Islamists’ rout fuels new hope for order in Somalia
The ousting of Islamic fighters in Somalia by Ethiopian troops and the installation of a weak but internationally recognized transitional government not only nips in the bud an emergent terrorist sanctuary, but also creates an opportunity for progress in the warravaged nation, analysts said.
Regional analysts and officials say the expulsion from Mogadishu of the Islamic Courts Union, a loose coalition of Muslim organizations that until Christmas controlled most of Somalia presents an opening, but they cautioned that unless international peacekeepers deploy swiftly in support of the newly installed government, the country could slip back into the chaos that swept the militias to power in the first place.
“The international community needs to jump in there quickly,” said Karin von Hippel, a former post-conflict reconstruction official in Somalia for the United Nations now based at the Center for Strategic and International Studies inWashington.
Ethiopian armored columns with air support rolled into Somalia in the closing days of 2006, ending months of growing tension with the Islamic courts militias, which backed separatist rebels against Addis Ababa and sought aid from Ethiopia’s regional rival, Eritrea.
The Ethiopian military took Mogadishu without firing a shot and installed the Kenya-brokered coalition transitional government there.
David Shinn, a former senior U.S. diplomat who has held several posts in the region, said that “the immediate threat” from militia leaders linked to the terrorist network al Qaeda “appears to have been neutralized [. . . ] at least for now.” In recent months, U.S. officials had grown increasingly concerned about the growing influence within the Islamic Courts Union of persons and groups suspected of links to al Qaeda, saying their sway, initially welcomed by many Somalis as ending years of growing anarchy, was making the country a sanctuary for Islamic terrorism.
Mr. Shinn said that individuals within the poorly understood hierarchy of the Somalian Islamic movement were linked to al Qaeda. But, like other analysts, he cautioned that some U.S. officials might have “overstated the case” about the group’s influence.
He said the conspicuous silence of U.S. officials before the Ethiopian incursion and the “very mild” character of their comments since represented “at a minimum a blinking yellow light, maybe a green one” for the operation.
Mr. Shinn said the militias that gave the Islamic Courts Union military strength are “much diminished and scattered” by their rout at the hands of the Ethiopians. Members of hard-line militias, such as the so-called “shebab” [youth] formations, “turned out to be fair-weather followers” who melted away before determined military opposition, he said.
Miss von Hippel said it was not clear why the militias collapsed with such extraordinary speed. “Could it have been a strategy?” she said, to melt away and regroup for an insurgency? Or were they simply overwhelmed? Mr. Shinn dismissed threats from some Islamist leaders of an Afghan-style insurgency.
Taliban-style extremism “doesn’t go down well in Somalia,” he said, “The differences are far greater and more significant than the similarities.” Moreover, the geographical and social terrain of Somalia is not conducive to the kind of insurgency being waged in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said.
“They would have trouble hiding themselves,” Mr. Shinn said.
Miss von Hippel said one lesson to be learned from Afghanistan is the need to do “the hard work of building governance [. . . ] and institutions.” She said the failure to do that in Afghanistan after the toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001 enabled its fighters to regroup and undertake the insurgency that continues today.
An immediate danger is that a continuing Ethiopian military presence in Somalia could allow Islamists to regroup as nationalists. Ethiopia and Somalia have fought two wars, the most recent in 1977. Although the conflicts have revolved around territorial restoration and ethnic disputes, terrorist leaders such as Ayman alZawahri have cast them in religious terms, calling for jihadis worldwide to help defend the courts regime against “crusader” Ethiopia.
The priority is to get international peacekeepers in behind the Ethiopians, Miss von Hippel and Mr. Shinn said.
Ethiopian troops manned an anti-aircraft gun in Kismayu, Somalia on Jan. 2, accompanied by a young Somali, as they pursued remnants of the Islamist coalition that until recently controlled most of southern Somalia.