Two years after U.S. and Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia and deposed the ruling Islamic Courts regime, Islamists now are back in control of the East African country. Islamists’ reconquest of Somalia represents the failure of the Bush Administration’s “proxy” strategy for waging the “war on terror” in Africa, using armies such as Ethiopia’s to do most of the fighting. Despite a lack of strong evidence, the Bush Administration had accused the Islamic Courts of colluding with Al Qaeda — and used that to justify supporting the Ethiopian invasion. By contrast, today’s dominant Islamic group, Al Shabab, truly has been radicalized by two years of insurgent warfare and publicly has proclaimed its alignment with Al Qaeda’s global jihad.
During their one-year rule over much of Somalia, the Islamic Courts had welcomed foreign investment in Somalia. Al Shabab has been much less open to foreigners. Two Western journalists were abducted by Al-Shabab fighters outside Mogadishu in August and are being held for ransom.
Al Shabab, the Islamic Courts and other Islamic groups had made steady gains in southern and central Somalia for more than a year before their final conquest. As many as 50,000 Ethiopian troops, plus a few thousand African Union peacekeepers, were the only things propping up the corrupt, U.S.- and U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government, which counted many former warlords among its members of parliament. Weary of war, the Ethiopians in the fall of 2008 announced their intention to withdraw from the country. As Ethiopians withdrew, the Islamists advanced. By early 2009, the TFG controlled just the parliamentary seat in Baidoa and few blocks of Mogadishu.
Ethiopian troops left Mogadishu in mid January and Baidoa on Monday, completing their withdrawal from the country. In Baidoa, there was panic as members of parliament tried to make their ways to Djibouti, where the TFG has established a government in exile. Somali sources say some parliamentarians traded weapons for safe passage through TFG territory. Similarly, there were reports that the African Union provided aircraft to speed top TFG officials out of Somalia.
“Not only the inhabitants of Mogadishu, [but all] Somalis came to abhor the behavior of the Al-Shabab group, for they have exhumed the dead bodies of respected people from their graves,” Mohamed Omar Hussein, a reporter in Mogadishu, said by email. But another Mogadishu source estimates that 70 percent of Mogadishu residents support Al Shabab. The conflicting statements speak to the deep confusion in Somalia’s largest city regarding the country’s future.
The way ahead is unclear. On the same day that the TFG evacuated Baidoa, the alliance launched a new round of negotiations intended to bring moderate Islamists into a coalition to oppose Al Shabab. It’s unclear how effective these talks will be, with the TFG lacking any base inside Somalia.
For the U.N. World Food Program operation based in neighboring Kenya, the most immediate concern is sustaining food deliveries to nearly 4 million Somalis, half the country. WFP spokesman Peter Smerdon says the Islamists’ victory “hopefully will not” have any effect on food shipments. “We operate in other Al-Shabab-held areas. WFP escorted ships are still going to Merka, Mogadishu and other ports in Somalia.”
The African Union is now the only U.S-backed force in Somalia. The 3,400-strong A.U. force, pictured, has come under increasingly lethal attack, and now controls only a small area around the Mogadishu seaport, where many WFP food ships unload their cargo. A suicide bombing on targeting an A.U. position in Mogadishu on Jan. 24 killed more than a dozen civilians. Logistical and training support for the A.U. is the only Somalia mission for the new U.S. Africa Command. U.S. Army Africa commander Major General William Garrett III said there were no plans to intervene further in Somalia.
In just one way, Al Shabab’s and Washington’s interests align. The Islamic group has promised to wipe out pirates based in Somalia, calling their attacks on civilian shipping “un-Islamic.” The U.S. Navy is heavily involved in counter-piracy patrols.