By Scott B MacDonald
NEW YORK - Sitting astride key sea lanes on the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and not far from the Arabian Peninsula's oil fields, Somalia on the east coast of Africa is not an obscure piece of real estate. This country of roughly 9 million people represents an increasingly dangerous problem to its neighbors in the form of international piracy and the potential for outside forces to meddle. Lacking an effective central government since the downfall of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, it appears Somalia could be hitting another turning point as the Council of Islamic Courts of Somalia (CICS) has gained control over much of the south, including the capital Mogadishu.
Considering probable past linkages to Osama bin Laden and a clear sympathy to the objective of creating a society built around sharia or Islamic law, the CICS has prompted the return of international attention to Somalia, with concerns this war-torn land could be following the same path as Afghanistan did under the Taliban.
Afghanistan and Somalia share something - both have undergone long periods of lawlessness, a reflection of weak or non-existent central governments. For the vast majority of people living in Afghanistan and Somalia, personal safety depended on the guns of the local warlord, hardly a satisfactory arrangement.
Consequently, when a group such as the Taliban in Afghanistan came along in the 1990s, offering law and order and an easy to understand ideology (radical Islam), there was a strong appeal. The Taliban were able to take over most of Afghanistan in a relatively short time, including the capital of Kabul because they offered something beyond the localized interest of a handful of thug-like warlords - at least initially.
The same is occurring in Somalia, though a similar outcome is hardly cast in stone. Located on the eastern horn of Africa, Somalia has a sad history. Since 1991, it has been badly fragmented and has earned the moniker of being Africa's "most-failed state". The northern part of the country has spun off into the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland and semi-autonomous Puntland, with the largest part of the country in the south long being a war zone, with various warlords and clans slugging it out for control over the former capital of Mogadishu.
There is a weak transitional government (backed by other African countries), independent warlords, and the CICS. The CICS has gained ground in June and July, including taking control of Mogadishu, something of symbolic value. The CICS is a relatively broad-based Islamic movement, seeking to impose sharia law on the areas under its control, hence its heavy reliance on courts, backed by Muslim militias. It also marks a sharp contrast thus far from the arbitrary nature of local warlords, who are motivated by individual and clan interests.
For the long-embattled population, this is a positive departure. The country has a life expectancy of 48.45 years, one of the lowest in the world, infectious diseases are widespread (including malaria, bacterial diarrhea and typhoid fever), and it has one of the world's highest birth rates (close to 3%). It is estimated that literacy is about 37%, low by even African standards. Economic life is rudimentary, considering the breakdown in infrastructure. Somalia, however, does have economic potential.
The country is known to have supplies of uranium, iron ore, bauxite, copper, natural gas and probable oil reserves. Considering the charged nature of international energy and commodity markets, Somalia could benefit from commercial exploitation of its natural resources. Moreover, the country has a certain entrepreneurial spirit, reflected by the creation and maintenance of a wireless telecommunications system and a system of remittances banks that handle an estimated US$500 million from Somalis living aboard.
While warlords have created lawlessness on land, they have used piracy to finance their operations, making the Somali coast one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the world according to the International Maritime Bureau and the United Nations. International shipping is subject to both raids for cargo and the holding of ships' crews for ransom.
Consequently, it is little wonder that the CICS offering of law and order has an appeal, especially considering the weakness of the transitory government and the power of warlords, much along the same lines as the Taliban did in Afghanistan. Yet the rise of the CICS is problematic.
Members of the CICS have indicated support for al-Qaeda, and it is suspected that a number of international terrorists involved in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in East Africa have taken refuge in the country.
