The Islamists of Mogadishu are getting a fairly poor press. The U.S. backed Transitional government has been comparing their effective leader – Sheikh Hassan Aweys to Osama Bin Laden. A message from the wily old Saudi himself has lent credence to this caricature. A short recording dumped on the web in early July warned the U.S. against quashing the Islamic Courts and “said a US-backed bid for the deployment of international forces in Somali was part of a crusade to crush budding Islamic rule” according to AllAfrica. This is all very worrying. An Al-Qaeda base in the Horn of Africa? Oh my.
Then again, in reality Sheikh Aweys has denied that Bin Laden has anything to do with Somalia, saying that “He is not with us and he is far away, but maybe he wanted to express his personal feelings for other Muslims. We have no connection with him. No one has the right to dictate what we should do.” Which all sounds reasonable enough.
Sheikh Hassan Aweys
In the past few weeks, the power of the Islamic Courts has certainly grown, with their forces approaching (and then retiring from) the region of the government’s home in Baidoa. This was probably a continuation of their bloody struggle against the shadowy Counter-terrorism alliance (CTA) – generally thought to be a creation of the U.S. and maybe Ethiopia.
The Islamic Courts won the Battle for Mogadishu, and seem to have the public on their side (with the exception of the well-publicized deaths of two football fans during the World Cup. Those deaths were disavowed by the Islamic jurists themselves however).
In response to the Islamist advance, and the routing of the CTA, a “peace conference” was hastily arranged to be held in Khartoum. The first attempt to bring the government and the courts together fell through last Saturday when the government decided to bail out. Perhaps they had found an ace hiding up their sleeve?
Well, maybe not aces, but 5,000 Ethiopian troops, who rumbled across the Somali border and began to take control of strategic towns in support of the Transitional Government.
Now, with foreign troops on Somali soil, the Islamists are refusing to attend the Khartoum talks. Aweys has called for a Jihad against the Ethiopians and is trying to rally Somalis behind the Islamic Courts as a legitimate government. No doubt Ethiopia has intervened to cement the TG and prevent a regional Somali revolt – which would threaten the southern Ethiopian region of Ogaden. Interestingly, people in Mogadishu have begun to recall the 1977 war between Ethiopia and Somalia over Ogaden. SomaliNet reports that according to an ex-soldier “The Ethiopians knew us that we defeated them in the Ogaden war in 1977 in several fronts and now we’ll teach them harsh lessons…The Ethiopians should recall past lessons.”
Across the border, the Ogaden National Liberation Front has reported the shooting down of an Ethiopian Army helicopter while in transit to Somalia. The ONLF also reported to the Sudan Tribune that “Ethiopian military jets were seen by townspeople following the downing of the helicopter. Ethiopian troop movements in Ogaden in recent days point to an imminent large scale military operation directed at Southern Somalia.”
If Ethiopia is performing the proxy role for the U.S. – the CTA having failed miserably – in Somalia, then it is taking a great risk. The ONLF has recently announced the setting up of a pan-Ethiopian federation of resistance movements (resisting the Addis regime that is). Ethnic Somalis in Ogaden can be expected to make operations across the border hell. Anything could happen.
A UN arms embargo has supposedly been in place across Somali borders for years, but it doesn’t seem to have been 100% effective. Nevertheless, conflict has decreased since the mid-90s in the aftermath of the hopeless U.S. intervention. Now, however, the International Contact Group – a multinational diplomatic boondoggle set up by the U.S. to deal with the Islamists after the defeat of the CTA – has come out in favor of lifting the embargo. The African Union has asked the UN Security Council for the same measure. Supposedly, lifting the embargo would facilitate the “early deployment” of a peacekeeping mission.
Sheikh Aweys is resolutely against lifting the arms embargo. Perhaps he remembers the effects that a sea of guns has had on Somali society and wants to avoid a repeat. He told reporters on 18 June that “What has been destroying Somalia is the presence of arms and it’s awful to see the international community advocating the shipment of more arms to Somalia.”
In a curious irony, the peacekeeping body (the AU and UN) are about to lift an arms embargo that will almost inevitably lead to more warfare.
“Easing the embargo would be a fatal mistake,” said Aweys. “It is like allowing one group to arm itself. Others will follow and then we will have new problems in Somalia.”
Peace talks derailed
After the Ethiopian invasion, the contact group lobbying for a flood of arms and the breaking up of peace talks after the government refused to attend, the “international community” are now painting the Islamic Courts as the wrecker of peace efforts. Now that the context has changed to suit the TG, it would be folly to go to Khartoum and negotiate from a position of such weakness. In the past weeks, the odds facing Aweys and his followers have risen dramatically. Hence the reasonableness of appealing for Jihad as a mobilising tool, and enflaming anti-Ethiopian sentiment.
Now, for example, members of the TG can say things like this: “Aweys is a terrorist, so it not surprising that he is refusing talks,” [TG member] Salad Ali Jeeley said. “We hope the moderate Islamists will attend the meeting.” There is no evidence linking Aweys to terrorism.
But what noises has the Bush administration been making concerning the Ethiopian invasion and the ailing negotiations?
Surely the Somalian people have nothing to worry about from those jets observed by the ONLF, or the 5,000 troops massing in southern Somalia.
It’s OK, Sean McCormack said at a 20 July press briefing that:
“We have seen the reports and we’re watching the situation very closely. We would urge the Government of Ethiopia to exercise restraint.”
If Ethiopia is as restrained as Israel has been, then the situation could turn very nasty. There has been no condemnation of the Ethiopian moves, nor any meaningful attempt to push negotiations forward. The International Contact Group has made it clear that it wants to strengthen the TG – and the concerns of Aweys about renewed violence are being ignored.
When the guns start flowing in, the bombs start dropping – and the rhetoric directed at the terrorists in Mogadishu heats up, it won’t exactly be a surprise.
More info on the Islamic Courts:
From Wikipedia’s entry on the Islamic Courts of Somalia
“Over time [after 1991] the courts began to offer other services such as education and health care. The courts also acted as local police forces, being paid by local businesses to reduce crime. The ICU took on responsibility for halting robberies and drug dealing, as well as stopping the showing of what it claims to be pornographic films in local movie houses. Somalia is almost entirely Muslim, and these institutions had wide public support. Supporters of the Islamic courts and other institutions united to form the ICU, an armed militia.”
From a UN report from 2000, which also makes for interesting reading:
“In many local areas in southern and central Somalia, Shari’a courts have emerged to complement, but not replace, these traditional mechanisms. Shari’a law has always guided family law in Somalia. But in some areas, shari’a courts have been established to handle penal law as well. The courts are typically established and overseen by elders and local merchants, to provide a more effective and formal judiciary. They are usually explicitly identified by clan. These courts usually oversee a shari’a police force as well. In most instances, plaintiffs in a dispute first have the right of recourse to customary law or blood payments to resolve a grievance; imposition of shari’a law is usually only an option. Rarely have the courts tried to exercise autonomous power from the clans and merchants, and rarely have they tried to impose strict shari’a law.”
It seems to me that the so-called Islamists are actually more accurately “organic” products of Somali society. Without government, communities have creatively reworked customary law and Sharia to fit the situation. There is absolutely no evidence to support the charge that the Islamic Courts are terrorists nor is there any evidence to persuade me that the TG – staffed as it is by ex-warlords – would do any better.