Is­lamists’ rout fu­els new hope for or­der in So­ma­lia

The Washington Times Weekly - - World - By Shaun Water­man

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.

As­so­ci­ated Press

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.

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