On June 5, militia aligned with the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) declared victory in their struggle to control Mogadishu, capital of the east African country of Somalia. The militia had routed the grossly misnamed Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism (ARPCT) â€” a coalition of US-backed warlords who had put a halt to their near-ceaseless internecine fighting in a failed effort to stop the ICU’s growing control of the capital.
Fierce fighting broke out between the ARPCT and the ICU in March, leaving hundreds of people dead. In the week following the ARPCT’s defeat in Mogadishu, the last ARPCT stronghold in the country’s south, the town of Jowhar, fell with little resistance to the ICU.
The ARPCT’s defeat represents a major setback for Washington in the proxy war it has been waging to assert control over Somalia’s 8 million inhabitants, 60% of whom are nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists.
The June 7 New York Times reported that US government officials have privately acknowledged that the CIA, via its station in Nairobi, Kenya, had channelled hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past year to the ARPCT warlords so they could purchase arms on the international black market. The covert payments were in breach of the UN Security Council arms embargo that has been imposed on the country since 1991.
John Predergast, a member of the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based liberal capitalist think tank, told MSNBC on June 5 that the CIA “payments have been between [US]$100,000 and $150,000 per month”.
Somali reactions to the ICU’s victory have been mixed. On one hand there is relief at the prospect of a respite from constant battles in the capital, but for some this is tempered by fears of the imposition of draconian interpretations of sharia (Islamic) law.
Among many though there is hope that the ICU will at least provide a degree of stability in a country that has been gripped by violent conflict between rival warlords since the 1991 ouster of military dictator Mohammed Siad Barre. He took power in 1969 and had originally aligned Somalia with the Soviet Union, but the alliance was broken when Barre came into conflict with Ethiopia in 1977.
Washington stepped in to fill the gap and supported Barre until he was toppled in 1991 by rebel forces led by General Mohammed Farah Aidid, Barre’s former intelligence chief. In the wake of Barre’s overthrow, the country was carved up by rival warlords. Under the guise of a UN-backed “humanitarian mission”, Washington dispatched 20,000 US troops to Somalia in 1992.
The January 18, 1993 Los Angeles Times reported that it had obtained documents revealing that Barre had given four major US oil companies â€” Chevron, Amoco, Conoco and Phillips â€” exploration rights over two-thirds of the country. The LA Times reported: “Far beneath the surface of the tragic drama of Somalia, four major US oil companies are quietly sitting on a prospective fortune in exclusive concessions to explore and exploit tens of millions of acres of the Somali countryside. That land, in the opinion of geologists and industry sources, could yield significant amounts of oil and natural gas if the US-led military mission can restore peace to the impoverished east African nation.”
While US government officials at the time ridiculed the idea that there was oil in Somalia, Thomas O’Connor, the principal petroleum engineer for the World Bank, who headed an in-depth three-year study of oil prospects off Somalia’s northern coast, told the LA Times: “There’s no doubt there’s oil there… It’s got high [commercial] potential, once the Somalis get their act together.”
The CIA’s website lists Somalia’s natural resources as “uranium and largely unexploited reserves of iron ore, tin, gypsum, bauxite, copper, salt, natural gas, [and] likely oil reserves”.
The most likely location of oil reserves is Puntland, a self-declared autonomous region in north-eastern Somalia. On May 21, General Mohammed “Adde” Muse, the president of Puntland, announced that his regime had decided to sever collaboration with Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which had been set up following a UN-sponsored conference in Kenya in 2004. The TFG, led by President Abdullahi Yusuf, is based in Baidoa, 240 kilometres north-west of Mogadishu.
According to the SomaliNet website, Muse told local journalists the TFG had attempted to stop Puntland’s plan to produce oil under an agreement signed last year with the Western Australia-based Range Resources company.
On June 17, Somalia’s Garowe Online News reported that Muse â€” “accompanied by Puntland’s finance and agriculture ministers, the vice minister for fisheries and the newly created director of Puntland Oil and Minerals Agency that falls directly under the presidency” â€” met in Dubai with executives from Range.
Muse “proposed to Range officials a change in the ‘contract of work’ they signed in mid-2005. In accordance with a Somali federal government-Puntland administration agreement reached in Bossaso in May, the Puntland leader proposed that Range allow Puntland to be divided into [exploration] ‘blocks’.
