In early May, insurgent fighters from the hard-line Al-Shabab Islamic group, pictured, launched a major offensive in Mogadishu, aimed at overthrowing the new, U.S.- and U.N.-backed coalition government of moderate Islamist Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. As tens of thousands of refugees fled the city, Al Shabab closed in on the presidential palace, where Ahmed and his lieutenants were fortified behind an African-Union peacekeeping force, equipped with tanks and mortars.
U.N. envoy to Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah called the attack a “coup attempt.” He said that Al-Shabab leader Hassan Dahir Aweys “came to take power and topple a legitimate regime.” Al Shabab’s coup attempt has split one of Somalia’s other large Islamist groups. Part of Hizbul Islam sided with Aweys, but another Hizbul-Islam faction — with 200 fighters and a dozen gun-armed trucks — joined Ahmed.
The fighting has also drawn in foreign elements on both sides. Somalis from the Diaspora in the U.S., Great Britain and continental Europe sneaked into Somalia to fight with Al Shabab, while Eritrea reportedly supplied plane-loads of small arms and munitions to the hard-line Islamists. Osama Bin Laden has publicly encouraged Al Shabab to assassinate Ahmed and destroy his government. It’s unclear whether the foreign fighters are formally aligned with Al Qaeda, or simply “freelancing” on Al Shabab’s behalf.
Ahmed counts powerful backers of his own. Ethiopia, which in the late 1990s fought a bloody border war with Eritrea, reportedly deployed troops across the Somali border to help secure key towns. Turkey promised millions of dollars to boost the Somali government’s security forces, and the A.U. called on the U.N. to denounce Eritrean meddling, and establish port blockades and a no-fly zone to prevent arms shipments reaching Al Shabab.
Somalia hasn’t had a functional government since 1991, when clan warlords overthrew a repressive dictatorship. The resulting chaos has killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced hundreds of thousands more, and given rise to a thriving underground economy of banditry and piracy.
Al Shabab’s failed assault on Ahmed’s presidential palace shifted the battle’s initiative to the government. With U.S., U.N. and A.U. diplomatic, financial and military support, Ahmed’s forces counter-attacked last week. “We are talking about two things, a military operation and a political process proceeding side by side,” Somali Foreign Minister Muhammad Abdullahi Omar said. “We are confident that we will control not only the city, but also the area around it. The public opinion and society totally support the government and its political program on the ground.”
But the fighting is far from over, and the death toll continues to mount. Reportedly hundreds have died, including three Somali journalists caught in the crossfire. On Friday, Radio Shabelle reporter Abdirisak Warsameh Mohamed was shot and killed in Bakara Market, a perennial battleground in Mogadishu. His body lay in the road for 45 minutes before colleagues could retrieve it.
Omar said he sees little chance for negotiation. “Sheikh Aweys said he will not talk to, will not recognize, and will not deal with the government. That is his decision and his statement. He said they will fight, and this is what he is doing.”
Ahmed’s ascension in January was widely praised, in Somalia and abroad, as the country’s best chance for peace in two decades. A moderate Islamists in an increasingly religious country, Ahmed and his supporters broke the tradition of strictly clan-based rule. The recent fighting might seem to undermine confidence in Ahmed’s regime. On the other hand, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said the coup attempt only highlights Al Shabab’s “desperation.”
Somali press reports speculated that U.S. troops based in neighboring Djibouti were “on standby” to intervene on Ahmed’s behalf, but the U.S. State Department denied this. The next day, an explosion at an Al-Shabab “safe-house” killed a top insurgent officer. Some observers believe the blast was an accident; others speculate it was the result of an American drone attack. U.S. warships and aircraft have launched several raids on suspected extremists inside Somalia since 2007.