June 1, 2006  

Back to Mogadishu?

"Somalia is the failed state." That was the assessment of Marine Maj. Gen. Timothy Ghormley, the commander of U.S. forces in the Horn of Africa, last December. The apparent triumph yesterday of Islamist radical groups in fighting in Mogadishu suggests the situation might get worse; the ability of jihadis to establish even a mini-state ? the situation in northern Somalia, or Somaliland, is quite different ? in this strategically vital region would be a major setback in the global war on Muslim terrorism.

While it’s impossible to tell the true state of affairs in Mogadishu from afar, news reports say that the vicious street-war of the past several weeks has ended with Islamic fighters in control. This has been a de facto proxy war between groups ? invariably labeled "warlords" ? receiving financial help from the CIA and those with ties to Wahhabi radical groups and almost certainly backed by Islamic and Saudi "charities." There has long been an al Qaeda presence in Somalia, and the country is believed to have been a refuge for the cell that carried out the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as other acts of terror in the region.

The withdrawal of the U.S.-backed warlords doesn’t necessarily mean that the struggle is over, and indeed may mean the fighting will, over time, escalate. American planners and special operations forces assigned to Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa have been weighing options for taking a more active role in Somalia for several years. Likewise, the governments of Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, which have been targets of terror, have provided varying but significant support to U.S. efforts; they will be equally disturbed by the apparent triumph of the Islamists in Mogadishu.

Another alternative is to recognize the failure of Somalia and to allow Somaliland and Puntland, the extreme northeastern part of Somalia that declared its autonomy in 1998, to break away entirely. These regions are more prosperous than the southern part of Somalia ? not a huge achievement, but one that makes a political partition, which would have a lot of popular support, a more practice al possibility. Strategically, such a break-up would help to constrain and contain al Qaeda or other Islamist operations in Somalia.

To repeat: the defeat of "our warlords" in Mogadishu is a serious setback, but probably not a decisive outcome in itself. It is the belief of the International Crisis Group, the most reliable source, that most Somalis have little interest in strict Wahhabi-style codes or rule, let alone exporting jihad. Most cruelly, the immediate security interests of the United States and the states surrounding Somalia are now to keep it a failed state, to prevent Islamists from consolidating even a weak state centered on Mogadishu. The leader of the victorious faction, one Aden Hashi ‘Ayro, is said to be a veteran of Afghanistan; he knows well what a small sanctuary in a backward corner of the globe can mean for al Qaeda.