“Range officials â€” supported by Range board of directors member Liban Muse Bogor and Puntland finance minister Mohamed Ali â€” declined President Adde’s proposal because it is in direct contradiction to the ‘Puntland Agreement’ which gave Range exclusive exploration rights in all of northeastern Somalia (more than 212,000 sq. km. of land).”
Omar Jamal, a US-based Somali political activist, told Associated Press on June 5 that the ICU victory was “exactly the same thing that happened with the rise to power of the Taliban” in Afghanistan and that Islamists were taking advantage of “the people’s weariness of violence, rape and civil war”.
However, on June 5 AP reported that the reactions of residents in Mogadishu were more variegated. Some shared Jamal’s fears. “The Islamic clerics want to be like [the] Taliban regime in Afghanistan”, one told AP. But another said that the ICU’s victory was “a major step toward a lasting peaceful settlement in Mogadishu”, adding: “We are tired of the deception and rhetoric of the warlords.”
On May 25, in an article for the Chicago-based Power and Interest News Report, Dr Michael Weinstein, an analyst with the PINR, wrote: “The [Islamic] courts have become increasingly popular with Mogadishu’s residents, not only because of their [legal and social] services, but also because they are perceived to be relatively honest and dedicated to the country, rather than to their own narrow advantage, and are not beholden to external powers.
“The eruption of militant political Islamism outside and opposed to the TFG, and the Mogadishu warlords and rising over the clan structure provoked a fierce reaction among the warlords, whose vital interests were threatened.”
The first Islamic court was set up in 1994, in the wake of the withdrawal of US troops from Somali, after 18 US troops died in the infamous “Battle of Mogadishu” resulting from Washington’s failed attempt to capture/assassinate Aidid, who died in 1996.
Originally set up by clan elders to fill the vacuum of governmental and legal authority in the wake of the Barre dictatorship’s collapse, the Islamic courts at first functioned only at a clan level. Since then, the courts have achieved a degree of independence from the clan system and broadened from their initial function of making rulings for litigants to offering social services and providing policing.
‘Al Qaeda safe haven’
The reaction from Washington to the ICU’s victory was less ambiguous than that of Mogadishu residents. On June 6, US President George Bush told reporters that “obviously, when there’s instability anywhere in the world, we’re concerned. There is instability in Somalia. The first concern, of course, would be to make sure that Somalia does not become an al Qaeda safe haven, that it doesn’t become a place from which terrorists can plot and plan.”
Bush’s sentiments were echoed by US State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack at a June 7 press briefing. He claimed that the “international community” doesn’t want “to see Somalia turn into a safe haven for terrorists”, adding: “We do have very real concerns about the presence of foreign terrorists on Somali soil.”
US officials claim that three members of Saudi Arabian millionaire Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network responsible for bombing the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 are hiding out in Somalia. Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the chairperson of the Supreme Council of Islamic Courts of Somalia, has denied that the ICU is protecting al Qaeda members or that the ICU wishes to move Somalia towards a Taliban-style religious regime.
Two of the courts are seen as “militant”, according to a June 6 BBC report, one of which is led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former army colonel, who joined Al Ithihaad al Islaami (AIAI), an armed Islamist group that gained in strength after Barre’s regime collapsed, but became defunct by the late ’90s.
Some individuals from the AIAI, such as Aweys, are believed to be connected with a new “jihadi” network that emerged around 2003. However, a July 2005 report by the ICG argued that this new network’s “core membership probably numbers in the tens rather than the hundreds”. Despite noting the killings that have been associated with al Qaeda-linked “jihadis”, the report noted that al Qaeda’s Somalia “presence is perhaps less remarkable than its minute scale”.
In the wake of the ICU’s victory, the TFG reiterated its long-standing call for foreign “peacekeepers” to intervene. The TFG has limited support within Somalia â€” until June 5, four of Mogadishu’s warlords were TFG cabinet members â€” and is completely ineffective. On June 15, Mogadishu residents protested against the TFG’s call for foreign military intervention.
The June 22 Sudan Tribune reported: “Stung by setbacks to its latest strategy in Somalia, the United States for the first time reached out to hardline Islamists, its erstwhile enemies, to help catch ‘terrorists’ allegedly hiding in the shattered African nation. In an about-turn, [US] assistant secretary of state for African affairs Jendayi Frazer sought the help of the Joint Islamic Courts to arrest terrorists believed hiding in Somalia. Washington previously blamed these courts for having links with Al Qaida and harbouring foreign fighters.”