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ICC NOTE: The Islamist leadership seems to have little control over the wilder jihadist groups, and is itself hardening on human rights. Therefore Christians in the area will obviously be detrimentally affected, many of them attempting to flee the country.

Islamists half-ready for holy war

The Economist

Oct 12th 2006

ISLAMIST control of Somalia , which has been spreading fast but more or less peacefully, was this week checked. The check may be temporary. But with the reported arrival of hundreds of Ethiopian troops in support of the country’s UN-recognized but enfeebled transitional government, the scene is disturbingly warlike.

The Islamists, or the Council of Islamic Courts, control most of central and southern Somalia, with the transitional government penned up in the dusty upcountry town of Baidoa and a few straggling settlements along the Ethiopian border (see map). Over the past few weeks the Islamist militias have captured the southern port of Kismayo and several towns near the Kenyan border. Parliamentarians and others have been drifting from Baidoa to Mogadishu , the capital, where they are welcomed by the Islamists. Last week the regime gathered in Mogadishu for the proud opening of a Supreme Islamic Court. The Islamists’ aim of imposing Islamic order on one of the world’s most anarchic states seemed within sight.

Then on October 9th transitional government troops, with Ethiopian help, recaptured Burhakaba, a strategic town on the Baidoa-Mogadishu road. Ethiopia strongly denies that its troops were involved, just as it continues, unconvincingly, to deny that any of its soldiers are inside Somalia . But locals affirm that Ethiopian as well as Somali troops forced an Islamist retreat from the hilltop town.

The Ethiopians soon withdrew, perhaps to positions in the desert. But the reaction from the Islamists in Mogadishu was immediate and fierce. Even the most moderate among them, usually dressed pacifically in simple robes, donned combat fatigues. Brandishing AK-47s, they declared holy war on Ethiopia . People were told to “await orders”. A force was to be raised to turn back the Ethiopians. There was much talk of martyrdom.

Behind the talk of war—and speculation about a new jihadist front—much remains unanswered. Who are the Somali Islamists and what do they want? Though often compared to Afghanistan ‘s Taliban, the comparison quickly breaks down. The two countries are similar in that they are war-ravaged, packed with guns and with considerable potential for hosting terrorist training camps. But the Taliban began as a Pushtun movement, rural and primitive, supported from neighboring Pakistan , which then headed to Kabul . The Islamists, although far from sophisticated, are a homegrown outfit that began in the slums of Mogadishu and spread to rural areas.

The differences continue. The Islamists are a coalition of sharia courts (hence their official name). Each court represents a district, often along sub-clan lines. Most follow Somalia ‘s traditionally tolerant Sufi-infused brand of Islam. Only a very few of the courts seem to have terrorist leanings. Over the past years, as the courts strove to overcome the Mogadishu warlords, they developed militias, some of which have been pooled into a centrally commanded force.

The Islamist leadership seems to have little control over the wilder jihadist groups, and is itself hardening on human rights. Foreign aid agencies say that the Islamists now insist on full information on who they meet and why. And there has been no progress on solving the murder of Martin Adler, a Swedish journalist, or of Sister Leonella, an Italian nun gunned down outside the Mogadishu hospital where she worked. Senior Islamists, including the leading moderate, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, insist that the killers will be brought to justice and punished. But the activities of the jihadists make it hard to catch them.

By some accounts even the leading hardliner, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is on American and UN terror lists but who is a vital part of any deal with the transitional government, now says privately that he cannot control the most radical factions. Mogadishu may be getting safer for Somalis, but it remains a death trap for foreigners. Some senior Islamists now tell journalists and other foreigners not to visit, saying that the jihadists have orders (from whom is unclear) to kill “whites” in Mogadishu .

The most violent known jihadist group is headed by Aden Hashi Farah Ayro, a hitman who may have trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and is implicated in the murders of foreign aid workers and Somali peace campaigners. He belongs to the same sub-clan as Mr Aweys and follows a similar fundamentalist interpretation of Wahhabi Islam. Mr Aweys has called Mr Ayro “a good man”, and helped to put him in charge of the shabbab, a military youth wing, but is now said to be not so sure.

Mr Aweys, a fervent nationalist, was decorated for bravery as a Somali army colonel in the 1977 war. He wants an Islamic emirate of Somalia , taking in the mainly Somali parts of Ethiopia and Kenya . The failure of the Somali forces at Harer (and betrayal by the Soviet Union, which dropped Somalia in favour of Ethiopia ) is said to weigh heavily on him. Mr Ayro’s goals seem more those of an Islamist revolutionary intent on luring Ethiopia , an ancient Christian civilisation, into a full-blooded fight with a new mujahideen.

There are shadier characters behind Mr Ayro, or perhaps pulling his strings, of whom even less is known. They look with admiration to Osama bin Laden and are united beyond clan lines, a rarity in Somalia . Some American sources believe the jihadists may be hiding three al-Qaeda suspects wanted in connection with the 1998 bombing of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam , and with attacks in Mombasa in 2002.

Rumours of training camps outside Mogadishu abound. Most of these are mainstream: young gunmen of defeated warlords, previously addled on qat, the local narcotic, having their rough edges smoothed. But there may also be terrorist training going on. There is evidence of foreign fighters joining the jihadists in Mogadishu (such foreigners are fine, say the Islamists, because they are holy warriors). A bigger concern is that the Somali struggle will give birth to potent terrorist cells, with trained and disciplined jihadists infiltrating Somali communities in America , Canada and Europe .

If all this were not enough, famine is a dreadful possibility. The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that if the rains fail later in the year, some 3.6m Somalis, or about a third of the country, will be in need of international assistance. The situation is potentially catastrophic. It is troubling, even if the worst is avoided.