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The New Taliban

The Islamic Courts Union is a growing power in Somalia, and a growing threat to the world.

12:00 AM, Aug 28, 2006 • By DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS and KYLE DABRUZZI
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WHEN FIGHTERS FROM THE RADICAL Islamic Courts Union (ICU) seized the Somali capital of Mogadishu on June 5, analysts were immediately concerned that the country could become a haven for terrorists. Since then, the ICU's hold on the country has tightened. More alarming, the militia has come to more closely resemble al Qaeda's previous sponsor, the Taliban, with each gain it makes.

After wresting control of Mogadishu from Somalia's interim government, the ICU's militias seized a number of towns. These gains have resulted in the Islamic militia controlling cities that stretch all the way to Somalia's border with Ethiopia. More important, these gains have been strategic in nature. The ICU now enjoys great flexibility in moving its militias and supplies, and is on the verge of controlling the majority of Somalia. In contrast, the interim government is holed up in the south-central Somali city of Baidoa, and appears increasingly vulnerable.

On August 9, fighting broke out in Beletuein between Islamic militiamen and forces loyal to Yusuf Ahmed Hagar, whom the transitional government had nominated as governor of the Hiran region. After the fighting began, Hagar reportedly "escaped with two pick up trucks mounted with heavy machineguns heading to the border of Ethiopia." The city now appears calm, and firmly in the ICU's hands. The capture of Beletuein allows for increased supply movement from south to north. Beletuein is also close to Baidoa, further isolating the government there from the rest of the country.

Since then, the ICU has made three strategic gains that give it access to the Indian Ocean. In mid-August, it captured the port cities of Harardhere and Eldher, coastal towns known as a haven for pirates. And although ICU leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys denies it, eyewitnesses reported that his forces captured the port town of Hobyo on Somalia's central coastline. (The ICU pledged to stamp out piracy after capturing these towns, but this claim cannot be taken at face value: the militia has every incentive to portray itself as a force for stability in order to prevent outside governments from undermining its hold on power.)

Not only does the ICU effectively control the area surrounding the land-locked interim government in Baidoa, but its fighters talk of further advances that would give the ICU control over the most of the country. ICU fighters say they would like to spread the militia's influence to Galkayo, a town 350 miles northwest of Mogadishu. Although militiamen in Somalia's semiautonomous Puntland region have vowed to fight the ICU if it makes such an advance, their prospects for success are far from certain.

AMERICANS AND OTHER WESTERNERS FREQUENTLY have trouble comprehending why they should care about events occurring half a world away in Africa. One reason we should care is that the ICU's expansion may escalate into interstate warfare.

Ethiopia views the Islamic militia's rise as a matter of great concern, and has expressed its solidarity with Somalia's transitional government. Ethiopian information minister Berhan Hailu has said, "We will use all means at our disposal to crush the Islamist group if they attempt to attack Baidoa."

Ethiopian troops have reportedly been in Somalia since late July. Just as the Ethiopian government has threatened to use military force against the ICU, the ICU has vowed to attack Ethiopian soldiers in Somali territory. Thus far there haven't been any clashes, but both sides are clearly ready to fight. Each seems to be waiting for the other to strike first.

AND THERE IS AN EVEN MORE PRESSING REASON why Westerners should care about the ICU's rise: the striking similarity between its ascendance in Somalia and that of the Taliban in Afghanistan.