Questions are also being raised about the possible flow of funds to radicals there from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In addition, bin Laden recently warned he would help the CICS fight any foreigners that enter Somalia, a comment aimed at Ethiopia (which probably has small numbers of troops across the border on behalf of the transition government) and the United States. Heightening concerns about the hardline Islamic angle, the CICS recently replaced a relatively moderate cleric as leader for Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is on the US terrorist watch list as a suspected al-Qaeda collaborator. Aweys is the founder of al-Itihad, a radical Islamic group founded in the 1990s. The organization adheres to a strict reading of the Koran (similar to Wahhabi interpretation used by the Taliban in Afghanistan), has developed a beneficial relationship with major traders and remittance banks and has courted support from Somalia's poorest urban population with offers of welfare services. It has also been credited with several attacks in Ethiopia, which has been concerned about Somali claims over territory. Aweys admitted past contact with bin Laden, though no recent links.
The danger in Somalia is if the CICS becomes the dominant force pushed along by external opposition and support, it could create a Taliban-like state on a strategic crossroads. While adding one more potential headache in calculating international oil prices, it could only add to the country's problems. A more successful and radical CICS could be one result of stepped-up US involvement - Washington has already allegedly provided financial support for warlords to eliminate radical Islamic terrorists. In looking to Somalia's future and its impact on the world, three points must be considered.
First and foremost, most Somalis are probably not inclined to support a new Taliban regime. In those areas under CICS control, the clerics banned World Cup soccer "watching parties", cutting off electricity to theaters showing the games. In one case this resulted in the shooting of two demonstrators. Women have also been ordered to wear veils. Both moves have not gone over well with the majority of Somalis. In addition, most Somalis are aware the Taliban brought in al-Qaeda and even more violence.
Second, Somalia has been down this road before - during the 1970s the Horn of Africa became a proxy war zone in the Cold War and with disastrous effects. Somalia's bid to win its claim on a slice of Ethiopia ended up in a massive Soviet and Cuban intervention against Somalia, from which the Barre regime never fully recovered. Another round of external intervention could reinforce the current fragmentation.
Along these lines, Ethiopia is already deeply involved in Somalia's affairs, considering the troop build-up along the border, probable support of its troops inside the territory held by the transitional government and ongoing suspicion of the CICS as an instrument of Eritrea, with which it has a border dispute. Considering that foreign radical Islamists are probably also involved, as well as US special forces operating out of Djibouti, foreign involvement involving assassinations and military strikes is not likely to be the glue needed to pull things together again.
Third, Somalia does have a framework for creating a broad-based government, the Nairobi accords. Other African governments have a clear reason to provide greater support to making a new government work in Somalia as the creation of a Taliban-like state in the Horn of Africa would not be a positive development, especially considering the weak nature of many governments.
Such a development would be dangerous on many levels - stirring up radical Islam in countries with multi-religious populations (such as Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria) or in places where moderate Islam has long ruled. Somalia also represents a tough challenge for the United States.
The 1993 US military intervention (along with other United Nations forces) was best remembered by the movie Black Hawk Down in which 18 special forces soldiers were killed in a failed attempt to capture the warlord Mohammad Farrah Aidid and restore order.
The consequent US withdrawal was taken by al-Qaeda as a sign the US had little staying power when circumstances turned tough - a fatal miscalculation. All the same, US policy since 2004 of supporting along with the UN the ineffectual transitional government has generated few rewards.
Now, a more radical form of Islam could be rising. Somalis have reached yet another fork in the road of their "national" development. One road leads to radical Islam and the very real potential for greater outside intervention - most likely by neighbors afraid of a Taliban-like regime on their doorstep.
The other road is equally challenging, but the end game may have something Somalis badly desire - peace and stability. That road is to work harder at creating a broad-gauged government, with room for moderate Islam as well as secular forces. This road requires the country's clans to surrender some power, the CICS to be flexible in dealing with the concerns of the international community (in particular in regard to terrorism) and external forces to be helpful where possible and show restraint when necessary.
None of this will be easy, but the danger of a Somalia becoming increasingly embroiled in the "war against terrorism" is not in anyone's interest.
Scott B MacDonald is editor and senior consultant of KWR International Advisor.