NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – The success of Islamic extremists fighting for control of Somalia’s capital could prove an important setback in the U.S. war on terrorism, with the defeat of a counterterrorism alliance providing hope for militants elsewhere in the region.
Somalia’s location in the Horn of Africa and its role as a cultural bridge with the Middle East has always given the country strategic importance, so much so that the United States has posted troops in neighboring Djibouti to try to prevent terror groups from taking hold in the Horn of Africa.
But U.S. efforts to influence chaotic, clan-riven Somalia have consistently fallen flat, sometimes with deadly results. The United States has not carried out any direct action in Somalia since the deaths of 18 servicemen there on a humanitarian mission in a 1993 battle in Mogadishu depicted in the film “Black Hawk Down.”
Islamic radicals seized control of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, on Monday, defeating U.S.-backed warlords in weeks of fighting that left more than 330 people dead.
Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. officials have expressed concerns that Somalia could become a haven for terrorists, a concern U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack repeated on Monday. “We do have real concerns about the presence of foreign terrorists in Somalia, and that informs an important aspect of our policy with regard to Somalia,” McCormack said in Washington.
On Tuesday he rejected suggestions that the extremists’ success in Mogadishu is a severe setback for U.S. policy. The situation in Mogadishu is “very fluid” and has been for years, McCormack said.
A U.S. official told The Associated Press recently that Islamic leaders in Mogadishu are sheltering three al-Qaida leaders indicted in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. The same al-Qaida cell is believed responsible for the 2002 suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya, which killed 15 people, and a simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner over Kenya.
Now men willing to shelter al-Qaida suspects have established their authority, if limited to Mogadishu. The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, confirmed that the U.S. was cooperating with the secular warlords to capture the men. But the warlords took that small goal and turned it into a bid to defeat the Islamic leaders who had within two years developed the most powerful militia in Somalia.
The Islamic extremists, some of whom had contacts with al-Qaida’s Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, had co-opted an Islamic court system that provided the only means of justice since Somalia’s last effective central government collapsed in 1991.
The Islamic Courts Union portrayed itself to a war-weary public as a neutral, religious organization capable of bringing peace and prosperity. The union’s leaders condemned the warlords for being responsible for 16 years of chaos and anarchy and rejected a U.N.-backed government formed in neighboring Kenya as being too secular and not authentically Somali.
When the warlords formed the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism, the Islamic leaders immediately dismissed it as the work of U.S. agents, who were often seen visiting the alliance’s leaders. Appealing to Somali nationalism, while exploiting public hatred for the warlords and anti-American sentiment common among Muslims across East Africa, the Islamic leaders garnered widespread support.
Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, chairman of the Islamic Court Union, told supporters on Tuesday that his group would continue fighting until all of Somalia falls under the union’s authority.
Residents of Mogadishu, speaking on condition of anonymity, have already reported seeing hundreds of non-Somali militia, including non-Africans, fighting alongside the Islamic forces. At least 600 Ethiopian rebels from the predominantly Muslim Oromo National Liberation Front have been seen manning checkpoints in Mogadishu.
The Oromo “share the Muslim faith with Somalis and if someone convinced them that this revolution in Somalia will eventually become an Islamic state across the whole region, including the Oromo region of Ethiopia, they will think it is worth fighting for,” said Omar Jamal, director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, a hub of expatriate Somalis.
There are similar Islamic extremist elements in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Eritrea, all watching what is happening in Somalia and how the United States reacts.
“We won the fight against the enemy of Islam, Mogadishu is under control of its people,” Ahmed said in a radio broadcast Monday in a veiled reference to the United States and its proxies.
McCormack, the U.S. spokesman, has said the United States will back the weak, U.N.-sponsored Somali government, currently residing in Baidoa, 225 kilometers (140 miles) northwest of Mogadishu.
Whether that government can defeat or co-opt Islamic radicalism in Somalia is the key question.