A New Terrorist Haven
The frightening advance of Islamists in Somalia.
WHEN FIGHTERS from the radical Islamic Courts Union (ICU) seized Mogadishu, capital of Somalia, in early June, the Western world briefly noticed. Analysts and talking heads were concerned that the country could become a terrorist haven. Then the media largely lost interest, though the situation remains dire. The ICU is on the verge of winning an even bigger strategic victory, and its links to international terrorism have become impossible to deny.
After Mogadishu fell, Somalia's beleaguered transitional government holed up in the south-central city of Baidoa and watched as the ICU won a rapid series of strategic gains. It took control of critical port cities--most recently, Kismayo, captured on September 25--that give it access to the Indian Ocean. The ICU's advances have met with little resistance, as typified by the capture of the town of Beletuein on August 9. The governor, escorted by a couple of "technicals"--pickup trucks mounted with machine guns--fled to Ethiopia shortly after fighting broke out between his forces and ICU militiamen.
Now, in late October, the ICU controls most of the country's key strategic points. It can move supplies from south to north, and ICU troops effectively encircle Baidoa. In the past month, the ICU has begun to make overt moves against the transitional federal government. The most dramatic came on September 18, when the presidential convoy faced a multi-pronged suicide car bombing attack just minutes after President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed delivered a speech to the transitional parliament. Six government officials died in what was the first suicide strike in Somalia's history. There were further casualties in an ensuing gun battle, but President Ahmed escaped unscathed.
That attack occurred against the backdrop of ICU-inspired protests in Baidoa. The ICU used local supporters to organize demonstrations against the transitional government, forcing government police to disperse a crowd with gunfire.
The bottom line is that Baidoa is a city under siege, as evidenced by a stream of defections from the transitional government's military to the more powerful ICU. Over 100 government fighters stationed near Baidoa have defected. All that prevents the transitional government's destruction is the presence of some Ethiopian soldiers. Early this month, witnesses saw at least thirty Ethiopian armored vehicles pass through Baidoa en route to military barracks about twenty kilometers east of the city, and these troops have set up roadblocks in an effort to protect the transitional government.
Intelligence sources, however, doubt the Ethiopian forces can prevent Baidoa from falling. Some believe that the main reason the ICU hasn't yet mounted a full assault is a desire to prevent the transitional government from escaping to Ethiopia or another sympathetic country and becoming a permanent thorn in the ICU's side: The radicals would like to see all major figures in the transitional government killed or captured.
The primary reason Westerners should care about these developments is the ICU's increasingly clear support for international terrorism. Longtime al Qaeda ally Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys has been appointed head of the ICU's consultative shura council. The United States named Aweys a specially designated global terrorist in November 2001. He is one of three individuals believed responsible for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania who are currently sheltered by the ICU. Aweys's protégé, Aden Hashi 'Ayro, reportedly received terrorist training in Afghanistan as the United States was preparing to attack the Taliban in 2001.
These men have seized power in a country that contains 17 operational terrorist training camps, as described in a confidential report prepared by the nongovernmental group Partners International Foundation in 2002. The claim in this report has been confirmed by a military intelligence source. Today, hundreds of terrorists from Afghan istan, Chechnya, Iraq, Pakistan, and the Arabian peninsula are said to be flocking to Somalia to train in or staff these camps. According to a military intelligence source, the camps provide training in the use of improvised explosive devices to counter Ethiopian vehicles.
According to press accounts, the ICU has received funding from the Arabian peninsula that allows it to arm its fighters with new weapons. Sheikh Aweys told a group of 600 fighters at the Hilweyne training camp, "This is the beginning, but thousands of other gunmen will be trained. You are the ones who will disarm civilians, restore law and order, and help enforce sharia law."