentor’s ties to al Qaeda and even traveled to Afghanistan to receive terrorist training there on the eve of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Naturally, reputed ties are enough for the cheerleaders of war.

There is no evidence that the hawkish views of Gartenstein Ross have reached the mainstream media – but there is also no sign that the mainstream media has taken on the task of investigating actual conditions in Somalia, and covering the IUC in much depth.

This may leave the stage open for right-wing nutjobs.

What is actually happening in Somalia? Are Aweys and his cronies as bad as is made out? Would the transitional government be any better?

In my opinion, no. The Islamic courts have made several good moves which strike at the roots of some deep social problems in Somalia. Dealing with piracy and illegal fishing on the coast, for example, which has allowed the reopening of the port of Mogadishu. That is, they have done what 11 yearsof warlords and failed transitional governments could not.

They have also banned the production of charcoal, to deal with soil erosion, and placed a ban on the export of birds of prey (usually for the edification of Arabian oil emirs).

This used to be grazing land, now desertified with the aid of deforestation for charcoal production

It may be hard to credit, but this move seems to have been stimulated by a request from the Somalian Green Party (and the Global Greens network) to the Islamic Courts to halt deforestation and poaching.

You won’t have read that in the Washington Post.

You may, however, have read about “terrorist training camps” being set up by the IUC to train jihadists to launch operations against Ethiopia or Kenya. Hilweyne training camp (an old facility from the Siad Barre era) has been reopened by the IUC to train up to 600 militiamen. According to Garowe Online Sheikh Aweys sees these troops as in training to fight a defensive war against Ethiopia:

“I remember those who were previously trained in this camp did more for the Somali people, and particularly, they defended the country from Ethiopia in 1977.” Somalia and Ethiopia fought a border war between 1977 and 1978.

Reuters reported “witnesses” as saying that “foreign trainers [have arrived] from Eritrea, Pakistan and Afghanistan.” It seems to me likely that Eritrean soldiers are hanging around – Eritrea could not stand by and let Ethiopia extend its influence over Somalia. There have been reports of planes landing at Mogadishu laden with Eritrean arms, or there were, they haven’t been followed up with hard evidence. The Somali transitional government has claimed that the arms were flown in via a Kazakh private carrier called Sayakhat. Of course, this has been denied by the airline itself and there the matter lies.

The policy of Sheikh Aweys is quite clear, and it is not expansionist or “jihadism” as the Weekly Standard would have it. He wants Ethiopian troops off Somali soil, and Kenyan interference to end.

SomaliNet reports him as saying on 24 August that “We say again that Ethiopian intervention in Somalia will never be accepted..We call on Ethiopia to withdraw its forces from Somalia, otherwise be ready for full-scale war.”

After the Kenyan government announced that it would dispatch troops to protect the transitional government, he also branded Kenya as “an enemy of Islam.”

“We thought Kenya being one of the neighboring countries taking part mediation in Somalia’s conflict. But Kenya has now joined Somalia enemies.” He told Shabelle Radio on 18 August.

Sharia don’t like it

Personally, I’m all for live and let live, yet the strongest criticism outsiders should be making against the IUC is around its ideas about sharia law and its willingness to use force to police morality.

Shooting people for watching football matches or films does not suggest a progressive, peace-making government is round the corner. On the other hand, dealing with the warlords, pirates, petty criminals and U.S. funded “counter-terrorism” forces was never going to be pretty.

All political processes are open to change and development, and we should also be wary of projecting outside notions of justice, government, democracy – even statehood on Somalis. At the same time, we have to check up on what’s going on and point out problems and injustices, doing what we can to encourage change towards positive outcomes.

Geeska Africa, a portal on the Horn of Africa region has an interesting piece in praise of the Islamists, here. Check it out – and be deeply skeptical of the cheerleaders of war.


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