How memories of Black Hawk Down cast shadow over hopes for peace
Fears of war between Somalia's Islamists and Ethiopia are rising as a rift develops between Western powers trying to avert it
At a primitive training camp 30 miles up a crumbling highway north of Mogadishu, just past the rusting hulk of a Soviet tank, 70 young, ragged, would-be soldiers march proudly through the bush chanting “Allahu akbar” (“God is Great”). As they recede, other wannabe warriors, helmets festooned with vegetation, wriggle through the scrub clutching AK47s. They cheer and punch the air as a baby-faced 18-year-old, Abdulm Kadar Muhammad, declares: “I am ready to die for my religion and my country.”
The performance is obviously stage-managed for a visiting journalist, but it makes the point. Somalia is girding itself for war
The Sharia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) that forms the country’s de facto government has given Ethiopia, its traditional foe, until tomorrow to withdraw the thousands of troops protecting Somalia’s official Government, holed up in the town of Baidoa, 150 miles from the capital. The imams of Mogadishu, in lorries with loudspeakers, exhort Somalis to prepare for battle. Newspapers carry photographs of Somali women dressed in niqabs and brandishing AK47s. Businesses contribute the heavy weapons used for security. A hospital has been commandeered for casualties. Ethiopia and the United States are denounced at mass rallies for supporting a Government that most ordinary Somalis detest.
“War is imminent . . . the guns are loaded,” said Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the council’s pre-eminent leader. He also appealed for a last-minute intervention from Europe to persuade Ethiopia to withdraw.
The stakes are high. A war between Muslim Somalia and Christian-ruled Ethiopia could rapidly engulf the entire Horn of Africa, sucking in neighbouring Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya, Sudan and even Yemen. It would give Islamic jihadists the chance to establish a new front in Africa after Iraq and Afghanistan, and to wage another proxy war between East and West. For ordinary Somalis, war would shatter the first six months of peace they have enjoyed in 15 years, the result of the council’s banishment of the warlords who had turned Somalia into one of the world’s most dangerous and lawless countries.
The chances of a last-minute compromise have been seriously undermined by a deepening rift between the US and governments in Europe over the nature of the problem and how to address it. “The Americans are simply not prepared to listen to anyone else’s point of view,” one diplomat complained angrily. “They have made their mind up.”
The US, still haunted by memories of Somalis triumphantly dragging American corpses through Mogadishu after shooting down two Black Hawk helicopters in 1993, says that the council is run by Islamic extremists, a new Taleban that will turn Somalia into a haven for terrorists.
The US believes that the council is harbouring the al-Qaeda cell that bombed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and a Kenyan beach resort used by Israeli tourists in 2002. The Bush Administration backed the warlords in their losing battle against the Islamists last spring, and now tacitly backs Ethiopia, an increasingly repressive state that fears that the council’s success in Somalia would foment trouble among its own rapidly growing Muslim population.
“The SICC is now controlled by al-Qaeda cell individuals,” Jendayi Frazer, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, declared last week, calling the council’s leaders “extremist to the core”.
The problem with the US approach is that it ignores the will of the Somali people. Most Somalis approve of the council because it restored peace and security to their country. And they detest the official Government because it includes many of the war lords who were banished in June, including President Yusuf, widely regarded as the original Somali warlord and an Ethiopian stooge.
The official Government — the product of the international community’s 14th attempt since 1991 to restore order to Somalia — was cobbled together in 2004 after two years of tortuous negotiations in Kenya between rival Somali factions. Unwilling to return to war-torn Mogadishu, the Government moved to Baidoa, where it was overtaken by events on the ground, and now sits impotent, crippled by mass desertions and sustained only by the forces of Somalia’s blood enemy.
A prominent Somali journalist said that any attempt to impose the official Government on the Somali people was bound to fail. “It’s like going to New York and saying openly, ‘I will back the Mafia, and the Mafia will bring back law and order’.” European diplomats contend privately that the Bush Administration’s preoccupation with Islamic terrorism is distorting its judgment. “The Americans see an extremist under every Muslim stone,” one protested. They say that the US should accept reality, engage with the council’s leaders as the Europeans are doing, and attempt to broker a compromise between the council and the official Government.
This month Britain pointedly refused a request from Washington to co-sponsor a United Nations resolution partially lifting an arms embargo on Somalia so that a regional force could enter to protect the official Government. The council called the resolution an act of war.
Whether the council is really run by a bunch of Islamic extremists is a matter of intense debate. It has been praised by Osama bin Laden and Sheikh Aweys, a former army colonel known as the Red Fox, appears on both the US and UN lists of terrorist supporters. A recent UN report alleged that fighters, weapons and trainers were pouring into Somalia from Syria, Iran and Hezbollah as well as neighbouring Eritrea and Baidoa has recently suffered two suicide car bombings reminiscent of al-Qaeda- style attacks.
In his interview with The Times, Sheikh Aweys — who sports a tuft of henna-stained red beard, has 20 children by four wives and believes he is about 60 — angrily denied all such charges. “Americans say all Muslims are al-Qaeda and terrorists,” he snapped, before launching into a lengthy defence of attacks such as 9/11 on the grounds that they were the only way Muslims could hit back at a country that deprives them of freedom, sovereignty and weapons.
He also urged the West to accept Somalia’s right to pursue its faith, and argued that Bin Laden could, like Nelson Mandela, eventually come to be seen as a freedom fighter, not a terrorist.
The council does undoubtedly harbour Islamic hardliners, including the Shabbab, a band of militant young ideologues led by a man called Aden Hashi Ayro, who allegedly trained in Afghanistan.
European diplomats and other neutral observers say that the West’s priority should be to boost the relative moderates who presently hold sway with the apparent blessing of Sheikh Aweys — men such as Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a former teacher who heads the council’s executive, and Ibrahim Hassan Addow, an American who is the council’s foreign minister.
The real concern is that the Bush Administration’s charges could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A war against Ethiopia, which Somalis regard as US-inspired, would play into the hands of radicals and hardliners, said a European diplomat. Ali Sharmarke, who runs HornAfrik, Somalia’s leading independent radio station, said: “If the West’s concern is international terrorism, its priority should be to bring security to Somalia, not keep it in chaos.”
Sheikh Aweys and Sheikh Yusuf Muhammad Siad Inde’Adde, the council’s military chief, told The Times that in the event of war, the council would welcome Muslim fighters of any sort to Somalia, and would expect them to come in large numbers.
“If Ethiopia is supported by the Americans, why should we not get support from the Muslim world?” asked Sheikh Inde’Adde, adding: “If you shut a cat in a room and beat it, it will jump at you.”
Sheikh Abdurahim Mudday, the council’s information minister, told The Times an old Somali story to reinforce the point. A mad woman runs through a village of straw huts with a burning torch. An alarmed villager warns her not to set the village alight. “You’ve just reminded me,” the mad woman said. And she starts burning down the homes.
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